Ice Detection

Icebergs from Columbia Glacier drifting into tanker lanes pose a risk to tanker traveling through Prince William Sound. These icebergs move relatively quickly and are difficult to predict.

Radar Detection System

In 2002, the council led a multi-stakeholder effort to install an ice detection radar system for Prince William Sound. This innovative system was previously found only on a few drilling rigs in the North Atlantic.

First, a conventional radar-tower was installed on Reef Island in Prince William Sound, a location with an unobstructed view of the shipping lanes and proximity to Columbia Glacier. This conventional radar system was then combined with computer processors that can analyze incoming signals to filter out sea-wave “clutter.” In the past, this clutter has prevented effective detection of icebergs by radar.

The radar scanned west towards Columbia Bay to detect icebergs from Columbia Glacier that drift into the tanker lanes. The signal was transmitted from Reef Island to Alyeska’s Ship Escort Response Vessel System (SERVS) duty office, where the ice radar display was used to verify condition reports received from tankers and tug escorts. The Coast Guard also received opportunistic reports from mariners.

The radar tower was transported to Valdez by Alaska Tanker Company and erected by soldiers in the U.S. Army. The land it is built on was leased to Alyeska by Tatitlek Village.

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A report providing a high level overview of the ice detection radar and its functionality was produced by Desmond Powers of C-Core. It is entitled Ice Radar Processor for Prince William Sound — Summary of Configuration and Benefits and it was approved by the PWSRCAC Board of Directors at their January 2008 meeting.

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A Cooperative Effort

The ice detection project was an example of the kind of partnership among industry, government, and local citizens that characterizes many council undertakings. Major financial and in-kind contributors included:

  • United States Coast Guard
  • Alyeska Pipeline Service Company Ship Escort Response Vessel System (SERVS)
  • Oil Spill Recovery Institute
  • Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
  • Prince William Sound Community College
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Each of the participants contributed both project expertise in their field as well as backing from the stakeholder they represent. This cooperative process, along with several generous service donations, moved the project forward with significant cost savings. In-kind service donations to this project have easily surpassed the $200,000 mark. Other contributing entities include:

  • Alaska Tanker Company
  • Canadian Coast Guard
  • US Army
  • NorthStar Terminal


The land-based ice radar processing system stopped working in 2014. Despite our best efforts, and offer to fund a repair of the system, we were not given permission by Alyeska to fix it. The current process for preventing a collision between an oil tanker and ice is to send an ice scout tugboat with conventional radar and a searchlight whenever ice is observed to be within one nautical mile of the oil tanker traffic lanes during periods of darkness or reduced visibility.