Katja Kim, a PhD candidate working with NTNU's Sustainable Arctic Marine and Coastal Technology programme (SAMCoT) prepares a metal plate for her ice collision experiments. Photo: Katja Kim

Crash course

As the Arctic Ocean’s summer ice cap melts away, new trans-Arctic shipping routes will open and see a growing amount of shipping traffic. But what’s the best way to protect ships and other ocean structures if they crash into icebergs?

Five minutes into a conversation with PhD candidate Katja Kim, it dawns on you: At its most fundamental, her work is really about the Titanic, the “unsinkable” ocean liner that collided with an iceberg and sank 100 years ago.

Not that Kim is actually studying the Titanic itself, of course, but her PhD research topic, where she examines how ice behaves when it meets up with ships and ocean structures, is uncovering information that the builders of the Titanic could have used.

And it’s information that will become increasingly important. Global warming is expected to intensify the production and transport of icebergs from the Arctic Ocean into the North Atlantic.  New northern sea routes across the top of the world will also open up as Arctic ice melts away.

One recent report estimated that a sea route along the Russian coast will be open between 94 to 98 percent of the time as early as 2040. This, the report says, will allow run-of-the-mill open water vessels to regularly cruise the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean.

And that’s where Kim comes in.

Shattering ice

Kim is currently a PhD candidate in NTNU’s Department of Marine Technology and the university’s Sustainable Arctic and Coastal Technology (SAMCoT) Centre for Research-based Innovation.

PhD candidate Katja Kim prepares a sheet of metal for an ice collision experiment. Photo: Katja Kim

PhD candidate Katja Kim prepares a sheet of metal for an ice collision experiment. Photo: Katja Kim

She’s an engineering student who is working with ice mechanics, mainly in the laboratory.  Her studies involve dropping big blocks of ice on big sheets of metal and watching what happens to the metal.

Another aspect of her work involves trying to shatter big blocks of ice with a blunt-nosed piece of metal so she can understand the internal forces in the ice.
Read more: A new vessel for the Arctic

900 kg blocks of ice

Some of her work is conducted in a special research laboratory in Finland where researchers can create laboratory ice blocks that weigh as much as 900 kg. That’s far smaller than your typical iceberg or bergy bit, but there’s a lot to be learned nonetheless, both about how the ice behaves, and how structures could be strengthened.

Her laboratory research may seem a long way from real world applications, but consider this: Knowing how different metals behave when they are struck by ice is one way that researchers can help improve the design of ships that will travel in iceberg-filled waters.

When pieces of Titanic‘s hull plates were raised from their watery resting place, for example, they appeared to have shattered on impact with the iceberg.

“The policy is to avoid icebergs, of course,” Kim says, but whether because of bad luck or human error, “you can never be 100 per cent sure.”

A small piece of a big puzzle

Like many PhDs, Kim is digging deep into a very small piece of a very large puzzle. In a recent paper, “Mechanisms governing failure of ice beneath a spherically shaped indenter,” Kim describes how micro-scale cracks develop in the ice and how it crumbles and fails.

Her research tells the story not only of how ice behaves, but also illustrates the level of detail that is required to make progress in engineering research.

Her bits of information – whether the ice crumbles or cracks, how much force it takes to crack the ice – can have real world engineering significance when scientists use them in computer simulations to understand how ice and ships interact.

Will the ice shatter before the metal breaks?  What is it about the ice that causes it to shatter or crumble?

On 18- 19 June 2013, she presented some of the results of her work at the 6th International Conference on Collision and Grounding of Ships and Offshore Structures in Trondheim.

From an artist to an engineer

Kim, 29, was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia, although her grandfather is of Korean ancestry.  When she was young, she loved to draw and paint, and attended a specialized art school for eight years that allowed her to focus on her talents.

By the time she was 13, her work had already been accepted to the 1st World Children’s Art Exhibition in Berlin. Her work was also included in a book published in Germany about the exhibition.

Her parents encouraged her to pursue her art, but gradually it dawned on her that making a living as an artist could be very difficult. The streets of St. Petersburg, home to one of the world’s greatest art museums, the Hermitage, were full of struggling artists willing to draw or paint your portrait for almost nothing.  “All those artists on the streets – I didn’t want to do that,” she said.

PhD candidate Katja Kim, who is studying ice-ship collisions as a SAMCoT researcher, had the chance to put her artistic skills to work in drawing the cover for this conference programme. Illustration: Katja Kim

PhD candidate Katja Kim, who is studying ice-ship collisions as a SAMCoT researcher, had the chance to put her artistic skills to work in drawing the cover for this conference programme. Illustration: Katja Kim

She chose, instead, to pursue a civil engineering bachelor’s degree, because “it was a safer choice.”

Smitten by Svalbard

It was then that chance intervened to bring Kim to Norway, in the form of a teacher, who encouraged her to consider an exchange year in Svalbard at UNIS, the University Centre in Svalbard.

“He told me it was a really great experience, but that it was really hard to get in,” she said.

Some students would find this last part discouraging, but for Kim it made the idea much more appealing. She wasn’t all that interested in Norway or in Svalbard, but competition, that was something she liked.

“I’m a very competitive person,” she said.

Kim was accepted to the one-year Arctic Technology programme at UNIS in 2005. She subsequently returned to Svalbard after her year there to help a Russian PhD student and to work on her own master’s research.

She was also accepted as an Erasmus Mundus student, in the CoMEM programme, which brought her into contact with researchers at TU Delft, NTNU and the University in Barcelona.

Statoil, SAMCoT and art

After Kim completed her master’s degree, she was hired by Statoil in 2009 to work on a team that was developing mathematical models for calculating ice loads and their effect.  In 2010, she started a 4-year PhD programme with Jørgen Amdahl in the Department of Marine Technology, with SAMCoT director Sveinung Løset as her co-supervisor.

She started with a research topic that looked at what happens in a rare ice collision event – like the collision of the Titantic. But as is true with any PhD, she found herself getting ever deeper into the details of her research, which in turn narrowed considerably.

“My long term focus is still in the safety of ships in the Arctic, but now I have narrowed my work to look at the ice mechanics itself,” she said.

But isn’t it a long way from being a budding art student to studying ice mechanics at the top of the world? Not really, Kim says.

“Science is like art – you create,” she said. “And I find ice beautiful. It is so unknown.”