Ice diving

Ice diving is a type of penetration diving where the dive takes place under ice.[1][2] Because diving under ice places the diver in an overhead environment typically with only a single entry/exit point, it requires special procedures and equipment. Ice diving is done for purposes of recreation, scientific research, public safety (usually search and rescue/recovery) and other professional or commercial reasons.[3]

The most obvious hazards of ice diving are getting lost under the ice, hypothermia, and regulator failure due to freezing. Scuba divers are generally tethered for safety. This means that the diver wears a harness to which a line is secured, and the other end of the line is secured above the surface and monitored by an attendant. Surface supplied equipment inherently provides a tether, and reduces the risks of regulator first stage freezing as the first stage can be managed by the surface team, and the breathing gas supply is less limited. For the surface support team, the hazards include freezing temperatures and falling through thin ice.


Whether ice diving inherently constitutes technical diving is debated within the recreational diving community. For the professional diver it is a high risk environment requiring additional safety measures.

Ice diving is a team diving activity because each diver's lifeline requires a line tender. This person is responsible for paying out and taking in line so that the diver does not get tangled, and for rope signal communications with the diver. Professional teams will also require a stand-by diver and diving supervisor.[4]

Under some circumstances a guide line can be used as a reference for the divers to find the hole after the dive or in an emergency in a similar way to cave diving or wreck penetration instead of a lifeline. In these cases the divers should be competent in procedures for diving with a guideline.[3]

Polar diving experience has shown that buoyancy control is a critical skill affecting safety.[2]

Typical procedure for a scuba dive under ice:[2][5]

  • A snow shovel is used to clear the snow and ice from the area.
  • An ice saw or a chain saw is used to cut a hole in the ice.
  • A weatherproof area is used for the divers to suit up.
  • The diver and tender on the surface are connected by a rope lifeline and harness. The harness is typically put on over the dry suit but under the BC or other buoyancy device so that the diver remains tethered even if he or she must remove the air cylinder or buoyancy control device. The harness fits over the shoulders and around the back such that the tender on the surface can, in an emergency, haul an unconscious diver back to the hole. The harness should not be able to slide up or down the diver's torso when pulled in line with the body.
  • Rope signals or voice communications systems must be used.
  • A roped standby diver is ready on the surface.
  • One or two divers may dive at the same time from the same hole, each with his or her own rope. Using two ropes runs little risk of getting tangled together, but using three significantly increases this risk.
  • If the regulator free-flows and freezes, the diver should close it down and switch to the backup, and terminate the dive.
  • When diving in pack ice, the surface team must constantly monitor ice movement to ensure that the exit is not compromised.[2]
  • The diver must ensure that there is always a positive indication of the route to the exit area. A tether to a surface tender is usually preferable as it can be used to communicate,[2] but if this is not practicable a reel and distance line is an alternative.
  • The risk of attack by predators and aggressive wildlife should be considered. Polar bear, walrus, and leopard seal are potential hazards within their ranges.[3]
  • Gas management for an overhead environment is appropriate.
  • Deployment of a single tethered scuba diver is a reasonably safe alternative to free-swimming buddy team diving. The tethered scuba diver is equipped with a full-face mask with voice communications, high capacity scuba air supply, and an independent emergency air supply. A lifeline with communications cable is secured to a body harness on the diver and is handled by a surface tender who is in constant voice communication with the diver. A similarly equipped standby diver is available on the surface.[5]


Since diving under the ice takes place in cold climates, there is typically a large amount of equipment required. Besides each person's clothing and exposure-protection requirements, including spare mitts and socks, there is basic scuba gear, back-up scuba gear, tools to cut a hole in the ice, snow removal tools, safety gear, some type of shelter, lines, and refreshments required.[3]

The diver can use a weight harness, integrated weight buoyancy control device, or a weight belt with two buckles on it so the weights can not be accidentally released which would cause a run-away ascent into the ice sheet.

Dry suits with adequate thermal undergarments are standard environmental protection for ice diving, though in some cases thick wetsuits may suffice. Hoods, boots and gloves are also worn. Full-face masks can provide more protection for the divers' facial skin.

Exposure suits

Because of the water temperature (between 4 °C and 0 °C in fresh water, approximately -1.9 °C for normal salinity sea water), exposure suits are mandatory.[6]

  • Pre- and post-dive thermal protection is critical for safety and diver function.[2]
  • Hand thermal protection is important to retain functionality and prevent cold injury.[2]
  • The diver should be kept warm throughout the dive, but active rewarming by external heating and heavy exercise should be avoided directly after the dive, as the effect of cold on risk of decompression sickness is not fully understood.[2]

Some consider a dry suit mandatory; however, a thick wetsuit may be sufficient for hardier divers. A wetsuit can be pre-heated by pouring warm water into the suit. A hood and gloves (recommended three-finger mitts or dry gloves with rings) are necessary, and dry suit divers have the option of using hoods and gloves that keep their head and hands dry. Some prefer to use a full face diving mask to essentially eliminate any contact with the cold water. The biggest drawback to using a wet suit is the chilling effect on the diver caused by the water evaporating from the suit after a dive. This can be reduced by using a heated shelter.

Scuba equipment

A diving regulator suitable for cold-water is used. All regulators have a risk of freezing and free flowing, but some models fare better than others.[7] Environmentally sealed regulators avoid contact between the surrounding water and the moving parts of the first stage by isolating them in an antifreeze fluid (e.g. Poseidon)[1] or by siting the moving parts behind a diaphragm and transmitting the pressure through a pushrod (e.g. Apeks).

Although there is no universally accepted standard, at least one agency[8] recommends the use of two non-freezing regulators arranged as follows: primary first stage with primary second stage, BCD inflation hose, and submersible pressure gauge (SPG); secondary first stage with secondary second stage (octopus), dry suit inflation hose, and SPG, although only one SPG is needed for a single cylinder or manifolded twins.

The two first stages are mounted on independently closable valves, as a first stage freeze free-flow can only be stopped by shutting off the air supply from the cylinder until the valve has thawed out. The second regulator is there to supply the remaining gas when the first regulator is shut off. A second-stage isolation valve used in conjunction with a first-stage overpressure relief valve may be effective as a quick method to manage demand valve free-flow.[2]

  • Regulators should be checked to ensure that they perform effectively at low temperatures before use far from a free surface.[2]
  • A minimum of two independent regulators is recommended for diving under ice, as scuba apparatus has a tendency to free-flow under polar conditions Divers must be competent in change-over procedures, including shutdown of the free-flowing equipment.[2]
  • Keeping regulators warm and dry before diving, and limiting breathing from the regulator before immersion will reduce the risk of regulator freezing. Purging or any other cause of high flow rate markedly increases the probability of freezing and should be kept to an absolute minimum.[2]

Redundant systems usually typically comprise double cylinders with a primary and alternate regulator. Each of the second stages is supplied its own first stage, which can be shut down at the cylinder valve in an emergency, such as a free flow. The diver’s buoyancy compensator is on a different first stage to the dry suit so if there is an issue with one the diver can still control their buoyancy.

Some divers use a primary regulator on a 7-foot hose and a secondary on a necklace, this is useful when it may be necessary for the divers to swim in single file. the reason for the primary being on a long hose is to ensure the donated regulator is known to be working.[8]

Buoyancy and weighting

  • A drysuit should be used with a buoyancy compensator for ice diving unless the diver is exposed to greater risk with a buoyancy compensator than without one.[2]
  • A tethered diver, who is deployed to work independently, should preferably be equipped with full face mask, voice communications to the surface and redundant air supply. This is often obligatory for professional divers.[2]
  • Most divers prefer to be more negative for ice diving than in open water like in most overhead environments, and ability to disconnect the low pressure inflator on a BCD or drysuit is a critical skill.

Surface team

  • Adequate thermal protection must be provided to tenders and standby divers.[2]
  • Warm waterproof shoes.
  • Warm anorak for cold weather.
  • Warm cap covering the ears.
  • Sunglasses with a UV filter to protect the eyes in sunny days.
  • Lip-care stick and cream to protect hands and face against cold and wind.
  • A device like crampons to aid in traction on ice. especially when cutting the hole or carrying gear


Hazards of ice diving include the specific diving environmental hazards of penetration diving, and some hazards that are more specific to the low temperatures.

  • Frostbite
  • Hypothermia
  • Non-freezing cold injury
  • Regulator freezing
  • Entrapment by moving ice
  • Slipping on ice since scuba gear is heavy outside of the water. Also the water on the diver's exposure suit can quickly freeze, reducing mobility and traction
  • Wild animals like sharks and polar bears

Regulator freezing

When air expands during pressure reduction in a regulator, the temperature drops and heat is absorbed from the surroundings.[9] There are two possible ways for a regulator to freeze and free-flow.

First stage freeze

Air from the diving cylinder is subjected to a dramatic reduction in pressure - as much as 220 bar (3,200 psi) from a full 230 bar (3,300 psi) cylinder at the surface - when passing through the regulator first stage. This lowers the temperature of the air, and heat is absorbed from the components of the regulator. As these components are largely metal and therefore good conductors of heat energy, the regulator body will cool quickly to a temperature lower than the surrounding medium. When immersed in water during a dive, the water surrounding the regulator is cooled and, if this water is already very cold, it can freeze.[7]

If the water in direct contact with the pressure transfer mechanism (diaphragm or piston and the spring balancing the internal pressure) of the regulator freezes, the mechanism will be locked in the position at which the freezing takes place, as the ice will prevent the movement required to close. Since the cooling takes place during flow through the regulator, it is common for the freezing to occur when the first stage valve is open, and this will freeze the valve open, allowing a continuous flow through the first stage. This will cause the inter-stage pressure to rise until the second stage opens to relieve the excess pressure, the pressure relief valve on the first stage opens, or a low pressure hose or fitting bursts. All of these effects will allow the flow through the first stage to continue, so the cooling will continue, and this will keep the ice causing the problem frozen. To break the cycle it is necessary to stop the gas flow or expose the ice to a heat source capable of melting it. While underwater, it is unlikely to find a heat source to thaw the ice and stopping the flow is only option. Clearly the flow will stop when the pressure in the cylinder drops to ambient, but this is undesirable as it means total loss of the breathing gas. The other option is to close the cylinder valve, shutting off the pressure at the source. Once this is done, the ice will normally melt as heat from the surrounding water is absorbed by the slightly colder ice, and once the ice has melted, the regulator will function again.[7]

This freezing can be avoided by preventing water from coming into direct contact with cooled moving parts of the regulator mechanism,[1][10][11] or by increasing the heat flow from the surrounding environment so that freezing does not occur.[12] Both strategies are used in regulator design.

Second stage freeze

A similar effect occurs with the second stage. Air which has already expanded and cooled through the first stage expands again and cools further at the demand valve of the second stage. This cools the components of the second stage and water in contact with them may freeze. Metal components around the moving parts of the valve mechanism allow heat transfer from the surrounding slightly warmer water, and from exhaled air from the diver, which is considerably warmer than the surroundings.[7]

A second stage freeze is also likely to happen with the valve open, causing a free flow, which may precipitate a first stage freeze if not immediately stopped. If the flow through the frozen second stage can be stopped before the first stage freezes, the process can be halted. This may be possible if the second stage is fitted with a shutoff valve, but if this is done, the first stage must be fitted with an overpressure valve, as closing the supply to the second stage disables its secondary function as an overpressure valve.[7]

Factors increasing the risk of regulator freeze

  • Unsuitable regulator design and construction
  • High flow rates through the regulator
  • Purging
  • Buddy breathing
  • Octo breathing
  • Filling a lift bag or DSMB from the breathing regulator[1]
  • long bursts of dry suit inflation or BC inflation while breathing from the same regulator.
  • High breathing rate due to exertion
  • Low water temperature
  • Water directly under the ice is likely to be colder than deeper water in fresh water.
  • Breathing through the regulator above the ice in sub-freezing temperatures

Precautions to reduce risk of regulator freezing

  • Keeping the interior of the second-stage completely dry before entering the water[13]
  • Not breathing from the regulator until underwater. When testing the regulator before the dive, inhale only, avoid exhaling through the regulator as the moisture in the breath will freeze in the demand valve.[13]
  • Preventing water from entering the second-stage chamber during or between dives[13]
  • Depressing the purge button for no more than 5 seconds prior to or during the dive, and avoiding even this if possible[13]
  • Avoiding heavy work loads that would significantly increase the breathing rate and volume of air moved through the valve with each breathing cycle[13]
  • Ensuring that the scuba air is moisture-free[13]
  • Keeping the regulator in warm surroundings prior to the dive, if possible.[13]

Procedures for managing a regulator freeze

  • The diver will close the cylinder valve supplying the frozen regulator and change over to breathing from the standby regulator.
  • If tethered, the diver can signal to the line tender with the previously agreed emergency signal (usually five or more tugs on the rope) while breathing from free-flowing regulator (less desirable option used if no alternative gas supply is available). Five pulls will usually indicate that the surface tender should pull the diver to the surface, or in this case, the hole in the ice.
  • If diving without a tether the diver should follow the guideline back to the hole and avoid leaving the line unless able to use a jump line or can see the ice hole.
  • Emergency ascent if directly under the hole in the ice and in visible range. (least desirable option short of drowning)

Protocol for a regulator freeze often includes aborting the dive.[13]

Low pressure inflator freeze

It is possible for the dry suit or BCD inflation valve to freeze while inflating, for similar reasons to regulator freeze. If this happens it can cause a runaway ascent if it is not dealt with immediately. If possible the low pressure inflator hose should be disconnected before it freezes onto the valve, while dumping air to control buoyancy. Excessive dumping of air may leave the diver too negative so it is preferable to have at least two controllable buoyancy systems, such as a dry suit and BCD, preferably supplied from different first stages. If the dry suit inflation valve freezes open it may allow water to leak into the suit once disconnected, so this usually results in aborting the dive.

Most inflator problems can be avoided by keeping gear maintained and dry before the dive, using a low flow rate for inflation and avoiding long bursts, and having warm water at the dive site to thaw gear since ambient air temperature is usually well below freezing and this usually causes BCD issues before the dive.


Training includes learning about how ice forms, how to recognize unsafe ice conditions, dive site preparation, equipment requirements, and safety drills.

  • Ice divers should be skilled in the use of drysuits, choice of thermal insulation, buoyancy control and weighting, and should be competent and experienced with the specific equipment they will use.[2]
  • If lifelines are used, both divers and tenders must be competent to use them.[2]

Other skills required by the ice diver include:

  • How to impact the underside of the surface ice if the diver's weight belt falls off for any reason and the diver ascends uncontrollably and rapidly.
  • How to deal with a frozen air-supply system using a redundant back-up system.
  • What to do in the event the diver loses contact with the line or the line tender does not get feedback from the diver in response to signals given to the diver.


  1. Lang, M.A. & J. R. Stewart (eds.). (1992). AAUS Polar Diving Workshop Proceedings. United States: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA. p. 100. Retrieved 2008-08-07.
  2. Lang, Michael A; Sayer, M. D. J., eds. (2007). Consensus recommendations. Proceedings of the International Polar Diving Workshop, Svalbard. Washington, DC.: Smithsonian Institution. pp. 211–213. Retrieved 7 August 2008.
  3. Smith, R. Todd (August 2008). "26 - Expeditions - Arctic Ice Diving". In Tom Mount (ed.). Exploration and Mixed Gas Diving Encyclopedia. Miami Shores, Florida: International Association of Nitrox Divers. ISBN 978-0-915539-10-9.
  4. NOAA Diving Program (U.S.) (December 1979). Miller, James W. (ed.). NOAA Diving Manual, Diving for Science and Technology (2nd ed.). Silver Spring, Maryland: US Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Ocean Engineering.
  5. Somers, Lee H. (1987). Lang, Michael A; Mitchell, Charles T. (eds.). Training scientific divers for work in cold water and polar environments. 1987 AAUS - Cold Water Diving Workshop. Costa Mesa, California: American Academy of Underwater sciences. Retrieved 21 December 2016.
  6. Lang, M.A. & Mitchell, C.T. (ed) (1987). AAUS Proceedings of Special Session on Coldwater Diving. United States: University of Washington, Seattle, WA. p. 122. Retrieved 2008-08-07.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  7. Clarke, John (2015). "Authorized for cold-water service: What Divers Should Know About Extreme Cold". ECO Magazine: 20–25. Retrieved 2015-03-07.
  8. Jablonski, Jarrod (2006). Doing it Right: The Fundamentals of Better Diving. Global Underwater Explorers. p. 92. ISBN 0971326703. To provide additional redundancy when using two first stages, the inflator hose should always be run from the right post. This requirement is illustrated in the case of a diver’s left post rolling off or breaking. If the inflator is run from the left post, the diver will simultaneously lose not only the use of the backup regulator around the neck but also the ability to inflate the BC. These two problems together could be inordinately compounded by an out-of-air situation in which a diver would not only be without the means of controlling his/her buoyancy but would also be deprived of the use of a third regulator
  9. Salzman, WR. "Joule Expansion". Department of Chemistry, University of Arizona.
  10. In the Apeks Dry-Sealed System hydrostatic pressure, acting on the outer sealing diaphragm, is transmitted to the primary diaphragm via the load transmitter. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 10 April 2014. Retrieved 2012-05-27.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Stages, accessed 27 May 2012
  11. Harlow, Vance (1999). "13". Scuba regulator maintenance and repair. Warner, New Hampshire: Airspeed press. p. 195. ISBN 0 9678873 0 5. The cold water versions use a novel dr system. There's a secondary diaphragm like all the others, but instead of using a fluid or grease to transfer the ambient pressure there is a mushroom shaped part inside called a "hydrostatic transmitter" that transmits the force from the secondary diaphragm to the main diaphragm.
  12. Poseidon Xstream uses large slots in the cover, to allow the heat energy of the ambient water to reach the spring and insulation to thermally isolate the inside components from the spring. The manufacturer claims that the regulator can free-flow air in fresh water of 0°C (32°F) for at least 10 minutes and be completely unaffected. X-stream user manual page 11, "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 2016-11-17.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) accessed 27 May 2012
  13. Somers, Lee H. (1987). Lang, Michael A; Mitchell, Charles T. (eds.). The under ice dive. 1987 AAUS - Cold Water Diving Workshop. Costa Mesa, California: American Academy of Underwater sciences. Retrieved 21 December 2016.
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