While nations compete for territorial control over opening waters in the Arctic and President Obama eats wild salmon with Bear Grylls, a team of scientists aboard a heavy icebreaker is charting a completely different course. They’re part of a scientific voyage tasked to assess the health of the Arctic and test new technology to protect it. TechKnow was invited to take the journey and report on the work being done by the US Coast Guard.
There are fifty scientists aboard the USCG Cutter Healy doing a wide range of scientific tests, from mapping changes in sea ice to search and rescue missions to measuring chlorophyll blooms. The Healy is specially tricked out for science research: there are freezers for samples, photography labs, wet labs, climate control chambers, cranes for dropping buoys, cargo holds for storage, plenty of lab space installed on the Healy for scientists to use. According to Chief Scientist Scott Tripp, “ by conducting this research, we’re developing an entire tool box that’s available for use by the Coast Guard.”
Here’s a closer look at the technology in use during the US Coast Guard’s polar science mission.
The US Coast Guard Cutter Healy is a specially designed ship capable of cutting through the thick sheets of ice. According to the Healy’s Captain, Commanding Officer Jason Hamilton, “ we’re 16,000 tons, and we can get up to 30,000 horsepower. Basically you get a bunch of power, head in a particular direction…and it’ll break. We’re designed to break up to 4.5 feet of ice at 3 knots , and up to 8 feet backing up and ramming.” The Healy is one of two heavy icebreakers capable of navigating through polar ice.
These bright orange, puffy outfits are specially designed survivor suits; it’s like an inflatable boat for your body. They keep crewmembers warm and protected from hypothermia if thrown overboard during an exercise.
Being prepared for an emergency rescue in freezing cold temperatures is a key test of the Coast Guard’s capability in the Arctic. During the search and rescue exercise, the team threw overboard a dummy outfitted with a special device that emanates heat– like a human body. It is designed to test the effectiveness of infrared sensors in search and rescue operations. This victim is known as Thermal Oscar.
Buoys and Gliders
Unmanned and robotic systems were deployed as part of the Coast Guard’s environmental monitoring of the Arctic waters. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) deployed a wave glider, an autonomous device that uses wave energy, the natural rise and fall of the waves, to propel itself. It looks a bit like a surfboard with solar panels on it. While in the water, its sensors will measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and water.
Understanding the patterns of sea ice is a complex science. Andy Mahoney, an ice researcher with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is developing an ice radar system that can track movement of ice as well as its presence. By tracking the speed and direction of individual ice floes, this system will be able to help ship navigators better understand the changing conditions ahead of them. It can also help in a disaster situation, giving responders key information about moving ice. In an oil spill, for example, oil can impregnate ice. Once it does, the ice can move the oil great distances. Tracking ice movement could be vital in understanding where contamination has spread. According to Mahoney, “It’s going to be extremely challenging to separate the oil from that ice…ice will be somewhat like a sponge, and so you’ll have a mix of oil covered ocean, oil covered ice, and oil impregnated ice to deal with.”