By David M. Rivera
Warming in Arctic ecosystems over the last several decades threatens animals and people alike, while melting ice has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in maritime activity. Yet study of the Arctic has been limited by its location and extreme weather conditions. New technologies and capabilities are necessary to operate in the region, and as attention to the high north grows, researchers and engineers are finding opportunities to expand their work despite uncertain funding. Tight budgets have pushed scientists to partner with institutions such as the U.S. Coast Guard in order to conduct quality research.
On July 21, 2017, the Seattle-based U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy departed from Seward, Alaska, embarking on the first of four multi-week research cruises that make up what is known as Arctic West Summer 1701. Under the command of veteran Captain Greg Tlapa, the Healy, one of only two operational Coast Guard Polar icebreakers, and her crew will be working for nearly six months on a variety of missions that are meant to advance the United States’ ability to understand the Arctic and operate in the ice-covered region.
In addition to the ship’s crew, the first research cruise of 2017 included a pair of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists, a naval architect, Coast Guard Research and Development Center Program members, Coast Guard National Strike Force members, and a joint-service Coast Guard/Navy dive team. This patrol marks the first shipboard cold-water ice diving in an Arctic operation since a tragic accident nearly 11 years ago claimed the lives of two divers. Additionally, the dive team will provide remotely operated vehicle support in the Coast Guard’s investigation into the sinking of the commercial fishing vessel Destination, another tragedy that claimed the lives of everyone onboard in February 2017. These two incidents illustrate the dangers of working in the region, and why proper training and knowledge are essential to safely conduct any type of operation at the poles.
Dive work in extreme environments like the Arctic tests an individual’s physical and mental fitness. Ice diving requires weeks of intensive coursework, training, and preparation. Now that shipboard Arctic diving operations have been reestablished within the Coast Guard, the U.S. has regained its ability to conduct vessel hull inspections and maintenance on ships at sea. The lack of infrastructure, such as deepwater ports, severely limits the options of working vessels when they become damaged, so diving capacity is key to extended expeditions.
While reestablishing dive operations took priority in this Arctic mission, the other scientific operations being conducted on board are equally, if not more, important. The Coast Guard brought several members from their National Strike Force, the oil and disaster response division, to experiment with a Canadian-developed oil skimmer prototype meant specifically for oil cleanup in Arctic ice. This technology proved to be ineffective when confronted with skimming oil mixed with small ice floes, but the Coast Guard’s attempt to find new strategies to deal with Arctic oil spills indicates how seriously it is taking this concern.
The Coast Guard’s research did not end with spill response and cleanup. The USCG Research and Development Center deployed several engineers and support personnel to test various remotely operated vehicles, both tethered and untethered, for possible use in the Arctic. Drone operations have been gaining popularity among the science and military community for many years now, and the Coast Guard is now looking into the potential for these tools. Their use in the Arctic, though, remains a logistical challenge. One of the most dangerous aspects of the variable weather conditions in the Arctic is the speed with which fog can accumulate, compromising visual capabilities. Using unmanned aquatic and aerial drones equipped with cameras in Coast Guard operations, crews can help overcome weather-related challenges by making contact with other vessels and small craft.
The work conducted onboard Healy during this patrol, along with virtually all others, is almost always collaborative. The joint effort includes groups within the Coast Guard, but it also extends to scientists from other institutions, such as universities and NOAA. This particular mission included two members from the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, a NOAA facility that undertakes oceanographic and engineering research projects.
The main focus of this collaboration was to deploy a new type of autonomous underwater vehicle called the Oculus, along with an experimental scientific profiler known as the PRAWLER. Both are capable of collecting high-resolution oceanographic data. NOAA conducts research in every ocean, but gathering data is much more difficult in the polar regions as most scientific platforms are incapable of surviving the extreme temperatures and icy conditions. The Innovative Technology for Arctic Exploration Project led by the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and the University of Washington has two goals: to collect higher-resolution data than what scientists have until now been able to accumulate, and to do so using cost-effective systems, such as autonomous vehicles. While a vehicle like the Oculus carries a hefty price tag, the up-front costs are minimal compared to the costs of operating a large, open-ocean vessel—upward of $50,000 per day. There will always be a need for large vessels, which is why the Coast Guard is asking for increased funding for icebreakers, but scientists’ and the military’s ability to use small AUVs will ease the pressure, particularly in a time of financial uncertainty in the federal government.
Another member of the science party on the Healy’s trip included a naval architect whose primary aim was to collect data and information on the ship’s icebreaking capabilities. Budget conversations at the congressional level may result in funding to build additional icebreakers to replace aging ones and expand polar operational capabilities. The architect’s role in this process is to provide reports to the Coast Guard that incorporate feedback from the Healy crew along with data collected from the ship itself, such as how much the hull vibrates when breaking through thick, multi-year ice. This type of information may prove vital to future ships’ abilities to operate in the ice.
Healy is the United States’ only ice-capable military asset operating in the Arctic, and Arctic West Summer 1701 optimized its time at sea by cramming as much work into the trip as possible. The U.S. has the largest economy of the eight Arctic nations, but its capacity to operate in both the Arctic and Antarctic waters is limited. Without a fleet of icebreakers, deep-water ports, and additional infrastructure in Alaska, the country will continue to lag behind its Arctic counterparts on both an operational and a scientific level. The Coast Guard will need a significantly expanded budget if it stands any chance of operating in the region year-round like the other Arctic states. Limiting these capacities will not only hinder scientific work, but also compromise the nation’s ability to conduct rescue missions or respond to spills.
David M. Rivera is an employee with the University of Washington, where he does contract work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He is also a freelance writer focusing on maritime and environmental issues.
[Photo courtesy of NOAA]