NPEO Near Completion

April 26, 2010

When oceanfront property isn't a good thing. Photos: Jim Johnson, U Washington

Research is winding down at the North Pole Environmental Observatory (NPEO), the suite of Arctic Ocean measurements collected by National Science Foundation-funded scientists (Jamie Morison, U of Washington, lead).  In fact, the entire Russian ice camp, Barneo, is also winding down—or breaking up, as the photo above shows. 

At a camp known for unique logistics challenges, this has been an outstanding year. Weeks ago, just as the first NPEO researchers arrived at Barneo, the ice floe cracked; a good chunk of the runway broke off as researchers, adventure seekers and wedding parties alike all rushed to relocate the camp’s infrastructure before it drifted away.  Later, the eruption of the Iceland volcano disrupted travel for several NPEO researchers.  While flights from Svalbard to Barneo north of the ash plume continued, the journey to Svalbard was more complicated. Principal scientist Kelly Faulkner’s trip to Barneo had something of the quest about it—a long journey beset by troubles, her trip lasted a week and involved planes, trains, automobiles, and boats—but no dragons (other than the volcano). 

NPEO researchers were able to complete much of their work: They recovered a mooring that had been anchored to the ocean bottom for two years, dropped new buoys and serviced old ones, and completed many water sampling stations. Though they were not able to recover an acoustic bottom pressure recorder, they were able to “ping” it to recover several years worth of data.  Information from the NPEO gives scientists crucial information about the Arctic Ocean’s temperature, chemistry, sea-ice, circulation, and more. 

Men hustle an NPEO tent to safer ice.

Visit the NPEO Web site for the latest news on field activities.

Read the Barneo Chronicles.

If the weather holds, the NPEO group should complete work and clear off the ice camp this week. Turning homeward, they will grapple with whatever travel delays last week’s air travel disruptions from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano still may present. 

North Pole Environmental Observatory

April 13, 2010

A winch at the National Science Foundation's North Pole Environmental Observatory is used to retrieve a mooring that has been collecting oceanographic data from the Arctic Ocean for a year. Photo: Peter West/National Science Foundation

American research teams returned this week to ice station Barneo, a Russian logistics hub floating on sea-ice covering the Arctic Ocean near the North Pole. There, they continue some baseline measurements of oceanic and atmospheric conditions collected since 2000. With National Science Foundation funding, the University of Washington’s Jamie Morison leads the North Pole Environmental Observatory (NPEO) effort, an international collaboration.

“Six personnel flew to Barneo on 10 April over the course of two flights,” wrote Tom Quinn (Polar Field Services), who is now positioned at Longyearbyen, on Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago, through April. Tom in Longyearbyen and Andy Heiberg at Barneo are coordinating NPEO logistics from both locations.

The armchair North Pole scientists among us will recall that the true course of work at ice camp Barneo is always a challenge, and so far, this year is no exception.

“During the evening/early morning a large lead opened up across the runway and through camp,” Tom wrote over the weekend. “The runway was 1.8km in length but it is now unusable. The field staff at Barneo have marked out a new runway and taken several passes on it with a bulldozer to groom it. The field staff are also moving structures such as the galley and berthing tents across the lead to consolidate the camp in one place.”

Over the next two weeks or so, NPEO researchers will pass between the Longyearbyen staging point and the ice camp Barneo, approximately 700 miles away. They will fly to the ice camp via a chartered AN-74, a Russian STOL jet airplane. (The An-74 gets its nickname, Cheburashka, from the large engine intake ducts, which resemble the oversized ears of the popular Russian animated creature with the same name.)

Members of the team will recover an instrumented mooring that has been fixed to the ocean floor some 2.5 below the surface since 2008. The mooring holds instruments that capture baseline measurements—ocean temperature and salinity, current strength and direction, and sea-ice conditions, for example. Other NPEO researchers will fly hydrographic surveys in a Twin Otter, deploying instruments that will collect similar information as they sink slowly through the water column. In addition, a MI-8 helicopter will land near individual instruments previously deployed; researchers will send a radio signal and the instruments will release their data payload, sending atmospheric, weather, sea-ice and upper ocean water column information to the team on the sea ice.

Arctic Stories: New Multi-Media Web site

January 21, 2010

Not your typical office. A research building at Barrow, AK. Photo courtesy Arctic Stories

We’re pleased to welcome Arctic Stories, the brainchild of Purdue University atmospheric chemist Paul Shepson, to the online effort to educate and inform people about arctic research and life. (In 2009, we supported Shepson and others working at Barrow, Alaska, on an international study called OASIS. Shepson headed an NSF-funded study of halogen chemistry.)

With children’s book author Peter Lourie, Shepson has built a multi-faceted Web site with NSF funding to present information on the science, wildlife, climate, and people of the Arctic.

The site features video interviews with natives and researchers like polar bear researcher Steven C. Amstrup of the USGS. It also showcases compelling photographs, and links to science institutions. In short, it’s another fantastic resource for following the ongoing work in the Arctic.

This is helpful as the public strives to understand the myriad messages about climate change, research, and more. With news stories reporting that the Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the planet, that sea ice is melting, and that species are losing habitat and nourishment, sites like Arctic Ice and ours aim to inform readers about the efforts being made to understand the science behind the phenomena.

The science is complex, designed to measure and help us understand changes in the atmosphere, land, plants and animals, human societies and water in the Arctic. To advance these goals, scientists conduct fieldwork in some of the most extreme environments on Earth–and their experiences are often as compelling as their data.

We encourage readers to check out Arctic Ice as they follow their curiosity about work in the far north.


January 4, 2010
By Marcy Davis

Adriane Colburn's "Who’s on Top? Arctic Ice: 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2003, 2007 and East/West Lines, 2008." Paper, Aluminum, wood, gouache, watercolor, latex paint, string, ink and graphite. For more views and the artist's notes on this installation, click on the picture. All photos courtesy Adriane Colburn

Adriane Colburn works all the time. By day she’s a technician at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center. By night, she’s a renegade sculptor, pushing the boundaries of her favorite medium – paper. Colburn has long been inspired by the human impulse to visualize the world through cartography, by the act of communicating data and information through maps in order to better understand environment and processes. Maps led her to merge creative pursuits with science.

“My artistic motivation is that my subject must be intellectually challenging – the result of research. Science and politics and art are all related,” says Colburn, a Vermont native who has lived in San Francisco since 1990.

While surfing the Web one day, Colburn happened upon the home page for the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping (CCOM) Joint Hydrographic Center where she read about the Law of the Sea Mapping Program, an intensive, multiyear partnership between UNH, NOAA, the NSF and others, aimed at mapping the seafloor to support U.S. claims to the extended continental shelf. The arctic seafloor maps immediately caught Colburn’s attention.

“I already had a strong interest in the Arctic and climate change. I did a project using sea ice extent maps, but they weren’t exactly what I was looking for. When I came across the CCOM Law of the Sea bathymetry maps, I became interested in the ways mapping the sea floor is pivotal in the Arctic — the role of these maps in geopolitics, natural resource exploration, and unexplored frontier,” Colburn explains. “The maps are simple and uncomplicated in their own right, but also rich and complicated in their links to highly charged topics.”

"For the Deep, Phase I," 2008, Inkjet prints, aluminum and paper, 12'x14'

After reading about a 2007 arctic cruise led by Larry Mayer (UNH) and Andy Armstrong (NOAA), Colburn cold-called CCOM to find out more. The call led to a visit and the visit led to her participation in a September, 2008, arctic cruise aboard the USCGC Healy. While on board, Colburn worked as a watchstander, monitoring computers used for sonar data collection during an eight-hour shift.

Watchstanders monitor a fleet of computers taking data on the sea floor.

“The thing I was really interested in was collecting the data – the interruptions and inaccuracies. The flaws in the process are fascinating. As a non-scientist I always assumed that data collection was inherently accurate, but I became aware of the subjectivity, of the personal decisions that go into it, and how the arctic seascape determines what you can do,” she says.

The rest of Colburn’s time she dedicated to photography, gathering audio and video footage, journaling, and talking with at-sea colleagues, an eclectic mix of scientists, graduate students, technicians, Coast Guardsmen (and women), a lawyer, and a member of the U.S. State Department. Colburn felt that she was “having this really rare experience most people never get to have and that the science was really interesting. I felt like I had this responsibility to share it rather than be narcissistic.”

Yo, Adriane! The artist having some fun aboard the Healy.

Back home in San Francisco, Colburn spent six months working up pieces for an exhibition at the Kala Art Institute entitled For the Deep, which showcased her arctic experience through a series of large, colorful installation pieces made of cut paper – arctic bathymetry maps. Round photos of the arctic landscape reminiscent of portholes dot the work. Colburn encouraged viewers to interact with her sculptures by looking into telescope-like vessels, rewarding them with video clips of the open ocean and of the Healy breaking ice.

"For the Deep, Phase II." The telescope-like viewer (up and to the right of middle) shows videos of the Healy breaking ice.

“What I tend to do in my artwork is decontextualize. I present the data without the scientific context. It is an abstraction. I thought a lot about how people understand places and about what comes back to the population from a far-off exploration,” says Colburn. “We try to understand places remotely so I intentionally forced distance between the person and the place. But mapping is also very interactive in our digital world. I wanted to include that element as well without having my work be totally immersive.”

Reactions to Colburn’s work are what she calls “multi-tiered”: what people get out of her art is what they bring to it. And whether that is something technical, scientific, or purely aesthetic doesn’t matter to her. She admits that her own sense of beauty has changed dramatically as a result of experiencing life at sea. She says “the Arctic has a specific light. It’s like being on another planet. You can’t really know that from pictures and words. It’s a transient landscape – one in which you can get a foothold because the ice is solid. But it’s also constantly shifting and changing and very dynamic.”

Colburn still works with scientists. She’s moved her attention to warmer climes but still focuses on climate change, measuring carbon in the Amazon with researchers at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. Colburn also had the opportunity to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. And she says she’s “trying to get back to the Arctic at least one more time,” if you happen to know anyone who’s looking to fill out a field team.

Adriane Colburn’s recent work is currently on display in an exhibition entitled Earth:  Art of a Changing World, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, December 3, 2009, to January 31, 2010.

What Lies Beneath

December 18, 2009

For years, scientists thought that melted water beneath Greenland’s coastal glaciers such as the Jakobshavn and Helheim lubricated the giant sheets of ice above, accelerating their plunge into the ocean and contributing to loss of sea ice. Turns out, that was an over-simplified explanation, said Ian Howat, assistant professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University.

Speaking in a press conference Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the NASA-funded, CPS-supported scientist explained that the subsurface dynamics beneath glaciers is significantly more complex than previously thought.

“In the science community it’s been accepted that basal lubrication due to increased melting and warming is responsible for accelerating glacial advance and breaking off,” said Howat. “We’re finding out that’s not true.”

A calving glacier drops huge ice chunks into the sea. Photo: Martyn Clark, National Snow and Ice Data Center

Specifically, a complex, subglacial “plumbing” system involving the ocean, meltwater, and ice evolves, which drives the glacial calving. In fact, early evidence from Howat’s research suggests that ocean changes have a greater impact on the rate at which outlet glaciers spill into the sea than does meltwater.

Much of the melt water comes from early summer hot temperatures, which melt the glacier’s surface. The water flows through cracks in the ice to the ground surface.

Ian Howet in the field. Photo: Ohio State University

In the early summer, the sudden influx of water overwhelms the subglacial drainage system, causing the water pressure to increase and the ice to lift off its bed and flow faster—up to 100 meters per year, he said. The water passageways quickly expand, however, and reduce the water pressure so that by mid-summer the glaciers flow slowly again.

Inland, this summertime boost in speed is very noticeable, since the glaciers are moving so slowly in general. But outlet glaciers along the coast, such as the Jakobshavn, are already flowing out to sea at rates as high as 10 kilometers per year — a rate too high to be caused by the meltwater.

“So you have this inland ice moving slowly, and you have these outlet glaciers moving 100 times faster. Those outlet glaciers are feeling a small acceleration from the meltwater, but overall the contribution is negligible,” Howat said.

His team looked for correlations between times of peak meltwater in the summer and times of sudden acceleration in outlet glaciers, and found none. So if meltwater is not responsible for rapidly moving outlet glaciers, what is? Howat suspects that the ocean is the cause.

Through computer modeling, he and his colleagues have determined that friction between the glacial walls and the fjords that surround them is probably what holds outlet glaciers in place, and sudden increases in ocean water temperature cause the outlet glaciers to speed up.

However, Howat said meltwater can have a dramatic effect on ice loss along the coast. It can expand within cracks to form stress fractures, or it can bubble out from under the base of the ice sheet and stir up the warmer ocean water. Both circumstances can cause large pieces of the glacier to break off, and the subsequent turbulence stirs up the warm ocean water, and can cause more ice to melt.

Rapid Coastal Erosion Correlated to Diminishing Sea Ice

December 16, 2009

Retreating sea ice leaves the Alaskan coast vulnerable to the full force of the ocean. Photo: Benjamin Jones, USGS

Rapid erosion of the northern coastline of Alaska midway between Point Barrow and Prudhoe Bay is accelerating at a steady rate of 30 to 45 feet a year, according to CPS-supported scientists presenting a study at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting this week in San Francisco. As the coast erodes, frozen blocks of silt and peat that contain 50 to 80 percent ice topple from bluffs into the Beaufort Sea during the summer.

The acceleration is caused by a combination of large waves pounding the shoreline and warm seawater melting the base of the bluffs, said CU-Boulder Associate Professor Robert Anderson, a co-author on the study. Once the blocks fall they melt within days and sweep silt material out to sea.

Anderson, along with collaborators Cameron Wobus of Stratus Consulting and Irina Overeem of CU’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) have studied the coastline for the past two summers with Office of Naval Research support. Equipped with two meteorology stations, a weather station, time-lapse cameras, detailed GPS and wave sensors outfitted with temperature loggers, they documented the summer ocean/shore dynamic.

Triple Whammy

Declining sea ice, warming sea water, and increased waves create a “triple whammy” that expedites erosion. For the majority of the year, the Beaufort Sea is covered with sea ice that disconnects from the coast during the summer. These ice-free summer conditions are lasting for longer periods of time, allowing warmer ocean water to lap the coast and weaken the frozen ground. And the longer that sea ice is not connected to the coastline, the further the distance grows between the ice and the shore.  This open-ocean distance between the sea ice and the shore, known as “fetch,” increases both the energy of waves crashing into the coast and the height to which warm seawater can come into contact with the frozen bluffs, said Anderson.

The shoreline bluffs are made up of contiguous, polygon-shaped blocks, primarily made of permafrost and measuring roughly 70 to 100 feet across. Ice “wedges” (created by seeping summer surface water that annually freezes and thaws) are driven deep into the cracks between individual blocks each year. The blocks closest to the sea are undermined as warm seawater melts their base, and eventually split apart from neighboring blocks and topple during stormy conditions, said Anderson.

Impacts of Erosion

As the coastline submits to the ocean, old whaling stations, military and oil related infrastructure and entire towns threaten to fall into the sea. In addition, the loss of sea ice alters ocean systems and diminishes habitat for creatures like the polar bear.

According to a 2009 CU-Boulder study, Arctic sea ice during the annual September minimum is now declining at a rate of 11.2 percent per decade. This year, only 19 percent of the ice cover was more than two years old — the least ever recorded in the satellite record and far below the 1981-2000 summer average of 48 percent.

November Arctic Sea Ice Extent Third Lowest On Record

December 14, 2009

Reductions in arctic sea ice during the past decade have elevated scientific and societal questions about the likelihoods of future scenarios. Photo courtesy USGS

Arctic sea ice levels over the Barents Sea and Hudson Bay were the third lowest on record since officials began monitoring the area by satellite in 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Last month the sea ice extent averaged 3.96 million square miles, 405,000 square miles less than the average from the period between 1979 and 2000.

Monthly November ice extent for 1979 to 2009 shows a decline of 4.5% per decade. Source: NSIDC

Arctic sea ice experiences significant melting during the summer months. By November, darkness sweeps the Arctic, air temperatures plummet, and sea ice grows rapidly. However, both the Barents Sea and Hudson Bay experienced a slow freeze-up this fall.

In the Barents Sea, ice growth was slowed by winds that pushed the ice northwards into the central Arctic. The deepest of the Arctic’s coastal seas, the Barents Sea is open on its southern and northern boundaries, which creates a significant wind corridor. Southerly winds created a high-pressure area over Siberia and low pressure in the northern Atlantic Ocean in November. Those winds transported warm air and water from the south, and pushed the ice edge northwards out of the Barents Sea.

The map of sea level pressure (in millibars) for November 2009, shows low pressure in the North Atlantic and high pressure over Russia, which led to winds that brought warmth to the Barents Sea and pushed the ice northward. Source: NSIDC

By contrast, the Hudson Bay is a nearly enclosed, relatively shallow body of water that tends to capture ice. The lack of ice is likely related to warmer-than-normal air temperatures in the region.

The map of air temperature anomalies for November 2009. Source: NSIDC

Sea ice in the Arctic is now declining at a rate of about 4.5 percent per decade, according to researchers.

The Glacier / Sea Dance

October 2, 2009

Glacier – Fjord Dynamics in Greenland

Score one for the seals. In addition to using high-tech equipment and sophisticated research techniques, researcher Gordon Hamilton (University of Maine, Orono) will also get a hand (fin?) from the ocean-dwelling creatures for his new NSF-funded collaborative study. Hamilton and a team of glaciologists and oceanographers will spend the next three years studying glacier-fjord interactions at Helheim Glacier in east Greenland to better understand how warm ocean waters are affecting the dynamics of outlet glaciers draining the ice sheet. The seals, tagged with small sensors that record position, depth and temperature, will collect data about what goes on beneath the ocean’s surface.

Gordon Hamilton (PI from University of Maine) recovers a GPS instrument from Helheim Glacier during summer 2009 field work. Photo: Leigh Stearns

Gordon Hamilton (PI from University of Maine) recovers a GPS instrument from Helheim Glacier during summer 2009 field work. Photo: Leigh Stearns

Above water, the team will investigate the mutual relationship between the glacier and the ocean through field season surveys and year-round data collection in order to better understand how ocean currents and heat affect the ice sheet. The research team will use these and other data to map the circulation and properties of the fjord and adjacent offshore waters, and how these characteristics change with time.

The research comes as scientists modeling the impact of global warming and melting sea ice are challenged to estimate the rate of ice sheet mass loss caused by dynamic thinning. (For more information, see “Extensive dynamic thinning on the margins of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets,” Pritchard et al.)

We talked to Professor Hamilton about his upcoming research.

Sermilik, Greenland, where Hamilton has also done research. Photo: Gordon Hamilton

Sermilik, Greenland, where Hamilton has also done research. Photo: Gordon Hamilton

PFS: Given your new NSF grant to explore ice sheet / ocean interactions and their influence on glacier motion, what did you think of the Pritchard article in Nature this week, suggesting “the most profound changes in the ice sheets currently result from glacier dynamics at ocean margins?”

Gordon Hamilton: It’s a nice paper because, for the first time, it takes a quantitative look at the entire coastlines of Greenland and Antarctica and shows that near-coastal changes are happening everywhere, not just in a few places. It really points to the importance of ice–ocean interactions in playing a major role in the health of the ice sheets.

PFS: The Pritchard article also mentions that “accelerated melt” is another relatively unknown area of glaciology. Can you explain what that is, and how your study may shed light on it?

Gordon Hamilton: In this case, they are referring to “submarine melting” which occurs wherever glacier ice comes into contact with the ocean (outlet glaciers and ice shelves, for example). Basically, any time you have ocean temperatures above the local freezing point (i.e., the freezing point adjusted for salinity and density), you have excess heat available to melt glacier ice. Because the ocean can carry so much more heat than the atmosphere, submarine melting can be much more effective than surface melting but it is very difficult to observe because of the obvious challenges in accessing the underwater portions of glaciers. Our work will help quantify the submarine melting component because we will be making direct measurements of ocean heat content, and the rate at which it is replenished, in the waters adjacent to a large outlet glacier.

PFS: The lack of knowledge about glacier/ocean interactions represents a large gap when it comes to modeling the impacts of melting ice sheets. How will your research improve modeling, and what specifically will you be looking for to develop a better understanding of these mechanisms?

Gordon Hamilton: Very true. There are just a couple of measurements of heat content and circulation in Greenlandic fjords, and most of these measurements have been isolated samples. We deployed some moored instruments as part of our pilot project, so we are just beginning to get a handle on how one-off measurements compare with a full year’s worth of data on fjord behavior. Seasonal and interannual variability is likely to be quite large, so we really need to quantify it so we can understand how much heat gets transported to these glacier fronts, when it gets transported, and if the rate of heat transport is changing with time. We will link these changes to observations of how the glacier behaves. For example, does the glacier calve more icebergs when the ocean is warmer, and does that cause the glacier to flow faster? These are basic things to know if we want to model how future ocean changes might affect the ice sheet.

PFS: Why did you choose Helheim Glacier?

Gordon Hamilton: Helheim is important because it drains about 5% of the entire ice sheet, it recently doubled its rate of mass loss, and because it discharges freshwater (in liquid and solid iceberg form) to a sensitive part of the North Atlantic Ocean where global ocean currents are formed.

PFS: Do the Pritchard et al findings potentially alter your research plan?

No, not really, but they do provide extra motivation in case anyone doubted the role of the ocean in potentially controlling the fate of the ice sheet.

PFS: On a lighter note, you have Greenlandic colleagues who will outfit seals with sensors to collect information on ocean temperature and depth. Can you tell us more about the logistics of this? What do you expect to learn from the seals? Any chance you can outfit them with cameras, as well, so we can get seal-cam pix of the fjord or ocean?

Gordon Hamilton: This is something new for us, but it’s a fairly standard technique for marine biologists who want to understand how and where seals dive for food. The tags will measure depth and water temperature. Seals are much more effective at making these kinds of measurements than scientists because they live there year-round and are continually diving for food, whereas we only visit the area for short field seasons. We use them as oceanographic platforms to build up a really long and detailed record of oceanic conditions. Each tag should last for a few months, so it will allow us to look at seasonal patterns in heat content of the offshore waters adjacent to the Greenland Ice Sheet. Plus it makes a great collaboration for glaciologists and oceanographers and marine biologists to be working together. I’m not sure about the practicalities of installing seal-cams, but we do plan to install cameras at a few key points overlooking the glacier and fjord. The cameras will have telemetry capability, so we should be able to monitor fjord conditions in near real-time.

OFS: As part of your outreach program, you’re planning to present a non-technical report to the Greenlandic community. How might the report benefit them?

Gordon Hamilton: In southeast Greenland, where we are working, the way of life for a huge percentage of the population is dependent on hunting and fishing in the coastal and fjord waters. These waters are starting to change character, so different species of fish (warmer-water species) are moving in and other types are disappearing. Local fisherman have to adapt to these conditions. Also, the warming waters are probably playing a role in the recent speed-up of the many of the ice sheet’s outlet glaciers, meaning there are more icebergs in the fjord year-round. Icebergs are a real hazard to safe travel for these hunters, so they will be very interested in our predictions for future conditions.


The front of the Helheim Glacier. Photo:Gordon Hamilton

The front of Helheim Glacier. Photo:Gordon Hamilton

PFS: You’ve done extensive glaciology in Antarctica. How does working in Greenland compare to your antarctic research? Are you doing glacier/fjord studies on the southern continent as well?

Gordon Hamilton: This project just deals with Greenland, but some colleagues have recently started looking at similar processes in the Amundsen Sea of West Antarctica. And we are thinking about starting related work beneath the Ross Ice Shelf, close to where several large outlet glaciers enter from East Antarctica.

Working in Greenland is quite different from Antarctica. For one, real populations of people live in villages around Greenland’s coast; Antarctica only has scientific research stations. So the local population provides an interesting cultural perspective. Plus it is just a few hours from the east coast of the US, meaning it is a lot easier and quicker to conduct fieldwork there than in Antarctica.

The Big Blue: Reports from the Cutter Healy

September 23, 2009
Photo: U.S. Coast GuardPetty Officer Patrick Kelley

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Patrick Kelley

In August we reported on the joint Canadian/American expedition to the Arctic Ocean to probe the Chukchi Borderland, an underwater promontory that extends north of Barrow, Alaska, and map the farthest reaches of the continental shelf. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy and the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Louis S. St-Laurent were at sea from Aug. 7 through Sept. 16 as part of the Extended Continental Shelf Project. Upon their return, USCG Petty Officer Patrick Kelley shared his images with us (and, since the photos are part of the public domain, with you. Check them out  at his flickr site.)

During the trip, scientists discovered a seamount, or underwater mountain, using a 12kHz multi-beam echosounder. The seamount is estimated to be about 1,100 meters high and is located 700 miles north of Alaska at a depth of about 3,800 meters.

The currently unnamed seamount is the first to be discovered since 2003.

The currently unnamed seamount is the first to be discovered since 2003.

What goes on beneath the ocean surface is extraordinarily compelling. Fortunately, thanks to Mr. Kelley, we can also appreciate what happened in plain sight.

Photo: U.S. Coast GuardPetty Officer Patrick Kelley
Photo: Patrick Kelley
The crew of a Coast Guard C-130 Hercules aircraft from Air Station Kodiak, AK., prepare to depart from Barrow after delivering 9,000 pounds of food for the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Healy. Photo: U.S. Coast GuardPetty Officer Patrick Kelley

The crew of a Coast Guard C-130 Hercules aircraft from Air Station Kodiak, AK., prepare to depart from Barrow after delivering 9,000 pounds of food for the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Healy. Photo: Patrick Kelley

Home sweet home. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard petty officer Patrick Kelley

Home sweet home. Photo: Patrick Kelley

A bottom-moored autonomous acoustic recorder, known as a High-frequency Acoustic Recording Package (HARP), is rigged to be deployed from the Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the Arctic Ocean where it will spend almost a year at the ocean floor measuring ambient noise. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard petty officer Patrick Kelley

A bottom-moored autonomous acoustic recorder, known as a High-frequency Acoustic Recording Package (HARP), is rigged to be deployed from the Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the Arctic Ocean where it will spend almost a year at the ocean floor measuring ambient noise. Photo: Patrick Kelley

Dr. Alex Andronikov (right), a geologist from the University of Michigan Department of Geological Science, and John Pazol sort through rocks that were dredged from the Arctic Ocean floor. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard petty officer Patrick Kelley

Dr. Alex Andronikov (right), a geologist from the University of Michigan Department of Geological Science, and John Pazol sort through rocks that were dredged from the Arctic Ocean floor. Photo: Patrick Kelley

Breaking the Ice

August 12, 2009
By Marcy Davis
The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Louis S. St-Laurent (front) and the US Coast Guard vessel Healy (back). Photo: Natural Resources Canada

The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Louis S. St-Laurent (front) and the US Coast Guard vessel Healy (back). Photo: Natural Resources Canada

Ice-breaking ships from Canada and the United States last week began a cruise to probe the Arctic Ocean in the continuation of a multi-year mission to survey—and possibly extend—each country’s maritime boundaries. The ships departed from Barrow, Alaska, and from Kugluktuk, Nunavut (northern Canada), and are collecting data to build highly detailed three-dimensional maps of the sea floor that may be used to revise maritime boundaries.

The shaded area on this map illustrates where the U.S. is considering collecting and analyzing data and does not represent the official U.S. Government position on where it has extended continental shelf. This map is without prejudice to boundary depictions and future negotiations. Credit:

The shaded area on this map illustrates where the U.S. is considering collecting and analyzing data. It does not represent the official U.S. Government position on where it has extended continental shelf--or any other official position. It is for informational purposes only. Credit:

Dr. Larry Mayer of University of New Hampshire, who is also the co-director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, is the chief scientist aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy. His team will map the seafloor using a sophisticated instrument called a multibeam sonar. From the hull of the ship, the sonar emits over one hundred narrowly focused beams of sound to create a swath that travels outward from the ship. Receivers ‘listen’ for the echo of the sound waves as they bounce off the seafloor and reflect back to the ship. Then computers calculate the depth to the seafloor and create a map of the sea floor topography.

The US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy cuts through one of the least known areas of the world--the Arctic. Source: NOAA

The US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy cuts through one of the least known areas of the world--the Arctic. Source: NOAA

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St. Laurent will collect seismic data. Dr. David Mosher of the Geologic Survey of Canada will be the Canadian chief scientist.

The work is part of the Extended Continental Shelf Project, a joint effort to probe the Chukchi Borderland, an underwater promontory which extends north of Barrow, Alaska, into the Artic Ocean to near 80°N. The expedition aims to map the farthest reaches of the North American continent and determine the edge of the continental shelf, information that will be used as the countries ready their claims to extend their maritime boundaries past the current 200 nautical miles offshore mark, as allowed by the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea. It is here that the U.S. stands to gain the most territory along with whatever natural resources it holds.

A country may use either constraint line to define the outer limits of its continental shelf: either 350 nautical miles seaward of the baseline, or 100 nautical miles seaward of the 2,500-meter depth contour (isobath).

A country may use either constraint line to define the outer limits of its continental shelf: either 350 nautical miles seaward of the baseline, or 100 nautical miles seaward of the 2,500-meter depth contour (isobath).

Of particular interest to the U.S. claim is the 2,500 meter isobath, the depth upon which many of the mathematical limits and formulae defined in the treaty rely. Mayer’s team also looks for a feature called ‘the foot of the slope,’ a major change in the shape of the sea floor which, according to the treaty, may mark the limit of the U.S. extended continental shelf.  He and his colleagues have mapped more than a million square kilometers of seafloor since 2003.

An aerial view of the Chukchi Borderland from the north, with tracks from 2003, 2004 and 2007 mapping expeditions.

An aerial view of the Chukchi Borderland from the north, with tracks from 2003, 2004 and 2007 mapping expeditions.

Many countries, including the U.S., will gain territory, although data analysis could take years. Once the United States senate officially accedes to the treaty, the U.S. will have ten years in which to turn over their data and formal claim to the U.N. Meanwhile, the Law of the Sea treaty protects the sea floor and underlying resources under stringent environmental laws.

Armchair sailors can monitor the cruise via several online sources, though transmission limitations in the Arctic Ocean may impact the number/frequency/size of these efforts.