USCGC HEALY ENTERING CHINIAK BAY, KODIAK, ALASKA
Credit: Tom Walker
Transmission Location: At sea, 70 miles SW of Southwest Cape, St Lawrence Island
Temperature: 8.5 dgF, Wind Chill: ?22 dgF. Wind: 13 mph from NW
Sunrise: 9:47 AM, Sunset: 9:39 PM. Ice: compact sea ice.
The rendezvous with our ship was easier for some than others. The Seattle-based U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy was making its way to Kodiak to meet the science research team, load equipment, board the science party, and then sail on to the Bering Sea. The route to Kodiak seemed simple enough. Then, two and a half days out the wind picked-up.
At the same time 34 scientists and technicians from all over the U.S. and Canada, and as far away as Norway and China, were traveling to Kodiak. They ran into the usual—long flights, some delays, lost luggage, and jet lag. The landing in Kodiak was the most exciting part. Rain and snow showers are typical for Kodiak. Add a little fog, and a short runway that starts at the ocean’s edge and abruptly ends at the foot of a steep mountain, and you have a real attention grabber. Kodiak is a large island separated from the Alaska Peninsula by the Shelikof Strait. Its cool, wet maritime climate results in lush summer vegetation that has earned Kodiak the title, the Emerald Isle. Spectacular scenery, an abundance of salmon, and the world’s largest land carnivore, the Kodiak brown bear, attracts visitors from around the world. The fish processing plants that line Maritime Way are monuments to a prosperous Gulf of Alaska fishing industry.
FISHING FLEET IN ST. PAUL HARBOR, KODIAK, AK
Photo credit: Tom Walker
Just as some of the science party was settling into the hotel, the Healy was entering the Hecate Strait separating Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands from the mainland. As the sun set, the Healy found itself in the tumultuous weather formed when a strong high clashes with a strong low pressure system. By nightfall the winds were sustained at 57 mph, gusting to hurricane force 74 mph winds. The seas ran steadily from 20 to 30 feet, some reaching as high as 40 feet.
WAVES AND SPRAY WASH THE HEALY’S FOC’CLE CROSSING THE GULF OF ALASKA IN TRANSIT TO UNIMAK PASS Photo credit: Tom Litwin
To complicate steering, the ocean swells and wind-driven waves were coming from different directions. Anything not tied down—chairs, books, equipment—tumbled and tossed about. Waves and spray broke over the bow and covered the forward part of the ship, flooding the foc’cle with tons of sea water. The crew sleeping below listened to the tremendous sound of the wash and felt the ship forced down by the weight of the water. Then they would wait out the pause that comes just before the shudder that runs and rattles though the ship, signaling the bow rising as tons of water drained from the decks. With daylight the worst was over, but all agreed it was a very long night.
With very different travel stories in-hand, the science party and Healy rendezvoused at Kodiak’s city dock on Monday, March 9, 2009. Anticipation grew Tuesday as last minute details were finalized and the ship prepared for the next leg of its westward journey. That evening we pulled away from the dock to begin the 580 mile sail to Unimak Pass, taking us through the Aleutian Islands into the Bering Sea.
CAPT. FREDERICK SOMMER, COMMANDING OFFICER, USCGC HEALY, Photo Credit: Tom Walker
Why organize hundreds of logistical details, spend large amounts of money, gather and ship dozens of pieces of sensitive instrumentation across the country, provision an 18,440 ton, 420 foot icebreaking ship with full crew of 85 officers and seamen to take a boatload of international scientists to the frozen Bering Sea in March? The answer is as simple as it is complex. The Bering Sea is one of the most bountiful ecosystems on earth, supporting an important commercial fishery, as well non-native and Native subsistence cultures. Scientifically, because the region has been difficult and dangerous to reach due to ice and cold, there are many things we don’t know about this important region. And, a sense of urgency has come to the region. Arctic ice is melting at record rates as climate change is causing the ice to retreat earlier in the spring, and arrive later in the fall. Old, multi-year ice is diminishing, melting is accelerating.
The future is uncertain for the Bering Sea ecosystem and the human cultures, wildlife and fisheries that revolve around ice. What does climate change mean for the future of the Bering Sea? What can Bering Sea research tell us about the impacts of climate change for the rest of the planet? These questions are at the heart of the Healy’s complex scientific mission.
Significantly, the Healy scientists are coordinating their efforts as they study the many interconnected parts of the Bering Sea ecosystem. Understanding how one part of the system works, without knowing how it connects to the others only tells part of a very large and complex story. With support from the National Science Foundation and North Pacific Research Board, scientists from many different disciplines are gathered on the ship to integrate their findings. The goal is for each study to expand the understanding of the next. This interdisciplinary approach will tell us much more about the Bering Sea ecosystem than any single study could do alone.
How do you organize a multi-faceted floating research laboratory, encourage teamwork, and keep it focused and working for near a month in the isolated far north? That is the job of the Chief Scientist.
Coming Next: The Healy sails north into the Bering Sea and finds ice near St. Matthew Island. And, the life and research of Chief Scientists: expert, negotiator, problem solver and husband & wife.
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Tuesday, 17 March 2009 19:44
Rendezvous In KodiakWritten by Tom Litwin: On Thin Ice
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