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NOAA Arctic explorers sail North
Monica Allen
/ Categories: Arctic , Climate

NOAA Arctic explorers sail North

Editor's note: This is the first in a series Dispatches from the Arctic on the August science cruise by NOAA and partner scientists aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. Today's post is from Emily Osborne, Arctic Program Manager at NOAA Research,  Janet Hsiao, NOAA John Knauss Sea Grant fellow, and Meredith LaValley of the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee.

A small group of scientists arrived in Nome, Alaska (64°N Latitude) on the first of the two daily passenger flights that land in the small town on the Bering Sea. In Nome, where the bulk of the population lives within a square mile, you don’t have much choice but to run into people. The day we arrived we experienced a series of chance meetings with other members of the 43-person science crew who were waiting for the bright red US Coast Guard icebreaker, The Healy. The Healy is longer than a football field and can break through 10-feet of solid sea ice. Interestingly, our icebreaker likely won’t face any sea ice during this 2018 August mission, even above 70°N in the Arctic Ocean where the ship is set to sail.

Fundamental changes in both the physical and biological systems of the Bering Strait region have been recorded by scientists and local observers alike over the last several seasons. Some scientists waiting to board the vessel have faithfully sailed north into the Arctic Ocean for more than a decade to monitor this environmental change. Research this year entails tracking marine mammals and seabirds, observing ocean currents by measuring temperature and acidity of the ocean water column and collecting mud samples from the seafloor to monitor the benthic ecosystem, a critical component of the Arctic food web.

Nome evening

Nome evening

The Healy set sail from the Bering Sea village of Nome, Alaska. Credit: Meredith LaValley, Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee

Record low sea ice extent during the wintertime in the Bering Strait region of the Arctic, means there was less ice to melt away this summer. Community members in Nome and other Bering Strait villages have witnessed a season in the Arctic they have never seen before. They’ve witnessed massive seabird die-offs and changes in whale migration patterns. Communities also have growing concerns about harmful algal blooms that can make clams, fish and other subsistence foods toxic.

The night before embarking on their 18-day research mission, science party members met with Nome community members for one of the “Strait Science” Alaska Sea Grant public seminars hosted by the local University of Alaska, Fairbanks Northwest Campus to outline the research plans and share recent observations from the region. Some scientists aboard the Healy have spent their entire career observing the Arctic, like Dr. Jackie Grebmeier who has been sailing to the Arctic for 38 years and has never seen conditions as warm as this year’s. It was clear from the discussions that community members and the science party shared mutual interests in the implications of these unprecedented observations. Stay tuned as we follow the Healy's journey towards the Arctic to learn more from this year’s findings!

For more photos, maps and data on the USCG icebreaker Healy:


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