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Sailing drones collect Arctic data
Monica Allen
/ Categories: Research Headlines, Arctic

Sailing drones collect Arctic data

Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of 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 Janet Hsiao, NOAA John Knauss Sea Grant fellow.

In the vast blueness of the Arctic Ocean, two neon-orange contraptions sailed into sight of the Healy on a recent evening. The fluorescent drones are wind-propelled, solar-powered unmanned vehicles, called saildrones. These are two of the four saildrones NOAA launched from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, earlier this summer. Each drone has traveled over 3,500 nautical miles through the Bering Strait and they are now meeting the Healy and NOAA’s science team north of the Arctic Circle.

Healy team meets Saildrones

Healy team meets Saildrones

NOAA's Dr. Jessica Cross (center) and CG crew members confirm the saildrones' speed and coordinates as USCG Healy approaches the unmanned vehicles. Credit: Meredith LaValley, Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee

Saildrones are equipped with sensors that can collect approximately 50 different types of ocean and atmosphere measurements. A key interest of this summer's mission is to understand how carbon dioxide (CO2) contributes to ocean acidification. To do so, the saildrones continuously recording CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and at the sea surface along their journey north.

“Alaska waters and ecosystems are naturally very vulnerable to ocean acidification,” said Dr. Jessica Cross, a chemical oceanographer from NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. “Tracking how acidified waters form could be very important for local food security and commercial fishing.”

Birdseye view of launch

Birdseye view of launch

U.S. Coast Guard crew members head out in a launch boat (seen from the deck of the Healy) to collect seawater samples that will be compared with saildrone measurements to ensure the accuracy of the saildrone sensors. Credit: Meredith LaValley, Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee

“Integrated missions that link atmospheric and ocean physics to chemistry and biology are one of the best tools we have for studying long term ocean ecosystem change,” said Robert Levine, a doctoral student at University of Washington’s School of Oceanography. Levine is spearheading a mission with Dr. Alex De Robertis, a NOAA fisheries biologist, to understand fisheries in the Pacific Arctic. “Very little is known about the ecology of the Alaska Arctic, so the ability to collect data in remote areas over long periods of time will help answer some of the many questions we have about fishes in this region,” said Levine.

Saildrone view

Saildrone view

Image taken by a saildrone camera as the US Coast Guard launch approaches. Courtesy of Saildrone Inc.and NOAA

With the aid of saildrones, scientists can now reach remote parts of the Arctic environment over a period of months to collect data and monitor change in places that were once impossible to access.  These drones are due to return to Dutch Harbor in October after their Arctic summer.

For more photos, maps and data on the USCG icebreaker Healy: http://icefloe.net/healy-realtime-data

To follow the Saildrones on their journey north: https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/itae/follow-saildrone-2018

https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/science-blog/saildrones-head-arctic-post-4

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