USCGC Healy supporting scientific research. Photo courtesy of USCG / DVIDS.

Discovering the Mysteries of the Arctic

STARC program probes key influence on global climate

On Sept. 1, 2023, a team of researchers and scientists embarked on a journey from Kodiak, Alaska, to Tromsø, Norway, aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy (USCGC Healy), the largest and most technologically advanced icebreaker in the U.S. fleet. We ventured into the Arctic on a mission to harness cutting-edge science and technology to investigate the long-term environmental changes in a region that is a critical indicator for global climate health. 

As we sailed deeper into the Arctic, we entered an awe-inspiring landscape painted in soft pastel hues, where the pristine air and icy seas held vital clues that could help unravel some of Earth’s most pressing environmental challenges.

Early in the cruise, the sun hovered close to the horizon, keeping the sky bright for upwards of 22 hours per day. Most days, low clouds and fog hung overhead, sometimes clearing to reveal vast fields of ice shining in the golden light of the never-ending sunset. There, alone for hundreds of miles in each direction except for the occasional polar bear, those aboard Healy worked in perpetual daylight collecting essential data from the Arctic’s icy depths and frigid air above, each bit crucial to understanding our planet’s changing climate.

Sunrise in the Arctic
Sunrise in the Arctic. Photo by Eugene Vivino.

The Arctic seas traversed by the cutter regulate Earth’s temperature and influence weather patterns across the globe. In collaboration with the International Arctic Research Center (IARC), Healy embarked on a critical mission to collect samples and data from the Arctic as part of the Nansen and Amundsen Basins Observational System (NABOS). The findings from this year’s expedition add to the record of observations made by previous NABOS cruises dating back to 2002, and will shed light on the complex and dynamic processes at work in the Arctic. The 420-foot icebreaker was inhabited by scientists, USCG crew members, and technicians from various militaries and research organizations including IARC, UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Together, we formed the NABOS 2023 expedition team. 

Four men on a ship
Scripps Oceanography’s STARC personnel after the 48th and final NABOS 2023 CTD cast. From left to right: Eugene Vivino, Murray Manchanthasouk, Mason Schettig and Nick Benz.

Marine technicians from UC San Diego, Oregon State University, and the University of Washington make up Ship-based Technical Support in the Arctic (STARC), a project funded by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs. STARC team members supported the technical needs of the NABOS 2023 expedition and specialize in various aspects of oceanographic work: Some are experts in deck operations and others are well versed in the operation of shipboard instrumentation and data acquisition systems. Eugene Vivino, one of the authors, is the systems analyst assigned to Healy on the Ship Cyber Infrastructure Services (ShipCIS) team based out of Scripps, and works to support and protect the digital infrastructure upon which these systems are built. STARC enables data to flow from sensors to hard drives and ultimately the scientific community. As future missions add to the record of observations, the community gains a deeper understanding of the changing conditions in these remote areas.

Research teams from around the world plan these expeditions years in advance and at great expense, frequently relying on Healy’s instruments to gather their data. That’s where STARC comes in. Our instruments map the seafloor and ocean currents, collect water from any depth and constantly characterize the seawater and atmosphere through which we travel. This information is collected and processed for quality assurance by an array of servers hosted in a state-of-the-art onboard data center. 

A CTD instrument covered in ice on a ship in the Arctic
CTD operations in the ice. Photo by Eugene Vivino.

Weather data is sent to NOAA every 15 minutes to be integrated into global models. Fast satellite internet allows scientists on Healy to connect with shoreside experts as if they were on board, a setup increasingly common to research vessels within the U.S. Academic Research Fleet. Combined with the icebreaking capability of the U.S. Coast Guard, STARC supports a truly world-class floating laboratory. Developing our understanding of the Arctic landscape’s changing state is crucial for national security, commercial, and ecological concerns as our climate continues to change. 

In the Arctic Ocean, seawater from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans mixes with water from continental sources like rivers and melting glaciers. These water sources can be identified by temperature, salinity, and biological and isotopic signatures that allow researchers to trace their origin. Healy’s unique capability provides a way to install instruments called moorings that stay anchored underwater for years to make continuous observations of these characteristics. During the NABOS 2023 cruise we recovered and redeployed nine moorings that were installed in 2021 and performed 48 CTD casts in previously visited locations, measuring and collecting seawater from the surface to the seafloor which sometimes exceeded two miles deep. The samples recovered from these moorings during NABOS 2023 led to the first monthly time series of radium isotopes in the High Arctic. 

Living in the Arctic aboard Healy for 40 days was anything but a cold experience. The STARC team was surrounded by leaders in the field of polar science, and we enjoyed a number of informative presentations. We participated in seminars such as “Ice Navigation” and “Life as a Conscript” from the Norwegian Coast Guard, “Mapping Technology and Applications” from the UK’s Royal Navy, and “Arctic Climate Science” from the NABOS scientists. 

We presented “Research IT at Sea,” which was both conducted aboard the ship and live-streamed back to the UC San Diego campus, highlighting research vessel technology and the work that STARC does. Everyone enjoyed movie nights, trivia and game nights, as well as long and interesting conversations with new and old friends that one almost can’t help to make when living in close quarters with so many driven and interesting people. These rewarding bonds, forged in extraordinary conditions with the constant soundtrack of ice breaking around us, filled our sails as we worked to discover the mysteries of the Arctic.

Eugene Vivino is the IT Systems Analyst assigned to STARC on Scripps Oceanography’s Ship Cyber Infrastructure Services Team. Nick Benz is a geophysical engineer with the Scripps Shipboard Geophysical Group, assigned to STARC during the NABOS 2023 cruise.

View additional photos from the expedition in the gallery below.

An icebreaker navigates the ice
USCGC Healy breaking ice in the Laptev Sea. Photo by Eugene Vivino.
Two polar bears on the ice
The team observed numerous Arctic creatures, including polar bears, Arctic foxes, fin whales, and birds including auklets, puffins, kittiwakes, and northern fulmar. Photo by Nick Benz.
Broken sea ice
A typical view of the High Arctic landscape, revealing the considerable thickness of the ice on overturned ice floes. Photo by Eugene Vivino.
a ship navigates through sea ice
Broken multi-year ice floes in golden light. Photo by Eugene Vivino.
Arctic seabirds
Kittiwakes feed on fish exposed by overturned ice in the ship’s wake. Photo by Nick Benz.
a group of researchers onboard an icebreaker
Group photo of personnel aboard the NABOS 2023 cruise. Photo courtesy of USCG / DVIDS.


About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

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