An ice-breaking Antarctic research vessel will sail to the Arctic for the first time this summer to conduct a comprehensive survey of the chemistry, temperature, and other characteristics of the waters off Alaska. James Swift, a research oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, is the chief scientist for the research cruise.
Scientists seeking to untangle the complicated web of relationships between the shallow ocean shelves and deep basins of the Arctic Ocean will use the survey to guide their research. They hope to understand to what extent climate change is already occurring in the Arctic, what its effects might be on the plants and animals that live there and the people who depend on them, and what measures might be taken to compensate for any changes.
The research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer usually operates in the Southern Hemisphere for the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF). But this summer, a team of NSF-funded Arctic researchers will use it as a platform to map the distribution of salinity, temperature, nutrients, and other characteristics over the outer shelf to deep basin region of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off northern Alaska.
NSF is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of nearly $5 billion.
The Palmer, which otherwise would be in port during an off-season lull, will be used in place of a Canadian icebreaker that was unavailable to support the research cruise.
The Palmer will conduct the marine survey as part of NSF's Western Arctic Shelf Basin Interactions (SBI) project. SBI researchers are trying to identify processes that govern the exchanges of water of the shallow shelves that surround the Arctic Ocean basin and the deep-water basin itself.
Currently, the ocean basins act as carbon dioxide reservoirs, or sinks, locking up some of the gas and preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere. Any change in the current carbon dioxide balance could have direct effects on air temperatures and the amount of sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean. For example, they might cause some species to flourish and change the habitat of others.
Swift of Scripps Institution said his team will map the various characteristics of the waters in the SBI study region to provide a reference grid for the other SBI cruises in this three-year field program.
Using a variety of methods, including sampling with a conductivity, temperature, depth sensor, or CTD, which is lowered over the side of the ship, the scientists will collect water to analyze for such variables as salinity and dissolved oxygen as well as the concentrations of chlorophyll and nutrients.
"We hope, once the cruise is over, to be able to produce a very good map of the physical, chemical, pigment, and other variables in the SBI study region," Swift said. A series of cruises is planned, as part of the SBI project, to take samples of marine life and survey marine mammal populations. The 2003 survey cruise, however, will be unique in its mapping function. "We will have time to both cover a wider area and also to cover some of the SBI area more intently," Swift noted.
Also sailing aboard the Palmer will be Jim Rogers, a science and geography teacher at Polson High School on the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana. He will participate under the auspices of the Teachers Experiencing the Arctic and Antarctic program, a joint initiative of NSF's Office of Polar Programs and its education and human resources directorate.
The Palmer, which was undergoing routine maintenance in Lyttelton, New Zealand, is scheduled to arrive in Alaskan waters in early July and to complete its cruise by late August.
Swift, who has previous experience as a researcher on the Palmer off the coast of Antarctica in winter, said the ship is well suited for the kind of work it will be doing for the first time in the Arctic.
The 94-meter (308-foot) Palmer is equipped with labs and other facilities for examining the biological, oceanographic, geological, and geophysical components of global change. It accommodates 37 scientists, has a crew of 22, and is capable of 75-day missions.
Built by Edison Chouest Offshore Inc., of Galliano, La., the ship was accepted for use by the Antarctic Program in 1992.
The ship is named for Nathaniel Brown Palmer, the American credited with first seeing Antarctica. Palmer, then 21 years old, commanded the 14-meter (45-foot) sloop Hero, which on Nov. 16 and 17, 1820 entered Orleans Strait and came very close to the Antarctic Peninsula. Later in his life, Palmer also won wealth and fame as a pioneer clipper shipmaster and designer.
The Palmer's trip north complements a deployment to Antarctic waters of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, which has carried out previous SBI cruises. During the 2002-2003 Antarctic research season, Healy, an icebreaker specifically designed to support polar research, was sent south to help keep open a vital sea-lane used to resupply McMurdo Station, NSF's scientific and logistical hub in Antarctica.
Healy will conduct research this summer in the Arctic near Greenland.