VIDEO // “Instrument testing”

Get out on deck, it’s your watch, and the ArcticMix team is testing their unique, custom engineered technology designed to explore undersea secrets behind rapidly melting ice in the Arctic, sea ice that is disappearing faster than current scientific knowledge has predicted.

Watch this video feature, “Instrument testing”. ( by Faith Haney – Transect Films )


Sailing to the edge of Arctic change

On the bridge, eyes out for ice.

On the bridge, eyes out for ice.

A light fog hangs low on the horizon.  The wind is gone.  We are getting close.

The heaving waves of the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea have been left behind for now as the raging westerlies give way to somewhat calmer easterlies north of the Arctic Circle and the atmosphere’s polar front.  Just east of Barrow, Alaska we reach the Beaufort Sea and water temperature at the ocean surface drops below freezing for the first time.  On the R/V Sikuliaq, from the bridge to the back deck, everybody is watching and waiting for ice.

In many ways sea-ice in the Arctic is the central thread that ties all of us aboard together.  Our floating home and office, the research vessel Sikuliaq, is specifically designed to be ice-capable and gets its name from an Inupiaq word meaning “young sea-ice” or “young sea-ice that is safe to walk on”.  But in a changing Arctic, whether it be supporting a person’s weight or influencing the global climate that supports all humanity, there are real questions about how safe polar ice cover is becoming.  This 261 foot long National Science Foundation funded vessel is our golden ticket to get unique, custom engineered technology to the Beaufort Sea to explore undersea secrets behind the rapidly melting ice in the Arctic, sea-ice that is disappearing in summer faster than current scientific knowledge has predicted.

The Arctic environment is changing at a swift pace, in many ways faster than the lower latitudes where most of the world’s population lives, unable to witness these shifts first-hand.  Recent estimates show the late summer sea-ice minimum has decreased by 50% in terms of area and 70% in terms of ice volume since 1980.  The figure below, adapted from Martin et al. , 2014, shows these estimates of change and the location of our ArcticMix research in the Beaufort Sea.  If we had been in this same patch of ocean at the end of summer even just ten years ago it would have likely been a very different place in terms of ice cover than it is here today.

Sea-ice since 1979. Adapted from Martin et al., 2014 >

Small, irregularly shaped chunks floating into view through the fog are the first sign.  Sikuliaq slows to a safe speed as we approach the edge of denser and thicker ice cover.  There’s a low, somewhat distant, grinding sound that rings through the steel hull all around us.  A quiet call goes up and through the science labs – we are finally in the ice!

For some of us, veterans of sea-going oceanography in warmer climes, this may be the first time we’ve seen sea-ice with our own eyes.  As expected as it is this close to earth’s north pole it still can amaze.  At the rail we gather and point while a few cameras snap away, a bit eagerly.  Those that work up here regularly still have a smile on their faces but caution that it is possible to have too many photos of ice.  I’m not so sure.  One thing I’m very certain of is that this is absolutely one of the most peaceful surroundings on the planet.

The frozen seawater is more than a casual hazard to shipping, equipment, and ocean-going science, as the history of the Northwest Passage attests.  But unlike earlier explorers we have the advantage of technology and space-borne remote sensing satellites.  Sikuliaq’s radar reaches out across the sea surface, day and night, helping the bridge avoid thicker ice that could best our capabilities.  And the ship’s dedicated science technicians have built a world-class onboard mapping system that receives regular synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) images captured by RADARSAT from a 800 kilometer high sun-synchronous orbit.

The space-based SAR ice observations arrive at a remarkably high resolution greatly helping the captain, crew, and ArcticMix team to plan routes around and through ice-choked waters.  This radar data is a great comfort as we feel our way towards the most scientifically exciting Arctic locations given we often want to get sensitive oceanographic instruments close to the ice, but not too close.

Even with the most modern nautical tools and information, navigation and science in the Arctic can still be a guessing game and one we hope to win.

  • Thomas Moore for the ArcticMix team

Use this map to track the research vessel Sikuliaq

The end of the road

The R/V Sikuliaq hove to in Port Clarence

The R/V Sikuliaq hove to in Port Clarence

A bit over 100 nautical miles north of Nome is the natural harbour of Port Clarence, a final sanctuary from Alaskan gales before the Bering Strait and quite literally the end of the road.  The ArcticMix team was waiting for the final two members to arrive by air into Nome where they were then to head overland via challenging 73 miles of wilderness roads to a small community on the shores of Port Clarence named Teller.

Sitting on a spit of land which separates the bay of Port Clarence and the inner Grantley Harbor, Teller is an Inupiat village that depends on subsistence hunting and fishing.  And with crew and scientists to transfer to and from the R/V Sikuliaq out in the bay the ArticMix team was depending on the logistical support of Teller and its road access back to Nome.

The waters of Port Clarence, while calm in comparison to what was raging outside the bay, were still a challenge for small boat operations.  It was going to be a wet ride.  Word came over the deck radio that it was time to launch the rigid inflatable boat (RIB) from its cradle high on the Sikuliaq’s second deck.  The orange hull hit the grey-green water and the outboard sent the RIB out over a bay part white with spray and foam.  The dark blue sides of our ice-breaking home disappeared into the distance as our small craft lurched through the chop towards the low, dark spit.

The beach was a strip of flat black shale-like stones on which was perched the tools of the trade for the local fishermen, their skiffs ringing the curved coastline.  Securing the RIB we set off to find a man named Joe to thank him for his recent assistance landing our small boat on the spit at Teller.

Joe, who had dark grey-streaked hair pulled back in a ponytail, introduced us to his huskies and said driving his sled dog team on the 150 mile round trip to Nome twice a week in Winter was common.  We were approached by another local named Jacob who was very keen to understand what had brought us to his coastal home on the Bering Sea.  Jacob, a young Inupiat man who had recently finished education in a nearby community school, was intensely curious about our lives and work aboard the big blue ice-breaker sitting just offshore his home.  He told tales of the many methods of local fishing and the reindeer herding that still occurred 123 years after first being introduced here in 1892.

Our scientific colleagues awaited, happy to see us after their long journey from far-off parts of the world which slightly unexpectedly finished at the end of the road in Teller.  Without access to this community and the safe harbour along which its cozy buildings nestle the ArcticMix voyage would have hit very troubled waters early.  We returned to the R/V Sikuliaq grateful.

  • Thomas Moore for the ArcticMix team (Photos: Faith Haney and Thomas Moore )

There’s no place like Nome

The “combi” 737-400, a passenger aircraft modified to take cargo in place of half the seating capacity, circled for a second time.  Cloud hung low over Nome, Alaska and a westerly gale was building as the airliner finally touched down on the runway.  We had to get to the ship quickly.


The R/V Sikuliaq, sea-going home to the ArcticMix team for the next month or more, was dockside in Nome but the heavy weather was a threat to safety in the small, narrow harbour.  Departure was moved forward two whole days to 1700 hours, Monday.  On an oceanographic science voyage, where the dock-side preparations are typically frantic when time is measured in days and not hours, this felt a bit like madness.  But in Alaska weather is the master and you work to the winds and seas.


The preparations are vital.  The ArcticMix team brings a unique set of custom designed and manufactured scientific instruments, technology that will hopefully allow the team to make rare measurements of the Beaufort Sea’s physical structure at a very small scale.  The secrets of these small scale ocean physics may answer questions about why Arctic ice is melting faster than predicted by current scientific knowledge.


It’s 1712 hours on the 24th of August and the 261 foot, Polar class 5 rated R/V Sikuliaq squeezes by Nome’s rock jetties as building waves peak across the barway.  We are away, ahead of the storm, and steaming north to find some better shelter for the ArcticMix team to get back to preparing for colder climes past the Bering Strait.


  • Thomas Moore for the ArcticMix team
scripps oceanography uc san diego