C.G. drops buoy into Arctic Ocean

Coast Guardsmen watch a buoy float down into the Arctic Ocean from a Kodiak-based C-130 Hercules Tuesday. (Sam Friedman photo)

ARCTIC OCEAN, 74th PARALLEL — If you need to get a 350-pound buoy into the Arctic Ocean north of Barrow, it’s good to have help from the Coast Guard.

An oceanographic research project got a ride from a Kodiak-based C-130 Hercules Tuesday as the Coast Guard made its biweekly Arctic Domain Awareness patrol. The Kodiak Daily Mirror and a half dozen other media outlets came along to see the mission.

The buoy will collect data to forecast Arctic ice and weather, said Roger Andersen, a researcher with the University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory who went to oversee the drop.

It’s part of a network of about 100 data-collecting buoys sent from 10 different nations and coordinated at the University of Washington. The drop area between 72 and 74 degrees north latitude was picked because there is not already an abundance of buoys in the region.

The expansion of the Arctic sea ice is difficult to predict, but from the experience of flying over the Arctic every two weeks the Coast Gurard crew had some idea where to look for it. The Arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent Sept. 15 this year.

It was about 300 miles north of Barrow when the same crew flew over the region two weeks ago. On Tuesday morning when the C-130 left Anchorage, Cmdr. Joe Deer said the ice should be visible within 150 miles of Barrow.

The flight ended up not making it far enough to see any sea ice, but it was visible on the plane’s radar.

Rear Adm. Christopher Colvin, commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska, and Anchorage sector commander Capt. Jason Fosdick came along on the trip.

Colvin was on the last Arctic Domain Awareness trip and said he has found one flight every two weeks is a good size for the program, given the Coast Guard’s budget.

“If I lived in an ideal world with unlimited airplanes and flight hours it would be great to do it daily,” he said. “But we have to take a flight away from our normal fisheries patrol flights in the Bering Sea to go up to the Arctic. We made a value judgment that we can afford about one flight every other week. So it gives us pretty sketchy information, but it’s better than nothing.”

The Arctic Domain Program began Oct. 2007 with a memorable flight that got stuck in Barrow because of seals that froze while the plane was waiting outside.

Colvin said having a Coast Guard presence in the Arctic is important not only for scientific research but also to maintain America’s claims to Arctic waters.

“There’s not that much activity in the Arctic right now, but unless we maintain a persistent presence, there’s always the potential that someone else will come in and operate our waters,” he said.

Flying to Barrow in the C-130 took about two-and-a-half hours. Not long after leaving shore behind, loadmasters began preparing the buoy for deployment on the open-backed ramp of the plane.

The buoy is orange below the surface of the water and yellow above. It had a few messages written in a sharpie marker from the C-130’s flight crew. — apparently made up of fans of the New York Yankees, Washington Huskies and Washington State Cougars.

When the buoy was pushed off the plane it could be seen gliding down 900 feet orange and white and splashing into the waves.

But after the flight Andersen said the drop had not gone as planned and he expressed concern that the buoy might have undergone damage on the drop.

He said the problem with the buoy likely had to do with premature firing of an explosive cutter that separates the parachute from the buoy.

He did not yet know if the buoy is sending its data to a satellite.

Andersen said the Coast Guard loadmasters did an excellent job with the drop.

“I can’t stay enough good stuff about the Coast Guard,” he said. “They’re so willing and so happy to undertake the ideas we come up with … Today I thought the two drop hands working on the back ramp were almost heroic.”

The buoy is the first in a line designed to float on the open ocean while also resisting being crushed when the sea freezes over.

Previous generations of Arctic buoys were designed to primarily sit on top of thick ice, but accelerating ice melt has created increased demand for an ocean-floating Arctic buoy.

In addition to the buoy deployment, the flight carried a couple of Kodiak-based technicians for ongoing data collection for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The study collects baseline air samples at different elevations, said subcontractor Jason Manthey. The air samples are tested for temperature, humidity and levels of gasses including carbon dioxide, methane and ozone, and are collected in an oversized suitcase for analysis by NOAA.

Mirror writer Sam Friedman can be reached via e-mail at sfriedman@kodiakdailymirror.com.

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