NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Fairweather
July 9 – 20, 2018
Mission: Arctic Access Hydrographic Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Point Hope, Alaska and vicinity
Date: July 20, 2018 at 10:14am
Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 64° 29.691′ N
Longitude: 165° 26.275′ W
Wind: 4 knots S
Barometer: 767.31 mmHg
Visibility: 10 nautical miles
Temperature: 11.8° C
Sea Surface: n/a
Weather: Overcast, no precipitation
Science and Technology Log
Despite a few setbacks, the crew of NOAA Ship Fairweather worked diligently to complete as much surveying as possible around Point Hope during this leg of the mission. Three small boats were sent out last Saturday, July 14th to each survey part of a “sheet”. A sheet is an area of ocean assigned to a hydrographer to survey and process into a bathymetric map. A bathymetric map is the colorful map produced from survey data that shows ocean depth using colors of the rainbow from red (shallow) to blue (deep). Ultimately, that sheet will be added to a nautical chart. Hydrographer Toshi Wozumi kindly showed me the progress that the ship has made towards the Point Hope survey mission below. The soundings were conducted with “set line spacing” of between 100m and 1,000m between each line in order to cover a satisfactory amount of ground in a feasible timeframe. When a more detailed map is necessary, there will be no empty space between lines and this is known as “full coverage”.
Point Hope is such a unique little piece of land. All of the light blue you see on the map above is actually fresh water from inland. Skinny slices of land separate the salty Arctic water from the fresh water. Hydrographer Christina Belton told me that this area experiences a lot of erosion. In the area we surveyed, you can see an unusually straight line between the deep blue-colored seafloor and the relatively shoal yellow- to green-colored seafloor (shoal is a synonym for shallow, but of the two it is the more common word used by hydrographers). This distinct line is a sand bar where sediment collects from erosion and water currents. I am really interested to see how the bathymetric map develops as the season goes on! Hydrographers are expecting this survey to be very flat and unexciting, but you never know what will show up!
The tiny little polygon at the bottom left of the picture above is a section of a PARS corridor. PARS is an acronym that stands for Port Access Route Studies, and these studies are initiated by the US Coast Guard when an area may be in need of routing changes or new designated routes for a number of different reasons. According to the US Coast Guard, the Eastern Bering Sea is a relatively shallow sea with depths ranging from 20 – 250 feet. This in combination with outdated nautical charts containing sparse data points can make for dangerous conditions for mariners trying to navigate in and around the Bering Sea. In addition Arctic sea ice is retreating more and more each year, and there is a growing interest in travel through the Northwest Passage, formerly covered in sea ice year round. I have heard that a cruise ship will soon travel the Northwest Passage, and tickets start at $37,000 per person. Any takers?
NOAA Ship Fairweather was tasked with surveying a small section of the PARS corridor. We worked on this project during our return trip to Nome. A bathymetric map was not prepared by the time I left the ship, so I was not able to see the data. However, this data will be a very important addition to the US Coast Guard’s maps. You may notice on the map of the proposed survey sheets that the northern border of the polygon follows a longer line. This is the International Date Line and also the border between the US and Russia. NOAA Ship Fairweather had to take special precautions to ensure we did not enter international waters without permission, so we ran a couple of soundings the short way on the edge of the polygon before changing our lines to go the long way. The short lines gave us room to turn the ship around without entering Russian waters. If you have ever mowed your lawn, running lines on the ship is just like mowing lines on your grass. When you get to the end of your yard, you need room to turn the lawn mower around before mowing in the opposite direction. In fact, hydrographers informally refer to the act of collecting data with the MBES as “mowing the lawn”!
NOAA Ship Fairweather will continue to collect data in the Point Hope region for a couple more months. The ship is projected to use 53 days at sea to finish the project. However, this time of year can be difficult for navigating the Bering Sea due to frequent storms. This work requires patience and flexibility, as I witnessed during my time on the ship. In the end, the maps and nautical charts they create will be increasingly valuable as more marine traffic will use the Arctic Ocean during the months when there is no sea ice.
This morning we docked the ship in Nome. It was a bittersweet feeling to step on land once again. I grew to enjoy waking up each morning with water in all directions. The light rocking motion in the evening helped me sleep like a baby! I learned a lot of new information in a short period of time. I also made some new friends among the Fairweather crew and the visitors. Together we endured the 12′ seas of Tuesday’s storm in addition to the Blue Nose initiation! The initiation will forever remain a Navy (and NOAA Corps) secret, but I suppose I can show you the after picture! The ceremony itself was quite a messy ordeal, so we had to rinse off before going back inside the ship. What’s the best way to rinse off at sea? You guessed it! Ice cold Arctic sea water! Not to worry though; safety was the first priority and there were no cases of hypothermia onboard. Upon completing the initiation, the 24 crew members below metamorphosed from slimy wogs to polar bears! The remaining 20 or so crew members had previously earned the name of polar bear.
One thing I learned while aboard NOAA Ship Fairweather is that living and working in the same place with the same people is a unique experience. Your work time and off time are confined to the same spaces. You are always around the same 40 – 50 people. In addition, working in remote areas means fewer modern conveniences like TV and cell phone service. You can’t go out to eat or go shopping until you arrive back in port. It’s not for everyone. What I can say though is that not a single person aboard the ship complained about any of these things! Everyone onboard has learned to adapt to the unique challenges and benefits of their workplace. There are many things to enjoy too! It was so nice not having to cook or do dishes for two weeks! You get to live more simply, which means fewer things to worry about day to day, like getting to work on time and getting to the gym/grocery store/post office/anywhere before it closes or gets too crowded. It’s also a fun place to be! Events like the blue nose initiation boost morale and give everyone fun things to plan and look forward to. I thoroughly enjoyed the mindset shift and gained an appreciation for this kind of work. I will also miss it!
Did You Know?
The most recent soundings for the coastal area north of Point Hope were taken in the 1800s when Russia owned Alaska. They were measured with lead lines, and as you can see in the Point Hope nautical chart, there was a large distance between each measurement.
Answer to Last Question of the Day
What are the eligibility requirements to be in the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps?
To be eligible for appointment into the NOAA Corps, you must
- be a US citizen of good moral character
- be able to complete 20 years of active commissioned service before you turn 62
- have a baccalaureate degree from an institution accredited by the US Department of Education
- have at least 48 semester hours in science, math, or engineering related to NOAA’s missions
- pass a mental and physical examination
- be able to maintain a “secret” security clearance
- be able to pass a test for illegal drug use.
US Coast Guard (2017). Appendix B – Hydrographic Quality Analysis. Bering Sea PARS. https://www.navcen.uscg.gov/pdf/PARS/Bering_Strait_PARS_Appendix_B.pdf.