Christine Hedge, September 7, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Christine Hedge
Onboard USCGC Healy
August 7 – September 16, 2009 

Mission: U.S.-Canada 2009 Arctic Seafloor Continental Shelf Survey
Location: Beaufort Sea, north of the arctic circle
Date: September 7, 2009

The empty dredge being lowered into the ocean.

The empty dredge being lowered into the ocean.

Weather Data from the Bridge  
Latitude: 790 ’24N
Longitude: 1540 27’W
Temperature: 290F

Science and Technology Log 

Today we deployed our first dredge in hopes of collecting some samples of bedrock from the Arctic Ocean. A dredge is a basket made of metal chain link with a sharp edged bottomless tray on top. A wire cable connects this dredge to the Healy. Our echosounding instruments show us what the sea floor looks like. Maps reveal ridges, seamounts, flat abyssal plains, and raised continental shelves.  But, how did all these features form?  How old are they?  What type of rock are they made from?  What kinds of forces created this ocean surrounded by continents?  Where are the plate boundaries? Collecting rock samples will help us to answer some of these questions.

Sifting through the muddy sediment in search of rocks

Sifting through the muddy sediment in search of rocks

FOR MY STUDENTS:  Can you predict what type of rock we might find by sampling oceanic crust?  Continental crust? 

Here is how dredging works:

  • The dredge is deployed over a seafloor feature with a steep slope. Lowering the dredge takes a long time as the huge spool of cable unwinds.  The top speed for the cable is 50 meters/minute.  Today, the cable with the dredge attached rolled out 3850 meters before it stopped. The Healy then moves slowly up the slope dragging the dredge behind.  The metal plates at the top of the dredge catch on rock outcrops as it is dragged up the side of the slope.   Pieces of rock and sediment fall into the basket.  The dredge is pulled up by the cable and lowered back on to the deck of the Healy. The dredge is dumped and scientists pick through all the mud and find the rocks.
Full dredge is safely landed on the deck of the Healy.

Full dredge is safely landed on the deck of the Healy.

This first dredge brought back 400 pounds of mud and rock. Unfortunately, most was mud and only 10% was rock. Dredging is tricky business. Sometimes the dredge gets stuck and needs to be cut free.  Sometimes it collects only mud and no bedrock. We will be dredging at different sites for the next few days in the hope that good examples of bedrock will be collected.  The rocks we find will be catalogued and the chemistry of the rocks will be analyzed.  Hopefully, the rocks will help to answer some of the questions we have about the geologic history of the Arctic Ocean.

Personal Log 

Examples of rocks that were collected from our first dredge site.

Examples of rocks that were collected from our first dredge site.

When you work at a school, you get used to drills. Fire, severe weather, and intruder drills help to ensure that students and teachers will know what to do in the event of a real emergency.  The Coast Guard has drills each Friday to ensure the Healy will be ready to handle any emergency.  I have observed the crew practicing what to do in the event of fire, flooding, collision with another ship and various other scenarios. Last Friday, I was lucky enough to watch the crew in action.

The crew is suiting up for a Friday drill. Each member of the crew is trained to do many different jobs in case of an emergency.

The crew is suiting up for a Friday drill. Each member of the crew is trained to do many different jobs in case of an emergency.

Emergency medical situations are often a part of the training.  Friday’s drill included this mock-amputation of a crewmembers hand.  (Note the fake rubber hand)

Emergency medical situations are often a part of the training. Friday’s drill included this mock-amputation of a crewmembers hand. (Note the fake rubber hand)

If a compartment is flooded; the crew needs to do their best to contain the water.  This hatch is braced with wood and mechanical shoring.

If a compartment is flooded; the crew needs to do their best to contain the water. This hatch is braced with wood and mechanical shoring.

Christine Hedge, September 6, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Christine Hedge
Onboard USCGC Healy
August 7 – September 16, 2009 

Mission: U.S.-Canada 2009 Arctic Seafloor Continental Shelf Survey
Location: Beaufort Sea, north of the arctic circle
Date: September 6, 2009

Weather Data from the Bridge  
Latitude: 760 51’N
Longitude: 1380 54’W
Temperature: 300F

Rachel is showing me how the data we collect is processed.

Rachel is showing me how the data we collect is processed.

Science Party Profile—Rachel Soraruf: Working For NOAA 

Are you the kind of kid who buys rocks when you visit a museum gift shop?  When you walk down the beach – is your head down searching for shells and stones?  If so, maybe you should consider studying geology in college.  Rachel Soraruf was one of those kids and now she works for NOAA. This year, NOAA sent her to the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center (CCOM/JHC) at the University of New Hampshire.   (That’s a mouthful!!)  At CCOM, she is a graduate student learning about the latest technologies in ocean mapping.

Rachel decided to major in Geology during her sophomore year at Mt. Holyoke College. According to Rachel, geology is a fun major because you get to “Do What You Learn”. In addition, there are lots of field trips that complement your lab and classroom work. Her next educational move was to earn a Masters Degree in Geosciences from the University of Massachusetts. By studying the geochemistry of a stalagmite for her thesis (final project) – Rachel was able to look back 5,000 years and determine climate changes that occurred over the centuries.

FOR MY STUDENTS: Have you ever gone caving?  Did you know stalagmites could reveal climate history? 

Ten-foot swells caused the ice floes to roll and bump. September 6th was the roughest ride of this trip.

Ten-foot swells caused the ice floes to roll and bump. September 6th was the roughest ride of this trip.

Rachel has always liked the idea of “science with a purpose” – and NOAA offers her just that.  Her job is to plan the field seasons for NOAA vessels as they update the Hydrographic Charts of the waters around the United States.  People’s lives depend on these charts.  In order to safely navigate an oil tanker, cruise ship or fishing vessel  – up to date charts are essential.  The work she does makes a difference.  It truly is science with a purpose.

Personal Log 

Today we are in an area with thin ice and 10-12 foot swells.  It is an amazing sight to see the ice on the surface of the Arctic Ocean rolling with the swells.  The Captain reminded us to tie down our possessions so that cameras and laptops wouldn’t go flying off our desks.  It was good advice! I had not closed my file cabinet drawers completely and they were opening and closing as the ship rolled with the swells. I brought seasickness patches and pressure point wristbands to help me in case of seasickness and used them both today.

Christine Hedge, September 5, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Christine Hedge
Onboard USCGC Healy
August 7 – September 16, 2009 

Mission: U.S.-Canada 2009 Arctic Seafloor Continental Shelf Survey
Location: Beaufort Sea, north of the arctic circle
Date: September 5, 2009

Weather Data from the Bridge  
Latitude: 770 13’N
Longitude: 1370 41’W
Temperature: 290F

Science and Technology Log 

The two icebreakers are tying up side-by-side so that we can visit each other.

The two icebreakers are tying up side-by-side so that we can visit each other.

More Ways to Use Sound to See Beneath the Sea Floor 

Today we “rafted” with the Louis (the ships tied together side by side). I have been eager to see the science instruments that the Canadian ship is carrying. Once the ships were securely tied together we could just walk back and forth between them and tour the Canadian vessel.

The Healy has been breaking ice so that the Louis can have an easier time collecting data using seismic reflection profiling.  The goal is for the Canadian scientists to determine how deep the sediments are in this part of the Arctic Basin.  The sound waves their instrument sends out can penetrate about 1500 meters below the seafloor. Using sound they can “see” inside the earth – amazing!

FOR MY STUDENTS:  Remember your Latin/Greek word parts?  Look up “seism”. 

Seismic sled being hauled out of the water on the Louis. (Photo courtesy of Ethan Roth)

Seismic sled being hauled out of the water on the Louis. (Photo courtesy of Ethan Roth)

Here is how it works. The Louis steams forward at a low speed following in the path that the Healy has created through the ice. The Louis tows behind a weighted sled with 3 airguns suspended from the bottom.  This sinks about 10 meters below the water. Attached to the sled is a long tube filled with hydrophones (underwater microphones) called a streamer.  This streamer is about 400 meters long and stretches out behind the ship. It is best for the ship to move continuously so that the streamer will not sink or float to the surface.

FOR MY STUDENTS: Try to picture a 400-meter long “tail” on a ship. That is longer than 4 football fields. 

The airguns create a huge air bubble in the water.  When it collapses, it creates a sound pulse.  Two of the guns use a low frequency, which will penetrate deep into the sea floor but will create a low-resolution image.  The other gun uses a high frequency, which does not penetrate as deep but gives a high-resolution image.  The 16 sound recorders in the streamer record the echo created by these sounds reflecting from the sediment layers below the sea floor. The final product this instrument creates is an image of a cross section through the Earth. Scientists can look at these by observing this geologic history, the scientists are looking back in time. You can imagine that ice can cause lots of problems when a ship is towing a 400-meter long streamer behind it.  This is why we are working on collecting this data together.  One ship breaks, the other collects the seismic reflection data.

Steamer on deck of Louis. The blue steamer is out of the water and lying on deck when we visit the Louis.

Steamer on deck of Louis. The blue steamer is out of the water and lying on deck when we visit the Louis.

Personal Log 

The crew has been looking forward to the two ships tying up together for the entire cruise.  Everyone is curious about the other ship. What are the staterooms like?  What is the food like? How is their bridge different from our bridge? And of course there is shopping!! Both of the ship stores had their best Louis and Healy gear ready for the eager shoppers.

After learning about the science instruments aboard the Louis, it was nice to finally see the seismic sled, streamers, and the computer nerve center where the seismic images are received. The ships are pretty different in their appearance.  The Louis is an older vessel and has wooden handrails, panels cover the wires in the ceiling, and there are some larger windows with actual curtains.  The Healy was built to be a science research icebreaker and so has many large spaces for science and looks generally more industrial. The Louis was an icebreaker first and some of their science spaces have been added later and are less spacious.

The bubble created by the airguns on the Louis. (Photo Courtesy Pat Kelley USCG)

The bubble created by the airguns on the Louis. (Photo Courtesy
Pat Kelley USCG)

Shopping and tours were fun but the most anticipated events of the day were the evening meal, contests and games.  The ship’s officers exchanged gifts in a formal presentation and then we had an amazing buffet together.  Personnel from both ships enjoyed scallops, halibut, salmon, shrimp, lobster, pork, beef, cheese, salads, and desserts. This was an exceptional meal and a great social event.  The idea of having Teachers at Sea (TAS) was a new one for most Canadians I spoke with and as we talked they seemed to think this TAS would be a great idea to stimulate interest in young Canadians about maritime careers.  The evening concluded with some friendly competitions between the crews and the science parties.  This entire event was a lot of work for the Coast Guard crews.  The science party really appreciates all the hours they put into planning this event!

Behind the wheel on the bridge of the Louis S. St. Laurent.

Behind the wheel on the bridge of the Louis S. St. Laurent.

Christine Hedge, September 4, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Christine Hedge
Onboard USCGC Healy
August 7 – September 16, 2009 

Mission: U.S.-Canada 2009 Arctic Seafloor Continental Shelf Survey
Location: Beaufort Sea, north of the arctic circle
Date: September 4, 2009

Sometimes kittiwakes follow the ship.  I caught this one as it passed by the Healy.

Sometimes kittiwakes follow the ship. I caught this one as it passed by the Healy.

Weather Data from the Bridge  
Latitude: 780 12’N
Longitude: 1360 33’W
Temperature: 290F

Science and Technology Log 

Part of NOAA’s mission is to conserve and manage marine resources. To this end, the Healy has a Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) on board. Our MMO is Justin Pudenz. He collects data on any interactions we might have with marine mammals during our voyage.  Both the Louis and the Healy have observers on board.

Using a field guide to identify the Yellow Wagtail

Using a field guide to identify the Yellow Wagtail

Justin spends his time on the bridge of the Healy, binoculars in hand, notebook near by, always on the lookout for life on the ice or in the air. He lives in southern Minnesota when he is not on a ship. Justin tries to spend 6 months at sea and 6 months at home. He has been a fisheries or marine mammal observer since 2001. The company he works for is MRAG Americas.  NOAA hires observers from this company when they are needed. While on board the Healy, Justin spends hours each day watching for marine mammals and recording his observations.  The data he collects goes back to NOAA.

Justin has traveled to many bodies of water as an observer including the Pacific near Hawaii and the Bering Sea for fisheries observation.  His next mission will be on a crabbing vessel in mid-October. If you can picture the television show “DEADLIEST CATCH” – that is the type of vessel he will sail on. On a fisheries trip Justin will collect data on the species of fish caught, their sex, weight, length and other information NOAA needs, to understand the health of ocean ecosystems.  Justin grew up enjoying the outdoors and always knew a desk job was not for him.  He has a degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Science and has been lucky enough to find a job that gets him outdoors and is ever changing. 

A yellow wagtail has been seen from the ship in the past few days.  I wonder what this bird is doing so far out to sea - ideas?

A yellow wagtail has been seen from the ship in the past few days. I wonder what this bird is doing so far out to sea – ideas?

FOR MY STUDENTS: How are your observation skills?  Would a job at sea be a good match for you? 

I asked Justin what he has seen from the Healy. Our “trip list” follows. The farther away from land we get, the fewer species of birds we see. Most of these bird species were spotted before we hit the heavy ice.

The Marine Mammal Observer has seen these birds since we departed Barrow, AK: Pacific loon, Northern fulmar, red phalarope, long-tailed jaeger, Ross’ gull, Arctic tern, spectacled eider, pelagic cormorant, parasitic jaeger, glaucous gull, black-legged kittiwake, yellow wagtail.

The Marine Mammal Observer has seen these mammals since we departed Barrow, AK: bearded seal, ringed seal, Arctic fox, polar bear.

Personal Log

Many people have asked about the living spaces inside this ship.  It is an amazing vessel when you think about all that happens here.  The Healy is truly a floating city with 120 people on board.  Any function that your town does – this ship needs to do.  A city needs to clean water, sewage treatment, trash pick up, recycling, electrical power, food, shelter, and recreation.  All of these are provided for on the Healy. I have attached a few pictures of life on the Healy below.

Our bunk beds have curtains to keep out the 24-We each have our own desk and filing cabinet and hour sun. Note the stuffed polar bear. This was most important a porthole window! Notice the color a gift from Mrs. Campbell and Mrs. Taylor. outside – we are getting a few hours of twilight in the early morning hours.

Our bunk beds have curtains to keep out the 24-We each have our own desk and filing cabinet and hour sun. Note the stuffed polar bear. This was most important a porthole window! Notice the color a gift from Mrs. Campbell and Mrs. Taylor. outside – we are getting a few hours of twilight in the early morning hours.

This is the place where the science party relaxes,  plays cards, and watches movies.

This is the place where the science party relaxes, plays cards, and watches movies.

We each have our own desk and filing cabinet and most important a porthole window! Notice the color outside – we are getting a few hours of twilight in the early morning hours.

We each have our own desk and filing cabinet and most important a porthole window! Notice the color outside – we are getting a few hours of twilight in the early morning hours.

 The main library has computers for the crew to email friends and family and plenty of reading material.

The main library has computers for the crew to email friends and family and plenty of reading material.

Christine Hedge, September 3, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Christine Hedge
Onboard USCGC Healy
August 7 – September 16, 2009 

Mission: U.S.-Canada 2009 Arctic Seafloor Continental Shelf Survey
Location: Beaufort Sea, north of the arctic circle
Date: September 3, 2009

Weather Data from the Bridge   
Latitude: 780 34’N
Longitude: 1360 59’W
Temperature: 290F

Science and Technology Log 

Ethan Roth shows me the inner workings of a sonobuoy.

Ethan Roth shows me the inner workings of a sonobuoy.

Low-Impact Exploring 

Some of my previous logs have talked about sound in the Arctic Ocean.  Sounds made by seals, whales, ice cracking and ridges forming, bubbles popping, wind, waves – these are the normal or ambient noises that have always occurred. As governments, scientists, and corporations explore the Arctic their presence will have an impact. Ships breaking ice and the seismic instruments they use to explore, add noise to the environment.  We call this man-made noise, anthropogenic noise.  Will these additional sounds impact the organisms that live here? Can we explore in a way that minimizes our impact on the environment?  The marine wildlife of the Arctic has evolved in an ocean covered by ice. But the ice is changing and the human presence is increasing.

Studies of other oceans have shown that more ship traffic means more background noise. In most regions of the Pacific Ocean the background noise has increased 3 decibels every 10 years since the 1960’s. The scientists on the Healy and the Louis are interested in minimizing their impact as they explore the Arctic Ocean.

Do No Harm – Step 1 Collect Data 

I am tossing the sonobuoy off the fantail of the Healy.

I am tossing the sonobuoy off the fantail of the Healy.

One of the ways we are listening to the noise that our own instruments make is with sonobuoys. These are devices that help us listen to how sound propagates through the ocean.  While the Louis is using airguns to collect seismic data – scientists on the Healy are throwing sonobuoys into the ocean to listen to the sound waves created by the airguns. Knowing how the sound waves from airguns travel through the water will help us to understand their impact on the environment. Sonobuoys are self-contained floating units. They consist of a salt-water battery that activates when it hits the water, a bag that inflates with CO2 on impact, a 400-foot cable with an amplifier and hydrophone (underwater microphone).

The data acquired through the sonobuoy are relayed to the ship via radio link. A receiving antenna had to be placed high up on the Louis in order to collect this data. Like many of the devices we are using to collect information, the sonobuoys are single use instruments and we do not pick them up after their batteries run out. After 8 hours of data collection, the float bag burns and the instrument sinks to the bottom. They are known as self-scuttling (self-destructing) instruments. The more we know about the sounds we make and how these sounds are interacting with the animals that call the Arctic home, the better we will be at low impact exploring.

Personal Log 

The float inflates as the sonobuoy floats away.

The float inflates as the sonobuoy floats away.

I’ve had lots of questions from students about the weather. For most of our trip, the air temperature has been around 270F and the visibility has been poor. A log fog has prevented us from seeing the horizon. We have also had quite a few days with snow and freezing rain.  Some of our snow flurries have coated the decks with enough snow to make a few snowballs and prompted the crew to get out the salt to melt the slippery spots. 

This past week we had some seriously cold days.  On September 1st, the air temperature was 160F with a wind chill of -250F. These cold days brought blue skies, sparkling snow, and beautiful crystals forming on the handrails, ropes and many other surfaces on the deck.

Ice crystals on a valve

Ice crystals on a valve

FOR MY STUDENTS: Why do you think it is foggier on warmer days? 

As we travel south we are starting to get some sunsets and sunrises.  There are a few hours of twilight between the times that the sun dips below the horizon – but no true night sky.  One of the things I miss the most is seeing stars.  I look forward to seeing the Indiana night sky in a few weeks. But until then, the gorgeous sun over the Arctic will have to do.

As the seasons change and we travel south, the sun gets lower in the sky

Arctic snowball

Arctic snowball

Christine Hedge, September 1, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Christine Hedge
Onboard USCGC Healy
August 7 – September 16, 2009 

Mission: U.S.-Canada 2009 Arctic Seafloor Continental Shelf Survey
Location: Beaufort Sea, north of the arctic circle
Date: September 1, 2009

The path of the Healy through the ice with the Louis S. St. Laurent from Canada following (See it way in the distance?)

The path of the Healy through the ice with the Louis S. St. Laurent from Canada following (See it way in the distance?)

Weather Data from the Bridge 
Latitude: 800 26’N
Longitude: 1370 16’W
Temperature: 20

Science and Technology Log 

Why Are Two Icebreakers Traveling Together? 

All of the countries that have a coastline on the Arctic Ocean are trying to collect data to determine where their extended continental shelf (ECS) ends. One of the types of data needed is called seismic data.  Collecting this information involves towing a long (a kilometer or more) streamer behind the ship. It is difficult to do this well in ice-covered water.  So, the Canadians and the Americans are collecting data together. One icebreaker leads and breaks a path for the second following with the seismic streamer being towed behind.  For most of our trip together, the Healy has broken ice for the Louis S. St. Laurent. We are both collecting data – just different types with different instruments.

FOR MY STUDENTS: Can you name all the countries that have coastlines on the Arctic Ocean? Of which country is Greenland part? 

Why Do We Care Where Our Extended Continental Shelf Is? 

Close-up of the Louis S. St. Laurent collecting data behind the Healy

Close-up of the Louis S. St. Laurent collecting data behind the Healy

The oceans and ocean floors are rich with natural resources.  Some countries obtain much of their wealth from mining the oceans, drilling for oil or gas in the oceans, or from fish or shellfish obtained from the oceans.  Currently, a nation has the right to explore for and harvest all resources in the water and everything on or below the seafloor for 200 nautical miles beyond its shoreline. One nation can allow other nations to use its waters or charge oil companies for the right to drill in its seafloor and thus make money. But what if we could use resources beyond that 200-mile limit? That would add to a country’s wealth. If a country can show with scientific data that the continental shelf extends beyond those 200 miles they can extend their rights over:

 

1) The non-living resources of the seabed and subsoil (minerals, oil, gas)

2) The living resources that are attached to the seabed (clams, corals, scallops ) An extended continental shelf means a nation has rights to more natural resources.

FOR MY STUDENTS: Look at a map of the oceans. Can you find the continental shelf marked on the Atlantic coast of the United States? What types of resources can you think of that we get from the ocean and the seafloor? 

Where Exactly Is the Healy Going? 

The red line shows where the Healy has been. The yellow waypoints show where we might be after September 1, 2009.

The red line shows where the Healy has been. The yellow waypoints show where we might be after September 1, 2009.

Our trail looks random to the untrained eye but it does have a purpose.  We have been helping the Louis get good measurements of the thickness of the sediments on the seafloor.  You see there are certain features of the seafloor that help a nation identify its ECS.  One is related to depth. Another is related to the thickness of the underlying sediments.  Another is related to the place where the continental slope ends (the foot of the slope).  We have been following a path that takes us to the 2500-meter contour (where the ocean is 2500 meters deep) and following a path to measure the thickness of the sediment in the Canada Basin.  I was surprised to think that there was thick sediment on the seafloor in this area.  But, the Arctic is a unique ocean because continents surround it. It is more like a bowl surrounded by land.  As rivers have flowed into the Arctic over millions of years – layers and layers of sediment have covered the Canadian Basin.

FOR MY STUDENTS: Look at your maps again.  Find rivers, bays, fjords, that flow into the Arctic Ocean.  For More Information About The Extended Continental Shelf

Personal Log 

Erin Clark, Canadian Ice Services Specialist has been working with us on the Healy.

Erin Clark, Canadian Ice Services Specialist has been working with us on the Healy.

The U.S and Canada have been sharing personnel as well as sharing a science mission.  Coast Guard personnel and science party personnel have been traveling between the two ships via helicopter to share their expertise.  As the Canadian visitors come through our science lab and eat meals with us – we have had plenty of time to discuss science and everyday life. There has also been a longer-term exchange of personnel.  A scientist from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been sailing on the Louis since they left Kugluktuk, Northwest Territories. Dr. Deborah Hutchinson is on the Louis to provide USGS input to scientific decisions made during the cruise.

My roommate, Erin Clark, is a Canadian Ice Services Specialist.  Erin hails from Toronto, Ontario and is staying on the Healy to exchange expertise with the American ice analysts.  It has been interesting getting to know Erin and hearing the story of her career path.  She was one of those kids in school who just couldn’t sit still in a structured classroom environment.  Erin is a visual learner – and often had a hard time proving to her professors that she understood the material as she worked on her degree in Geography.  Where other students used multi-step equations, Erin used diagrams and often didn’t “show her work”.  NOTE TO STUDENTS: Do you know how you learn best?  What is your learning style?

Matthew Vaughan a Canadian geology student from Dalhousie University shows us pictures of the seismic gear on the Louis

Matthew Vaughan a Canadian geology student from Dalhousie University shows us pictures of the seismic gear on the Louis

Erin was lucky enough to have instructors that worked with her and now she is one of about 20 Marine Services Field Ice Observers in Canada. Luckily, she has found a career that offers lots of opportunities to move around. Some of her time is spent analyzing satellite photos of ice on a computer screen, some ice observing from a ship, and some ice observing on helicopter reconnaissance trips.  She communicates what she observes about ice conditions to ships; helping them to navigate safely in ice-covered waters.

FOR MY STUDENTS: What kind of skills do you think an Ice Specialist would need to succeed in their career? 

Christine Hedge, August 29, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Christine Hedge
Onboard USCGC Healy
August 7 – September 16, 2009 

Mission: U.S.-Canada 2009 Arctic Seafloor Continental Shelf Survey
Location: Beaufort Sea, north of the arctic circle
Date: August 29, 2009

Science Party Profile – George Neakok 

George Neakok (left) and Justin Pudenz watch for marine mammals from the bridge of the Healy.

George Neakok (left) and Justin Pudenz watch for marine mammals from the bridge of the Healy.

George Neakok is on board the Healy as our Community Observer from the North Slope Borough. A borough is like a county government.  Except, since Alaska is so huge, the North Slope Borough is roughly the size of the state of Minnesota.  George acts as the eyes of the Inupiat (native people of the North Slope) community while on board the Healy. The Inupiat people are subsistence hunters. They live off the animals and plants of the Arctic and have a real stake in how other people are using the same lands and waters they depend on for survival. George spends hours on the bridge each day looking for life outside the Healy and noting any encounters the ship has with wildlife in general and marine mammals in particular. He is a resident of Barrow, Alaska (one of the 7 villages in the Borough) and has acted as an observer for 2 years traveling on 5 different expeditions. George says he was selected for the Community Observer job because he is a good hunter and has good eyes.  He is too humble.  His life experience has endowed him with fascinating knowledge about the ice, animals, and the Arctic world in general.  George can see a polar bear a kilometer away and know how old it is, how healthy, and what sex.

I asked George to share a little about his life and the kinds of changes he has observed in the Arctic. He has always lived in Barrow except for 2 years when he went away to Kenai Peninsula College to study Petroleum Technology. His dad died while he was away and so he returned home to help his mother.  He has worked in the natural gas fields near Barrow and expects to work in the new field southwest of Barrow in the future.  George has 7 children ranging in age from 20 years to 9 months.  His youngest daughter is adopted, which he says is very common in his culture. There are no orphans.  If a child needs a home, another family will take that child in.  Although his children are being raised in a world with cell phones and snowmobiles – they are still learning to live the way their ancestors have always lived.

Erosion on the coast of Barrow, Alaska is an ever increasing problem.

Erosion on the coast of Barrow, Alaska is an ever increasing problem.

George and his community are a part of  both an ancient and a modern world.  With each season comes another type of food to hunt or collect. The Neakok family hunts caribou, bowhead whale, seals, walrus, beluga, and geese each in its’ own season.  They fish in fresh water and in the Chukchi Sea. They collect berries, roots, greens and eggs, storing them in seal oil to preserve them until they are needed.  Food is stored in ice cellars.  These are underground rooms that can keep food frozen all year round. The animals that are hunted are used for more than just food.  The Inupiat make boats from seal or walrus skin.  In Inupiat culture, the blubber, oil, tusks, baleen and meat are all useful in some way.  If one community has a very successful hunt, they share with their neighbors.  If a community has a bad hunt, they know that other villages will help them out.  Villages come together to meet, celebrate, trade and share what they have caught.  George says this is just the way it is.  People take care of their neighbors.

FOR MY STUDENTS: What can we learn from the people of the North Slope about community? 

A polar bear, spotted by George, travels over thin ice by spreading out his body weight.  (Photo courtesy of Pat Kelley USCG)

A polar bear travels over thin ice by spreading out his body weight. (Photo courtesy of Pat Kelley)

George has witnessed much change in his life.  He notes that the seasons are coming earlier and staying later. The shore ice used to start forming in late August but lately it has been forming in late September or early October. When there is less ice close to land, there are fewer animals to hunt.  Whaling off the ice is getting more and more dangerous. The ice is more “rotten” and camping on the ice during the hunt can be treacherous. In recent years, more and more hunters have lost their equipment when the ice gave way.

Erosion of the coastline is another recent problem.  Without ice to protect the shoreline the wave action eats away at the permafrost causing coastlines to collapse.  George has seen a coastal hillside where he used to sled – crumble into the ocean. Entire villages have been moved farther inland as the coastal erosion eats away at the land. George is hopeful that although the Arctic is changing fast, the Inupiat people and culture will handle these changes and continue to live and thrive on the North Slope of Alaska.