UAF research vessel Sikuliaq visits Nome
The research vessel Sikuliaq made port in Nome Sunday evening after a cruise, which began in Seward on May 31. The scientists on board have been doing research in the Bering Strait area and the southern Chukchi Sea. As part of the Strait Science lecture series at UAF’s Northwest Campus, senior scientist Seth Danielson gave a talk on the vessel’s voyage and the nature of its mission.
“This project is part of a multi-year program that’s funded primarily by the North Pacific Research Board,” said Danielson, the chief scientist aboard the vessel. “It’s called the Arctic Integrated Ecosystem Research Program. Our particular project within this program is called the Arctic Shelf Growth, Advection, Respiration and Deposition, Rate Measurement Project. ASGARD for short. In Norse mythology ASGARD is the homeland of the gods and it’s the most productive of all those homelands.”
The continental shelf in the Bering Strait region is remarkable in that it gets the biggest flux of nutrients of any inner continental shelf anywhere. “There’s a massive stream of nutrients that’s coming up from the Gulf of Anadyr, we call it Anadyr water, and it flows north into the Arctic Ocean through the Bering Strait closing the global freshwater balance,” said Danielson. Excess fresh water from the North Pacific goes through the Bering Strait and makes its way to the North Atlantic, where the ocean is saltier.
“So this is one way the Bering Strait region is very special,” said Danielson. “It provides a lot of critical climate functions because of that role as the maintainer of fresh water coming north back into the Arctic Ocean.”
“We had a nearly identical cruise last year,” said Danielson. “This is the second and final field season for this particular project. We have a set of moorings out in the water which we’ll collect next year.” A mooring is an instrument or set of instruments which is attached to an anchor, put it into the water, and it records data or collects samples throughout the course of the year. “So we’re only here for a couple weeks one time during the year and the mooring can be our eyes and our ears when we’re not out there,” said Danielson.
The ASGARD project is only one of a few components of the Arctic Integrated Ecosystem Research Program, Arctic IERT for short. Another component is led by a team primarily from NOAA. This brings an additional couple dozen IT’s and researchers and graduate students into the mix.
The third leg of the program is the Chukchi Coastal Communities Understanding of Responses to Environmental Change.
This is the coastal communities team. Their focus is directly targeted toward how the ecosystem here is sustaining the food resources that the coastal communities are using. The researchers try to come up with some answers to the questions that the communities are asking and some hypothesis that the locals have formed in conjunctions with discussions with scientists. “We have coastal communities members showing up at our annual principal investigators’ meeting every spring in Anchorage,” said Danielson.
“Amongst the few days of conversation we’re able to jack everybody up questions and insights from our different perspectives of this system. The coastal communities team is about a dozen people picked from a lot of the communities in the Bering Strait region as well as slightly farther north.”
This whole part of the program is the Arctic IERP and it’s primarily funded by the North Pacific Research Board.
“The fundamental thing we focus on in the program is the question ‘How will reductions in sea ice and the associated environmental changes influence the flow of energy through Northern Bering and Chukchi Sea ecosystems?’ There’s been tons of press about how the sea ice in Northern latitudes has changed since we’ve had satellites above monitoring this in the late 1970s. One way to look at it is the total aerial extent and that’s what usually gets reported in the popular press.”
“Another way to look at the reductions in sea ice is to look at particular times of year,” said Danielson. “If you look at the transition time between full ice cover and open water and you were to consider the Northern Bering and Chukchi Seas together. How long does it take to go from winter to summer? How long is the spring transition? It turns out that compared to the late 1970s the ice goes away thirty days faster than it used to. And ice comes back forty days faster than it used to. So the transition seasons have been compressed in time. We’re interested in how this affects the ecosystem. If you’re an ice algae that grows when the sun comes back in the springtime and if you have to do all your business in the course of ninety or one hundred days, and all of a sudden the amount of time that you have to do your thing is shortened by a month, how does that impact you has a community or you as your role in the greater ecosystem?”
“We came up with a number of hypothesis that are important for redistributing energy in the system,” he said. “Carbon is our currency for energy. How is the carbon produced, how is it consumed, and in particular we’re focused on the rate. ‘How fast is everything happening?’ We think that it’s the rate measurement and our understanding of the system linkages that will help us better anticipate what the system will look like ten or twenty years from now given the understanding of how fast carbon is being turned over,” said Danielson. “So, for our project, the ASGARD Project, we’re out here to focus on the spring season, the environmental conditions, the consequences, and what is actually going on in the water column out there.”
Danielson then showed slides, which show the types of sampling that the scientists are doing aboard the Sikuliaq. “There are two different types of sampling that we do onboard,” he explained. “One of them is more a survey where we’re asking who is there and in what concentrations and abundances. What is the community makeup of the zooplankton, of the phytoplankton, who are the fishes that are there at any given time. The second component are the rate study measurements where we’re trying to understand how fast things are happening.”
The Nugget asked how they manage to maintain all the complicated systems throughout the voyage. “You don’t get a whole lot of sleep,” he answered. “But you also have a talented crew.”
The Sikuliaq has its own website with a wealth of information. The vessel is 261 feet in length and can handle ice up to two and a half feet thick. Sikuliaq is owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. A need for such a vessel was first expressed by marine scientists in 1973. Development lasted 36 years and construction began at a shipyard in Wisconsin in 2009.
“Sikuliaq allows researchers to collect sediment samples directly from the seafloor, host remotely operated vehicles, use a flexible suite of winches to raise and lower scientific equipment, and conduct surveys throughout the water column and sea bottom using an extensive set of research instrumentation,” reads the website. “The vessel design strives to have the lowest possible environmental impact, including a low underwater radiated noise signature for marine mammal and fisheries work. Sikuliaq has accommodations for up to 26 scientists and students at a time, including those with disabilities.”