Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New buoy designed to gather information in changing Arctic


Arctic buoy presumed lost
Article published on Friday, October 15th, 2010
Mirror Writer
Two days after a Kodiak-based U.S. Coast Guard C-130 crew dropped a new type of weather buoy into the Arctic Ocean the buoy is still not communicating with satellites and is presumed lost.
Due to the enormous cost of operating in the Arctic, no effort will be made to recover the buoy, especially because it is not transmitting its location and would be difficult to find.
The buoy was designed to transmit information about temperature, location and atmospheric pressure for its three-year battery life. The buoy cost about $18,000.
But that is part of the price of doing business in the Arctic, said University of Washington researcher and mathematician Roger Andersen.
“I’m afraid a cost of ($18,000) seems very large, but the logistics costs of a capable vessel or aircraft conducting such search would be far more,” he wrote in an e-mail.
“The takeaway point is the data is extremely valuable, and data from unmanned data buoys is a bargain, easily worth losing a few buoys in a failed deployment, crushed in a pressure ridge or chewed by a bear.”
The problem with the buoy is not yet known.
Tuesday’s drop was the first test of a new model of buoy designed to float on the open ocean and survive the Arctic Ocean’s freeze-up.
Andersen said if he had to try again he would try dropping it from a lower elevation, although Tuesday’s drop was within the recommendations given by the buoy’s manufacturer.
It is also not clear what caused a malfunction of an identical buoy on the same mission that was not dropped because an explosive that separates the buoy from its parachute fired too early.
While the University of Washington works on figuring out what went wrong with both buoys, the program will continue working with the Coast Guard as its makes its biweekly Arctic Domain Awareness flights over the Arctic Circle.
Andersen has some more types of probes and buoys for recording Arctic Ocean data and plans to return to Kodiak in two weeks for the next Arctic Domain Awareness flight.
Wednesday’s story “C.G. drops buoy into Artic Ocean” quotes Andersen saying that the buoy that dropped into the ocean may have had a problem with its explosive cutter or its elevation. The problems involved two different buoys. The first one was not dropped after the explosive cutter malfunctioned. The second was dropped and is now lost.
A new buoy designed to collect information both in ice floes and open ocean is being air dropped today (Oct. 12, 2010) into the Arctic Ocean by a U.S. Coast Guard C-130. The Airborne eXpandable Ice Beacon, or AXIB, passed stringent air-drop certification by the Coast Guard earlier this year and this is its first air drop as a fully operational research tool.
"The buoys can provide crucial data for weather and ice forecasting used for tracking the direction and intensity of storms, some of which affect Alaska," says Roger Anderson, a senior mathematician with the UW's Applied Physics Laboratory who is overseeing the airdrop. "The data also will be used by scientists in climate models and to try to understand the changes occurring in the Arctic and around the globe."
The state of the Arctic is of concern because Arctic sea ice has retreated extensively in the summer for the past decade, with the last four summers setting records for how little ice cover remained at the end of the melt season, according to Ignatius Rigor, senior research scientist at the UW's Applied Physics Laboratory. With these retreats, warmer ocean and air temperatures have been recorded, especially north of Alaska.
The Arctic Ocean now has less ice for parts of the year so a buoy was needed that can collect data while floating in open water as much as -- or perhaps more than -- when embedded in ice. The current mainstay in arctic monitoring, for instance, is the ICEX buoy, in use since the 1980s, but designed to be air dropped onto thick ice and spend its life there.
The new Airborne eXpendable Ice Beacon buoys were developed as a partnership between the Polar Science Center at the UW's Applied Physics Laboratory, U.S. Coast Guard and National Ice Center. Prototypes deployed in the last two years led to the manufacture of this new buoy. It measures such things as air pressure and temperature, winds, upper ocean temperature, ice and snow temperatures and movement of the ice. Each buoy costs about $18,000.
The buoys will be part of the International Arctic Buoy Program currently collecting and sharing data from more than 100 buoys deployed by 30 institutions from 10 individual countries and the European Union. The program, which originated at the UW's Applied Physics Laboratory in 1979, is currently coordinated by Rigor.
Provided by University of Washington Physics Lab

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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

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