Education Around Earth – Under the Sea at the Top of the World

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A community celebration of a successful spring subsistence harvest of bowhead whales includes a traditional blanket toss using the boat skins from the successful crew as the blanket. (Spring 2006; photo by Susan Rutland)

A community celebration of a successful spring subsistence harvest of bowhead whales includes a traditional blanket toss using the boat skins from the successful crew as the blanket. (Spring 2006; photo by Susan Rutland)

by Glenn W. Sheehan

Executive Director, BASC

Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC), &

At Point Barrow, Alaska, the Chukchi Sea meets the Beaufort Sea. Each year after the ocean surface freezes, the landfast ice provides a fairly stable platform for research activities and subsistence hunting. (Landfast ice is attached to the shore, beached, or frozen to the bottom of shallow waters. It’s also known as shorefast ice). It’s lucky for the scientists that the Native Inupiat Eskimo people of Barrow spend so much time on the sea ice and understand it so well. Working together, the researchers collect their data and the local guides and polar bear guards keep them safe. The bear guards are BASC staff who watch for the bears, which include polar bears and, more recently, brown bears.

This spring two groups of researchers are testing autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Cut a hole through the ice, cut another hole, use one for entry and one for removal. Simple enough. Then there’s the young polar bear that watches the group throughout the day. The bear guard watches the polar bear. That way, the scientists have freedom to watch their instruments and they know if the stalking gets too serious the guard will alert them and they can temporarily leave the area.

Bears usually give lots of warning, at least if you know the signs and know the bears. Moving ice can be less forgiving. The marine oriented subsistence diet of the Inupiat keeps hunters on the ice for extended periods of time. With their own personal observations and the traditional knowledge that they’ve learned working with and talking with Elders, BASC’s guides can identify changes in wind, current and the ice that mean “We have to leave now!”

In a few minutes, the floating ice across the lead (open water) from the shorefast ice can pick up speed like a freight train and slam into the ice platform holding the researchers and their instruments. By then, the researchers need to be speeding back to the beach on their snowmachines, with or without their equipment.

Researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) experienced this at their newly erected camp. They went ashore to rest, and their camp fell victim to an ice override. Lewis Brower, BASC Station Manager and a whaling captain, noticed the changing conditions from shore and got to the camp in time to rescue the science gear, except for the brand new tent, which was ripped apart in the jumble. The new tent lasted a total of two hours on the Chukchi Sea ice.

The frost flower research project February 2010 cut through the sea ice to expose water. Frost flowers grow from water vapor derived from open water. (Photo by Nok Acker)

The frost flower research project February 2010 cut through the sea ice to expose water. Frost flowers grow from water vapor derived from open water. (Photo by Nok Acker)

Scientists look for ways to extend their observations into times when they are not personally in the field. The Barrow Cabled Seafloor Observatory, if it is constructed, will provide 24/7 instrumental observations from Barrow to Prudhoe Bay. Several planning meetings have been funded and taken place, and proposals for preliminary data collection of bathymetry and other pre-construction information has been submitted but not yet funded. So, it’s still in the future, but today, scientists have found they can ask coastal residents to make regular observations for extended periods of time. In some cases, these part time BASC employees gather data through personal observation, in other cases they maintain instruments for the researchers. BASC is working with schools in several villages to extend these collaborations from the community into the classroom.

Offshore oil and gas development seems all but inevitable in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s North Slope. Looking to the future, the next wave of development on the seafloor will address methane hydrates, a potential resource that represents more energy than all of the world’s known coal, oil and natural gas reserves combined.

Hydrates are found throughout the world under the seafloor, but in only a few places in a nearshore environment and only in the Arctic in a terrestrial environment. BASC, with university and other partners, aims to make Barrow an onshore test bed for methane hydrates research and then help utilize the new knowledge to continue research offshore.

In Barrow, with assistance from BASC, they also meet with the public and go into classrooms. With help from both the Marine Biological Laboratory and WHOI, almost every week there is a Schoolyard Saturday presentation by a scientist or other knowledgeable person. These presentations will be recorded and made available electronically starting sometime this year, and eventually they will be made available interactively in real time.

Annually, BASC assists research projects in employing about three dozen local students as field and laboratory assistants. This is in addition to as many or more adult community members who work with individual projects. Usually two or three schools from the continental U.S. (which is known as the ‰ÛÏlower 48‰Û in Alaska) send students to Barrow each year. Every few years researchers conduct an international sea ice field school in Barrow.

Polar Bear

Polar bears pose threat to researchers in the Arctic.

Just as researchers have found value in working with local knowledgeable people, over the years scientists have found that meeting with local people and organizations prior to writing their research proposals helps tighten their planning for successfully and efficiently harvesting data in the unforgiving arctic environment. In return, this early consultation often leads to incremental changes or additions to the research plans so that researchers are collecting some data that is highly important to residents of the American Arctic. For example, sea ice researchers want to know how and why there are sudden changes in the ice cover and subsistence hunters want to find out if there are early warning signs that satellites or instruments can pick up that might save lives and equipment.

BASC works with the Alaska Ocean Observing System as their Arctic Ocean coordinator, helping to find ways to use all the information available to help as many people and organizations as possible. In doing this, we also help identify critical information gaps and help justify new research to fill those gaps. For instance, tracking vessels in the Arctic Ocean can only be done if there are receiving antennae to pick up their tracking signals. BASC now hosts one for the Marine Exchange of Alaska.

Barrow has been called America’s Science City. The author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Arctic and Antarctic has said that helping scientists is part of Barrow people’s traditional knowledge. The Barrow Arctic Science Consortium is a community based nonprofit organization that brings community members and scientists together in ways that are profitable for both.

For more information about the research being done at BASC, please visit the following sites:

Exploratorium Ice Stories

Barrow Sea Ice Radar

Interdisciplinary sea-ice research

Chukchi Sea open water surface currents project

Ocean-Atmosphere-Sea Ice-Snowpack