90 degrees North
Posted by PA3 Lauren Steenson, Friday, September 11, 2015
Two side-doors toward the back of the Coast Guard HC-130 airplane are open, causing a biting wind to swirl around the cabin of the plane.
Two aircrew members are perched near the doors waiting for their command.
“Standby, 30 seconds till drop,” said Lt. Hunter Atherton, the mission commander, over the headset.
The men inch toward either door with cylindrical tubes in their laps.
“15 seconds till drop,” they hear over the headset.
Two aircrew members hold the tubes over their heads, ready to launch them out the doors.
“Drop, drop, drop!”
Without hesitation, they heave the cylinders out of each door. Seconds later, parachutes deploy and allow the data-collecting probes to float down to the icy waters of the Arctic.
The probes will relay oceanic and atmospheric data back to polar scientists from the University of Washington, who were also aboard the Arctic Domain Awareness flight over the North Pole.
“We’re seeing how the ice retreats every summer, and seeing if we can figure out what the differences are, so we can better predict the ice movement in the future,” said Dr. James Morrison, the senior principal oceanographer for UW.
The scientists coordinate these flights with the Coast Guard as part of a National Science Foundation grant that sponsors the Seasonal Ice Zone Reconnaissance Surveys. The SIZRS program has been active since 2012, but the Coast Guard and scientific community have maintained a mutually-beneficial relationship for years previous to this program on ships as well as aircraft.
The scientific community cooperation and missions align with the Coast Guard’s Operation Arctic Shield by performing Coast Guard missions and activities in the Arctic through enhancing Arctic maritime domain awareness, broadening partnerships and improving preparedness, prevention and response capabilities.
“The Coast Guard flights are critical because, especially in the first part of the season, the HC-130s are really the only way to get out to the areas we are collecting data from,” said Morrison. “There is too much ice for the ships, but we can go out and drop these probes into the ocean and do the atmospheric measurements while covering a greater area to find ideal places for the drops.”
There were four types of scientific instruments that were dropped, explained Sarah Dewey, a UW graduate student. One probe measures the temperature and salinity of water at every depth down to about 3000 feet; one measures the flow of water at every depth; one is an atmospheric profiler dropped from an altitude of 10,000 feet that measures temperature, relative humidity, and wind speed and direction; and there is a 200 pound buoy which measures atmospheric activity at one meter above the ice.
“We normally have monthly surveys across the ice-edge where the ice melts and reforms every year rather than the North Pole where there is a semi-perminent ice pack,” said Dewey. “The data we are collecting ranges from open water to full ice cover. We are trying to measure the way the atmosphere changes over that ice cover because the change is more extensive than it has been in previous decades.”
Dewey said researching the changes is important in setting a baseline to be able to better predict ice and oceanic activities for the Fall time earlier in the year. The seasonal ice-zone change is new and more persistent in creating more open water in the Arctic. The open water presents an opportunity for increased naval operations, but at the same time increases the risk of maritime incidents.
Although the mission itself is one day of flying, this particular flight out of Barrow and over the North Pole had over a year of planning and coordination between the Kodiak-based aircrew and scientists.
“I had been painstakingly putting together a giant packet of information and briefings of data, options, profiles, coordination, groundwork and frequencies for our command,” said Lt. Dan DeAngelo, one of the two pilots flying the mission.
After gaining approval for the flight, DeAngelo had to take into consideration weather, logistics and mechanical issues months ahead of time. Even with meticulously planning every detail, the pilots and aircrew had to be vigilant in pre-flight checks and ready to adapt to last-minute changes.
“The premise of any mission we go on that is successful lays the grounds for whether or not we can replicate that in the future,” said DeAngelo. “The previous North Pole flight in 2007 laid the groundwork for this North Pole flight where we have better communication and navigation capabilities, and this flight will lay the groundwork for future flights.”