The U.S. Coast Guard flew above the Arctic Circle last week, dropping sensors to take air and water measurements during an Arctic Domain Awareness flight. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Washington's Polar Science Center dropped the test gear from an Air Station Kodiak HC-130 Hercules airplane, a long-range search-and-rescue aircraft also used in combat zones.
Awareness flights occur from April until as late as November.
On this mission, an Alaska natural resource technician gathered air samples for NOAA's global monitoring division. The samples were collected over Deadhorse, a town consisting mainly of facilities for Prudhoe Bay oil field workers, and a Coast Guard icebreaker, said Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Mooers.
University scientists dropped three types of sensors. Two different types are dropped in open water. Then a probe sinks 1,000 meters, taking water samples and transmitting the data back to the plane, Mooers said.
"It's interesting to see (the scientists) throw the sensors out the airplane and turning around seeing the computers, and the data starts to populate the screens," she said.
The Hercules overflew the guard's icebreaker Polar Star on the trip; the crew caught a glimpse of the vessel near the ice edge in the Chukchi Sea near Wainwright, a small Arctic village of Inupiat Eskimos.
Each Arctic Awareness mission is unique, the guard says. Aircraft commanders are expected to optimize patrol time to accomplish multiple tasks, like patrolling the state's coast above the Arctic Circle, documenting coastal erosion and surveying sea ice.
The flights also allows air crews to become familiar with operations around some of the nation's northern-most locales. Over the next five to 10 years, the guard expects to extend its role in the region, based on the U.S.'s emerging Arctic policy, changes that have Alaskans worried and hopeful.
More than 2,000 Coast Guard personnel in Alaska are responsible for about 33,000 miles of coastline and nearly one million square miles of water.
Awareness flights are great partnership opportunities, Mooers said. "We've been told it's useful because the scientists can drop the sensors earlier in the year. They're getting a larger timeframe, a larger baseline of data. That helps them develop models and predictions for how the ice is going to look at the end of the season or in future seasons."
Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com