In the Arctic Ocean, first-year ice -- the thinner and flatter layer that freezes in the winter but melts each summer – is where much of the climate change action happens.
First-year ice is becoming more dominant in the Arctic ice mix as very old and thick ice becomes rare. Spring and summer sunlight penetrates the thinner ice, so more plankton blooms are proliferating below it. Its dynamic freeze-and-melt cycles are bringing changes to the chemistry of the ocean and the atmosphere above it. And, according to a long-term trend measured by satellite over nearly four decades, its annual melt is getting progressively bigger, affecting ice-dependent animals like polar bears and walruses and causing conditions that feed into an ever-warming spiral in the far north.
Now a new research vessel will bring scientists right to the edge and into the midst of that important thin ice. The ship has an appropriate name: Sikuliaq, an Inupiaq word meaning "young sea ice."
The new ship, owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks' School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, is the first ice-class vessel in the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System research fleet of about 20 ships. It is perfect for operating in what scientists call the "marginal ice zone," the all-important area for Arctic changes, said Michael Castellini, former dean of UAF's School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and now associate dean of UAF's graduate school.
"We need to get ships in there. Most ships run away from it," said Castellini, who was one of the people who shepherded the process that produced the $200 million Sikuliaq.
The 261-foot ship has spent time since its 2012 christening undergoing sea trials in the Great Lakes and elsewhere. After a long journey that included a Panama Canal passage, it arrived last month in Alaska waters. It stopped at Ketchikan and Juneau before reaching Seward, its official home port and the site of its formal commissioning. Castellini was one of the officials guiding tours of the ship on Friday.
With assorted laboratories, cranes, cables that can reach down to the ocean's depths, numerous acoustic systems, platforms extending high above the deck and other features, it can be used for a variety of studies, Castellini said. It has space for 26 scientists and 20 crew members and facilities for the study of biology, oceanography, chemistry, geology and atmospheric conditions. "It can do a little bit of everything," he said.
What the Sikuliaq cannot do is plow through thick ice. It is not an icebreaker like the strong, 420-foot Coast Guard cutter Healy, which can cut through ice several feet thick, has journeyed up to the North Pole and regularly carries about 50 scientists on yearly research cruises that venture high into the Arctic.
But the new vessel does have a knife-like hull design that can split first-year ice between two and three feet thick, along with propellers that can crush it and sides that are strong enough to bear its pressure.
What the Sikuliaq lacks in heft it makes up in nimbleness, said Dan Oliver, a former Healy captain who is now director of UAF's Seward Marine Center.
"It's extraordinarily maneuverable. That's really its strength," Oliver said.
The Sikuliaq has three pivot points, making turns easy, said Capt. Mike Hoshlyk. Its draft is shallow enough that it can dock in Nome, a feat that the deep-draft Healy cannot accomplish, Oliver said.
Even before it arrived in Alaska, the Sikuliaq was put to work. Much of those tasks were simply tests of the ship's systems. One of those tests -- an underwater mapping of the wrecked passenger ship Andrea Doria, which in 1956 sank to the bottom of the sea off New England -- is displayed on a computer screen in the Sikuliaq's communications room.
There was some new research conducted on the way to Alaska as well, Castellini said.
After passing through the Panama Canal and hitting the Pacific Ocean, the Sikuliaq spent time between Hawaii and Guam, where it did underwater surveys of magnetism being released in the gaps between continental plates, Castellini said. The ship also did a survey of corals in that part of the Pacific to record the differences between preserved areas and those where coral mining has disturbed the ecosystem, he said.
Starting this summer, the Sikuliaq has four missions scheduled, Oliver said.
It will be used to recover moorings placed around the Aleutian Islands and in the Aleutian Trench, a site where tectonic plates meet; work with the Healy to evaluate the way noise spreads under sea ice, a project that will continue into future years; venture into the Arctic basin to study the winds blowing across the ocean surface, described as "turbulent fluxes," and how they interact with the ice; and follow the advancing ice as it forms up, and interacts with the sea, in October and November. The first three projects are led by scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the fourth is a University of Washington-led project.
That late-season work is especially important, Oliver said. The vast majority of the studies done in the Arctic Ocean have been in time between summer and September, when ice melt hits its annual peak -- a time when daylight is most abundant, he said. But studies are needed at other times of the year, he said. "There's a lot of interest in pushing that out into April, early May and October and November," he said.
The Sikuliaq replaces a much smaller UAF-operated research ship, the Alpha Helix, that was retired in 2004. Despite its advanced features, the Sikuliaq still needs some improvements, Capt. Hoshlyk said. Those range from a planned $1.3 million replacement of the rear A-frame crane system that turned out to have a design flaw to tiny tweaks that will improve passenger and crew comfort, like the conversion of a meeting room into a lounge.