The ultimate Arctic machine
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U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy in the Arctic ocean.

peter winsor
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Peter Winsor teamed with engineers in the WHOI float group to design a smart, rugged float that he dubbed "the ultimate Arctic machine."

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The Swedish icebreaker Oden, in the the Arctic.

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The "ultimate Arctic machine."
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» WHOI Arctic Group

» Peter Winsor

Arctic research is tough enough above the ice. Now WHOI scientists have figured out a way to learn what’s under it.

In July and August, WHOI researchers on a seven-week voyage across the Arctic deployed three experimental, torpedo-shaped floats that drift alone for months below meters-thick sea ice. Their mission—to continually record water temperature and salinity beamed to shore via satellite—is part of an ongoing, multi-nation effort to understand a largely-unknown Arctic current.

Researchers have long puzzled over ways to gather ongoing data about this ice-choked ocean, which is unreachable for part of the year even by icebreaking vessels. Then WHOI physical oceanographer Peter Winsor (left center) teamed up with engineers in the Institution’s float group to design a smart, rugged float that Winsor dubbed “the ultimate Arctic machine.”

It collects data, occasionally sends it to shore, then resumes its duties—despite jagged sea ice, fierce currents, and freezing water temperatures.

Most of the time it drifts in the water column to depths of 3,000 feet (900 meters). To send data, it pokes its hard, polyurethane-capped antenna above the waves (bottom left). If the antenna bumps into surface ice, it simply descends and tries again later.

This winter, as sea ice thickens, two floats have been quiet about sending reports—as Winsor expected. But to his delight, a third continues to send weekly reports from open water between Svalbard (north of mainland Europe) and Franz Josef Land (north of Russia). Winsor, enthused by the team’s overall success, continues to develop proposals to seed the Arctic with similar floats.
During the expedition, two ships shared icebreaking duties: the U.S. Coast Guard vessel Healy (top left), and the Swedish vessel Oden (left). Both vessels hosted scientists involved in a myriad of Arctic-related research. For WHOI scientist Luc Rainville (right) it meant dipping an instrument to depths of 14,700 feet (4,500 meters) to measure ocean turbulence. Scientists use that to help determine polar ice thickness, another step in understanding Earth’s changing climate.

The National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs funded this research. Winsor is a WHOI Ocean and Climate Change Institute fellow.

— Amy Nevela

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