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
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
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
— Amy Nevela
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highlights for the Physical Oceanography Department