US Coast Guard icebreaker completes Arctic research mission

USCGC Polar Star (Photo: US Coast Guard/Senior Chief Petty Officer Trevor Bannerman)

The US Coast Guard heavy icebreaker Polar Star is sailing for its homeport of Seattle following a months-long Arctic deployment, during which it conducted scientific research and maritime sovereignty protection missions.

The objectives of the research were to gather data and lessen the void of information from the region and better understand how vessels can operate year-round in Arctic waters.

A mixed team of scientists and researchers from various agencies including the US Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the University of Washington, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) were embarked aboard Polar Star for the research scope of the deployment.

“The Arctic is cold, dark, and difficult to navigate in the winter,” said Captain Bill Woityra, Polar Star‘s commanding officer. “Deploying with researchers and scientists aboard has aided in the development, understanding and pursuit of technologies that will mitigate risks and enable future mission performance so that looking forward, the coast guard can safely operate continually and effectively in this remote environment.”

Among the activities conducted by the researchers was the deployment of buoys on the ice. Over time, the buoys will collect and transmit information about ice flow to help fill in data gaps for higher latitude oceans.

Polar Star‘s crew also aided in a research project concerning water flow regimes in the Arctic, specifically the Chukchi Sea, a study developed by Dr Robert Pickart of WHOI. The data collected during Polar Star’s patrol will be used to develop a more complete understanding of the hydrology of the region.

To support Dr Pickart’s research, WHOI provided 120 expendable conductivity-temperature-depth (XCTD) instruments to measure temperature and salinity. These profiles of the water column will give a better picture of what water and nutrient flow look like in the Arctic winter.

Polar Star crew members deployed the probes every 12 hours when above 65 degrees north.

Additionally, Shalane Regan, a mechanical engineer and researcher with the Coast Guard Research and Development Center’s Surface Branch, worked with other scientists and researchers on board to find ways to operate most effectively in the frigid Arctic environment.

For technology, Regan brought a 3D printer and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) aboard Polar Star to evaluate how the systems would react to the Arctic climate and ship life.

“I used the 3D printer to complete many small projects that resulted in large lifestyle improvements for the crew,” said Regan. “Most importantly, the knowledge I was able to gather about larger issues the crew faces, for example, visibility issues due to frost accumulation on the bridge windows, I can take home for my team to develop solutions that will create a better-equipped, mission-ready fleet.”
Another key item the RDC team is focusing on is underway connectivity, specifically in the Arctic region.

To better understand high-latitude communications, the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) was installed on Polar Star to test its abilities at high latitudes in the harsh Arctic winter conditions. Developed for the US Navy by Lockheed Martin, the MUOS is an ultra-high frequency satellite communications system that provides secure connections for mobile forces.

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