Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea returns from Arctic deployment

SEATTLE – The crew aboard Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea is scheduled to return to their homeport here Thursday, after a three-month Arctic deployment.

During the deployment, the crew traveled over 11,500 miles and spent 60 days north of the Arctic Circle in support of scientific operations.

Polar Sea departed Seattle on August 24 to conduct their first deployment solely dedicated to science in over ten years. During the deployment the crew conducted two science phases, including the first at-sea polar bear study. Both science phases were designed to examine impacts of climate change on the environment.

The first phase took place over the course of 12 days in mid-September and involved 34 scientists from the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) led by Dr. Richard Coffin, Chief Scientist, NRL Chemistry Division. The scientists met the cutter off of Barrow, Alaska and conducted coring operations, to study sediment composition. They also were involved in taking water samples to study temperature, salinity, and levels of oxygen at varying depths.

Dr. Coffin said the Methane in the Arctic Shelf expedition is an international collaboration to investigate methane hydrates and the relationship to climate change and new energy. Scientists from university and government research agencies from the U.S., Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Canada have combined expertise on this survey that was planned from shallow near-shore waters over permafrost methane hydrates to offshore deep sediment deposits.

“This project is intended to initiate long term collaboration in future expeditions in the Beaufort Sea and other regions of the Arctic Ocean.” Said Dr. Coffin.

The second phase ran from September 26 through November 1 and was the first study of polar bears from a vessel. This cruise, comprised of 24 scientists from the National Science Foundation (NSF), traveled with the Polar Sea’s crew north of Barrow as they searched for polar bears. The main focus was the recapture of polar bears tagged with radio collars in the spring and to follow the retreating ice edge north. Seventeen polar bears were successfully captured and sampled, providing invaluable data and setting a baseline for future research. The study revealed groundbreaking data as a result of being able to examine polar bears in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.

Included in this group of NSF scientists was a team of research divers from the University of Alaska who conducted 38 research dives for the purpose of investigating the biological diversity of Arctic sea ridges in comparison to flat sea ice. Dive operations and ice coring were the main methods utilized to retrieve organisms, ice and water from submerged sea ridges. Also aboard was a marine mammal and sea bird observer from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who studied marine mammal and sea bird distribution relative to oceanographic and biological features in the Beaufort Sea.

On the return trip south, crewmembers participated in a community outreach program in Juneau, Alaska. There, 40 crewmembers spent two days assisting in painting projects and cooking and serving breakfast at a local food kitchen.

This is the second time within the last two years that crewmembers aboard the Polar Sea earned an Arctic Service Medal, which is awarded for operations lasting longer than 21 days above the Arctic Circle.

Polar Sea was built by Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company in Seattle. Commissioned in 1978, the Polar Sea has operated around the globe and is designed to perform science, icebreaking, and all Coast Guard missions in both Polar Regions. With a reinforced hull and up to 75,000 horsepower, the cutter can break up to 21 feet of ice, or 6 feet of ice at a continuous speed of 3 knots. Polar Sea can carry two helicopters for science and logistics support. Berthing is available for approximately 150 crewmembers, and as many as 35 scientists and technicians. Polar Sea is equipped as a scientific platform with five internal laboratories and space for an additional seven portable laboratories on deck. Computers onboard have the capability to process real-time satellite images to aid in ice navigation, science planning, and weather forecasting.

The ship’s icebreaking capabilities allow the crew to perform logistics, search and rescue, ship escort, environmental protection, and enforcement of laws and treaties in places most ships cannot reach.

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