Editor's Note: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution oceanographer and photographer Chris Linder and science writer Helen Fields are taking part in a six-week cruise of the Bering Sea, a scientific expedition to study the effects of climate change on this polar ecosystem. This is the first blog post. To see all their posts, see "60 Seconds in the Bering Sea."
11 degrees F
On April 3, oceanographer/photographer Chris Linder and I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime: six weeks on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, an icebreaker, in the Bering Sea. Well. Chris has spent lots of time on ships but this is my first time on a research vessel. We’re the media team on board; we’re here to report on polar science with daily stories and slideshows. Chris has a grant from the National Science Foundation to go on a series of expeditions with a writer; the "Live from the Poles" project is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. I’m a freelance writer now, but I also have a science background; I majored in biology in college and have a master’s in biology, too.
The 39 scientists on this research cruise are studying the effects of climate change on the ecosystem. The Bering Sea is wildly productive—U.S. and Russian fishing fleets pull hundreds of millions of pounds of fish and crab from its waters each year. Whales travel from far away to feed here, and millions of seabirds breed in the region every summer.
The Healy in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
If sea ice forms later and melts earlier each year, or stops forming entirely, that could affect everything that lives here.
We joined the Healy in Dutch Harbor, a major port in the Aleutian Islands. The Healy is a 420-foot icebreaker, the Coast Guard’s largest ship. The ship was designed for research, with labs, cold rooms where scientists can work with animals that have just come out of the ocean and are happier in icy temperatures, and a conference room where scientists can use the Internet, hold meetings, and watch movies. There’s also a shop that sells coffee, toiletries, and t-shirts, a couple of workout rooms with treadmills, weights and stationary bikes, and a mess hall that turns out four tasty meals a day. The ship is home to 80 Coast Guard crew, who drive and maintain the ship—not to mention cook the food and help scientists get their equipment off the ship and into the water.
Broken chunks of ice stretch to the horizon.
The day we left port, a storm was blowing up to the north. Instead of starting the research in open water as originally planned, the ship went straight into the ice, where the water is calmer. That’s better for people and for equipment. The scenery’s not bad, either.
An icebreaker doesn’t bust through the ice with its bow. Instead, the Healy uses powerful diesel engines to ride up onto the ice and break it under the ship’s weight. The whole ship shakes as it grinds through the ice, and on the lower levels, we can hear broken chunks of ice scraping the hull.
As we cross the Bering Sea on long transects, the researchers study different aspects of the ecosystem. Some scientists walk on the ice, taking cores to study the algae that grows there. Others are studying tiny animals such as worms and clams that live in the mud on the seafloor—and some researchers spend daylight hours on the ship's bridge, watching for seabirds and mammals to find out how many of each are in the Bering Sea at this time of year.
Marine science technician Marshal Chaidez waves the CTD, an instrument that measures conductivity, temperature, and depth,onto the deck.
The researchers lower the CTD into the water at every sampling station where we stop. It takes basic physical measurements and also has bottles that can be tripped to collect water at particular depths.
At a meeting before the ship left port on its six-week journey, Captn. Fred Sommer called the Healy “a floating village of 130 in the Bering Sea.” Chris and I will be covering science and life on the icebreaker, too. We hope you’ll follow along.
Images: Photos by Chris Linder, WHOI