Now traversing the Northwest Passage, the Ocean Watch crew - four professional sailors, a scientist and an educator - recently completed the deployment of three NOAA Global Drifter Program buoys. Dr. Ignatius Rigor, research scientist at the University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory (UW-APL) Polar Science Center and Coordinator of the International Arctic Buoy Program (IABP) is directing these activities. This project, one of 8 scientific projects planned throughout the 13-month Around the Americas expedition, focuses specifically on the polar regions of the 25,000-mile circumnavigation of North and South America and will further support the expedition's mission of highlighting the changing conditions of our oceans.
With major funding from The Tiffany & Co. Foundation, the Around the Americas expedition is the first of its kind, taking an intimate, often scientifically-focused look at the health of the world's oceans and the impact of global climate change on local environments and ecosystems. The converted 64' sailboat named Ocean Watch serves as a research platform to collect data and test new field methods on its unusual and sometimes remote expedition. Ten scientists from seven institutions (UW-APL, the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO), RMR Co., MIT Sea Grant, NASA, Western Washington University, and Yale University) have placed a diverse suite of instruments on board Ocean Watch to collect "datasets of opportunity" throughout the expedition. Their research spans topics ranging from sea ice and weather to jellyfish populations and underwater sound: all projects contribute to the understanding of changing conditions in the atmosphere and ocean.
Rigor notes that "observations from ships provide a wealth of information that helps us understand our oceans and climate, especially in the data sparse Arctic" and says "Ocean Watch has been providing data that enhances the weather and sea ice forecasts."
Tracked by satellite and weighing approximately 45 pounds, each buoy is equipped with sensors to measure air pressure and surface temperature - data widely used by both weather and ice forecasters. Since 1979, the IABP has deployed nearly 1000 buoys. In 2008, data from the buoys played an instrumental role in having the polar bear listed on the threatened species list.
After approximately two years, the IABP buoys stop transmitting their location and are typically lost. However, the crew of Ocean Watch recently retrieved one of the IABP buoys deployed in 2006 from an island in the Chukchi Sea, where it was beached near Barrow, Alaska. The tracking device on the buoy was still working and Rigor noted the instrument's exact coordinates. Ice and satellite data provided by the UW-APL, the National Ice Center, and the Canadian Ice Service, which form the North American Ice Service (NAIS), were critical in helping with this recovery. The buoy will be sent to Christian Michelsen Research in Norway for refurbishing and redeployment.
After a brief stay in Cambridge Bay, Ocean Watch will continue to traverse the Northwest Passage, en route to the next scheduled stop in Resolute, Nunavut. Daily reports of their progress are filed from the boat along with photos and video at www.aroundtheamericas.org. The non-profit program is co-produced by Sailors for the Sea in Boston and Pacific Science Center in Seattle.