Antarctic research vessel heads north to map Arctic waters

June 09, 2003

ARLINGTON, Va.--An ice-breaking Antarctic research vessel will sail to the Arctic for the first time this summer to conduct a comprehensive survey of the chemistry, temperature and other characteristics of the waters off Alaska.

Other scientists who are seeking to untangle the complicated web of relationships between the shallow ocean shelves and deep basins of the Arctic Ocean will use the survey to guide their research. They hope to understand to what extent climate change is already occurring in the Arctic, what its effects might be on the plants and animals that live there and the people who depend upon them, and what measures might be taken to compensate for any change.

The research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer usually operates in the Southern Hemisphere for the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF). But this summer, a team of NSF-funded Arctic researchers will use it as a platform to map the distribution of salinity, temperature, nutrients and other characteristics over the outer shelf to deep basin region of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off northern Alaska.

NSF is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of nearly $5 billion.

The Palmer, which otherwise would be in port during an off-season lull, will be used in place of a Canadian icebreaker that was unavailable to support the research cruise.

The Palmer will conduct the marine survey as part of NSF's Western Arctic Shelf Basin Interactions (SBI) project. SBI researchers are trying to identify processes that govern the exchanges of water of the shallow shelves that surround the Arctic Ocean basin and the deep-water basin itself.

Currently, the ocean basins act as carbon-dioxide reservoirs, or sinks, locking up some of the gas and preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere. Any change in the current carbon dioxide balance could have direct effects on air temperatures and the amount of sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean. For example they might cause some species to flourish that currently cannot and sufficiently change the habitat of others to make it impossible for them to survive in their present ecological niche.

James Swift, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., the chief scientist for the summer research cruise, said his team will map the various characteristics of the waters in the SBI study region to provide a reference grid for the other SBI cruises in this three-year field program.

Using a variety of methods, including sampling with a conductivity, temperature, depth sensor, or CTD, which is lowered over the side of the ship, the scientists will collect water which they will analyze for such variables as salinity and dissolved oxygen as well as the concentrations of chlorophyll and nutrients.

"We hope, once the cruise is over, to be able to produce a very good map of the physical, chemical, pigment and other variables in the SBI study region," he said. "When we're finished we will know where exactly this property or that is highest or lowest."

A series of cruises are planned as part of the SBI project, to take samples of marine life and survey marine mammal populations. The 2003 survey cruise, however, will be unique in its mapping function. "We will have time to both cover a wider area and also to cover some of the SBI area more intently," Swift noted.

Also sailing aboard the Palmer will be Jim Rogers, a science and geography teacher at Polson High School on the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana. He will participate under the auspices of the Teachers Experiencing the Arctic and Antarctic program, a joint initiative of NSF's Office of Polar Programs and its education and human resources directorate.

The Palmer, which was undergoing routine maintenance in Lyttleton, New Zealand, is scheduled to arrive in Alaskan waters in early July and to complete its cruise by late August. Swift, who has previous experience as a researcher on the Palmer off the coast of Antarctica in winter, said the ship is well suited for the kind of work it will be doing for the first time in the Arctic.

The 94-meter (308-foot) Palmer is equipped with labs and other facilities for examining the biological, oceanographic, geological and geophysical components of global change. It accommodates 37 scientists, has a crew of 22, and is capable of 75-day missions.

Built by Edison Chouest Offshore Inc., of Galliano, La., the ship was accepted for use by the Antarctic Program in 1992.

The ship is named for Nathaniel Brown Palmer, the American credited with first seeing Antarctica. Palmer, then 21 years old, commanded the 14-meter (45-foot) sloop Hero, which on Nov. 16 and 17 1820 entered Orleans Strait and came very close to the Antarctic Peninsula. Later in his life, Palmer also won wealth and fame as a pioneer clipper shipmaster and designer.

Palmer's trip north compliments a deployment to Antarctic waters of the U.S, Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, which has carried out previous SBI cruises. During the 2002-2003 Antarctic research season, Healy, an icebreaker specifically designed to support polar research, was sent south to help keep open a vital sea-lane used to resupply McMurdo Station, NSF's scientific and logistical hub in Antarctica.

Healy will conduct research this summer in the Arctic near Greenland.
NSF Science Expert: Neil Swanberg, 703-292-8030,

Principal Investigator: James Swift, 858-534-3387,

For more information about the SBI program, see

TEA James Rogers will record his trip aboard the Palmer on the TEA Web site at

Images/B-Roll: B-roll of the Nathaniel B. Palmer is available on Betacam SP.
Contact Dena Headlee at, 703-292-7739

The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of nearly $5 billion. National Science Foundation funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 30,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 10,000 new funding awards.

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