Monday, August 20, 2018

Life on a boat: An Arctic update from Knauss Fellow Janet Hsiao

Greetings from the Chukchi Sea! It’s mostly light out north of the Arctic Circle this time of year; the sun grazes just below the horizon each night then rises shortly after. As a part of my Knauss Fellowship through NOAA’s Ocean Observing and Monitoring Division, I was given the unique opportunity to sail on the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Cutter Healy. My primary duties include trying to be useful to the various Arctic research operations on board, and working with the NOAA Communications team to write about their findings – which you can follow using #ArcticDispatches18. The series will continue to be updated while we are underway. You can also read about this mission through the blog of our resident NOAA Teacher at Sea, Roy Moffitt – and expect another article from our journalist on board in a major newspaper (link to follow in the near future). There is definitely no shortage of outreach highlighting our scientific endeavors! I thought I would use this opportunity instead to share the experience through the lens of my first time at sea.
The USCGC Healy is Janet's "home" while at sea. Photo: Meredith LaValley
It has been ten days since we set sail from Alaska’s Port of Nome. We are slowly approaching wavy and icy territories, but I am now comfortable with the constant swaying of my surroundings (and occasional thud when we hit a piece of ice). I became more cognizant of what items are compostable and burnable to minimize waste. I can identify background engine noises that signal whether the ship will be moving or halting. I also learned to embrace the regularity that comes with working 12-hour shifts and eating meals at set times to support the 24-hour science operation.
Naps boost morale. Photo: Janet Hsiao
Since internet and phone services are harder to come by in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, members of the science party and USCG crew communicate using pagers while on board. Photo: Janet Hsiao
The interdisciplinary science team studies various aspects of the Arctic ecosystem, including genomics, algae, marine mammals, aerosols, and physical oceanography. Researchers have an opportunity to learn about each other’s findings during meal times on the mess deck. Photo: Janet Hsiao
Traveling to the Arctic is no easy feat. Even on the first day of sailing, I came to appreciate the collaborative nature of oceanography as a discipline. Our science crew consists of multiple academic institutions (e.g., the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of Washington, the University of Maryland) and government agencies (e.g., NOAA, USGS, USFWS). This experience is especially valuable for providing context to what I have been learning from my host office in budget and program management. Research in the Arctic highlights the value of maintaining sustained observations, which requires dedicated leadership and resources. Changes in this vulnerable ecosystem have been documented by scientists who consistently return to the study region year after year. Through a dedicated community effort, there now exist ongoing time-series of various aspects of the Arctic, enabled by those with vested interest in understanding how this complex system is changing. This research cruise, as well as the many before and many to come, is truly a multi-faceted undertaking made possible by partnership and collaboration.
Did you know that there are corals in the Arctic? Photo: Stephanie Grassia
Scientists take turns to collect seawater samples from the “conductivity-temperature-depth” (CTD) Rosette, which is an instrument package lowered over the side of the ship. Bottles are attached to a frame that collect seawater at different depths on the way up. Our research crew is composed of various teams that study biological, physical, and chemical oceanography – and share the CTD samples. Photo: Meredith LaValley
Sea-ice sighting with fellow Knauss Fellow Sammi Dowdell. Photo: Christina Goethel
Some of my favorite moments include seeing a puffin in flight, power-washing barnacles off moorings that were underwater for a year, and trying to play ping-pong on a moving vessel. Prior to setting foot on Healy, I knew only one other person on board. The shipboard environment quickly acquainted us with each other. Every person on the science team and USCG crew have their designated roles, whether it is to observe seabirds, navigate, process seawater samples, cook meals, etc. We operate with the common goal of successfully completing our science mission (keeping everyone safe while gathering the data). I particularly appreciate working in the collaborative environment where people are patient in teaching each other and help out where needed. Living in close quarters also means that I have opportunities to ask questions and learn from people from all walks of life. I am grateful for everyone’s kindness and generosity in sharing their stories and the fortuitous paths that allow us to convene here in the Arctic. We are on track to complete our journey in time, to then return to our respective lives and make sense of this experience (and the data collected). I look forward to sharing the day-to-day with my new colleagues and friends during our remaining time together. Until we meet again!

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