Public Release: 

Arctic ambition: ONR joins international mission to monitor conditions in Arctic Ocean

Office of Naval Research

Scientists aboard a Royal Danish Air Force C-130 scanned the Arctic Ocean for "leads"--fractures in sea ice cover that expose open water. After spotting one particularly accessible lead, the pilots opened the cargo bay door of their aircraft. As frigid wind whipped about, crew members tossed out a red-and-yellow buoy, which splashed into the open sea with precise accuracy.

In an example of international cooperation and scientific collaboration, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) last week participated in a joint mission to deploy three specialized buoys with sensors into the Arctic Ocean, in the vicinity of the North Pole.

Last week's mission stemmed from the International Cooperative Engagement Program for Polar Research (ICE-PPR). This partnership between the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden is part of ONR's answer to the challenge of the U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap 2014-2030 -- which directs the service to "expand cooperative partnerships with Arctic nations and Arctic states, and international, interagency, and private sector stakeholders that enhance Arctic security."

"The ability to understand and predict ocean and weather conditions in the harsh Arctic region is essential to safe operations for the U.S. Navy," said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. David J. Hahn. "Strong international scientific partnerships, through programs like the ICE-PPR, help all of the nations involved leverage knowledge and resources in this challenging operational environment."

During the deployment, the ice-resistant buoys -- known as Air-Deployable Expendable Ice Beacon (AXIB) buoys -- were dropped from a Royal Danish Air Force C-130 aircraft operating out of Thule Air Force Base in Greenland.

Made of specially reinforced material, the buoys can withstand the Arctic's frigid environment and survive in open water or being embedded in ice. They will spend the next three to five years providing data about Arctic air pressure and temperature, winds, upper-ocean temperature, ice temperatures, and movement of ice. The accumulated data will be used to develop more accurate computer models and forecasts for ice, ocean and weather conditions.

"This exercise was a very productive partnership in which ONR provided the logistical support, the Royal Danish Air Force provided the aircraft, and Environment and Climate Change Canada provided the buoys," said Lt. Cmdr. John Woods, an officer in ONR's Naval Reserve Component, who participated in the deployment. "It was a true international team effort, and a great success."

The mission was part of the International Arctic Buoy Program (IABP), and involved ONR, the U.S. National Ice Center, the Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and the University of Washington. The IABP is composed of member groups that place and maintain drifting buoys throughout the Arctic -- and offer meteorological and oceanographic data for scientific research.

Because of its shield of sea ice, the Arctic historically has had limited naval strategic relevance beyond submarine operations. But this frozen cover is diminishing due to a steady reduction in summer sea ice -- with the resultant opening of previously inaccessible waterways for extended periods of time each year. This has presented new commercial shipping lanes, and increased oil and natural gas exploration, fishing, and tourism.

The ice melt also may create new requirements for the Navy's surface fleet, which is where the AXIB data comes in. Improving forecasting models will help the Navy plan for future operations in this remote region, and inform the design and outfitting of surface vessels it will need to operate safely and effectively.

"Many of the ICE-PPR member nations have extensive experience operating in the Polar Regions," said Dr. Chris Bassler, deputy director for the U.S. Navy Senior National Representative, an office responsible for coordinating collaborative research and development projects and interoperability requirements with other nations. "Partnering with these nations gives the U.S. Navy an excellent opportunity for high-velocity learning by leveraging their experience in cold-weather environments."


ONR's Seasonal Ice Zone Reconnaissance Surveys (SIZRS) program, part of its Arctic and Global Prediction Program, will benefit from the data collected by the AXIB buoys. ONR's sponsored Arctic research supports the Navy's Task Force Ocean initiative, which seeks to strengthen national capabilities in ocean sensing and modeling technology in support of national security.

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