Marine scientists working with the University of Alaska Fairbanks will soon have access to a state-of-the-art ship to conduct long voyages and challenging research in the Arctic Ocean and other remote seas.
After 30 years of planning, the university was awarded the first $2.5 million in funding to build the Alaska Region Research Vessel — a 236-foot, $123-million ice-strengthened vessel specifically designed for cruising the Arctic Ocean and jostling among the floes.
Several scientists had long expressed frustration with the limited capabilities offered by the now retired 37-year-old Alpha Helix. President Bush included $56 million in the 2006 budget to help the National Science Foundation launch the project.
“The ARRV will be the first vessel in the U.S. academic research fleet capable of breaking ice up to 2.5 ft thick,” said Terry Whitledge, director of the Institute of Marine Science at the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and the project leader. “With this level of ice-breaking technology, it will literally allow us to go where we haven’t been able to go before.”
The National Science Foundation will pay for first of four phases of construction of the research vessel. The ARRV will be owned by NSF and operated by UAF on behalf of the entire ocean sciences community, through the University–National Oceanographic Laboratory System. If UAF meets deadlines, additional funding will come and the vessel will be sailing Far North seas as early as 2011.
UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences writer Carin Bailey has more detail in this release:
In addition to its ice-breaking capabilities, the ARRV will allow researchers to collect sediment samples directly from the seafloor, host remotely operated vehicles and use a suite of flexible winches to raise and lower testing equipment throughout the water column. The ship will also be able to transmit real-time information directly to classrooms all over the world. The ARRV will accommodate 26 scientists and students at a time, including those with disabilities.
With its ability to penetrate the polar and sub-polar regions, the ARRV will allow scientists and graduate students to study global issues, such as sea-level rise and climate change and the effects of both on the coastal and arctic ecosystems.
“Scientists today need to be able to take a big-picture look at all factors affecting an ocean ecosystem,” said Whitledge. “With its ability to accommodate scientists from different disciplines-such as fisheries, geology, marine biology, meteorology and oceanography-the ARRV will let researchers take an integrated approach to understanding the entire system.”
Research in this region is particularly important because of the high productivity of Alaska’s continental shelves and the livelihood of thousands of Alaskans directly connected with the health of Alaska’s fisheries, he said. According to UAF’s proposal, the ship will be headquartered out of the Seward Marine Center. The vessel’s size will require the university to build a new, all-weather dock and additional support facilities at the marine center.
The Alaska Region Research Vessel was designed in 2004 by The Glosten Associates, a group of marine architects located in Seattle. It was developed as a replacement for the R/V Alpha Helix, a 133-foot research vessel that was built in 1966 and officially retired last year.
“This is a huge accomplishment for the entire U.S. oceanographic community,” said Whitledge. “The scientific value of this vessel is a large step upward in the new and exciting capabilities that it brings to researchers in the North Pacific, Bering and Beaufort Seas.”
Mike Prince, executive secretary for the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, an organization of academic institutions that oversee the national academic fleet of research vessels, says that the ARRV is like “a field of dreams.”