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Mids spend their spring break on arctic ice

Apr. 16, 2013 - 11:29AM   |  
The five midshipmen and two professors gather for a group shot in Barrow, Alaska.
The five midshipmen and two professors gather for a group shot in Barrow, Alaska. (Ignatius Rigor / University of Washington)
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Five midshipmen first class from the Naval Academy travelled to Barrow, Alaska, to deploy two data-collection buoys as part of their capstone project.
Name: Chuck Newnam
Major: Aerospace engineering, astronautics track
First assignment: Navy pilot
Name: Morgan Oblinsky
Major: Aerospace engineering, astronautics track
First assignment: Submarines
Name: Dagmara Broniatowska
Major: Oceanography
First assignment: Will return home to Poland and join the Polish navy
Name: Toni Paruso
Major: Oceanography
First assignment: Marine Corps aviation
Name: Molly Solmonson
Major: Ocean engineering
First assignment: Surface warfare

Five Naval Academy midshipmen had an unusual chaperone during their spring break: an armed polar bear guard.

The mids travelled almost 3,500 miles from Annapolis, Md., to Barrow, Alaska, as part of their senior year capstone project. During the March 8-14 trip to America’s northernmost city, the students collected data and deployed two buoys to measure temperature and wind speed and record photos and audio of the Arctic.

Their efforts could help the Navy as it makes preliminary plans for an expanded role in the region, where melting ice has meant wider sea lanes for longer periods of time.

Don’t let the melting give you the wrong idea; it’s still frigid.

“It was legitimately a new world for me,” said Midshipman 1st Class Toni Paruso, who was born and raised in Savannah, Ga. “Our winters don’t really drop below 40, and we get off the plane and it was probably minus-40, so I was just completely in awe of this arctic tundra that is Barrow, Alaska.”

After two weeks of preparations and packing, the five mids stepped arrived in Barrow on March 8. Midshipman 1st Class Chuck Newnam didn’t realize there wouldn’t be a terminal; he exited the plane wearing a T-shirt and a hoodie.

“That was probably a big mistake. It was a whole new kind of cold,” he said.

Mapping the sea

The mids have been working on the two buoys, IceKid 2A and IceKid 3T, since January. The IceKid 2A is equipped with an underwater microphone that records sounds of the ice moving or whales singing, Newnam said. IceKid 3T measures temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, precipitation and barometric pressure. Both are solar powered and can take photos.

All data is transmitted wirelessly to a server for analysis by the National Naval Ice Center in Suitland, Md.; it’s available to the public at (click on NAICEX 2013). The 3T model is still reporting back information, but the 2A model experienced a glitch in the field and only collected information for about 12 hours. It was brought back to Annapolis to be fixed and will be redeployed in late April, said Lt. Cmdr. John Woods, a professor at the academy and founder of the Polar Science Program.

The buoys the mids designed could help the Navy with a critical piece of its Arctic planning — better sea-ice maps. While researchers today can use satellite imagery to get a pretty good idea of where the ice is, they can’t see the thickness, so most numbers are just estimates, said Bob Freeman, a public affairs officer for the Oceanographer of the Navy.

The on-the-ground sensors — the first for the Navy that Freeman knew of — will help researchers determine how thick the ice is.

‘There’s nothing up there’

Freeman said he sees the service’s involvement in the region ramping up in the future.

“The Navy is a global organization. We are expected to be able to operate in all the world’s oceans,” he said. “The Arctic is an ocean. It is an ocean that we’ve paid limited attention to in recent years because it was, for most of the year, inaccessible; it’s dangerous and there’s nothing up there.”

But that’s changing as more and more sea ice melts, opening transit routes during summer months. A new record was set in 2012 for the least sea ice coverage since 1979, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration release said.

Industry is taking advantage of it. Last summer, Shell began drilling exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, increasing traffic in the small town of Barrow (population: less than 4,300) by hundreds of people a week. That gave the Coast Guard a mission in the Arctic: providing search-and-rescue support and ensuring environmental protections are followed.

The Navy still has some capability gaps to fill before it can operate well and consistently in such an environment, said Ron Filadelfo, director of the Environment & Energy Research Group at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization. Those gaps include better communications equipment, mapping and charting and ice predictions, as well as resolving issues with fluids, like hydraulic fluid, for ships and airplanes, he said.

Because it’s been so long since the Navy operated in the Arctic — aside from the occasional submarine taking a shortcut to the other side of the world — Freeman said the service doesn’t even know what it needs to improve upon, but that more exercises in the Arctic will help solve that problem.

Meeting the locals

Exercises such as the mids’ journey involved plenty of interaction with the locals — who served as the mission’s aforementioned guards against polar bear attacks.

“These bear guards just had some incredible stories, and it was really exciting. You would just go sit on top of a ridge whenever you needed a break from drilling holes or collecting data in other ways, and they would just open up and talk about some pretty neat, interesting things,” Paruso said.

Bears weren’t the region’s only high-profile animal; some mids noted the local’s devotion to whaling.

One whaling captain told Midshipman 1st Class Dagmara Broniatowska that “when they kill a whale and they bring it back, they say a prayer on the radio so the entire town knows the whale was killed and everyone honors it with a moment of silence for the life it gave up to feed the town.”

The mids even conducted programs in Anchorage at Alyeska Resort and Barrow at the local high school interacting with locals to increase excitement about science, technology, engineering and math.

“They were super-awesome people that literally anything you needed for help, on the ice or with the engineering project; they would help us out with just a second’s notice,” Newnam said of the Barrow locals. “They were just extremely helpful the whole time and just the nicest people.”

While all the midshipmen commented on the unique opportunity to see the drastically different landscape and interact with other cultures, the highlight for Midshipman 1st Class Molly Solmonson was working on the ice.

“I just felt like I was doing something important and collecting data that they’re actually going to need later on,” she said.

Midshipman 1st Class Morgan Oblinsky enjoyed seeing two months of hard work on the buoys in action.

“It’s kind of a rare treat as an undergrad to go from paper to building to deploying and seeing the data be collected,” he said. “Actually being able to take this project from start to finish and deploy it ourselves was probably the greatest highlight for myself.”

One professor’s mission

The trip cost more than $50,000, Woods said, including travel for the midshipmen and two professors; supplies and gear that could not be borrowed from other government agencies; food and logistical support — like bear guards. Expenses were covered by a grant from ONR’s Arctic and Global Prediction Program, the Naval Academy STEM Office, the Midshipmen Research Office and the Naval Academy Foundation.

This is the third year in a row Woods has visited the Arctic. He said he will continue to try to bring mids to the Arctic every year, because he believes the rapidly opening ocean will play a role in their Navy careers.

“The more future naval officers and Marine Corps officers get up into the field as midshipmen, when they’re the decision-makers in five to 10 years, they’ll at least have a little bit of an understanding of how harsh it is to operate in that environment,” Woods said.

Cmdr. Angie Walker, arctic affairs officer with the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change, went with the mids on their trip to the Arctic and recognized them for their hard work.

“They did an awesome job up there and learned a lot,” she said. “The academy’s polar program is a great way to introduce young officers to the challenges of the Arctic, where they could very well be operating in their future careers.”

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