ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Researchers attempted to deploy a sophisticated new tool Tuesday to help them monitor changes in the Arctic climate. The University of Washington attempted to drop two buoys into open water north of Barrow -- where in recent decades there would have been ice.
It's difficult to measure success when a buoy is dropped from a moving aircraft nearly 1,000 feet above the water, hoping its data will translate into something useful on a computer screen thousands of miles away.
The U.S. Coast Guard and a team of scientists planned to drop two years of work and $36,000 into the Arctic Ocean.
“What we've seen is that there's a lot of water up there, a lot more water than there used to be,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Christopher Colvin.
This year was the third-lowest record of summer sea ice since the National Snow and Ice Data Center started keeping track more than 30 years ago. The other two record-low years were in 2007 and 2008.
In an effort to learn more about what's happening, the Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists fly to the Arctic every other week to sample the air and scout for ice.
Three weeks ago, ice was spotted 300 miles north of Barrow, but Tuesday’s buoy drop flight didn’t go that far.
“If I had enough resources, I'd do it daily to see what was going on during the summer months because there's very few sensors up there,” Colvin said.
Tuesday’s flight aimed to change that, carrying some very sophisticated cargo on a one-way trip north.
Each of the two buoys dropped Tuesday cost $18,000. They're equipped with special sensors that can measure water temperature, air temperature and pressure, winds and the movement of nearby sea ice.
They were designed and tested by the University of Washington and are part of the International Arctic Buoy Program, a network of more than 100 buoys circumnavigating the top of the globe.
There was a sense of anxiety as the Coast Guard readied the first buoy for its drop. Timing is everything, and a parachute must deploy at just the right moment to carry the sensors seaward.
When the pin was pulled on one buoy, its parachute mechanism fired inside the aircraft, scrubbing its drop. But the second one was rolled into position and pushed overboard, successfully deployed to its home for the next few years.
“I'm cautiously optimistic that the second buoy we're able to drop is going to survive the drop, always a question, and if it is it'll be a significant success,” said University of Washington oceanographer Roger Andersen.
The second buoy later failed, and is not sending back any data. Officials fear it released from the parachute early and free-fell into the ocean.
The University of Washington says the setback is extremely disappointing, but oceanographers vow to fix the problem and try again -- because the Arctic environment is changing rapidly, and scientists still don't fully understand why.
The buoys dropped Tuesday were meant to replace older buoys in service since the 1980s. Those buoys were dropped onto thick ice and were designed to spend their entire life there, but there's much less ice today.
The newer buoys are supposed to be able to float in water or stay lodged in ice.
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