Ocean Research Project: NASA Survey

The mapping has begun for the Ocean Research Project team, but weather and wind are posing a significant challenge to data collection.

August 10, 2016

Well, that was interesting. Anytime it blows 50kts when it’s forecasted to blow 25kts is always going to be that way.

Our survey for NASA’s OMG (Ocean Melting Greenland) program is our primary scientific objective this year. NASA’s OMG program believes a warmer saltier water column; deep in the water (some 200-300 meters deep) is coming up from the Atlantic and eating Greenland’s glaciers from underneath. This “eating away” of the glaciers speeds up their rate which is helping them melt faster.

Our job is to map the seafloor looking for deeper areas where this warmer water is hiding and lower a CTD probe to confirm this warmer water is there. Mapping the seafloor is a tedious endeavor. You get a line plan, ours is 1,300 miles long, and you have to follow within 20 feet of those lines. It’s very difficult to stay within 20 feet of a line as your boat gets blown around by the wind and pushed by the current. You need complete concentration focusing on the monitor mounted in front of you. Just a few seconds of daydreaming and you can find yourself drifting off course.


This would be hard enough in the Chesapeake Bay but in the high Arctic there is ice everywhere. The person driving the boat stares at the monitor, keeping course, while another person looks ahead for ice. We do five hour watches with two people on and the other two trying to rest. During the five hour watch we switch driving the boat every 30 minutes because trying to stay on a survey line is so strenuous that 30 minutes is all a person can take. If that wasn’t hard enough when the fog comes, as it often does, it’s nearly imposable to stay on the lines. In the fog you lose all sense of orientation as you have nothing on the horizon to use for reference. You end up throwing the wheel around so much that your wrists get sore.

Proper research vessels, the big ones, work around the clock. So we do the same. It isn’t like you get up and pull anchor, do eight hours of work, then drop anchor eat dinner and go back to bed. Its five hours on, five hours off, 24/7 until we run low on fuel, water or the weather deteriorates. In good conditions with fuel and water topped off we can collect scientific data for a week straight.

As I said we have 1,300 miles of survey lines we have to map. That’s like trying to map the seafloor from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to the Virgin Islands, except you’re in uncharted waters with rocks and ice all over the place. I don’t think words can possible convey how difficult it is to do this project. The good thing is we like a challenge!


You need good weather to map the seafloor; any winds over 15kts will create wave action that will screw up your data. Typically the winds in central and northern West Greenland are calm in the summer. This makes it hard to sail as you are often becalmed but its great weather for doing science. Unfortunately this year’s weather is anything but typical.

There has been a basic weather pattern for the last few weeks. The wind picks up on Monday, increases Tuesday and blows gale strength Wednesday; Thursday through Sunday the weather is calm, then the next system moves in. Last week it didn’t blow as hard as predicted, but today it blew the oysters off the rocks!

We knew bad weather was coming so we collected data as long as possible then hid in a fjord to wait out the gale. This time it was only supposed to blow 25-30kts, no big deal. Yesterday it was blowing 25-30kts; today it blew a good 50kts with much stronger gusts.


One surefire way to know its blowing like hell is when the wind gusts hit the water it instantly turns the water’s surface into a cloud of flying, swirling mist. You can see this mist flying across the surface of the water and when it hits your boat you better be holding on to something. Ault was healing over 25-30 degrees when being blasted by these winds. When the first powerful gust hit we had just finished doing our dishes. All of our plates crashed to the floor and broke. As the wind continued to build all I could think is “damn I hope the anchor holds” as the winds were becoming unmanageable for a vessel underway. Next thing I know the anchor broke free.

We have sailed 20,000 miles on this boat and I can’t remember any time when we have been in stronger winds. As the winds hammered our hull we were dragged out into the fjord, the water became deep and our anchor dangled uselessly 130 feet below the boat. I threw the engine on and had it running wide open, some 3,000rpms; I never run the engine that hard. Even still we were going nowhere as the winds were too strong to get the bow of the boat back up into the wind. Before we could get the anchor up one of our buckets with 1,700 feet of CTD line blew off our stern, the line was tangled in our now dangling anchor and trying to wrap around our propeller. Nikki and Dana ran out in pelting rain trying to retrieve the CTD line as I tried to get the boat back into shallower water where the anchor might hold again. The whole time the wind was healing the boat over as if we were under full sails, which of course we weren’t, our sails were lashed down. Once the CTD line was back on board and no longer dragging behind the boat I was able to slowly make headway against the wind with the engine at full throttle. Finally we got the anchor to catch again and it has been holding ever since.

The winds have mostly died off at this point. The occasional strong gust hits our boat like the weakened blows from a dying monster. The storm is passing. Tomorrow morning we will get back to work as if nothing happened. It was just another day in the Arctic.


Fortitudine Vincinimus.

–Matt Rutherford


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