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Sikuliaq: Newest U.S. Arctic Research Vessel ‘Does Things No Other Ship Can Do’


A progress report on the nation’s newest polar research ship...

Sea ice more than 2 feet thick buckles under the National Science Foundation’s newest research ship Sikuliaq in its first ice trials last spring in the Arctic Ocean.

The Sikuliaq is the newest addition to the fleet of research vessels operated by UNOLS – the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System. And the ship’s has been busy since it arrived at its homeport in Seward, Alaska, earlier this year.

“The Sikuliaq is one of the most capable and clearly the most technologically advanced research ship in the UNOLS fleet,” Stein said. “It does things that no other ship can do.”

Credit Roger Topp/UAF
Researchers disembark during ice trials earlier this year in Arctic waters. Sikuliaq is a Inupiaq word that means “young sea ice.”

Murray Stein is Marine Operations director at the Seward Marine Center, and he oversees the Sikuliaq, which is operated by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. We caught up with him as he was monitoring its latest research cruise.

“I just got a report from the ship, that they’re breaking ice thicker than they’ve ever broken before, to get into some of these spots,” he said. “And so far, everything is going as planned.”

The Sikuliaq isn’t an icebreaker, but it’s ice-capable – able to crunch through ice up to a meter thick. And it’s packed with state-of-the-art technology, so it’s perfect for circumpolar research – like a study of melting sea-ice that Jennifer MacKinnon will conduct later this summer.

“If you look at these climate models, most of them predict Arctic sea ice loss, due to ambient global warming,” she said. “But they actually don’t predict the melting as fast as it is – like, it’s melting too fast.”

Credit UAF
The 261-foot vessel can accommodate 20 crewmembers and up to 26 scientists.

MacKinnon, with the University of California-San Diego, will examine whether the mixing of warm water in the Arctic is contributing to the rapid rate of sea-ice melting.

“The question is whether the heat stored within the ocean – and it can be stored deep in the ocean – and is it possibly being mixed up to the surface, and is that possibly accelerating the rate of ice melt?”

Stein says the Sikuliaq will carry out one more research cruise after MacKinnon’s. Then it’ll go to a shipyard for some maintenance before it sets out on its next mission.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.