ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. research vessel Sikuliaq can break through ice as thick as 2.5 feet (0.76 meters). In the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska this month, which should be brimming with floes, its limits likely won’t be tested.
University of Washington researchers left Nome on Nov. 7 on the 261-foot (79.5-meter) ship, crossed through the Bering Strait and will record observations at multiple sites including Utqiaġvik, formerly Barrow, America’s northernmost community. Sea ice is creeping toward the city from the east in the Beaufort Sea, but to find sea ice in the Chukchi, the Sikuliaq would have to head northwest for about 200 miles (322 kilometers).
In the new reality of the U.S. Arctic, open water is the November norm for the Chukchi. Instead of thick, years-old ice, researchers are studying waves and how they may pummel the northern Alaska coastline.
“We’re trying to understand what the new autumn looks like in the Arctic,” said Jim Thomson, an oceanographer at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory.
Chukchi sea ice in early November was at its lowest level on record, said Rick Thoman, a climate expert at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center and a former National Weather Service forecaster.
Low ice is a problem for people of the coast. Communities north and south of the Bering Strait rely on near-shore ice to act as a natural sea wall, protecting land from erosion brought on by winter storms.