Through the Ice – Alaska’s New Research Vessel


Recent news of the naming of a new Alaska-region research vessel sent us over to the University of Alaska for a progress update. The recently named

R/V Sikuliaq

(see-KOO-lee-auk), owned by the

National Science Foundation

and under construction since January, will be operated by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, as part of the

University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System

We asked Terry Whitledge, director of UAF’s Institute of Marine Science and shipyard point-man, to describe some of the features which make the Sikuliaq the most cutting-edge in the UNOLS fleet. According to Whitledge, some of the ship’s more impressive, state-of-the-art systems include:  

  • Shallow- and medium-depth acoustic mapping systems – Multibeam and sidescan sonar systems and sub-bottom profiler technologies are used for mapping sea floor topography, determining what materials make up the sea floor, and for imaging the rock strata underneath the sea floor.  The systems will be mounted to a retractable, ice-hardened centerboard in the hull that will help keep bubbles and ice from mucking up data.
  • Over-the-side handling systems – Hydraulic winches commonly used on ships are slow and unreliable in cold weather. Electromechanical winches will allow for no-touch line-handling increasing safety immensely. The result, says Whitledge, is a “whole new era in over-the-side handling.”
  • Long-coring – Coring capabilities will be similar to those of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Oregon Sate University vessels – considered the preeminent design.
  • Fishing capabilities – Fisheries assessments will be more efficient by utilizing acoustics systems. Modified mid-water and bottom-trawling capabilities will be better than other UNOLS vessels, even in ice.
  • Cold weather and sea-keeping – Waste heat from engines will heat outside decks to keep them ice-free. The superstructure will be heated for safety and de-icing, important with temperatures reaching -30 - -40F. The vessel is designed to operate year-round in the Bering Sea and most of the year in other locations. Her stability will compare to the largest vessels in the UNOLS fleet.
  • American Disabilities Act compliant – The Sikuliaq will have a wheel-chair compatible stateroom, passageways, and public spaces. An elevator will allow for transit between decks. Colors, lighting and plaquard placement are all considered in the contest of mobility, hearing, and vision.
  • Labs and instrumentation – The Sikuliaq will support oceanographic, atmospheric, biological, ecological, geological, and geophysical research. The vessel will be used for studies in fisheries (more than half the annual U.S. fish catch is caught in Alaska), mapping Alaska’s continental shelf (More than 75% of the U.S coastline is in Alaska, important from both resources and international issues perspectives). Alaskans deal with many hazards – extreme weather, climate warming, volcanoes, and earthquakes. Research conducted aboard the R/V Sikuliaq will add to our understanding of a wide-range of natural systems.

The Sikuliaq (an Inupiaq word meaning “young sea ice”), was designed in 2004 by The Glosten Associates, naval engineers in Seattle, Washington. Following an intensive competitive bidding process (funding was, in part, a result of economic stimulus activities, which required that an American shipyard be used), NSF chose the experienced Marinette Marine Corporation in Marinette, Wisconsin for vessel construction. Founded in 1942, Marinette has built more than 1300 vessels for both military and civilian clients.   

The ice-strengthened ship will be able to break ice up to two-and-a-half-feet thick–a prerequisite considering that prioritized science missions will be focused in the North Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Alaska, Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas.  

The 254-foot vessel will be able to house up to 26 U.S. and international scientists and students and 20 crew for projects lasting up to 45 days. A Construction Oversight Committee of polar scientists, university marine superintendents, marine technical specialists, an Alaska native representative, and a member of NOAA Fisheries will ensure the Sikuliaq is outfitted for science needs  both on-deck and in 2250 square feet of science labs.   

In March, 2009, the National Science Foundation appropriated funds for construction of the new research vessel to replace the now retired (2006) R/V Alpha Helix, constructed in  1964. The 125-foot Helix, operated first by Scripps Institution of Oceanography and then by the University of Alaska, provided a platform for scientific research in the northern Pacific, Bering, and Chukchi Seas, but was limited geographically by her lack of ice-breaking capabilities. The Helix also was size and mobility-challenged for Alaska’s sometimes treacherous waters. The Sikuliaq will provide an updated, reliable and safe research vessel for the region.  

Whitledge says that construction is on schedule. Steel is on order and the shipyard will begin building the first of forty five or so modules that make up the ship on October 26, 2010. A science schedule does not yet exist, but a draft schedule will be available in late 2012 or early 2013. UAF will hold at least two science planning workshops and meetings in 2011 to familiarize the science community with ship specifications and policies regarding ship-time requests. UAF Marine operations will hire essential crew in early 2013 and non-essential crew and staff will be hired following warm weather and cold weather sea trials approximately 2-3 months before vessel operations begin in January, 2014, from her home port in Seward, Alaska, at UAF’s Seward Marine Center.--Marcy Davis