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August 8, 2012

One Cool Assignment: APL Engineer Heads North for Arctic Buoy Tests

Welcome to Canadian Forces Station Alert, about 500 miles from the North Pole. Signs boast the names of visitors' cities and their distances.

When summer temperatures soar into triple digits, you can bet Dan Greenspan is thinking about where he spent part of his spring.

For three weeks in May, the Force Projection Department engineer worked out of Canadian Forces Station Alert—the world’s northernmost permanent settlement, about 500 miles from the North Pole—participating in the annual National Science Foundation-sponsored “Switchyard” field program to study the Arctic Ocean. Working with staff from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), Greenspan tested a prototype APL “IBuoy” to support the Seafloor Sounding and Remote Characterization (called SPARR) effort to measure ocean depth and transmit data via satellite.

The original IBuoy is a small and expendable device that includes an inertial navigation system for collecting wave data and an Iridium communications modem for transmitting the data. The Arctic version, outfitted with echo-sounding electronics, was deployed at nine locations from Alert to the North Pole, collecting data in tandem with an LDEO trace-gas hydrochemical sampling system.

The small crew’s routine: fly to each site, unload its equipment, drill holes in the ice, drape a small, heated tent over the site, and set up the devices. Temperatures hovered around 5°F on clear days, but occasional snow-stirring winds would quickly limit visibility and generate wind chill factors of –15°F. Even in springtime, Greenspan says, “It’s very beautiful and very hostile. Most everything you think about the Arctic being extremely cold, with ice everywhere, is true.”

If the work was tough, Greenspan says daily life was easier than he expected. He likens staying at station Alert—with its library, bowling alley, movie theater, and recreation rooms—to working on a large ship. “It’s isolated, but self-contained and comfortable,” he says. “If you don’t keep yourself busy and engage with other people, the isolation can affect you. I made every effort to leave frequently, go out and look for animals and walk around—really get to know the environment.”

It also helped that the IBuoy fared well in its tests. “We took something from concept to reality quickly, and it worked the way we thought it would,” Greenspan says. In September, LDEO will take SPARR buoys incorporating IBuoy technology on a University of New Hampshire survey of the U.S. extended continental shelf in the western Arctic on the U.S. Coast Guard research icebreaker Healy. LDEO has asked APL to collaborate on additional units for its 2013 Arctic scientific exploration efforts.

IBuoy development, which leveraged commercial off-the-shelf technology to create an innovative modular sensor platform, fits into the Undersea Warfare Business Area’s rich history of developing oceanographic sensors, says Undersea Warfare Business Area Executive Lisa Blodgett. “Beyond scientific research, we recognize the importance of the Arctic for economic and national defense initiatives,” she says.

Read about the expedition, from flights over Arctic ice sheets to an encounter with a hungry wolf pack, in Dan Greenspan’s blog at http://bit.ly/arctic_blog.