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University of Alaska, Fairbanks R/V Sikuliaq


Bristling with deck gear and scientific instruments, the 261-foot research vessel Sikuliaq can break first year sea ice up to 3-feet thick. Photo by Mark Teckenbrock, courtesy of UAF/SFOS.

The ice-strengthened research vessel that was "urgently needed" for North Pacific and Arctic research for more than 40 years visited Seattle late last month before leaving on assignment off the coast of Alaska.

The Alaskan High Latitude Research Vessel Sikuliaq, built in 2014 by Wisconsin shipyard Marinette Marine to a design by Seattle-based naval architecture firm Glosten, is owned by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) as part of the US academic research fleet. It provides a lab and research facility for scientists in the US and worldwide, and is homeported at UAF's Seward Marine Center in Seward, Alaska. Sikuliaq, an Inupiaq name meaning "young sea ice that is safe to walk on," is the only ship in the national academic fleet rated for year round operations in first-year ice.

Dirk Kristensen, Glosten project manager and principal in charge of the design, says his involvement in the project began in 1990. "This was a long project for us, but an even longer project for the NSF and the University. They started in 1973."

With 40 years to prepare, the parties involved had a good idea of what they needed. Glosten's design was the third version provided by the firm over the years, and when partial funding became available with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the design was ready to go, making the 261-foot ship a "shovel-ready" project.

Costing approximately $200 million, Marinette Marine began fabrication in January 2010, and the ship was delivered in June 2014.

Glosten designed the R/V Sikuliaq to accommodate up to 24 scientists to conduct research in the Alaska region, year-round. The new vessel is the first US vessel classed under the new IMO Polar Class including double hull in way of all fuel tanks. With UNOLS Global Class, the vessel is also able to operate in any ocean.

With 52 feet of beam, the new vessel is roomy enough for a 500-square-foot wet lab and a 1,000-square-foot dry lab, as well as an additional 800 square feet of analytical and computer lab space. Heated decks ensure that the samples won't freeze between the ocean and the laboratory, and provide an added measure of safety for the crew and scientists working aboard. More than 2,000 square feet of deck space, inside and out, offers room to store, deploy and retrieve scientific instruments.

Complementing the labs and deck space will be cranes, one capable of moving 20,000 pounds to all deck-working areas, winches, trawling nets and ramps.

Part of this deck space consists of a heated "Baltic room" with a specially designed hydraulic arm to deploy and retrieve the conductivity, temperature, and depth instrument (CTD) that takes samples of the water column. The special deployment boom extends through a hatch in the side of the vessel, deploys the CTD, and uses active stabilizers and winches to keep the research package moving down and back up at a steady rate, overcoming wave action or weather. The vessel is also equipped with a dynamic positioning system that can keep it on station within three meters of a fixed point in inclement weather or sea state.

The new vessel allows scientists to collect seafloor sediment samples and conduct water column and sea floor surveys, and a diverse group of winches offers the flexibility to handle scientific equipment and control remotely operated vehicles (ROV).

The diesel-electric ship is powered by four MTU diesel engines providing a total of 8,300 HP and driving two electric propulsion motors through Wartsila Ice-Pod azimuthing drives. "The vessel operates with a Siemens power management system, that brings on generators based on demand," Glosten's Kristensen notes.

A 1,000-square-foot dry lab has enough computing power to keep 24 scientists busy and enough storage space for a year's worth of data.

The Sikuliaq is designed for year-round operations in the bering sea and is capable of breaking up to three feet of seasonal ice at a speed of two knots.

Because of the ice breaking capability, the vessel boasts the rounded hull form of a traditional icebreaking ship, and offers low underwater radiated noise and habitability noise. Transducers needed to perform bathymetric research are mounted on a centerboard, which can be lowered past the boundary layer of interference from water and bubbles rushing past the hull to quieter, less disturbed water. In ice, the centerboard can be retracted flush with the hull to protect it from damage.

"This was a big effort over several decades on the part of the entire company," Kristensen says. "It's very gratifying to see it in the water."


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