Global environmental challenges
Fishing for information
The research vessel Professor Khromov is just a few kms off the easternmost point of Siberia, and U.S. technologist Kevin Taylor is struggling to reel in an orange buoy that had been deep beneath the Bering Strait for nearly a year.
The first time he tries, the ship veers too far away from the prize and must make a slow, wide turn for another pass. The second time, Taylor’s hook is not quite ready and the float bobs again into the Khromov’s wake. This takes practice, even in calm waters.
A main task of the RUSALCA expedition, a joint-U.S.-Russian scientific effort taking place in August and September, is to retrieve data-gathering moorings that were dropped 50 meters to the bottom during stormy weather last October, and to leave new ones.
It takes technological and navigational know how and, it soon becomes clear, the lassoing skills of a cowboy.
Attached to moorings are instruments that gather data on temperature, currents, salinity and other things tied to RUSALCA’s study of the impact of climate change on the region. Some of the new ones are even equipped with an instrument that listens for whales. They are held to the bottom by weights fashioned from train wheels.
Three are in Russian waters and five are on the U.S. side of the strait.
When the ship gets close to a mooring location the technical team tries to get a signal from the equipment to determine the exact location. If the unit is in the spot where it was dropped — that is, ice did not move it -– then the team sends an electronic pulse to open a mechanism that detaches the anchor, allowing the floats and instruments to float to the surface.
It’s not without its risks.
The technical expert behind the moorings, University of Alaska’s David Leech, said a single barnacle has been known to foul up the release mechanism. That leaves $200,000 worth of high-tech gear stuck on the bottom of the Bering Strait. The ship’s captain must also make sure he does not run over the unit during the recovery.
Once the mooring’s grabbed, the ship’s crane plucks it from the water and puts it onto the deck, where technologists and scientists scrape away the barnacles, separate and clean the gear and get ready to upload the data. Then it’s off to the next location.
A couple more tries and Taylor snags the buoy, to cheers of his colleagues. By the third mooring, the retrieval effort is more like clockwork.
(Picture – Technologist Kevin Taylor gets ready to snag the buoy of a mooring near Siberia’s eastern coast from the deck of the Professor Khromov on Monday, August 24, 2009. REUTERS/Jeffrey Jones)