In July 2023, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) partnered with the 144th Airlift Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard to deploy five different types of weather buoys across more than 1,000 nautical miles of the Arctic Ocean.
Such deployments are critical for maintaining the Arctic Observing Network (AON), which provides observations for weather and ice forecasting and related research.
The buoy air deployment supported the International Arctic Buoy Programme (IABP), a collaborative program comprising more than 32 different research and operational institutions from 10 different countries and four international agencies — including the International Cooperative Engagement Program for Polar Research (ICE-PPR), European Meteorological Network, World Climate Research Programme and World Meteorological Organization.
The objective of the IABP is to establish and maintain a network of data buoys across the entire Arctic Ocean to provide meteorological, sea ice and oceanographic data for real-time operational requirements and research purposes. ONR is an executive member of the IABP, contributing significantly to the acquisition and deployment of buoys in the Arctic.
“Understanding ocean and weather conditions in the Arctic region is crucial to ensuring safe, effective naval operations in this challenging part of the world,” said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Kurt Rothenhaus. “Exercises like this buoy drop are a testament to the value of strong international scientific partnerships and collaboration, in order to share knowledge, resources and insights.”
On July 11 and 12, two flights deployed 21 buoys evenly along the flight path from Barrow, Alaska, across the Eurasian region of the Arctic Ocean. The buoys will track air pressure, temperature, ice drift and ocean currents.
The 144th Airlift Squadron (the “Arctic Wolves”) and part of the 176th Wing (the “Arctic Guardians”) conducted the flights on a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft. In addition to personnel from the 176th Wing, participants included professors and scientists from the University of Washington and the University of Maryland as well as ONR reservists.
Flying over such a large area provided a great opportunity for visual surveys and documentation of the ice. Five types of buoys — Ice Trackers, Ice Balls, ICEXAIR, Air Expendable Ice Beacons and an experimental buoy — were deployed from the C-17. The Ice Trackers, Ice Balls, ICEXAIRs and experimental buoy were deployed directly onto the ice, while the AXIBs landed in cracks between the sea ice. The buoys have unique design features to help them survive the harsh environment.
Both flights provided a useful training objective for the 144th Airlift Squadron and served as an efficient method for deploying buoys across the austere, remote region. The squadron also used the mission as training for Arctic rescue air drops. Data collected from the buoys enhance weather and ice forecasting and environmental models, reducing the risk to assets in the Arctic.
In addition, as the annual cycles of freezing and thawing occur, buoys may be crushed by the sea ice, drift out of the Arctic Ocean or reach the end of their service lives. The AON, and the buoys, must be replenished periodically to provide continuous environmental data.
This effort emphasizes the great scientific and operational capabilities achieved through collaboration between U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) research professionals, academic professors and researchers; Navy Reserve and Air National Guard units; and contractors.
ONR is a key contributor to the IABP through both its Arctic and Global Prediction program and the ICE-PPR, which helps to maintain the Arctic buoy network. Seven nations collaborate through the ICE-PPR, including the U.S. DoD, the Department of National Defence of Canada, the Ministry of Defence of the Kingdom of Denmark, the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Finland, the New Zealand Defence Force, the Ministry of Defence of the Kingdom of Norway and the Government of the Kingdom of Sweden.
ONR also helps support the U.S. Interagency Arctic Buoy Program (USIABP), which is managed by the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory as well as the U.S. National Ice Center.
The USIABP is supported by contributions of logistics and funds from ONR, the Alaska Air National Guard, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Energy and the North Slope Borough of Alaska.
Such partnerships have many benefits, such as standardization, equipment sharing and eliminating unnecessary duplication of work. The cooperation also facilitates efficient and cost-effective polar research, development, test and evaluation projects.