The new capabilities of the vessel are making waves in the field of subsea geology
When the new ice-going research vessel christened Kronprins Haakon(KPH) departed the docks of Svalbard on October 22nd 2018, researchers aboard from the Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment, and Climate UiT (CAGE) knew that they were in for an adventure. There was much to learn from this newly-built ship with its state-of-the-art sampling equipment, custom laboratories, and capabilities in a variety of weather and ice conditions. But what the scientists didn’t know was how much potential the vessel had to change subsea research in the high north forever.
The inaugural CAGE/UiT cruise on KPH had two main goals. The first was to determine what the vessel itself was capable of: how would it handle, where could it go, and what could it do?
The second goal was to use the ship to transport new, high-tech equipment to an area featuring active methane release systems in the northern Barents Sea. While this region has been well-studied in recent years, researchers from CAGE could now view and sample the seabed in ways that have never been possible before.
Dynamic positioning enables targeted sampling
The ship primarily used by CAGE researchers in the past, UiT’s Research Vessel Helmer Hanssen, was taken on many productive research expeditions over the years – but those expeditions were not without challenges. One of the largest problems facing previous cruises was the potential for the ship to be thrown off course by wind and waves. This made it difficult to keep the ship stationary over a specific area in order to collect samples or examine certain structures and organisms more closely.
A useful feature of KPH that significantly reduces this problem is its dynamic positioning system, allowing the ship to maintain one position in the sea. Therefore, when the research crew identifies something in the water that they want to sample, it is possible to remain in the same spot until the item has been collected. But wind and waves can cause other problems.
Balancing tanks combat rough waves; seasickness
Another major issue facing previous CAGE cruises was the instability of the previous ship when confronted with bad weather, which was a concern about 50% of the time.
It was not uncommon for rough waves to cause an epidemic of seasickness across the entire research team and operational crew – sometimes up to 75% of the passengers were ill for 4-5 days. This created a huge problem in terms of lost labor hours. It was often more time-effective to wait out rough weather in the calm waters of a nearby fjord, as a storm was sure to be shorter than the effects of illness.
This is another area where KPH shines. Balancing tanks built into the structure of the ship are designed to control the pitch and roll of the vessel caused by rough waves, nearly eliminating all risk of motion-induced seasickness. This means that the vessel can be used even against waves of 4-5 meters, a threat that other research vessels were incapable of handling. In fact, KPH will not only be capable of increasing the number of cruises that are viable in the fall, but will likely introduce research expeditions to the winter months – something that was impossible with other, less stable ships.
Moon pool protects delicate equipment – and personnel
Inclement weather doesn’t only affect the comfort and efficiency of passengers, but also the ability to deploy research equipment. If there is too much wind and rain and many high waves, it is difficult to lower equipment over the edge of the ship without the risk of damage to the instrument, or injury to the researchers themselves. That is where a moon pool comes in handy. A moon pool is a feature of some research or drilling vessels that allows equipment to be lowered through a hole in the bottom of the ship to the seabed below, protecting it from the potentially dangerous elements above the water.
The moon pool on KPH is the largest of any research vessel, allowing for deployment of much more advanced, large-scale equipment, such as an ROV.
ROV allows underwater areas to be seen in stunning detail
While the areas of interest in the northern Barents Sea have been the subject of much research in recent years, this voyage was different from those that came before. KPH was carrying a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) named ÆGIR 6000 from the Norwegian Marine Robotics Laboratory at the University of Bergen. ÆGIR 6000 is an instrument that is revolutionizing what is known about deep sea areas. The combination of the ROV along with the safe deployment space provided by the moon pool made the first KPH CAGE cruise a very unique experience.
An ROV is an unmanned submersible tethered to the ship through the moon pool by a long cable. It is a piece of equipment capable of exploring the bottom of the ocean at close range while being remotely operated from the ship. The arms of the ROV, commonly called manipulators, are equipped with delicate pincers for taking targeted samples, and the unit contains seven cameras that help technicians see what is being grabbed. It also boasts a coring device to collect sediment, a gas sampler to catch gas bubbles, and a water sampler to collect water, making it a full-service deep-sea robot.
Perhaps most exciting is the mapping tool that is built into the ROV. For the first time, researchers can view the seabed at a resolution of 5-10 centimeters, as opposed to the 4-5 meters possible from more typical mapping systems, providing an overview of the terrain that has never before been achieved.
Next CAGE cruise aboard KPH excitedly anticipated
KPH is a vessel that is shared by several Norwegian-based entities; it is officially owned by the Norwegian Polar Institute, run and maintained by the Institute of Marine Research, and largely used by UiT. In December of 2018 it will begin a voyage to Antarctica led by the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Institute of Marine Research, returning in May 2019. The next two cruises with CAGE participation are scheduled for the fall, departing September 19th and October 19th respectively. Plans at CAGE are already taking shape for the upcoming cruise as researchers eagerly await their next voyage into the unknown.
(Text: Jessica Green)