Marine geology expedition takes research ship Sikuliaq farther north than it’s ever been

(Photo courtesy Mark Teckenbrock/University of Alaska)
The R/V Sikuliaq, owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. (courtesy of Mark Teckenbrock/University of Alaska)

The research ship Sikuliaq is wrapping up a marine geology expedition this week. The nearly 2-month long journey took the ice capable ship — which is owned by the National Science Foundation and operated bu the University of Alaska Fairbanks — over 500 miles north of Utqiagvik.

That’s the farthest north the Sikuliaq ever been.

“Where we were up in the northern Chukchi, we were breaking new ground,” said UAF Geophysical Institute professor Bernard Coakley, speaking from the Sikuliaq by satellite phone.

Coakley and colleagues have used an array of technology to survey the ocean floor of the Canada Basin and adjacent Chukchi Borderlands. Coakley says the features they observed included channels in the sea bottom.

“Where the gouges are parallel, we call them mega-scale glacial lineations,” he said. “They’re evidence that a continental glacier once scraped across the top.”

Coakley says other features, like random plow marks made by icebergs and piles of sediment created by now inactive faults, can help us better understand the ocean area’s formation. 

“I like to say we’ve been working backwards in the Arctic, where we stand on the edges and make our observations, and then we say ‘well, therefore, the ocean is this,’” Coakley said. “But I think the real answer to the question of how the ocean formed is to be found by looking at the features.”

Coakley says surveying the seafloor has practical implications for things like mineral exploration and defining the extent of U.S. territory in the Arctic, but there’s also the pure intellectual pursuit.

“We want to know, we want to understand. That’s what drives me,” he said.

Coakley and fellow UAF researchers are scheduled to disembark from the Sikuliaq in Nome and be back in Fairbanks this week.

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