FAIRBANKS - A new $97 million state-of-the-art classroom at sea may be the next addition to the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.
The National Science Foundation has requested proposals to build a new Alaska Region Research Vessel, replacing the dated Alpha Helix Research Vessel formerly used for research in the subarctic Alaskan waters. Construction on the project is scheduled to begin in 2007. The foundation is waiting for congressional approval for funding before it can move forward.
"We've been waiting two years for this announcement," said Terry Whitledge, the principal investigator on the project and the director of the Institute of Marine Science at UAF.
Whitledge and UAF has been involved with the Alaska Region Research Vessel from conceptual planning through the final construction designs which were completed in 2004.
UAF has submitted a proposal in the competitive bid process to oversee construction of the vessel and to maintain and operate the ARRV upon its completion.
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It's continued involvement in the project has given its proposal added weight. The winning bidder is expected to be announced next spring.
The vessel will become the newest addition to the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, a nationwide resource operated by colleges around the country.
The announcement marks the beginning of the final construction stage in a seven-year design collaboration between professors and research scientists at UAF and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
In 2001, Congress appropriated $1 million to investigate designs for an advanced ship to operate in the coastal and open ocean waters of Alaska. The resulting design is unlike any sailing vessel in its fleet.
The vessel will be the first ship with fisheries capabilities. It will have the ability to accommodate disabled scientists and students.
In addition, the vessel will be fit with an Ethernet based, fiber optic local area science network and video conferencing capabilities, allowing students and researchers to interact and participate in research while onboard the vessel.
Michael Castellini, the associate dean of the School of Fisheries, said the vessel will be "just like a new research building equipped with labs, Internet capabilities, science equipment, and workshops. The only difference is that this one goes to sea."
The maritime capabilities of the ship are also superior. The vessel will be equipped as an ice breaker, designed with a double hull, rotating propellers, and heated decks. Ice strengthening will allow the vessel to work in moderate seasonal ice, expanding its range in northern waters. The vessel will be used to conduct studies throughout the North Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas.
Other unique features of the vessel include a shallow draft allowing for close inshore operations, modern deck cranes, coring capabilities, net towing systems, sonar and acoustic Doppler capabilities. The engine room is designed to be fully automated and efficient, directing waste heat from the engine to melt ice on the upper decks.
This technologically advanced vessel will enable 26 scientists and students to conduct multidisciplinary studies.
These studies will include evaluating climate change, ocean circulation, ecosystem dynamics, biological productivity, marine mammals and fish stocks in high latitude open seas, near-shore regions, and seasonal sea ice.
The vessel will also conduct fisheries research, coastal marine studies, pollution effect research, seismic investigations, sea ice, and ocean engineering.
The vessel is scheduled to be finished in late 2009 and to be used in 2010. The lifetime of a research vessel is usually 30 to 40 years. It is expected it will spend 270 days a year at sea.
"The vessel will be an added resource to the school, enhancing fisheries and oceanographic research," Whitledge said. "We anticipate that at least half and probably most of our students and professors will use this vessel for research."
Markus Janout, a doctorate student in physical oceanography, said he is excited about the ARRV.
"It will be great to have a brand new vessel specifically designed for Alaskan waters. Hopefully it will draw a lot of attention, new projects and collaboration to ocean science research in Alaska," he said.