Undersea Science at the Top of the World

by CAPT Gordon I. Peterson, USN (Ret.), and LCDR Dave Werner, USN

“The Arctic Ocean is the most complex ocean environmental system on earth, and it remains the most poorly understood.”

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- U.S. Navy SCICEX-99 Briefing


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Photo Courtesy of
JO1 Rodney Furry, USN.

The Sturgeon-class nuclear-powered
submarine USS Hawkbill

surfaced through the Arctic ice
in April 1999 approximately
150 miles north of Point Barrow, Alaska, during SCICEX-99.

One week after departing her homeport of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 18 March 1999, the Sturgeon-class nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Hawkbill (SSN-666) transited the Aleutian Islands and dove beneath the ice of the central Bering Sea to begin an historic eight-week Arctic research mission. Ahead, the daunting navigational hazards of the Bering Strait and the Chukchi Sea awaited Hawkbill’s Commanding Officer, CDR Robert H. Perry, his 124-man crew, and a small embarked team of civilian scientists. SCICEX-99, the fifth Navy-civilian Submarine Arctic Science Expedition, was underway. CDR Perry’s initial destination was a small temporary camp located approximately 1,000 miles beyond the Bering Sea on Arctic drift ice 150 miles north of Point Barrow, Alaska – the so-called APLIS, or Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station.

The 1999 expedition marked Hawkbill’s second cruise in support of a five-year collaborative research and data-collection program sponsored by the Navy’s submarine community, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the National Science Foundation. The 292-foot submarine had participated in the highly successful SCICEX-98 the previous summer and had been specially outfitted then with new sensors and systems that dramatically increased her ability to operate safely under ice, map the Arctic’s sea bed, and collect scientific data and samples. Perry, a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was also in command for that expedition.

A detailed, nine-phase science plan guided Hawkbill’s operations for data collection throughout the cruise, and a portion of Hawkbill’s torpedo room had been converted into a laboratory to house much of the instrumentation required to support the expedition. Most of the scientific tests and experiments planned for SCICEX-99 supported the study of the Arctic Ocean’s geophysical, chemical, and biological properties. Scientists also were keenly interested in updating their knowledge and data relating to ocean warming in the Arctic region – a growing concern.

Hawkbill’s cruise was also unusual in another respect. The submarine carried an urn with the cremated remains of Dr. Waldo K. Lyon – a reknowned Navy civilian scientist for 55 years, champion of Arctic submarine operations, and founder and long-time director of the Navy’s San Diego-based Arctic Submarine Laboratory (ASL). Lyon’s family had requested the Navy to transport his ashes to the Arctic for burial at sea, since he had deployed on Hawkbill in 1973 during the ship’s first Arctic cruise.

“A White-Knuckle Experience”
As Hawkbill made good on her northerly track at 5 knots, the ice overhead formed into clusters of small floes aligned in strips several hundred yards wide. These floes compressed rapidly into solid pack ice with an average thickness of 6 feet. The remaining transit to the APLIS was, in CDR Perry’s words, “a real challenge” for the entire crew, as the water shoaled quickly to an average depth of 160 feet – adding a further complication to the thick mantle of ice overhead. Indications of massive ice ridges 800 yards ahead – some extending to a depth of 100 feet – would suddenly appear on the submarine’s forward-looking, ice-finding sonar.

Perry ordered his submarine, then cruising at a depth of 125 feet, to hug the ocean floor a scant 20 to 30 feet off the bottom. With the submarine measuring 52 feet between the bottom of its hull and the top of its sail, there were times when the ice cover would pass as close as 17 feet overhead. Conditions worsened in the Chukchi Sea as walls of ice blocked the submarine’s path – requiring expert undersea navigation, constant maneuvering, and a light touch on all controls.

Crewmen on Hawkbill described this transit as a “real white-knuckle experience.” Many of them said it was the greatest shiphandling challenge they had experienced – one that, to be completed safely, required everyone to perform flawlessly minute by minute for days on end.

For Hawkbill’s ice-finding sonar to work properly – and to avoid grounding below or collision with the ice above – it was necessary to maintain depth within one foot and with “zero-angle” on the boat. The young enlisted helmsmen and planesmen held the submarine precisely on depth throughout frequent and sometimes radical maneuvers to avoid ice ridges and to locate passages around them. “The crew handled the whole evolution very calmly and professionally – it was a total team effort to maintain focus for eight days,” Perry related.

The variation in water density caused by fresh water from melting ice and the Arctic’s unique temperature fluctuations dramatically affected maneuverability as Hawkbill sought to maintain neutral buoyancy. A change in salinity of just one part per thousand causes a buoyancy shift of nearly 8,000 pounds in the Sturgeon-class attack submarine. A seasoned chief petty officer, serving on each watch bill as Chief of the Watch, assisted ship-control efforts by maintaining Hawkbill at neutral buoyancy despite the many variations affecting her trim.

Talent, Teamwork, and Training
As the submarine progressed carefully and steadily north, the Officer of the Deck concentrated on ice-avoidance sonar readings – giving the helmsman frequent orders to weave the boat through a maze of jagged ice keels extending randomly below the ice. Hawkbill’s navigation team plotted the boat’s position meticulously along her circuitous path as the diving officer of the watch carefully monitored the depth of water beneath the keel. From the time the submarine submerged in the Bering Sea on 25 March until her surfacing at the APLIS ice station on 3 April, there was no opportunity for the team to obtain a navigational fix from above.

As always, sonar technicians in the submarine’s sonar room served as the eyes and ears of the ship. Throughout the transit, the submarine’s OD-161 Topsounder high-frequency sonar was operated continuously to measure ice draft – the depth below sea level to which the ice extends. A petty officer assigned to the “polynya plot” kept track of overhead ice features so that Hawkbill could be surfaced immediately should the need arise. The Russian word “polynya” is used in Arctic parlance to describe open water or the thin ice of recently refrozen open water between thicker ice floes – a potential safe haven in the event of a submerged emergency.

Navigation and safe ship handling were further complicated in the Chukchi Sea by a scarcity of data on the nautical charts issued to Hawkbill at the beginning of the cruise. Unlike other areas of the world’s oceans, there has been no comprehensive oceanographic mapping of the polar basin. Surprises were unavoidable. CDR Perry described how Hawkbill had unexpectedly encountered an uncharted, flat-topped dormant volcano – towering 200 to 300 meters above the floor of the Northwind Rise – during a later phase of undersea-survey operations. Such valuable observations and measurements, recorded by Hawkbill’s sea-floor characterization system, will be used to update nautical charts of the region.

Hawkbill’s CO offered high praise for his crew. “I have never been so proud of any crew, and their efforts have proved what a well-trained submarine crew can accomplish,” Perry said. “They functioned as such a team I can’t believe it – as far as I’m concerned, they’re all true American heroes,” said the Aiea, Hawaii, resident.

The Navy’s top leadership also had high praise for Hawkbill following an underway embarkation in early April. Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig said he was greatly impressed by the technical nature of the crew’s accomplishment, their esprit, and their sense of mutual commitment. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jay L. Johnson said that Hawkbill’s Sailors had demonstrated “extraordinary versatility” in executing a non-traditional mission. “Their hard work and training paid off,” Johnson said.

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The wooden frame of an Eskimo “umiak” boat and whale bones on the frozen shoreline of the Arctic Ocean at Point Barrow, Alaska, in April 1999.

Ice Camp Lyon: “A Triumph of the Human Spirit”
Once clear of the Bering Strait and the Chukchi Sea’s perilous ice ridges, Hawkbill commenced the science plan on its transit to the APLIS ice station, which had been established by the staff of the Navy’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory and the Applied Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington (APL-UW). CAPT Jeffrey A. Fischbeck, ASL’s director and the Officer in Tactical Command for SCICEX-99, headed up operations from this small collection of heated tents and prefabricated plywood shelters – named Ice Camp Lyon in honor of the distinguished Navy scientist. ASL supports the Fleet as the Navy’s center of excellence for submarine-related Arctic operations, development support, and technical expertise.

The Navy has operated ice camps for more than 20 years in support of Arctic research, but the SCICEX-99 station was the first one to be built in five years. On scene to direct operations, CAPT Fischbeck credited the ice camp with providing valuable experience to his staff of 16 uniformed and civilian personnel, in addition to enabling important research during the expedition. Fischbeck also praised his staff and personnel from APL-UW for planning the station’s deployment in less than three months.

The ice camp provided Navy and civilian scientists with additional flexibility and more experimental opportunities during the 1999 expedition. “A typical SCICEX cruise lasts for more than ten weeks,” Dr. Dennis Conlon, ONR’s program manager for SCICEX-99, explained. “That’s a commitment of time that few researchers – with research and teaching obligations – can make.” Scientific specialists rotated aboard Hawkbill on several occasions – greatly increasing the scope of the research. Four discrete Arctic scientific-research and experimentation projects were also conducted at the ice station that would otherwise not have been possible.

One significant experiment, Arctic Climate Observations Using Underwater Sound (ACOUS), used a 20-Hz underwater sound signal from an autonomous source off Franz Josef Land to observe the temperature structure of the Arctic Ocean. Dr. Peter Mikhalevsky, principal investigator of the project and the ice camp’s science director, deployed a vertical hydrophone array through a hole in the ice to receive these transmissions. His instrumentation measured the average Arctic Ocean temperature along
the 2,800-kilometer propagation path. A team from APL-UW also obtained conductivity, temperature, and depth profiles of the ocean at the ice camp.

Secretary Danzig’s impressions of Ice Camp Lyon were especially vivid. “There is a sense that in the most austere and coldest physical environment, human beings can create a warm, safe, and protective human environment,” Danzig said. “It was true on the ice camp and even more true on the submarine,” he continued. “It is really a triumph of the human spirit.”

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Dr. Waldo K. Lyon:
Father of the
Arctic Submarine

Spurred by the wartime imperative to respond to German Arctic submarine operations during the Second World War, Dr. Waldo K. Lyon began a life’s work in Arctic research in support of undersea warfare. From the time he founded the Navy’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory in 1941 until his retirement from the ranks of Navy civilian scientists 55 years later, he pushed – almost single-handedly – for research into the design features needed to enable nuclear-powered submarines to operate in the Arctic.

Lyon’s accomplishments were recognized by numerous awards, including the President’s Medal for Distinguished Federal Service – the highest federal award for a U.S. government civilian employee. In the words of William M. Leary, his biographer, Lyon was “the first among equals” responsible for the development of the under-ice submarine. Dr. Lyon died 5 May 1998 at the age of 84, and his remains were transported by USS Hawkbill to the North Pole a year later for burial at sea. His beloved Arctic Submarine Laboratory continues its mission today as a detachment of Submarine Development Squadron FIVE, based in San Diego, California.

Leary’s biography, Under Ice published by Texas A&M University Press earlier this year, is a masterful account of Lyon’s contributions to Arctic research and U.S. Navy under-ice operations. CDR Perry, USS Hawkbill’s Commanding Officer, required all officers in his wardroom to read chapter seven of Leary’s book – a description of USS Sargo’s hazardous 1960 Arctic cruise – prior to deploying for SCICEX-99.

Breaking the Ice for Science
Aided by images from her upward-looking video display, Hawkbill was guided acoustically by ice-camp personnel to an area of thinner ice approximately 400 yards from Ice Camp Lyon. Accompanied by the prolonged groans and roar of rending ice, the submarine’s black-steel sail rose slowly and majestically from beneath the surface on 3 April – shattering the frozen stillness of the Arctic landscape. Ice was quickly cut and shoveled away from the submarine’s after hatch to permit Dr. Margo Edwards, a geologist from the University of Hawaii, and her team of scientists to embark for a week’s survey of the Chukchi Cap region. Edwards served as the SCICEX-99 expedition’s chief scientist.

An elaborate schedule of scientific research and data gathering was planned for Hawkbill’s Arctic expedition. Its primary objectives centered on experiments and data collection in four areas:

  • Mapping of the Arctic Ocean floor to test the hypothesis that Pleistocene ice sheets once covered the shallow-ocean areas near the Chukchi Cap
  • An analysis of ancient plate boundaries and other geophysical aspects of the Lomonosov Ridge
  • Measurement of carbon compounds and other nutrients in waters off Alaska’s north coast
  • Mapping of the Arctic Ocean’s climatology using water temperature and salinity measurements
    obtained  from a joint U.S.-Russian experiment investigating Arctic Ocean warming

Many scientists were especially interested in the last of these. The polar oceans drive several important processes governing the earth’s climate – processes critical to global-ocean circulation and the regulation of earth’s weather patterns. During the past decade, the Arctic has changed significantly. Present estimates are that the mass of Arctic ice has decreased by 20 percent, while near-surface sea-water temperature in the central Arctic Basin has increased by over 1 degree Centigrade, and ocean salinity has decreased by nearly one percent. Civilian scientists, rotated aboard Hawkbill, were particularly enthusiastic in finding evidence that a large ice sheet had covered and eroded shallow areas in the Arctic Basin approximately 10,000 years ago. “That was very exciting,” said Edwards.

On 3 May, following a highly detailed geophysical survey of the Lomonsov Ridge, CDR Perry surfaced Hawkbill at the North Pole – the last submarine that will do so during the 20th century. In accordance with the wishes of the Lyon family, the Hawkbill crew conducted a solemn burial-at-sea ceremony there to honor Waldo Lyon. His ashes were laid to rest in the Arctic region that he had labored a lifetime to understand.

Perry made a short progress report by hand-held satellite telephone to Chief of Naval Operations ADM Jay L. Johnson at the Pentagon and then ordered, “Dive!” Hawkbill again slipped beneath the ocean’s ice-covered surface. Ahead, two weeks of SCICEX-99 research remained before she departed from beneath the Arctic ice in the Norwegian Sea – the submarine’s first venture into the Atlantic Ocean in her 28-year commissioned history. Well-deserved port visits in England and Florida followed, and then Hawkbill continued her homeward-bound voyage to Pearl Harbor via the Panama Canal – and the conclusion of an epic and
historic final cruise.

“An Explosion of Information”
Hawkbill’s unique capability to operate autonomously anywhere that depth permits in the Arctic Basin, plus its speed, stability, and inherent silence make it an ideal scientific-research instrument. “The capabilities of nuclear-powered submarines have enabled an exponential increase in scientific knowledge about the Arctic Ocean reaped through SCICEX,” concluded RADM Paul G. Gaffney, the Chief of Naval Research.

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Photo Courtesy of
JO1 Rodney Furry, USN

Journalists from a National Geographic Society video team interview
USS Hawkbill’s Commanding Officer, during SCICEX-99 for
a broadcast later this year.

The Navy’s senior submariner, ADM Frank L. “Skip” Bowman, Direc-tor of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, echoed that view following his embarkation on Hawkbill in April with the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations. “When we left, we all knew SCICEX-99 was a home run in the making,” he said.

Dr. Edwards was also emphatic in describing the accomplishments of the SCICEX series. “We have increased what we know about the bottom of the Arctic Ocean by two or three orders of magnitude – literally. It is just an explosion of information compared to what we had before,” she asserted. In her judgment, years of work will be required to analyze and assess the five SCICEX expeditions’ results.

ONR will continue making important contributions to Arctic research through its High Latitude Dynamics Research Program and other projects. The National/Navy Ice Center in Suit-land, Maryland, will also continue as the Nation’s lead Arctic environmental forecast center, and ONR is making investments to improve its operational forecasting abilities. “We must work harder to know exactly what future the Arctic holds,” Dr. Conlon said, “because the effects are worldwide – and dramatic.”

End of an Era?
Hawkbill’s 1999 Arctic expedition marks the end of the current series of yearly SCICEXs and the beginning of a period of some uncertainty. As Submarine Force assets continue to draw down, it will be more difficult to assign Fleet submarines to cooperative undersea scientific expeditions with civilian researchers. RADM Albert H. Konetzni Jr., Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Submarine Force, describes the problem of scheduling time for operations like SCICEX. “We’re going from 96 submarines in 1990 to a projected 50 submarines by the year 2003. Planners are already asking which valid missions the remaining submarines can fulfill and which missions will go unfulfilled,” he noted. Although long-term prospects are tenuous, there is a potential opportunity for the Sturgeon-class submarine USS L. Mendel Rivers (SSN-686) to participate in a prospective SCICEX-2000 in the fall of next year. Regardless of the final outcome, the crew of USS Hawkbill now joins the long line of Navy men and women who have had a unique and unforgettable Arctic experience while contributing to our scientific understanding of that remote and inhospitable region.

CAPT Peterson, is the Senior Editor of the Navy League’s Sea Power Magazine, in which a longer version of this article will appear. LCDR Werner is the Public Affairs Officer at COMSUBPAC. Both men participated in SCICEX-99.


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