By Ensign Airlie Pickett
In early June of this year, NOAA Ship Rainier headed up the inside passage to Southeast Alaska to conduct hydrographic survey operations in two project areas. The first, Tracy Arm Fjord, is located in the Tongass National Forest and is home to a number of glaciers making it a popular destination for tourists and the cruise ships and sightseeing vessels that carry them. From 2014-2015, a little over two million out-of-state visitors traveled to Alaska, bringing over $4 billion and 39,700 jobs to the state. Nearly half of those visitors arrived via cruise ships (Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, 2016).
The area was last surveyed in 1974 using only partial-bottom coverage techniques. Since then, technology has improved vastly and complete bottom coverage is now possible. Rainier and her five survey launches are equipped with multibeam echo sounders, which provide a much greater density of soundings, from which a highly detailed 3-dimensional surface can be created.
At the far ends of the Tracy Arm Fjord are two glaciers, the Sawyer Glacier and the South Sawyer Glacier. Satellite imagery (and in-person investigations) reveal that over the past few decades the glaciers have receded significantly, leaving a large area of completely unsurveyed water directly preceding the glaciers.
The survey was conducted in early summer, and the warm weather made itself known. Both glaciers began to calve in earnest and strong glacial currents and prolific icebergs made this survey operationally challenging. In addition, the high canyon walls of the fjord impeded communications, making it difficult for the ship and her survey launches to maintain contact.
The data collected from this survey will also be used by glaciologists, providing a highly detailed 3-dimensional view of the path taken by the glacier as it receded. Rainier’s data reveals ridges across the seabed at several points along the fjord. These features, called moraines, are formed where glacier recession stopped for a period of time.
The second survey completed by Rainier during this time was in Lisianski Inlet, home to the town of Pelican, population: 88. Lisianski Inlet is a popular location for recreational boaters and yachts as well as being an important route of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system. The area was last surveyed in 1917 using lead lines. Rainier’s full-bottom coverage using multibeam sonar will greatly enhance the accuracy of local charts and assist local mariners in safe navigation.