CORVALLIS - For Oregon State University researcher Christopher Guay, summer ends Aug. 12.
That's the day Guay heads for a Navy nuclear submarine and prepares to drop to the depths of the polar sea for a two-month assignment to study ocean currents deep beneath the Arctic ice cap.
For a Hawaiian native who was nurtured on tropical breezes at Honolulu's Punahou School, the thought of not seeing the sky from mid-August through mid-October is daunting.
"I am a bit apprehensive," Guay said. "It is very much tight quarters in the submarine, and on this cruise there is no scheduled surfacing, but I'm also excited about the terrific research opportunities that this cruise offers. Very few people have ever been beneath the Arctic ice and much of the region remains a great mystery."
After returning from a four-day shake-down cruise off the Connecticut coast on Aug. 7, Guay, an OSU doctoral candidate in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, will return to Corvallis and prepare for 60 days beneath the ice.
Guay will collect data for Kelly Falkner, an OSU assistant professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences. Falkner and Guay are working to collect water samples and measure temperature and chemical markers in the water. In particular, they are working to track waters entering the Arctic Basin by identifying chemical signatures of freshwater rivers.
Scientists are concerned with the fate of industrial and radioactive wastes released into Russian rivers that empty into the Arctic Basin. Studies of freshwater circulation could also reveal how changes in Arctic fresh water inputs might affect global climate, Falkner said.
Researchers consider the Arctic one of the most reliable indicators of global temperature change and temperature and salinity analysis of the area is vital to tracking climate changes, Guay said.
The research of Falkner and Guay on the region is already drawing attention. This year they were presented with the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States Arctic Research Excellence Award for their work tracing barium in Arctic waters.
"We're looking for geochemical fingerprints of the rivers," Guay explained. As salmon have apparently known for centuries, scientists are finding that each river has a chemical composition that can be tracked once the river meets the sea.
Guay and Falkner are particularly interested in barium, a metallic element that erodes from the rocks of the continents and mixes in the rivers.
Guay will be aboard the U.S.S. Archerfish, a 300-foot nuclear attack submarine, with four other scientists and about 123 Naval personnel, he said.
Both living space and communications will be limited. Except for emergencies, scientists won't be allowed to send any outgoing messages and incoming communications will also be restricted, Guay said.
The sub will normally run hundreds of feet under the ice and will also map undersea ridges and plains. Since 1993, the Navy has made a Sturgeon-class attack submarine available for three other science cruises to the Arctic. Two more cruises, in 1998 and 1999, are planned.
While the Arctic expedition will be Guay's first submarine cruise, he has spent two summer conducting research on chemical oceanography on Russian scientific vessels and is conversant in Russian.
"There's just no experience like being out at sea, in your own self-contained world," he said. After receiving his doctorate in chemical oceanography, Guay said he will consider pursuing joint research opportunities in Russia.