GO WITH THE FLOE — R/V Norseman II is pictured caught in pack ice on June 8, 2024 in the northern Bering Sea. GO WITH THE FLOE — R/V Norseman II is pictured caught in pack ice on June 8, 2024 in the northern Bering Sea. GO WITH THE FLOE — R/V Norseman II is pictured caught in pack ice on June 8, 2024 in the northern Bering Sea.

Research vessel en route to Nome after trapped in ice for 14 days

After having been caught in dense sea ice for 14 days, the research vessel Norseman II is on its way back to Nome, to undergo repairs.

The ship had been drifting with the ice off the northern coast of the Seward Peninsula  since June 4, 2024 with its crew and 14 scientists on board. As of Tuesday morning, June 18, the vessel appeared to have made it out of the ice and was navigating through open waters.

The 115-foot privately-owned research vessel leased by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, set sail from Nome on Friday, May 31 for a study to determine Pacific walrus abundance in the Bering and Chukchi seas.

The study is part of several walrus population estimate cruises, many of which have been conducted from the R/V Norseman II. In years past, the research vessel sailed hundreds of miles up and down the Alaska coast, and even sometimes into Russian territories, when geopolitics allowed. Last year, during the study’s month-long research cruise, the vessel was nearly at its northernmost point in the journey by now, around Icy Cape.

This year, however, the ship got caught in sea ice. Seventeen days into the trip, on June 16, and 12 days after being surrounded by the sea ice, NOAA and the National Weather Service released a statement titled “Weather and Ice Outlook USGC (US Coast Guard) Norseman II Response” stating the “Norseman II continues to drift northeast with the pack ice and remains approximately 5 nm (nautical miles) from the nearest ice edge.” The statement included a map placing the vessel roughly 40 nautical miles north of Shishmaref.

The map indicated the vessel was in “consolidated/compact ice.” It also indicated that the vessel has only traveled a little more than two hundred nautical miles from Nome. The researchers had planned on a 29-day cruise.
What happened?
Rick Thoman, climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at UAF, analyzed satellite imagery of the area for the week that the vessel became impeded and said that the ice coalesced to form a “sort of plug” which was “atypical for sure.” He said that there was thick ice in the area, at least by modern standards, not historical, and that persistent winds out of the north were in play with currents to create a particularly large sea ice buildup for this time of year.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed in an email to the Nugget that the vessel’s progress was hampered by sea ice.  “On June 4, the RV Norseman II, operated by the Support Vessels of Alaska (SVA), with a science team of 14 from the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Eskimo Walrus Commission on board, became impeded by sea ice,” according to Andrea Medeiros, spokesperson for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Region. “Everyone on board is safe with all the comforts of normal ship operation, including heat, electricity, meals, fresh water, and internet. Morale remains high and everyone is looking forward to continuing the research cruise in the coming days.”

When SVA, an Alaskan-based company, was reached for comment, a representative was adamant that the vessel is not stuck in sea ice. “They’re allowing the ice to maneuver so they can operate safely,” he said. The R/V Norseman II, while designed to operate in Bering Sea and amongst sea ice conditions, is not an ice-class vessel.

The representative from SVA also disclosed that the R/V Norseman II suffered a mechanical malfunction relating to the rudder system. But thanks to redundancies built into the vessel, he said, it still navigable under its own power and steering by utilizing a bow thruster in addition to a tiller arm that is manipulated via chain fells.
The response
According to Shannon J. Kearney, spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard District 17, the Coast Guard has been in “close, continuous contact with the Master of the Norseman II since they reported a mechanical casualty and that they were immobilized by ice.” 

“The vessel is not in distress and the master has requested no assistance from the Coast Guard,” Kearney said in an email to the Nugget. “We continue to monitor the situation closely and maintain the ability to respond if the situation worsens.”

The USCG maintains a large cutter in the Bering Sea 365 days a year to conduct fisheries patrol and maintain availability to respond to search and rescue. Unrelated to the Norseman II situation, the ice-class Cutter Healy sailed from Seattle on June 12 for deployment to the Arctic on three research missions.

However, that is not enough to allay all fears over the potential danger to the ecologically sensitive environment, which is relied heavily upon by many subsistence users. When reached by phone, Brandon Ahmasuk, VP of Natural Resources for Kawerak, said he was concerned about how the impeded vessel might impact walrus and seal migration, and marine mammal harvest, which is happening now. He also expressed concern that the vessel could be crushed and spill fuel.

The R/V Norseman II has 44,000-gallon fuel capacity.

SVA is a part of the Alaska Chadux Network, a nonprofit organization, that is “Alaska’s premier oil spill response organization for vessels and facilities across Western Alaska.” The Nugget spoke to Matt Odum, operations manager for Alaska Chadux, who said that “Spill cleanup in ice is very, very difficult. Normal response equipment would be destroyed by ice for the most part.”

Dr. Irina Trukhanova, lead scientist on the walrus study, was reached by phone while aboard the R/V Norseman II and was asked about the status of the vessel and the scientific mission. She replied, “No comment,” and quickly hung up. She did not respond to e-mail queries.

During a presentation about the study that Dr. Trukhanova gave in Nome the day before departure, she said she would be in close contact with Native villages about their research.
When reached by phone Monday, June 17 in Shishmaref, Roberta Ningealook, Tribal Coordinator, had not heard of the vessel’s current place in the ice, even though they were not much more than 40 nautical miles offshore. Frances Ozenna, Tribal Coordinator for Little Diomede, also said they had no contact from the vessel but “we were concerned.” Chris Hatch, Director of Public Safety for the Northwest Arctic Borough also stated that he had no notification of the impeded and mechanically malfunctioning vessel.

The study is important to subsistence users in the Bering Strait region but won’t be used for a species status assessment, which will determine whether the Pacific walrus is added to the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, list.

USFWS Walrus and Sea Otter program lead Dan Bjornlie explained that the species status assessment that will determine if Pacific walrus are added to the ESA list is derived from the population estimates from 2013-2017 studies. If Pacific walrus are added to the ESA list, there will be further steps needed and that will take at least a year.

USFWS spokesperson Andrea Medeiros, wrote, “We plan to publicly announce the decision on whether or not to list the Pacific walrus under the ESA in the fall of 2025.” A warranted finding and listing under the ESA would not preclude subsistence harvest, she added.

The R/V Norseman II’s current first objective is to return to Nome as soon as possible to make repairs and continue the group’s scientific mission, if time allows.

As of press time on Tuesday afternoon, the Coast Guard said the vessel made it out of the ice and was transiting to Nome.


The Nome Nugget

PO Box 610
Nome, Alaska 99762

Phone: (907) 443-5235
Fax: (907) 443-5112


External Links