Meet Christy Harrington with the Alaska Marine Highway System

Background: The Alaska Marine Highway/DOT is collaborating in a unique partnership to help understand ocean acidification in Alaska. A carbon measurement system was installed on the M/V Columbia to collect data during it’s ~1,600 km run between Bellingham, WA and Skagway, making it the most extensive ferry-based CO2 system in North America.

Through this endeavor, a near-shore coastal observatory network is being built linking instruments along the southeast Alaska and British Columbia coasts. Partners include the Hakai Institute, NOAA, the Alaska Ocean Observing System, and the UAS Coastal Rainforest Center.

Christy Harrington is with the Alaska Marine Highways System based in Ketchikan and helps support the project. 

Q: Tell us about your role in the OA ferry project.

I’m the Environmental Specialist for the Alaska Marine Highway, and I provide shoreside support in Ketchikan as well as serve as the Alaska Marine Highway liaison for the OA project. My responsibilities include maintaining proper operations of the ocean acidification system, retrieving the oceanographic data from the computer inside the dry box and providing regular maintenance to system.

Maintenance of the system is especially important as the operation of system is based upon intake of sea water which contains many different marine organisms as well as marine debris.  Upon seawater intake in the bow thruster, different size filters separate out these organism from the seawater.  These organisms including microscopic marine organisms (i.e plankton, marine plant, seaweed and algae) which could clog up the system if not kept clean.  One of the coolest things I have seen quite frequently is when cleaning the wet box filter, the tiny plankton trapped in the filter will bioluminescent when there is a fair number of them in the filter!

Q: What did it take to retrofit the ferry to monitor for OA?

Retrofitting the MV Columbia with the system was a serious undertaking and was completed in April 2017.  It included installing a piping system from the bow thruster intake valve up to the car deck, installing oceanographic equipment on the bow, and a General Oceanics measuring system on the car deck with ancillary sensors.

Q: What does the CO2 system on the ferry look like?

The General Oceanics System consists of a wet box and dry box. Ocean water is sucked up while the ship is underway, and then is measured for oxygen, temperature and salinity. Then it’s pumped into the wet box, where it is sprayed into a little container. Air in that container picks up carbon dioxide contained in the water. That air then is pumped into dry box, which analyzes CO2 levels. Those levels indicate the acidity of the water. Separate sensors measure carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, to compare that with the seawater. The whole thing is about 4 feet wide and 1 foot tall.

Q: What needs to happen every time the ferry comes into port?

The M/V Columbia arrives in Ketchikan twice a week. At that point, we pull the oceanographic data and logs from the computer and send them to the Hakai Institute for further analysis.  We also clear the blow thruster and wet box filter thoroughly to make sure the system continues running smoothly.

Q: Why did the AMHS decide to take this on?

Since the Columbia provides year round service on a standard route, it provided an ideal research platform to study ocean chemistry across time, and across an immense stretch of coastline. The AMHS had the capacity to be a partner, and supported the mission to provide important marine data for current and future fisheries.

Students from Ketchikan learn about ocean acidification and the ferry monitoring system during a tour onboard the Columbia in 2017. Photo by Christy Harrington.

Q: Do you think the project has provided an opportunity for more people to learn about OA?

Yes, it’s been a great educational opportunity.  There’s a poster on the ferry explaining the project that passengers can look at while in transit. Also, in 2017 , we arranged for school groups in Ketchikan to come aboard to learn about ocean acidification.  We had 1st – 5th graders from Fast Track Homeschool and 9th – 12th graders from Ketchikan High School.  The Alaska Marine Highway also arranged a presentation to 3rd and 4th graders at the Tongass Arts & Science School.  These events were a great success. I’d like to acknowledge the help from the M/V Columbia crew – Captain Mark Lundamo, Chief Mate Jim Annicelli and Chief Engineer Mark Perez.

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