Kenneth Hunkins, Arctic Oceanographer

September 3, 2014
News Subtitle: 
While Adrift on Ice Floes, He Charted Unexplored Depths

Kenneth Hunkins ca. 1957 on Ice Station Alpha, with navigational equipment.


Kenneth Hunkins, an oceanographer who made many key 20 th-century observations about the Arctic Ocean, often while camping for months on its frozen surface, died in his sleep at his home in Tappan, N.Y., on Sept. 2. He was 86. Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where he had spent his entire career, confirmed his death.

Over the years, Hunkins investigated waters off the U.S. east coast and Puerto Rico, in lakes in upstate New York, and elsewhere. But his most well-known work emerged from a series of drifting ice camps in the Arctic. In 1957, he helped staff Ice Station Alpha, where the U.S. Air Force landed Hunkins and some 20 other scientific and military men by plane on the sea ice some 500 miles north of Alaska. Just below them was 10,000 feet of water. It was the United States’ first such outpost. Among other things, Hunkins took the first photos of the deep northern abyss; charted a vast, previously unknown subsea mountain range; and pulled up revealing samples of rocks and sediment from the bottom. In a 1998 interview with the American Institute of Physics, he noted that white-coated lab scientists got more glory, but felt that he was lucky.  “We go to sea or we go out on ice-floe stations or we go out on small boats on lakes, and actually get a feel for our earth. That’s the nice idea of it,” he said.
Kenneth Leland Hunkins was born March 3, 1928, in the Adirondack mountain town of Lake Placid, N.Y. His father, Harlan Hunkins, ran a string of rural gas stations; his mother was the former Florence Olsen. Hunkins gravitated to science and engineering early, building model airplanes and tinkering with a chemistry set. He attributed his love of cold-weather adventure to growing up in snowy Lake Placid, home of the 1932 (and later 1980) Olympics. As a youth, he pursued skiing and mountaineering. He earned a bachelor’s in physics from Yale in 1950, but was quickly drafted into the army during the Korean War. He served as an infantry lieutenant and came home with a Purple Heart after being hit in the hand with shrapnel. In 1953, he took up graduate work in geophysics at Stanford University.
Hunkins was planning a career in oil exploration, but got sidetracked when he made a connection with Jack E. Oliver, a prominent Lamont-Doherty seismologist who felt that Hunkins had the right skills for a newly founded Arctic research program. The Soviet Union was at that time far ahead, having studied weather, ice, water conditions and underwater topography from a half-dozen drifting research camps since the 1930s. Now, with the Cold War in full swing and the perceived threat of a Soviet attack across the pole, the United States had started patrolling the Arctic, and was scrambling to catch up. It contracted with several universities, including Columbia, to gather basic data.

Kenneth Hunkins, Arctic Oceanographer from Earth Institute on Vimeo.

Ice Station Alpha was set on a floe of sea ice about a mile long by a half-mile wide, and about 10 feet thick. During the first winter, heavy equipment was parachuted in to plow an airstrip; then, prefab huts, supplies, fuel and people were landed by plane. During summer, landings were suspended because of partial melting of the ice surface. Hunkins spent about 6 months there in 1957, and again 1958.  His initial job was to chart the seafloor and sub-seafloor by setting off dynamite twice a day under the ice, and reading the echoes with instruments. He also ran a magnetometer and a gravity meter. Quick to learn new trades, he also became the station’s navigator.  In an era before satellite-guided instruments, he used a 19 th-century-style theodolite to view the sun and stars, then calculated the camp’s position by hand. Colleagues from other institutions studied weather, biology and sea ice. Over 18 months, Alpha meandered some 2,000 miles in a generally clockwise direction, ending up north of Canada’s Ellesmere Island.
One day, Hunkins noticed that the echo of a dynamite charge was audible to the naked ear, not just his instruments—an indication that the bottom suddenly loomed closer. They had run across what is now known as the Alpha Ridge, a Himalaya-scale mountain range, one of three discovered to divide the Arctic seafloor. Hunkins’ data also revealed isolated underwater mountains. John K. Hall, one of Hunkins’ grad students, named one of them Hunkins Seamount. Later analysis suggested that the data was misinterpreted, and Hunkins Seamount did not actually exist—but it remains on official maps.
While on Alpha, Hunkins lowered a new Lamont-engineered deep-sea camera, and snapped pictures of strange worms and shrimplike creatures dwelling on the deep bottom—the first photos to emerge from the deep Arctic Ocean. Using corers and dredges—at least one of them improvised from a garbage can—he also brought samples from the bottom. These included stones that, it was later determined, had been rafted out to sea within icebergs calved off glaciers.
Hunkins was also the first to measure a so-called Ekman spiral, a sort of subsea whirlpool driven by earth’s rotation. The spirals were long believed to exist worldwide, but could not be observed from ships pitching on the open sea; sea ice afforded a perfectly still platform for taking the necessary delicate readings.
During the second year at Ice Station Alpha, Hunkins and his comrades were bowled over when a gigantic structure suddenly emerged from a gap in the ice. It was the U.S.S. Skate, one of the first submarines to patrol the Arctic, whose crew had decided to come up for a visit. Hunkins took photos of the startling event, which he later sold to National Geographic magazine.
In November 1958, the team was forced to abandon Ice Station Alpha, after months of struggling to move the camp away from giant cracks opened in the moving ice, and pressure ridges pushed parts of the camp into the sea.
After Hunkins got his PhD. from Stanford in 1960, he was appointed to head Lamont’s continuing ice-station program. Much of it was moved to a new location, named Fletcher’s Ice Island, also known as T-3. This was a much thicker, more stable freshwater iceberg that had split off a glacier. With funding now coming from the U.S. Navy, Hunkins and his team inhabited the berg along with researchers from other institutions in shifts, continuously from 1962 to 1974.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, Hunkins helped run a series of other ice camps for the U.S. government. However, as teaching and other responsibilities took over, he delegated more of the fieldwork to students and staff. Hunkins also cooperated with Danish and Norwegian researchers to establish ice camps on and off the coast of eastern Greenland, where Arctic waters flow into the Atlantic. Much of this work involved flying in helicopters to remote locations to take samples and measurements. Jay Ardai, an engineer who worked with Hunkins for many years, remembered him as an endlessly cheerful person who kept colleagues going during frequent breakdowns, obstacles and changes in plans that were part of the Arctic routine.
 In the mid-1970s, Hunkins and Lamont oceanographer Bruce Heezen, who masterminded the first global seabed map, were invited aboard a small experimental Navy submarine. Among other things, they circumnavigated Puerto Rico to explore its underwater geology. Hunkins described it as “a Jules Verne kind of vehicle” that crawled along the seafloor while the scientists peered out portholes in the front. In a space too low to stand up, its floor covered by a mattress, they worked around the clock; when too tired, they simply rolled over and slept, then woke up and resumed.
After companies began prospecting for oil off the U.S. East Coast in the 1980s, Hunkins used shipboard instruments to plot the intricate currents of the deep Baltimore and Hudson canyons off New York City—work hired out by the U.S. government out of concern for how potential spills might spread.
By the late 1990s, Hunkins was formally retired, but he continued to work until around 2011. Most recently, he and a former student of his from the 1970s--Middlebury College professor Tom Manley--were working on why New York and Vermont’s Lake Champlain is stirred by an unusual underwater wave, or seiche, that bounces from one end to the other about every four days.
Hunkins’ first marriage, to Julia Bontjes, ended in divorce. He is survived by his children from that union, Sarah Hunkins and Elizabeth Ann Hunkins. He is survived also by his second wife, Mei Bé, whom he married in 1985; his stepchildren Kenneth Bé and Shirley Bé; and several nephews and nieces.
When asked in 2007 about his work before satellites and other technology largely displaced ice camps, Hunkins said: “That’s still one of the best ways to understand ice—to drift on it. You don’t get that intimacy with ice unless you’re living on it.” In a reference to climate change, he added, “Of course, today, there’s a lot less of it.”



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