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Coast Guard Cadets Analyze Corrosion Rates

Monday, June 20, 2016

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Coast Guard Cadets Analyze Corrosion Rates to Protect Cultural and Environmental Resources, and in Service to Tall Ships

By Cynthia Greenwood

A tank barge sank amid rough seas in Long Island Sound on Jan. 24, 1936, carrying 500,000 gallons of heating oil with it to the bottom of the sea.

Because the vessel has spent 80 years on the seafloor, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) alerted the U.S. Coast Guard that the submerged vessel, known as Cities Service Number 4, may pose a serious risk of contaminating the tidal estuary should any corrosion of the barge structure cause an oil leak. The tank barge rests 140 feet below an active waterway in an area of strong currents and dark water.

Cadets at work
Photos: Coast Guard Academy Corrosion Research Lab

Cadet 2nd-Class Matt Naylor and Cadet 4th-Class Marshall Grant prepare materials for two mass-loss experiments that will collect information about the influence of seasonal variations upon corrosion.

Cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, located 16 nautical miles from the sunken barge, are addressing this local concern by studying corrosion and the effects of long-term immersion in the seawater of structures and vessels.

“Because Cities Service Number 4 is difficult to reach and contains cargo tanks that are potentially intact and still holding large quantities of oil, the barge commands a cautious, methodical and respectful approach for survey and evaluation,” said Capt. Rich Sanders, professor of chemistry at the Coast Guard Academy.

Coast Guard Cadets Study Corrosion Rate Analysis on the USS Arizona

The hull and rivet construction of Cities Service No. 4 is similar to the venerable Navy battleship USS Arizona, now a hallowed tomb for 1,177 men who died when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Oil still trickles from her damaged hull, which makes the vessel an ideal subject for corrosion rate analysis. For the past 15 years the National Park Service (NPS) has analyzed the USS Arizona for a purpose similar to the aims of the Coast Guard Academy—to establish the risk of pollution posed by the ship, if, or when, a catastrophic or accelerated release of oil might be expected.

Cadets prep experiment

Cadet 2nd-Class Naylor and Cadet 4th-Class Grant weigh coupons in preparation for the two mass-loss experiments.

In the spring of 2014, the Coast Guard Academy’s Corrosion Research Laboratory, a consortium of engineering and science faculty who oversee cadets in a number of advanced research projects of interest to the Coast Guard, became intrigued by an NPS study that analyzed the rate of general corrosion of the USS Arizona hull structure.

In particular, NPS researchers pursued this analysis by measuring the concentration of iron in hull concretion, the mineralized marine growth affixed to the ship’s surface, as an alternative to removing and measuring pieces of the hull itself. 

“Because the Cities Service barge has the potential to pollute and pose serious harm to Long Island Sound, we decided to investigate the wreck using the same benign, non-destructive means that scientists and engineers have applied to the USS Arizona,” said Capt. Sanders. 

Joining forces with Coast Guard Academy cadets on Dec. 8, 2014, the NPS transferred hull and rivet samples from the USS Arizona to the Coast Guard Academy to help marine and environmental science majors familiarize themselves with this work, and to help the cadets better understand the relevant environmental impacts upon hull degradation.

Cadets prep coupons

Cadets 2nd-Class Phil Azzari and Naylor assemble coupon arrays for the mass-loss experiment in an estuarine system linked to Long Island Sound, located in New London, CT.

During the 2014-2015 school year, three senior-level cadets took their first steps in this collaborative corrosion research, seeking to find parallels between the USS Arizona’s propensity for corrosion in the Pacific Rim and wrecked vessels like the Cities Service No. 4 barge on the northeast Atlantic seaboard.

Background and Experiments

To develop the scientific expertise required for their project, members of the Coast Guard Academy’s Corrosion Research Lab contacted the Department of Defense (DoD) Office of Corrosion Policy and Oversight in 2014.

The DoD Corrosion Office develops corrosion prevention and control strategies for the U.S. military and oversees their implementation.* Recognizing that the Coast Guard falls under the aegis of the DoD during wartime, and knowing that preservation of the Coast Guard fleet will lie in the hands of future officers trained at the Coast Guard Academy, the DoD Corrosion Office has encouraged and supported the cadets’ research on submerged vessels under its Technical Corrosion Collaboration program.

Guiding the cadets’ effort is a newly released report from NOAA, the Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET), which offers analysis of more than 20,000 shipwrecks and identifies 107 submerged vessels that may pose pollution threats.

Cadets in wetsuits

Cadet 2nd-Class Matt Naylor (at left) and faculty divers prepare to transport the coupon assembly to its submerged testing site located below the surface of Narragansett Bay at Fort Wetherill, RI.

The RULET report, which was presented to the U.S. Coast Guard on May 20, 2013, evaluated 107 shipwrecks according to the risk they pose to the environment based on a series of protocols. Included in the report was the Cities Service No. 4 tank barge, which scored high for NOAA’s assessment of the worst-case discharge.

Whereas senior-level cadets at the Coast Guard Academy ultimately began this project in 2014, the research team now includes cadets of all levels (first- through fourth-class).

Since the project’s inception, students have learned how to determine instantaneous corrosion rates in the laboratory using potentiostatic and linear polarization methods, how to perform visual surveys on submerged vessels using remotely operated vehicles, how to collect samples and deploy subsurface field experiments, and how to conduct in-situ mass loss experiments according to ASTM International standards.

“The demands of this research are multi-disciplinary, requiring the cadets to develop proficiency in electrochemistry; mechanical, environmental and corrosion engineering; oceanography; and interagency coordination at federal, state and local levels,” said Capt. Sanders.

For each research segment, cadets relate their work to the Coast Guard’s statutory missions and unique historical tradition of promoting safety-at-sea, facilitating maritime commerce, protecting the environment and supporting cultural resources, noted Capt. Sanders.

Comparing corrosion data from the USS Arizona battleship with data from the Cities Service No. 4 tank barge for modeling purposes presents challenges and opportunities for student researchers.

New London test site

Cadets Azzari (from left to right), Grant and Naylor perform the final assembly of the New London Harbor mass-loss experiment. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, also pictured, is ready to receive the cadets for summer cruise.

Although the battleship and tank barge share a similar method of construction, the compositional variation of their steel structures, the differences in how the two structures endure in ocean water and the disparate seasonal effects between the battleship’s underwater surroundings in Pearl Harbor and the tank barge’s resting place in Long Island Sound, introduce complexities that must be recognized, understood and ultimately addressed by students as they form a functional comparative model.

Benefiting from the expertise of USS Arizona researchers, cadets are currently working to contribute data to refine existing, non-invasive corrosion rate estimation techniques for varying environmental conditions.

Temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen, as well as the iron content in the mineralized bio-fouling, have been previously matched by researchers across a host of other wreck sites, which enables these experts to develop a kinetically based corrosion correlation factor called the Weins Number.

To apply the Weins Number in New England coastal sites, the cadets must still capture information about the influence of seasonal variations upon corrosion. To collect their data, cadets deployed mass-loss studies at two sites in May 2016.  

The first mass-loss study site is located 30 feet below the surface in Narragansett Bay, RI, to mimic coastal waters, and the second site is situated at a similar depth in New London, CT, an estuarine system linked to Long Island Sound.

These two studies will capture the corrosion rates of submerged mild steel through seasonal variations of the water column. The cadets will conduct a warm-water experiment from May through November 2016, followed by a cold-water experiment from November 2016 through May 2017.

Coupon rack on site

Cadets Grant (left), Naylor and Azzari display the assembled mass loss apparatus for New London Harbor in front of the Eagle.

In addition, the cadets have also started one- and two-year averaging experiments in an effort to understand how seasonal variations may be effectively modeled.

Additional Project Considerations  

“During the course of designing the mass-loss experiment, it became evident to me and my fellow cadets that other types of corrosion, such as galvanic, crevice or pitting, may manifest themselves as a consequence of the interactions of the hull and rivets on the USS Arizona,” said Cadet 1st Class Matt Naylor.

“We have learned from the National Park Service Submerged Resources Center’s work with the USS Arizona that a finite element analysis based upon general corrosion rates will yield a failure timeline, but corrosion at hull-rivet fastening points could dramatically accelerate such an estimate due to a loss of structural integrity," added Cadet 1st Class Phil Azzari.

As a result, as part of a related project, cadets have begun examining hull and rivet samples. Having honed their skills obtaining reproducible instantaneous corrosion rates in the lab with metal samples, they will extend this work and the mass-loss studies during the fall 2016 semester to include the evaluation of metal test coupons fabricated from hull and rivet samples from the USS Arizona and other legacy vessels.

Moreover, Coast Guard Academy cadets plan to team up with U.S. Air Force Academy cadets to evaluate the metal composition of hull plating and rivets at the U.S. Air Force Center for Aircraft Structural Life Extension (CAStLE).

“The results from this evaluation may elucidate other corrosion processes influencing the loss of structural integrity,” Capt. Sanders said.

Serendipitously, the cadets’ interest in hull-rivet corrosion has brought this research from the seafloor to the ocean’s surface.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter EAGLE, the Coast Guard’s training vessel and America’s Tall Ship, is made up of hull and riveted construction, similar to the USS Arizona and the Cities Service No. 4.

Deploying coupon array

Cadets Azzari (left) and Naylor deploy a mass-loss experiment on May 5 at Pier 7, New London, CT, as part of their complex corrosion rate analysis and research centered on wrecked vessels.

The EAGLE, built in 1936, has been central to the seagoing training of Coast Guard cadets and officer candidates for the past seven decades.

“At 80 years old, the USCGC Eagle remains a national treasure in proud service,” said Capt. Sanders. “It is our desire to help extend this vessel’s service life as far as possible into the future.”

The cadets say they are eager to engage in this pursuit, having obtained samples for an analysis of its riveted hull, as well as similar sections from a sister ship. Next year, cadets will perform compositional and instantaneous corrosion rate analyses on the Eagle.

“We are extremely pleased with the multiple avenues of research that the cadets’ original corrosion rate analysis on the USS Arizona is yielding,” said Rich Hays, deputy director of the DoD Corrosion Office.

“From the standpoint of the Corrosion Office, the cadets’ mass-loss studies and widespread investigations into hull-rivet corrosion on the USS Arizona, the Cities Service No. 4, and the USCG Eagle represent a maturation of the Coast Guard Academy’s Corrosion Research Lab, which will serve the Coast Guard and the cadets extremely well in the future.”

Expectation of Results

Beginning in fall 2016, an expanded team of cadets will obtain, interpret and apply data from instantaneous corrosion rates and mass-loss studies to gain insight into how environmental and metallurgical factors affect potentially polluting wrecks as well as vessels in active service.

Ultimately, an on-site survey of the Cities Service No. 4, when coupled with this information, will help the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency Regional Response Teams, NOAA, and state and local governments to better evaluate the potential pollution threat.

“The extension and broader application of this work will contribute to and refine NOAA’s and others’ assessments of the other 107 wrecks identified by NOAA’s RULET report,” said Capt. Sanders.  

“In support of vessels in active service, particularly the Coast Guard Cutter EAGLE, it is fitting that the cadets who commit themselves to these projects also spend time at sea training aboard her,” Capt. Sanders said.

“Through a newfound understanding of corrosion and its effects, Coast Guard Academy cadets are focused upon the future, concerned with protecting the marine environment and taking steps to preserve decades of seagoing tradition for those who will follow in their wake.”


* Eric F. Herzberg, Norman T. O’Meara, and Rebecca Stroh, “The Annual Cost of Corrosion for Coast Guard Aviation and Vessels.” LMI Report AKN31T3, March 2015, p. iii.  (Retrieved from on May 10, 2016.) The 2015 cost of corrosion for Coast Guard aviation and vessels was estimated to be $344 million, which is 22.1 percent of the total Coast Guard maintenance spending on aviation assets and vessels. Corrosion costs the DoD $20.8 billion each year.


Editor's note: Edited to correct reference to ASTM International.


Tagged categories: Contaminants; Corrosion; Corrosion protection; Department of Defense (DOD); Immersion service; Military; North America; Program/Project Management; Research and development; Seacoast exposure; Site/field testing

Comment from peter gibson, (6/20/2016, 12:24 PM)

Corrosion studies for cadets...really.They should be chasing criminals; not wasting time studying corrosion.I don't get the link.Unless,they have been assigned the new job of inspecting steel for corrosion. Lets find out.

Comment from Frank Stefanski, (6/21/2016, 8:53 AM)

Peter, many of the USCG Academy cadets earn engineering degrees. As a USCG veteran, I don't see this as a waste of time.

Comment from Cynthia Greenwood, (6/21/2016, 12:36 PM)

Thanks, Frank, for your perspective. Peter - In order for the USCG to carry out their mission of "chasing criminals" (and supporting the Defense Department during wartime), Coast Guard personnel rely on a fleet of aircraft and vessels (boats and cutters) that is quite large. According to the USCG Web site, "cutters and boats are used on the water and fixed and rotary wing (helicopters) aircraft are used in the air." As you can imagine, and if you were to give it some serious thought, all of these platforms require maintenance, corrosion prevention, and corrosion control and mitigation. The Coast Guard Academy trains its cadets not only to perform search and rescue, law enforcement, environmental response, ice operations, and air interdiction, but also to maintain and protect the fleet of vessels/platforms that are used to conduct these operations. The science of corrosion control challenges cadets to master principles of chemistry, materials science, electrochemistry, and other engineering sub-disciplines, depending on the preservation requirements of any given vessel or aircraft component. Visit this link for more info about USCG resources -

Comment from Cynthia Greenwood, (6/21/2016, 12:37 PM)

In other words, Peter, if you have a leaky boat, you can't chase anyone…..

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