Polar TREC

Middle school science teacher Bill Schmoker from Boulder, Colorado will be joining the U.S. Arctic GEOTRACES expedition through the National Science Foundation’s Polar TREC program. Polar TREC (Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating) integrates K-12 educators with scientists exploring polar regions to bring hands-on field experiences back to the class room. Bill will be documenting his journey on Polar TREC’s website and he’s already posted some great videos from the ship loading in Seattle last month!

The “bubble” is built to create a clean-laboratory environment on a ship filled with metal and dust. Ultra-clean air is pumped into the plastic encasement creating positive pressure that keeps dust and contaminants away from precious samples.

Preparing for the Arctic

My plane ticket to Alaska is booked for August 3. In less than two weeks I will trade in my surf boards and bikinis for steel-toed insulated boots and a parka. I’m in the process of shutting down my life in Santa Cruz for the next 2.5 months – organizing a sublet for my apartment, throwing out jars of questionable pasta sauce in the back of my refrigerator, finding a place to store my car, canceling Netflix, making sure my bills are on auto pay. I bought a window fan this week to cool my apartment on an unusually hot central California day; the irony hit me as I was paying at the checkout counter, heat won’t be an issue for the rest of summer while I’m walking on ice sheets and sailing through chilly Arctic waters.

The international GEOTRAES program is sending three ships to the Arctic Ocean this summer led by U.S., Canadian, and German scientists. Each team will study a different part of the Arctic basin and cruise paths will intersect at two different stations to check the reproducibility of our results. This is a historic expedition, one that will generate the largest dataset of trace elements ever collected in the Arctic Ocean. These three cruises are the fruition of planning efforts spanning three years, but already things have been shaken up. The German GEOTRACES expedition, which departs August 16, was recently denied clearance to work in Russian waters forcing the team to redraw their original station plan. Science operations are currently at a stand-still on the Amundsen, an ice breaker operated by Canada’s Coast Guard that left port on July 10 carrying the Canadian GEOTRACES team. Shipping channels near the Hudson Bay coast have been locked up by ice and residents there are quickly running out of fuel and supplies. The Coast Guard has decided to put all science operations on hold, changing course and heading back to the Baffin Islands to help break ice so commercial supply ships can pass through. The U.S. team has been warned of crowded hotels and backed-up parcel deliveries in Dutch Harbor, Alaska where our ship will depart on August 9thShell is moving in personnel and supplies to prepare for drilling operations that will begin this summer. We can always hope for the best, but when it comes to oceanography our success is often measured by how able we are to adapt.

2015 International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant

Last month I had the opportunity to participate in the 12th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant on Jeju Island in South Korea. The biennial conference brings together scientists, medical professionals, industry leaders, and policy makers who share a common intent of protecting human health and the environment from mercury pollution. I spent one week discussing data with other oceanographers from Europe and the United States, learning about the human health impacts of mercury from fish consumption and mining activities, and branching out into new territory to prepare for my work this summer in the Arctic Ocean. I presented data from the 2013 GEOTRACES Pacific cruise described in this blog, and from a collaborative project that measured fluxes of mercury from rivers and estuaries flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.


Gala dinner on Jeju Island at the International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant

This year was the first mercury conference since the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) established the Minamata Convention in 2013. The convention is a global treaty signed by 128 countries (including the United States) to reduce the production, use, and emissions of mercury. Members from the UNEP were present to discuss their goals and current challenges. Mercury pollution can traverse the world through riverine discharge, ocean currents, and global air circulation – one nation’s effort to reduce emissions can easily be negated by increased emissions from another country. This type of global effort is necessary to make real progress in reducing the amount of anthropogenic mercury in the environment. The backbone of this convention is decades of scientific research and its successful implementation is a great example of what can happen when science and policy work together.

And then there was MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome)…an outbreak that has been spreading through South Korea. The illness has claimed 27 lives in the past month inducing some panic in regards to traveling through the country. On the fourth day of the conference the Korean government released a statement explaining that a MERS patient had recently visited Jeju island and stayed at a hotel were many conference attendees were residing. The illness only seems to be spreading through hospitals where infected patients were treated and the World Health Organization had not issued any travel bans. At the airports passengers wearing paper masks were pulled aside and checked for MERS symptoms (high fever), many flights through China were canceled, and the population of tourists on the island was noticeable scarce. But despite these concerns, we all had a productive and enjoyable week on the island. Korea is a beautiful country with the friendliest people and I can’t wait to go back!


Exploring Jeju Island with friends from the University of Connecticut and Dartmouth.

Korea travel photo gallery:

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First stop, Seattle

Last week researchers participating in the upcoming Arctic GEOTRACES cruise gathered in Seattle, Washington to meet the Healy Icebreaker at its home port. Scientists had the opportunity to load gear and set up labs on the ship – I was out of the country for a conference but the rest of team Hg got the job done! We will meet the Healy in Dutch Harbor, Alaska to set sail on August 9th – adventure time is fast approaching and I’m getting excited.

Check out the following radio news clips from Alaska with my friend Dr. Anna Aguilar-Islas and from Seattle with Chief Scientist Dr. David Kadko.

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U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy – this massive ship is 120 ft longer than a football field (Photo by Alison Agather)


View of Seattle and Mt. Rainier from the ship (Photo by Carl Lamborg)




Happy World Oceans Day!!


Stellwagon Bank Marine Sanctuary (North Atlantic), April 2015. Humpback whales can consume up to 3000 lbs of food each day. Here a humpback whales uses its tail to smack the water and stun a group of fish below; the whale then dives down and swoops back up with an open mouth devouring its catch.

Today is World Oceans Day!! The Consortium for Ocean Leadership is hosting a twitter event to celebrate from 1-5 PM (eastern time) – tweet any question about the ocean with #MyOceanQ. I’ll be volunteering with a group of oceanographers to answer as many questions as we can! Check out this link for ideas on ways to celebrate :)