U.S. GEOTRACES team completes 64 day Arctic expedition

On Sunday October 11 the USCGC Healy arrived in Dutch Harbor, Alaska successfully completing the U.S. GEOTRACES Arctic expedition. As we approached Dutch Harbor Captain Jason Hamilton gathered the science party and crew together for final remarks. He thanked everyone onboard for a successful mission, congratulated us for being part of the United States’ first solo mission to the North Pole on a surface vessel, and for working together through 64 days at sea.

Scientifically we accomplished ambitious goals to create one of the most unique chemical datasets of the Arctic Ocean. We were able to capture multiple points in the annual cycle of Arctic ice from late summer thawing, to thick multi-year ice at the North Pole, and early fall re-freezing. This data is vital to our understanding of how decreasing ice cover and thickness in the Arctic Ocean will change the chemistry and ecosystem dynamics of the basin in the near future.

Part of our cruise transect repeated hydrography stations that were occupied by previous missions in 1994, and 2005. Preliminary results show what we expected – the mixed layer at these locations is warmer and less saline due to melting ice over the past 20 years. NASA has used satellites to monitor sea ice change since 1978 and now oceanographers are accumulating enough data to piece together how these changes are affecting the Arctic Ocean. For many of the elements measured by the U.S. GEOTRACES program (i.e. mercury), there is no historical data for comparison; this is time zero for ocean chemistry in the Arctic and it could not have come at a more pivotal time. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising faster than anywhere else on the planet. The paramount of stepping off the ship at the North Pole this September was not that we were part of a small group of people to reach the top of the world, but that within our lifetime future explorers could be sailing through open water with no summer ice to walk on.

Two months is a long time to be at sea but we were rewarded on this trip with many once in a lifetime experiences (polar bears, northern lights, pictures with Santa at the North Pole to name a few!). I feel very lucky to have stumbled onto this career path and each adventure motivates me to work harder to keep moving forward with my work.

What’s next: After a few days relaxing in Dutch Harbor (and mingling with the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch crew – it’s crabbing season!) the science party made their way home and the Coast Guard began their transit back to the Healy’s base port in Seattle, WA. The Healy will stop in Nome, Alaska to pick up family members who will sail the last few days of the transit and catch up with their loved ones. In November scientists will travel to Seattle to collect gear and samples, and then the work continues! It will take 2-3 years to analyze all of the samples that were collected on board, to interpret our results, and write manuscripts.

I would like to thank you for reading my blog this summer and taking an interest in the Arctic Ocean. A special thanks to Abigail Doyle who managed my postings above 75 N when I was without internet. I will continue to post sporadically between expeditions, please click the “follow” link if you would like to receive email updates. Stay curious!

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

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