One, two, three, sumo! Every Saturday night onboard the USCGC Healy scientists and crew members come together for morale boosting events such as sumo night, a talent show, and karaoke.
Today is day 51 at sea onboard the Healy, I can’t remember the last time I blow dried my hair or put on make-up, I have mastered the quick water conserving “sea shower,” and can rise to my top bunk in just two quick steps. Life at sea is a lot like middle school summer camp and it’s not just the bunk beds and cafeteria style dining – it’s living with a collection of characters, working together, and learning to rely on each other.
Onboard the Healy are 51 scientists ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-60s with experience levels from graduate students to senior scientists. There are 93 Coast Guard crew members ranking from entry level seamen as young as 18, to officers, commanders, and of course the captain. Coast Guard members are assigned to the Healy for three years and work on the ship year-round whether in port or at sea. Gender balance within the science party is fairly even with 43% female, but women make up only 25% of the Coast Guard crew.
This expedition is a once in a lifetime opportunity that took years to plan and millions of dollars to implement. To take full advantage of our precious time in the Arctic the schedule is tight – oftentimes we arrive at a new station just as work from the previous station is commencing. There is no such thing as an 8-5 workday on a research cruise, days often blur together and it becomes difficult to tell if the sleepy person munching on a bagel at dinner has been working for hours or is just getting up at 6PM for breakfast. Between stations our message board reads, “Sleep now, and as much as you can!,” a reminder of the long hours that lie ahead.
Life onboard the Healy:
- On deck anti-exposure suits, hard hats, and steel-toe boots must be worn when deploying and recovering sampling equipment
- Every day by 11AM and 5PM we must login and electronically sign an accountability form to ensure that all hands on deck are alive and well
- Coast Guard members are constantly on rounds, checking every inch of the ship for any signs of fire or flood
- Everyone has a pager to quickly relay messages across the ship or to reach individuals directly
- Our laptops and smart phones are connected to the ship’s server to access email and the Healy’s main communication webpage
- Desktop computers in the lounges have access to the internet (within satellite range, south of 80 °N)
- The “Board of Lies” is a whiteboard located in the main lab that lists the daily science schedule. It is rarely correct (hence the name) due to changes in arrival time or issues that arise during sampling. There is a camera aimed at the board that updates an image every two minutes so we can go online and check the schedule from anywhere on the ship
- Rooms are located on the second, third, and fourth decks of the ship and shared between three individuals of the same sex
- There is an upper and lower rack, and a bed we call the coffin. The coffin is a folded down couch covered by a low hanging shelf (we all feel bad/slightly guilty towards the person confined to this bed)
- There are suite-style bathrooms between each room, six people to one bathroom with a shower the size of a broom closet
- Laundry facilities onboard
- The crew and science party each have their own lounge. The Science Lounge has long tables and computers that serve as work areas. There are also couches, a TV, and a giant bean bag primarily used for napping
- Each day a PDF version of the New York Times Navy digest arrives for snippets of news from the mainland, and most importantly cross word puzzles
- Mike’s Java hut is open around meal times and sells freshly made expresso drinks and snacks
- There are two gyms onboard with plenty of cardio and weight training equipment, and Cross Fit and Insanity workouts are scheduled daily in the helicopter hangar. There is currently a Biggest Loser competition for those who want to trim down and an “Iron Sailor” competition for those who want to bulk up
- The Coast Guard works hard to feed us four great meals everyday:
- 0645–0745 Breakfast
- 1100–1200 Lunch
- 1700–1800 Dinner
- 2300–2345 Midnight Rations or “Mid-Rats”
- The desserts are excellent (did I mention there are two gyms on board?)
State rooms onboard the Healy. The “coffin” is in the foreground and bunk beds are in the background. Each room also has a sink and vanity.
Cafeteria style galley where four meals are served every day.
The Science Lounge serves as a living and work area for scientists.
One of two workout facilities onboard.
Walking from living quarters to the main lab requires passage through 5 water tight doors. The ship is compartmentalized by these doors to stop the spread of smoke, fire, or water in an emergency.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.
The U.S. GEOTRACES team is three weeks into the return leg of our expedition, moving south towards Dutch Harbor, Alaska. During the month of September we have witnessed the transition from Arctic summer to fall; behind us are large floes of multi-year ice and 24 hours of sunlight, ahead lies open water, thin ice, and dark nights. In August we passed through the marginal ice zone where large sheets of ice had melted leaving behind open water. Today we re-entered the marginal ice zone but in a different season, the open water left behind from summer melting is now re-freezing and many of the open leads we are sailing through will be completely frozen by March.
Living conditions outside the cozy confines of our ship are harsh at best, but amazingly we’ve had a number of wildlife encounters over the past two weeks. Curiosity (and perhaps hunger) drove a brave young polar bear within 100 yards of the ship, he stuck around long enough for a quick picture before something scared him off. Later an Arctic fox was spotted, these animals are known to follow in the footsteps of polar bears to feed on leftover food scraps. GoPro cameras lowered beneath the ice during sampling have caught glimpses of small fish, large clusters of algae, and even a ringed seal. Onboard melted ice cores have revealed a colorful variety of macro- and microscopic phytoplankton and DNA samples are being collected to map out the biology of life in the ice.
Inside the ship, living conditions threatened to turn harsh as one of our two evaporators used to generate freshwater went down. Restrictions were enforced as the ship’s water making capacity dropped to 45% – that means no laundry, paper plates and plastic utensils in the galley to minimize dishes, and “sea showers” (30 seconds to get wet, water off to soap up, 60 seconds of water to rinse). Luckily the restrictions were lifted after one week and the problem has since been resolved. It looks like we’ll show up in Dutch Harbor showered and wearing clean clothes for our final port stop on October 12th.
A young polar bear approached the USCGC Healy as we stopped for a water sampling station (Photo by Croy Carlin, Oregon State University).
Old ice – Above 80 °N we encountered thick floes of “multi-year ice,” large sheets that persist through the summer melting season and continue to grow in the winter.
New ice – Below 80 °N surface water is beginning to re-freeze as winter approaches. When surface water freezes wave motion causes round pieces of “pancake ice” to form rather than one large solid sheet. Pancake ice will eventually freeze together to form large ice sheets that continue to grow from the bottom as underlying water freezes.
A view of the USCGC Healy from the ice. The U.S. GEOTRACES program sampled their first ice station on September 7, 2015 near the North Pole.
As I stepped onto the ice with feet wrapped in wool socks and insulated boots, my friend Pete pointed to the ground and said “There’s two miles of ocean below us right now.” The 2 meter thick ice sheet was covered with a fresh layer of snow and felt like terra firma rather than a fluid surface.
After weeks of searching, the USCGC Healy has finally encountered ice floes large enough to safely occupy. Our goal was to sample 10 ice stations, however, as of September 15 we have only completed 4 and our chances of sampling more will decrease in the coming weeks as we move south towards open water. The ice we have encountered is surprisingly thin, pocketed with open leads and first-year ice rather than the solid multi-year ice we had anticipated. It’s likely that wind and surface currents pushed thick multi-year ice towards the eastern side of the basin beyond the extent of our cruise transect. However, thin ice in the western Arctic could also be a sign of decreasing ice cover. Ice extent in the Arctic has been decreasing by an average rate of 11% per decade since observations began in 1979; this winter the lowest ice extent in history was measured by satellite imagery just five months before our expedition began. Scientists predict that summers in the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free by 2080. Complete loss of ice in the Arctic Ocean each summer will significantly change the habitat of many marine mammals and potentially alter major geochemical cycles in the basin, including the cycling of toxic metals like mercury.
Many trace elements and nutrients enter the ocean from the atmosphere as rain, dust or snow, and gases like elemental mercury and carbon dioxide cycle through the air-sea interface. Sea ice can alter the chemistry of elements deposited from the atmosphere and temporarily shut down or slow gas exchange. The ice is also alive – when seawater freezes salt is expelled and brine collects in channels favored by bacteria. Sunlight can penetrate through the ice and support algal growth, especially at the bottom of the ice where light is supplemented by nutrients in the underlying water. Sea ice plays an important role in chemical and biological cycles of the Arctic Ocean and we are studying these interactions to better understand how the basin may react to decreasing ice extent in the future.
At each ice station a steep metal brow is lowered from the ship and the crew completes a survey of the floe, outlining a safe work area with bright orange cones. At our first station the Coast Guard ran through a series of drills, jumping into the icy cold water to practice different rescue techniques. There are always at least three Coast Guard members on the ice for rescue and two with rifles for polar bear watch. Our sampling gear is craned onto the ice in large pallet boxes with two sleighs that we use to move samples across the floe.
Each ice station takes about 8 hours to complete and there are multiple groups collecting samples concurrently, some scientists work in 2-3 hour shifts but many remain on the ice for the entire duration. A titanium coring device is used to collect ice for trace-element analysis. The ice cores are sealed in plastic tubes and transferred to the ship where they are sectioned in a walk-in freezer that has been modified to serve as a clean laboratory. A second coring device is used to examine the physical and biological characteristics of the ice; these parameters are less prone to contamination so trace-metal clean procedures are not needed. Melt water directly below the surface and seawater as deep as 20 meters is collect through a hole drilled in the ice. Surface snow and melt pond water is collected and along with the ice cores and under-ice water will be analyzed for the same trace metals and elements measured in the water column.
Dr. Anna Aguilar-Islas and Dr. Rob Rember from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks wear Tyvek suits and special gloves to collect ice cores that will be analyzed for contamination-prone metals.
Dr. Carl Lamborg from University of California, Santa Cruz and graduate student Kyle Dilliplaine from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks collect ice cores to study physical characteristics and algae. These samples are less prone to contamination and do not require the stringent trace-metal clean techniques pictured above. Carl and Kyle are wearing insulated Mustang suits to prevent hypothermia during long exposure to cold temperatures, a required garment for working out on the ice.
Organizing sample containers to collect melt water and seawater from a hole drilled in the ice (that’s me!)
The U.S. Coast Guard practiced different rescue techniques before our first ice station.
Members of the U.S. science party walk across the ice and back to the Healy after a visit to the German icebreaker Polarstern.
Ninety five percent of Earth’s water lies in the ocean and on a planet dominated by saltwater, mapping the chemistry of the global ocean requires a global effort. The GEOTRACES program was established in 2006 to organize this effort, drawing support and particpation from 30 different nations. This summer research teams from the United States, Canada, and Germany are working together to survey the chemistry of the Arctic Ocean. Planning for the Arctic began five years ago and each nation’s cruise transect was designed to maximize spatial coverage of the basin while occupying international cross-over stations to assess the accuarcy of our measurments.
On September 7, 2015 the USCGC Healy and German R/V Polarstern crossed paths near the North Pole, an unexpected intersection in the high Arctic. On an icebreaker it is difficult to estimate the arrival time of our planned stations (speed is dictacted by ice thickness), so it was by chance that the two ships arrived near 90 °N in sync.
The afternoon was spent welcoming the German science party onto the Healy, giving tours of living quarters and lab spaces. A short walk across the ice brought us to the R/V Polarstern where we were greeted with smiles and warm cider, interacting with a new set of humans for the first time in 30 days. The Polarstern has a wooden deck, a bar with a shiny disco ball suspended from the ceiling, and a swimming pool and sauna – all stark contrasts to the metal clad military vessel the U.S. science party has grown accoustomed to. I had the opportunity to visit and share data with Lars-Eric Heimburger from Bremen University, a colleague who is measuring mercury onboard the Polarstern. The encounter was a morale booster for science and crew members from both ships – what better place for an international meet-up than the North Pole?
GEOTRACES mercury scientists on deck of the German R/V Polarstern with the USCGC Healy in the background. From left to right: Carl Lamborg (University of California, Santa Cruz), Lars-Eric Heimburger (Bremen University), Katlin Bowman (University of California, Santa Cruz), not pictured Alison Agather (Wright State University).
“Ahoy shipmates, welcome to the North Pole.” The announcement was piped through the ship’s PA system at 7:47 a.m. on Saturday September 5, 2015. For the first time in history, the United States Coast Guard reached the North Pole without the accompaniment of a second icebreaker. Onboard the Healy are over 80 Coast Guard members and 50 scientists on a mission to the study the chemistry of a rapidly changing Arctic Ocean.
At 90 °N 115 °E the water is over 2 miles deep. We have spent three days at the Pole collecting seawater, particles, sediment, ice, and snow that will be analyzed for dozens of trace metals and elements. Our mission is a joint effort between the U.S. GEOTRACES and Climate Variability and Predictability (CLIVAR) programs, funded by the National Science Foundation. The dataset will take years to complete and the final product will be the most comprehensive chemical survey of the Arctic Ocean.
Inside the ship the spirit of Christmas was alive – stockings and decorated trees donned the galley, Elf was played on a projector in the helicopter hangar, candy canes distributed, Christmas music played in the labs. Stepping off the ship and onto the ice was a liberating feeling after 27 days at sea, even in the snowy -7 °F Arctic environment.
On to the ice!
Dr. Bill Landing from Florida State University travels the world with his saxophone and had the honor of playing at 90 °N.
Members of the Coast Guard had an opportunity to hand deliver letters to Santa from their children.
Enjoying time off the ship at the North Pole to celebrate a successful journey.
Group shot at the North Pole (photo by Cory Mendenhall).
The U.S. GEOTRACES team is at 85 °N and ice cover is increasing. The captain has slowed our speed from 10 to 5 knots and fired up a second engine. As we move north into thicker ice we will continue to lose speed and require more power. The crunch of breaking ice underneath the bow is audible throughout the entire ship. There is no ebb and flow to the movement, just an unstructured shaking as we pass through different layers of ice.
At our current location >90% of the surface ocean is covered by ice, however, we have yet to encounter a floe large enough for safe sampling. There are still large swaths of open water and patches of thin first year ice, not the thick multiyear sheets we expected to encounter at this latitude. The Coast Guard will determine when the ice is thick enough for us to exit the ship, and survey the floe before the science team moves on. In preparation for sampling we have had a number of planning and safety meetings. Polar bears present a risk to scientist working on the ice and the Coast Guard will have three armed personnel (two on the ice, one on the bridge of the ship) to protect us. During our safety briefing the Coast Guard provided the following need-to-know polar bear facts:
- Polar bears sit at the top of the Arctic food web and are excellent hunters
- Adult males weigh up to 1700 lbs, females 550 lbs
- They can run up to 25 mph for short distances
- Their sense of smell ranges over one mile
- Polar bears will take a bite out of anything they think is food, including humans
If a polar bear is spotted we will drop everything and head back to the ship. Shooting a bear is a last resort that will only be taken to save human lives. If we have to abandon our gear on the ice the bear will have free range to toss around samplers and sink our supplies.
On August 25 during a sampling event, one curious polar bear spent 30 minutes checking out the Healy. He jumped and swam between ice floes just 50 ft from the ship, nose in the air trying to decipher all the foreign smells that emanate from a Coast Guard ice breaker filled with 120 humans.
Before reaching 90 °N we will occupy our first crossover station – the German GEOTRACES team onboard a separate icebreaker will sample the same coordinates shortly after we depart to compare results and assess the accuracy of our measurements. Our estimated time of arrival at the North Pole is early morning September 4th. We will spend around 24 hours sampling water, particles, ice, and sediment from one of the least explored regions of the world in terms of ocean chemistry.
Check out http://icefloe.net/Aloftcon_Photos/ for hourly updated photos of our location from the USCGC Healy!
Ice cover has been increasing as we near the top of the Earth. Below are images from August 17 at 74 °N, August 19 at 75 °N, and August 26 at 84 °N (top to bottom).
The USCG Healy sampling in the marginal ice zone.
Sea ice accumulates in the Arctic Ocean during the winter when the tilt of the Earth’s axis leaves the top of the world in complete darkness. Ice coverage reaches a maximum in mid-March and can cover up to 80% of the Arctic Ocean. The sun begins to rise above the horizon by the end of March, days lengthen and the ice begins to melt. Sunlight persists for 24 hours during the summer and ice coverage reaches a minimum in mid-September before the darkness returns. The dates of the U.S. Arctic GEOTRACES expedition were selected to capture the mid-September ice minimum, increasing our chances of breaking through to the North Pole.
This week we have been sampling the marginal ice zone where the edge of the ice sheet has started to melt. Our original plan was to approach the North Pole from the east in the Canada Basin and return through the western Makarov Basin, however, satellite data from the National Ice Center (NOAA) shows ice as thick as 10 ft still occupying the east. The captain must carefully budget our 1.2 million gallons of fuel and breaking through thick ice this early into the trip would surely cut our time short. We have decided to reverse the transect and approach from the west, with hopes that the eastern passage will be clear of ice for our late summer return.
The Healy is in open water with large chunks of ice, or floes, of varying size floating at the surface. On Thursday we saw a polar bear closing in on the ship from about one mile away. I watched through binoculars as the bear jumped over ice floes and started slowly swimming towards the ship, we had to re-position before he got any closer.
Large drifting ice floes add an extra challenge to our sampling efforts. Earlier this week one of our water samplers got caught on a floe that was slowly drifting away from the ship with a surface current. The captain backed the ship up to the floe while the crew leaned over the side with large metals poles to break up the ice. The sampler was successfully recovered with minor damage to the wire. Drifting ice will continue to be a threat, especially as travel north and encounter larger floes.
The winch used to raise and lower our main water sampler is not doing well in the cold weather. On Wednesday the Coast Guard made a special air delivery of supplies to help keep the motor running as temperatures continue to drop.
The chemistry of the ocean has a story to tell and with each sample of seawater we reveal new pieces of information – where the water has been, how old it is, what it has gained from the atmosphere or coast, what it has lost. Nutrients and trace elements give clues to how much life the water can support. Particles slowly sinking to the bottom are a mixture of microscopic organisms both dead and alive, a conglomeration of materials from land and ocean.
Particles filtered from seawater pictured under a microscope. Both images are the same sample: on the left fragments and whole cells of marine phytoplankton are pictured, on the right with no light only living cells containing chlorophyll glow. Image from Sara Rauschenberg, Bigelow Laboratory. For more on particles check out SeaPeteRun.tumblr.com.
The Arctic Ocean is the smallest ocean basin in the world with remarkably complex features. Water in the Arctic is a mixture of seawater from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and freshwater from major rivers that drain into the basin. Warm, salty water from the North Atlantic flows into the Arctic near Greenland, and cold, lower salinity water flows in from the Pacific through the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia.
The Arctic water column is stratified – salty water from the Atlantic does not mix evenly with Pacific water or freshwater from rivers and instead settles in different density layers. The surface layer has the lowest salinity from mixing with river water and melting ice. As the surface layer freezes into sea ice, salt is ejected into a deeper layer called the halocline. The halocline is mostly Pacific water near the Bering Strait (where we are sampling) all the way to the North Pole. In the eastern Arctic near Greenland the halocline is mostly Atlantic water. The deepest layers across the entire Arctic Ocean are made of mostly dense, salty Atlantic source water.
Major rivers flow into the Arctic Ocean from Alaska, Canada, and Russia and form large continental shelves that amount to 30% of the basin’s surface area. Continental shelves are extensions of land underlying up to 200 meters of seawater that form when rivers flowing into the ocean deposit sediment. We have spent the last week sampling water overlying the Alaskan and Chukchi shelves; sediments can be a source or sink of different trace elements and this signature can be carried out to sea with currents.
Water from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans flows into the Arctic Basin. Image from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Check out this link for the interactive image.
On Sunday afternoon August 16, the USCGC Healy passed through the Bering Strait and crossed the Arctic Circle (66°33’45.7 N). Those who have previously crossed the Arctic Circle are considered “polar bears,” and Coast Guard members with this distinction were allowed to wear special red shirts to celebrate the day, a splash of color added to their everyday navy blue uniforms. Sailing over major latitudinal lines is a right-of-passage that involves a secret initiation ceremony, most especially for equator crossings.
We sampled two stations within the Bering Strait along the border of the United States and Russia. Seawater flows through the strait into the Chukchi Sea which borders the Arctic Ocean and it’s important to characterize this water as it flows north. We do not have permission to sample Russian waters but stayed close enough to the border to capture water flowing through the middle of the strait. Pictured below, the ship is approaching the Diomede Islands in the center of the 51 mile wide Bering Strait – Big Diomede on the left is owned by Russia, and Little Diomede on the right is owned by the United States.
Steaming towards the Diomede islands – Big Diomede Island (left, Russia) and Little Diomede (right, U.S.)
Our path through the Bering Strait is outlined in red.
The USCGC Healy sailing out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska into the Bering Sea (August 9, 2015).
And we’re off!
The U.S. GEOTRACES Arctic expedition departed Dutch Harbor on August 9th onboard the USCGC Healy. Shortly after departure we had our first safety drill. Everyone onboard has to practice putting on immersion suits which are kept on the boat for an emergency situation that would force us to abandon ship and jump into the water. The suits are bright orange with a flashing light and whistle, and the back has an inflatable pouch for flotation. There is a rubber cap that goes over your head and hugs tightly around the neck to prevent water from flooding the suit. The shoulders of the suits have clips to attach to a neighbor, in the water we would hook our suits together and form a giant circle of bodies that would be easier to spot from the air.
It takes me about one day to get my sea-legs with the help of some medication to prevent motion sickness. After day one I am medication free, unless we run into harsh weather (>20 ft seas make me slightly queasy). Everyone handles seasickness differently. I am lucky to be able to adjust to the motion, but others, even those who frequently go to sea will continue taking medication throughout the cruise. Over-the-counter Bonine and Dramamine are the most common medications used onboard. For extreme motion sickness there is the prescription-only “Coast Guard Cocktail” which is a dose of promethazine (a mild sedative) for anti-nausea, paired with ephedrine to keep you awake. Fortunately, the Bering Sea has been kind to us this week with calm seas and fair temperatures between 40–50 °F.
We had two days to test our equipment before arriving at our first station Wednesday morning. During those two days we had a major mechanical malfunction, broke the frame of our water sampler, had a minor deployment related injury, and some hiccups in the lab. But, with some replacement parts, on-site welding, a few stiches, and some tender loving care to our delicate laboratory instruments, as is well. The biggest challenge of doing science at sea is the isolation. We have only the supplies that we brought and the people onboard to solve the multitude of problems that arise.
Next week we will pass through the Bering Strait and enter the Arctic Ocean. At our current latitude (60 °N) there is about 19 hours of daylight and as we travel north the days will get longer. Stay tuned as we transition from open water to sea ice!
Dr. Phoebe Lam from the University of California, Santa Cruz and her team prepare to test custom designed pumps. The pumps are manually attached to a wire and lowered into the ocean where they push thousands of liters of seawater through a multitude of filters to collect marine particles.
Our current position in the Bering Sea, 179 °W 60 °N.
Smooth sailing in the Bering Sea this week.