Check out this great news segment by Florida International University highlighting our 2015 Arctic GEOTRACES 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.
As an update to my previous post, I am happy to report that the helicopter that delivered two government officials to the Healy this week also came with a bag of fruit. There was not enough fruit to feed over 100 people so ten lucky souls were chosen at random and gifted a piece of real, live, fresh fruit (may I remind you we have not had fresh fruit or vegetables for over one month). The fruit lottery was a big deal, names were read over the loud speaker after dinner with only a five minute window to claim your prize. I was not lucky enough to be chosen for the lottery, but lucky enough to be sitting next to Phoebe Lam who shared her orange with the whole table 🙂
Moments ago we crossed latitudinal line 66 °N officially exiting the Arctic. We intended to sample two more stations in the Bering Strait but all further science operations have been canceled due to rough seas. We will reach the Diomede Islands sometime this afternoon and enter port in Dutch Harbor on the morning of October 12. For now we are packing up labs, organizing samples, and enjoying our last few days at sea.
Earlier this week, two government officials arrived via helicopter from Barrow, Alaska to observe the Healy’s underway operations through to Dutch Harbor. Wearing flight helmets with ear and eye protection we were able to stand on deck to watch the craft land and practice lowering a man basket before returning to land. The following morning the helicopter was back for a medevac flight, transporting an ill crew member back to land for emergency medical attention. Medical emergencies on a ship can be dangerous, there are two medical officers on board the Healy but their resources are limited at-sea. The Polarstern (German GEOTRACES) also experienced a medical emergency in the Arctic forcing the ship to change course and head for land, both patients we have heard, are doing well.
At night the skies have been alive with dancing green light and shooting stars. The Aurora Borealis occurs when electrically charged particles from the sun (solar wind) interact with gases in Earth’s atmosphere. Solar wind is deflected by Earth’s magnetic field over most of the planet, but the magnetic field is weaker at the north and south poles allowing some particles to enter the atmosphere. We have seen mostly green auroras that are created when solar wind interacts with oxygen within 60 miles of Earth’s surface, there have also been some hints of red light from the interaction with oxygen at higher altitudes. Blue and purple colors can occur when solar wind interacts with nitrogen. All night you will find people on various decks of the ship with their heads up to the sky or faces pressed against the glass windows of the bridge which is kept dark to navigate at night. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses satellite data and computer models to predict the location and visibility of the aurora everyday, we have been seeing a 4 out of 10 on the visibility scale and even that is spectacular.
The most abundant elements in seawater are salt ions (sodium, chloride, sulfate, magnesium, calcium, etc.), and on average one liter of seawater contains 35 grams of dissolved salt (one liter of seawater weighs roughly 1000 grams so salinity is measured as parts per thousand). The GEOTRACES program specializes in measuring the least abundant elements in the ocean, referred to as “trace-elements.” Concentrations of the trace-element mercury, for example, are often less than 0.000 000 000 200 grams dissolved in one liter of seawater (parts per trillion). From this perspective, finding a needle in a haystack sounds easier than searching for mercury in the ocean.
Because these elements are found at such low concentrations, even a small amount of contamination can significantly alter a sample. Collecting contamination-free samples is a delicate process – imagine the challenges that arise when looking for trace amounts of iron in seawater collected from a giant rusty ship! The GEOTRACES program has developed specific sampling protocols that include a number of inventive solutions such as plastic shower caps, Kevlar line, and hand carrying 4 ft long GoFlo bottles. The photos below outline the procedure for collecting contamination-free vertical profiles of seawater from the ocean surface to the ocean floor.
This morning the decision was made to abandon the U.S. – Canadian GEOTRACES cross-over station due to rough weather. The cross-over station was designed to compare results with Canadian researchers who occupied the same location in mid-September to ensure the accuracy of our measurements within the international oceanographic community. Over the past two days we have been on stand-by waiting for the winds to subside below 20 knots in order to safely deploy our equipment. We were able to complete some rosette casts to sample radioisotopes, however, attempts to collect water and particles for trace-metal analysis were abandoned as cable lines frayed under pressure from strong surface currents. Rough weather is predicted to stick around this location for days so we are heading south towards our finals stations, and calmer seas.
The Canadian GEOTRACES team also encountered rough seas at this station but the weather cleared long enough to complete their work. The Canadian team’s sampling wire also suffered some minor damage, but it wasn’t from the weather. A curious polar bear and her two cubs were caught gnawing on the ship’s wire, luckily the bears lost interest before any serious damage was done (check out this link for the full story). Perhaps this cross-over station just wasn’t meant to be.
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?)
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.