Journey to the Top of the World
FIU researcher leads team of U.S. scientists on international mission to map geochemistry of Arctic Ocean
FIU researcher leads team of U.S. scientists on international mission to map geochemistry of Arctic Ocean
U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jason Hamilton stood on the bridge of the Healy in the early morning hours of Sept. 5, 2015. After 27 days in the western Arctic Ocean, he was ready to make a major announcement.
"Ahoy, shipmates," he began, his voice traveling through the ship's intercom system. "At 0747, Coast Guard cutter Healy reached the North Pole. We became the first unaccompanied U.S. surface vessel to do so. Thank you for your initiative and cooperation, which led to this historic event. Have a good morning."
It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for the 140 scientists, technicians and Coast Guard personnel aboard the icebreaker, like-minded adventurers who had signed on to participate in one of the most extensive research expeditions in the history of Arctic Ocean research.
There would be time to celebrate and reflect on this historic accomplishment, but it would have to come later. There was still too much work to be done.
Making it to the North Pole was just one stop on the expedition’s 64-day, 5,000-mile journey. Hailing from Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, New York, Connecticut, Florida and parts in between, these scientists were part of a larger, multimillion-dollar Arctic GEOTRACES initiative -- a collaborative, international effort between the United States, Germany and Canada that, operating from three different icebreakers during the summer and fall of 2015, collected thousands of samples to survey water chemistry in the Arctic. Together, their goal is to map the geochemistry of the Arctic Ocean and provide the most comprehensive understanding ever of the Arctic’s chemical composition.
The American team was surveying the geochemistry of the western Arctic Ocean, and the North Pole was one of 66 sampling stations on the Healy’s itinerary.
David Kadko, a professor and associate director of the Applied Research Center at FIU, was the chief scientist and lead principal investigator of the U.S. team. In this role he led 51 scientists, students and technicians who conducted experiments and collected samples from the ocean, atmosphere, ice, snow and sediments.
"The Arctic is a very forbidding, harsh environment. It’s been very difficult to go there, to get data and understand how it works," Kadko said before the team departed. "We’re hoping that we will be able to unlock some of its secrets so that we can understand the trajectory of Arctic change and how the Arctic will change in the coming decades."
Soon after the Healy's arrival at the pole, the scientists and crew disembarked, stepping onto the ice to begin two full days of sampling for trace elements and their isotopes. These include micronutrients essential for life such as iron, zinc and cobalt, as well as contaminants like arsenic and copper, which may have a negative impact on the Arctic's ecosystem if present in large quantities.
The three icebreakers taking part in GEOTRACES each covered a different portion of the Arctic to provide as complete a picture as possible of the area’s geochemistry. Along the way, however, there were a number of designated “crossover stations,” sites that all three ships agreed to visit. Analyses of samples collected from these sites would be compared among the three teams to assess the accuracy of one another’s measurements.
The North Pole was one of the crossover stations.
Two days after their historic arrival – and on their final day at the North Pole – the U.S. crew woke to a pleasant surprise about a half-mile in the distance. It was the Polarstern and aboard it their German counterparts. The German GEOTRACES team had begun its cruise in Denmark earlier that summer, crossing the Barents Sea above Scandinavia to get to the Arctic Ocean while the Healy and its U.S. team made its way to the Arctic after departing from Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
"That was serendipity," Kadko says, "and a pleasant surprise."
The Healy's officers and chief scientist decided the team could afford to spend several hours at the pole, giving members of both ships a chance to visit. Such moments, expedition members say, are part of the broader goal of GEOTRACES.
"I think everyone on both sides had a great time comparing notes, showing each other around and building international collegiality," U.S. GEOTRACES team member and middle school teacher Bill Schmoker wrote in his blog of the expedition.
"This is one of the hallmarks of GEOTRACES, with scientists and organizations from many countries around the world contributing to the massive, long-term effort to better understand all of the world’s oceans."
GEOTRACES was founded in 2006 as an international program dedicated to the study of the marine biogeochemical cycles of trace elements and their isotopes. Its mission is to identify processes that control the distributions of key trace elements and isotopes in the ocean and to measure their changes over time.
In 2009, Kadko attended a GEOTRACES conference in Germany focused on Arctic research. As he spoke to scientists from around the world, he couldn’t shake the notion that U.S. scientists were not doing enough to contribute to the Arctic conversation.
Kadko approached the National Science Foundation (NSF) soon after about organizing a workshop to gauge interest in expanding America’s involvement in Arctic research. The workshop quickly sold out; Kadko had his answer.
"The scientific community realized that this was a very important area for us to be involved in," he says.
The GEOTRACES program held several meetings around the world, bringing together renowned scientists to assist in planning the expeditions.
In 2012, it was announced that Kadko would lead the U.S. Arctic GEOTRACES initiative.
The U.S. Arctic GEOTRACES expedition consists of 39 separate grant awards to different institutions, including FIU, for their individual projects. In total, the NSF invested approximately $20 million into the projects and the expedition itself.
"Trying to better understand how the world works is a fundamental human endeavor," says Henrietta Edmonds, director of the NSF’s Arctic Natural Sciences Program. "Hopefully, with this expedition and the findings that come from it, we will have a better understanding of how the Arctic works and its role in global chemical cycling and the changing climate system."
"Trying to better understand how the world works is a fundamental human endeavor." Henrietta Edmonds
The Arctic GEOTRACES program has three main objectives:
1) Establish a baseline of the geochemistry of the Arctic Ocean.
"In 20 years, the geochemistry of the Arctic will be different," Kadko says. "There will be less ice, and there will probably be more economic development in the region so we want to know how much of an impact those changes have on the Arctic's geochemistry."
2) Analyze and interpret the samples collected, gaining an understanding of the current biogeochemical distributions, or "fingerprints," of the Arctic Ocean, resulting in an understanding of its chemical nature.
"The distribution of chemicals in the Arctic are there because of processes that put them there," Kadko says. "By interpreting these ‘fingerprints,’ we get to know more about how the Arctic operates today."
3) Predict the trajectory of changes to the Arctic’s geochemistry.
It is one of the largest undertakings in the history of Arctic research and one that will take the combined efforts of multiple countries working collaboratively to succeed.
"It's very exciting and gratifying that three separate nations can come together and cooperate for this project," Kadko says. "In the end, there will be a huge archive of data that scientists will use for decades to come."
For as long as he can remember, Kadko has been fascinated by the ocean. The native New Yorker was mesmerized watching Jacques Cousteau’s exploits on a small, grainy, black-and-white television set. He spent hours on the Verranzo-Narrows Bridge on Coney Island, watching the boats glide by, slowly making their way out to sea. Kadko wondered where the boats were headed and dreamed of going to sea himself.
Decades later, his career as an oceanographer has taken him around the world, conducting research in many of the world’s major oceans. Kadko has been to the Arctic Ocean several times, but never for a project as wide in breadth and scope.
"Because of this expedition, we will have a broad, synoptic, pan-Arctic view of the geochemistry of the Arctic Ocean," Kadko says. "This has never been done before, and I doubt it will ever be done again."
In early August, Kadko set off for Unalaska, Alaska, where he and his team made final preparations for the journey ahead. A coastal city located in the heart of the Aleutian Islands, Unalaska is approximately 800 miles southwest of Anchorage and boasts majestic, rugged mountains enshrouded in a seemingly perpetual fog in summertime. It provides a spectacular backdrop to Dutch Harbor, one of Alaska's major fishing ports and the Healy’s point of departure and return. (Dutch Harbor is the main delivery port for the crabbing fleet featured in the Discovery Channel's popular reality television show, Deadliest Catch.) It is an ideal launching point for the expedition as it provides a clear path to the Arctic Ocean via the Bering Sea.
With a modest population of approximately 4,300 residents and an average high temperature of 59 degrees Fahrenheit in August—the hottest month of the year – summers in Unalaska feature much of the precipitation Miami gets but none of its heat.
"It's ruggedly beautiful," Kadko says. "There are humpback whales still around the bay, you see salmon in the creek, and there are as many bald eagles as you might see pigeons in Miami."
For most of the summer, rain had been a regular part of the forecast. But during the week Kadko and the rest of the U.S. GEOSCIENCES team flew into town, the weather cleared up. With temperatures ranging from the 40s to the low 60s, the weather was ideal to finalize preparations for the voyage.
In June, Kadko and several members of the team had gone to the Healy – then stationed in Seattle – to load much of the equipment and begin setting up the labs aboard the icebreaker. But now in Dutch Harbor, with less than a week before departure, there was still plenty to be done. Labs to finish assembling, equipment to be tested, clean rooms to be set up, and personal items to be loaded for the long journey ahead.
"It's like a Broadway show. There are costumes and designers and all of these moving parts," Kadko says. "Then the curtain opens and the miracle happens and everything works. From the chaos, we put it all together."
It helps to remain flexible.
After satellite imagery showed more ice than anticipated along their initial course of 150 line of longitude, which runs along the coast of Alaska near Anchorage all the way up to the North Pole, Kadko and the Healy's Hamilton decide to make an alteration. The ship would instead go up the 175 line of longitude, which runs farther west, to get to the pole.
"The number one rule of icebreaking is if you can avoid ice, you avoid it," Hamilton says before the ship's departure. "There will be times on this expedition where we will need to make hard calls. Dr. Kadko, as a professional who has been doing these kinds of expeditions for over 30 years, will make recommendations to me and the two of us will make a decision on what needs to be done."
"Mother Nature can be very unkind when you’re up in the Arctic," he adds. "When we talk about this being a historic mission, there's a reason this hasn't been done before. It’s hard."
These are some of the most notable moments during the U.S. Arctic GEOTRACES expedition.
Hover over each map marker for more information.
After departing from Dutch Harbor, the scientists and crew wasted little time collecting samples for the dozens of projects being carried out during the expedition.
Kadko collected samples throughout the trip for one of those projects, which involved using beryllium-7 to trace the input of aerosol-derived chemicals to the surface of the Arctic Ocean. With a half-life of approximately 53 days – meaning half of the beryllium-7 atoms in any sample will decay every 53 days – beryllium-7 serves as an ideal surface water tracer.
"Using beryllium-7, we'll be able to learn how different types of elements are distributed between the ice, melt ponds and the water column and then how they are distributed over the course of a season," Kadko says.
When he wasn't overseeing a sampling station on the ice, much of Kadko's time was devoted to catching up on data analysis and data entry. He and several other scientists also taught an oceanography course that approximately 20 Coast Guard crew members completed for credit.
The Healy featured a room dubbed the "Science Lounge," which contained long conference tables and lounge chairs where team members could work on their laptops.
Recreation and relaxation had their proper place aboard as well. Two rooms were filled with exercise equipment, and one evening in late September, members of the Coast Guard crew and expedition team participated in a talent show.
"There isn't a 'typical day.' What I tried to convey…is to try and enjoy it," says Kadko, who had either met in person or communicated with all of the team members by the time of the Healy's departure. "We're all very focused on the measurements we're making and the papers that we have to write and all the details that we have to assess, but I want everyone to step back, take a breath and realize what a 'wow' moment this is. This has never been done before. Probably never will be done again. I'm telling them to forever remember what we've been entitled to be a part of."
"I want everyone to step back, take a breath and realize what a 'wow' moment this is. This has never been done before. Probably never will be done again. I'm telling them to forever remember what we've been entitled to be a part of." David Kadko
The team collected thousands of individual samples and terabytes of data across 66 science stations, returning to Dutch Harbor Oct. 11, 2015.
With the scientists back in their home labs, Kadko and his colleagues will pore over data from these samples as well as those yet to be collected over the next several months and years.
Their data, combined with the findings of the German and Canadian GEOTRACES teams, will establish the baseline levels of trace elements, isotopes and contaminants found in the Arctic today. Future data will be compared to these baseline numbers.
Climate change continues to impact the world at a frightening pace, including the Arctic. A number of countries, including the United States, are developing plans to expand shipping, oil drilling, fishing and other forms of industrial development in the Arctic region.
The data and analyses produced from the Arctic GEOTRACES initiative is expected to be a critical resource for scientists and policymakers in the years ahead as they make hard decisions that will impact the region for decades to come.
"This initiative represented the oceanographic community at its best," Kadko says. "Now a lot of the work is just getting started."