Geotraces 2015: Down to a science

As the Arctic region continues to open up to development, the data gathered onboard Healy, as well as the Coast Guard’s ability to maintain access and presence in the Arctic, will become ever more essential to understanding how this part of the world works, and how to most responsibly exercise stewardship over the region.

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This blog is part of a series of posts following Coast Guard Cutter Healy on their journey through the Arctic to the North Pole in support of Geotraces 2015. Stay tuned to learn more about the mission, the cutter and the crew!

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall

Scientists aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy collect ice cores and other data on an ice floe Sept. 11, 2015, while underway in the Arctic Ocean. Healy is underway in the Arctic Ocean in support of the National Science Foundation-funded Arctic GEOTRACES, part of an international effort to study the distribution of trace elements in the world's oceans. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.
Scientists aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy collect ice cores and other data on an ice floe Sept. 11, 2015, while underway in the Arctic Ocean. Healy is underway in the Arctic Ocean in support of the National Science Foundation-funded Arctic GEOTRACES, part of an international effort to study the distribution of trace elements in the world’s oceans. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

As Coast Guard Cutter Healy motored through thick ice in the high latitudes, a man could be seen at all hours of the day and night darting in and out of scientific lab spaces, or out on deck as instruments were lowered into the Arctic waters. His commanding voice still carries a slight Brooklyn accent which pays homage to his childhood in New York. He has the unshaven look and demeanor of a character who might play an oceanographer in a feature film, but this man is no actor and this expedition was no screenplay.

The man is Dr. David Kadko, chief scientist aboard Healy for Geotraces, a National Science Foundation-funded, international endeavor to understand the geochemistry of the world’s oceans. Healy’s most recent cruise focused on the Arctic Ocean, with Dr. Kadko leading 50 scientists gathering and studying water, ice, sediment and atmosphere samples in the northernmost points on the globe.

Healy departed Dutch Harbor, Alaska on Aug. 9, reached the North Pole on Sept. 5, and returned to Dutch Harbor on Oct. 11, making numerous stops along the route for scientists to gather samples and take measurements.

Dr. Kadko, a professor and associate director of Florida International University’s Applied Research Center, initiated the expedition seven years ago and has been working in the oceanography field for forty years.

“I knew I wanted to be an oceanographer since I was a little boy,” said Dr. Kadko. “In my generation, we used to watch Jacques Cousteau, so I had an interest in the ocean since I was very small, and I pursued it.”

Dr. David Kadko, associate director of Florida International University’s Applied Research Center and chief scientist aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy for Geotraces, has his photograph taken on an ice floe while gathering scientific data Sept. 11, 2015. Healy is underway in the Arctic Ocean in support of the National Science Foundation-funded Arctic Geotraces, part of an international effort to study the distribution of trace elements in the world's oceans. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.
Dr. David Kadko, associate director of Florida International University’s Applied Research Center and chief scientist aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy for Geotraces, has his photograph taken on an ice floe while gathering scientific data Sept. 11, 2015. Healy is underway in the Arctic Ocean in support of the National Science Foundation-funded Arctic Geotraces, part of an international effort to study the distribution of trace elements in the world’s oceans. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

Dr. Kadko and his team’s work on the expedition will serve many purposes that fall within three main goals which are: to provide a baseline with which to compare future Arctic conditions, to measure the chemical distributions in the ocean to learn more about Arctic processes, and to provide data that can be used to predict what the Arctic will look like in the future.

“We’ll be providing data that’s valuable for decades,” said Dr. Kadko, “and the public will benefit for many, many years because of it.”

“We document our work. That’s the key to what we do,” said Dr. Jim Swift, a physical oceanographer and one of the principal investigators currently aboard Healy.

Dr. Swift, an energetic and enthusiastic man whose work has largely focused on the Arctic Ocean and Nordic seas, has been a fixture at the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography since the early 1980s. Dr. Swift also played a pivotal role in advising the Coast Guard on the laboratory layout and planning of Healy during the cutter’s construction in the late 1990s. This was his fifth cruise aboard Healy.

“Somebody 100 years from now can look at our data, they can look at the documentation, and they can compare it to their numbers,” said Dr. Swift. “That’s what drives me – to leave a legacy of ocean measurements that will stand the test of time.”

The samples gathered were analyzed and measured onboard Healy for mercury, carbon, and a host of other trace elements and isotopes that will help scientists achieve their goal of creating a comprehensive baseline for the Arctic Ocean’s chemical makeup.

A ship like Healy, essentially a floating research laboratory capable of breaking over ten feet of ice, is vital to enabling scientists to study such a remote and hostile region of the planet.

Scientists aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy collect ice cores and other data on an ice floe Sept. 11, 2015, while underway in the Arctic Ocean. Healy is underway in the Arctic Ocean in support of the National Science Foundation-funded Arctic GEOTRACES, part of an international effort to study the distribution of trace elements in the world's oceans. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.
Scientists aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy collect ice cores and other data on an ice floe Sept. 11, 2015, while underway in the Arctic Ocean. Healy is underway in the Arctic Ocean in support of the National Science Foundation-funded Arctic GEOTRACES, part of an international effort to study the distribution of trace elements in the world’s oceans. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

Healy is equipped with two large A-frame cranes and multiple oceanographic winches, which are used to deploy and retrieve scientific instruments, including large rosette water samplers. A rosette water sampler is a cylindrical frame that holds a series of bottles which collect seawater samples. In the middle of the frame is a device called a CTD, which continually measures conductivity, temperature and depth, variables from which scientists can calculate salinity.

Also deployed from Healy’s winches were coring devices, which plunge to the sea floor and gather sediment into cylinders. Pumps were also lowered into the ocean at various depths to cycle sea water through a series of filters, harnessing a multitude of trace elements.

Every evolution which takes place onboard Healy to deploy and retrieve scientific instruments is done by Coast Guard men and women. Members of Healy’s deck force operate the oceanographic winches and safely guide the instruments in and out of the water. Coast Guard marine science technicians (MSTs) are on hand for every evolution to ensure the scientists’ goals are being met safely and efficiently.

“Healy’s success is judged by the success of the scientists who sail aboard Healy,” said Capt. Jason Hamilton, the cutter’s commanding officer. “Healy is the operational backbone for this ground-breaking science and our crew and the scientists have become one team cooperating to achieve excellence.”

“I enjoy being on Healy,” said Dr. Kadko. “I like how people work and how they take their jobs very seriously. It’s a pleasure working with them.”

“The enthusiasm of the Coast Guard has been very good,” said Dr. Swift. “They set a high standard of being one team. We have a single mess, we’re together all the time. That tone was set deliberately as a way of working well with science.”

Scientists aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy gather samples and data on an ice floe Sept. 14, 2015, while underway in the Arctic Ocean. Healy is underway in the Arctic Ocean in support of the National Science Foundation-funded Arctic GEOTRACES, part of an international effort to study the distribution of trace elements in the world's oceans. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.
Scientists aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy gather samples and data on an ice floe Sept. 14, 2015, while underway in the Arctic Ocean. Healy is underway in the Arctic Ocean in support of the National Science Foundation-funded Arctic GEOTRACES, part of an international effort to study the distribution of trace elements in the world’s oceans. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

The Coast Guard crew and science team labored seamlessly side by side, to complete the historic mission which has took them to the top of the world and back, working in an environment only experienced in the Arctic.

“Every time I look out the window and see this vast expanse of ice, I realize few people in the world will get to do this,” said Dr. Kadko. “I try to live in the moment and realize there’s a lot of ‘wow’ to this.”

In addition to the many physical sciences conducted onboard, the crew and science team observed a wealth of Arctic biology while underway including whales, walrus, seals, sea birds and the region’s top predators, polar bears.

“I find the Arctic Ocean endlessly fascinating,” said Dr. Swift. “I’ve had the good fortune to sail all over the world with a lot of interesting people, and the Arctic is my favorite.”

“I still have a sense of adventure,” said Dr. Kadko, “that hasn’t gone away, even after forty years.”

As the Arctic region continues to open up to development, the data gathered onboard Healy, as well as the Coast Guard’s ability to maintain access and presence in the Arctic, will become ever more essential to understanding how this part of the world works, and how to most responsibly exercise stewardship over the region.

Scientists aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy gather samples and data on an ice floe Sept. 14, 2015, while underway in the Arctic Ocean. Healy is underway in the Arctic Ocean in support of the National Science Foundation-funded Arctic GEOTRACES, part of an international effort to study the distribution of trace elements in the world's oceans. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.
Scientists aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy gather samples and data on an ice floe Sept. 14, 2015, while underway in the Arctic Ocean. Healy is underway in the Arctic Ocean in support of the National Science Foundation-funded Arctic GEOTRACES, part of an international effort to study the distribution of trace elements in the world’s oceans. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

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