Wright State team’s polar passage

S leeping was a challenge. The sun never set for weeks at a time. And the crash of the ship’s metal hull into massive fields of ice coupled with the comings and goings of the research crew at all hours created a constant blare.

North Pole expedition researches
environmental mercury


Wright State alumna Katlin Bowman with the USCGC Healy at the (unofficial) North Pole.

By Jim Hannah

Sleeping was a challenge. The sun never set for weeks at a time. And the crash of the ship’s metal hull into massive fields of ice coupled with the comings and goings of the research crew at all hours created a constant blare.

But then who needed to sleep anyway? The prospect of conducting pioneering research that could change the world’s understanding of the Arctic was a nerve-tingling stimulant for Wright State University graduate environmental sciences student, Alison Agather and oceanographer Katlin Bowman a Wright State alumna.

Both took part in a two-month expedition to the North Pole designed to measure levels of toxic mercury in the water and ice. And the experience gave Bowman the material to write “To the Top of the World,” a richly illustrated children’s book penned to inspire readers, especially young girls.

Agather and Bowman boarded the U. S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy at Dutch Harbor, Alaska on August 9, 2015. The 140-person crew included 50 scientists, half of whom were women. Only Bowman and Agather measured mercury in the water.

The research was supported by GEOTRACES, an international organization that observes and catalogues trace metals in the oceans. Wright State’s role in the expedition was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Most of the mercury in the environment is from human sources, largely from the burning of coal. The human nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury, especially methylmercury. Exposure to high levels can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and a developing fetus.

“Temperatures in the Arctic are warming faster than anywhere else in the world,” said Bowman. “It was important for us to do this cruise to understand why there is so much mercury in the Arctic and where it’s coming from, because the Arctic is changing really quickly and we want to understand whether that’s going to be good or bad in terms of mercury cycling.”

After leaving Dutch Harbor, the Healy steamed through the Aleutian Islands and into the Bering Sea, threading the needle between the United States and Russia. After entering the Arctic Ocean, the ship angled toward the North Pole and began encountering seasonal sea ice and then permanent sea ice that had to be broken.

“On a huge icebreaker, it’s a jarring movement. You’re slamming into chunks of ice,” said Bowman. “You have to go pretty slow. Sometimes they fire up an extra engine.”

During the trip, Bowman and Agather took samples of snow, seawater, and water just under the ice to try to understand what is happening at that transition point. They also walked out on the ice, took ice core samples and brought them back to the ship. “We’re trying to understand the biology side of how methylmercury is made in the Arctic Ocean,” said Bowman.

Summer temperatures above the Arctic Circle can range from 14 to 50 °F. But at one point, the temperature plummeted to wind-chill equivalent of -30 °F.

During the trip, the scientists saw polar bears, walruses, seals, and an arctic fox. The researchers were briefed on the dangers of polar bears, and armed members of the Coast Guard crew set up protective perimeters when the scientists were out on the ice. The researchers retreated to the ship if weather conditions reduced visibility.

The researchers enjoyed fresh fruit and vegetables for the first month of the expedition, then had to go to cans. They ate a lot of pasta and potatoes toward the end of the voyage and ran out of milk and butter altogether.

At times during the trip, the sun never set. Bowman would find herself working on deck at 3 a.m.

“I felt like I was on a different planet,” she said.

The Healy arrived at the North Pole on September 5. It was the first time in history a U.S. surface vessel reached the pole without being accompanied by at least one
other ship.

“It was exciting, but also a little bit scary,” said Bowman. “Part of the reason we were able to do that is that the ice cover is decreasing. There is not as much ice in the Arctic as there was 15 or 20 years ago.”

The scientists celebrated the arrival by erecting a “north pole,” organizing a football game and taking a bunch of pictures. They later rendezvoused with a ship of
German scientists.

Once the Healy headed south, the researchers continued to take samples. The ship arrived back at Dutch Harbor on October 11, 2015, completing a 64-day expedition. Bowman believes the research trip will ultimately reveal the origin of all of the toxic mercury in the Arctic.

“I also think we’re going to have a better idea of what’s going to happen to the mercury cycle in this coming century as ice cover decreases and temperatures in the Arctic continue to warm,” she said. “It will take a while for us to have answers, but I think there is really good potential.”

You can read more about the research trip on Bowman’s blog, hginthesea.wordpress.com. “To the Top of the World” is available at www.healycruisebook.com.

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Jim Hannah
Reach DCP freelance writer Jim Hannah at ContactUs@DaytonCityPaper.com

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