Chesapeake Biological Laboratory researchers reach the North Pole

November 21, 2022
Scientists Lee Cooper and Jackie Grebmeier have been visiting the Arctic on research expeditions for more than 30 years.

Scientists Lee Cooper and Jackie Grebmeier have been visiting the Arctic on research expeditions for more than 30 years, but they have never visited the North Pole. Until now.

This fall, five University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science researchers from the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, Maryland, reached the North Pole on an Arctic oceanographic cruise aboard the US Coast Guard Cutter Healy. The two-month long cruise was part of the internationally coordinated Synoptic Arctic Survey. Through this research program, scientists are assessing the present state of the Arctic Ocean as climate change continues to reduce the extent of sea ice and warm the waters of the most northern ocean on Earth.

Postdoctoral scientist Christina Goethel collects sediment samples for bacteria assays on the back deck of the Healy.

Grebmeier and Cooper, both faculty members, as well as postdoctoral associate Christina Goethel, graduate student Brian Marx, and research scientist Cedric Magen sampled Arctic Ocean waters and sediments at a series of pre-selected "stations” that will promote collaboration and data consistency among international stakeholders. On this research cruise, funded by the National Science Foundation, 89 Coast Guard crew worked alongside 35 scientists, from universities and oceanographic research institutes across the nation, to support scientific sampling. 

 “One of the unexpected things, for me, was that while the sun had gone down for the year by the time we reached the North Pole, there was still twilight 24 hours a day,” said Cooper.

 “It was even more striking that this twilight just kept circling around us, without losing intensity, and beyond it was either North America, Europe, or Russia. It’s a completely different perspective on the planet,” added Magen

Temperatures were not extremely cold—a few degrees below 0°F was the coldest temperature recorded during the trip—and the Healy, an icebreaker designed for scientific work, did not have much difficulty breaking through the thin ice, which has declined significantly over the last several decades. This was only the third time the Healy had reached the North Pole, its most recent visit being in 2015. Only one other U.S. flagged surface vessel, the Coast Guard icebreaker the Polar Sea, has sailed to the North Pole.

The Healy on approach to the North Pole.

 “There were extensive leads, or channels of open water in the ice, that allowed the ship to make steady progress northward,” said Grebmeier, who served as co-chief scientist for the cruise with Carin Ashjian, a zooplankton specialist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Grebmeier and Ashjian helped plan and direct water and sediment sampling on the way north to the Pole and then south across both deep water and shallow continental shelves.

Grebmeier, a specialist on Arctic seafloor animals for more than 35 years, performed shipboard experiments to assess how these organisms may respond to warming temperatures. Goethel, a newly minted Ph.D. who already has a decade of Arctic research experience, collected microbes as part of a newly developing collaboration with Icelandic scientists, who she met during her recently completely a Fulbright Fellowship in Iceland. She will be teaching marine science classes at St. Mary’s College of Maryland this coming spring. Magen was responsible for methane measurements onboard.

“Methane is a greenhouse gas that causes climate warming,” said Magen. “It is much more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, so understanding where methane is coming from will be important for determining how to slow climate warming.” 

A sediment corer to collect samples from the seafloor is deployed from the stern of the Healy in subzero temperatures

For graduate student Brian Marx, it was a first oceanographic cruise, “so it was all new to me.” He missed some classes during his first semester as a graduate student, but was able to make up for much of what he missed using Zoom recordings of lectures.

During the cruise, scientists also collected water samples that will be analyzed for chlorophyll, nutrients and carbon content at the lab in Solomons in the coming months.  These measurements will help confirm the current conditions in the remote Arctic, so when follow up measurements are made in the future, valid comparisons can be made to see how much the ecosystem has changed, and if as expected, sea ice continues to retreat.  

The Chesapeake Biological Laboratory is the oldest publicly supported marine laboratory on the East Coast and the 20th largest employer in Calvert County. It is part of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, a state chartered environmental research university that provides sound advice to help state and national leaders manage the environment and prepares future scientists to meet the global challenges of the 21st century. While research efforts are concentrated on the ecosystem, fisheries and chemistry of local waters of the Chesapeake Bay, work has expanded globally in recent decades, according to Director Tom Miller, and “now we have planted a research flag at the North Pole.”