Research Trip Takes Southern Miss Student to North Pole

The Coast Guard Cutter HEALY (WAGB - 20) is United States' newest and most technologically advanced polar icebreaker. (Coast Guard photo)
The Coast Guard Cutter HEALY (WAGB - 20) is United States' newest and most technologically advanced polar icebreaker. (Coast Guard photo)

HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- University of Southern Mississippi graduate student Laura Whitmore and 50 other scientists took part of an international effort to study the geochemistry of the world's oceans.

The Hattiesburg American reports they arrived Sept. 5 at the North Pole.

The marine science student flew to Alaska, where she boarded the 420-foot Coast Guard Cutter Healy for the remainder of the approximately 30-day trip to the North Pole. Whitmore's trip was financed through a grant by Geotraces, an international program that studies trace elements and isotopes through the oceans.

"I was studying methane in the ocean waters and the atmosphere -- how much was being transferred from the water to the atmosphere -- how much was contributing to global warming," she said.

Whitmore grew up in Palmer, Alaska, so she is used to cold weather. But she didn't know what to expect when she arrived at the North Pole.

"We went in the summer," she said. "It was cold and it snowed, but not all the time. The temperature was around 5 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit."

Even though the temperatures were not sub-zero, Whitmore said the group had to have the proper outwear.

In her mission to find out how much methane goes into the seawater and makes its way to the atmosphere, Whitmore had to collect water from different depths. Then she would take samples into the lab and "equilibrate" them -- adding methane-free air to the sample.

The methane in the seawater would mix with the methane-free air, and Whitmore could then measure how much methane was in the air sample.

She would also get a measurement of how much methane was in the seawater before any air was added.

"I have some preliminary data saying there's definitely methane in the sea water and there's areas where methane is stored in higher measurements," she said. "But I don't know enough to say anything final."

Whitmore's supervisor, Professor of Marine Science Alan Shiller, said the North Pole is very sensitive to climate change.

"Already, there is evidence of warming in the polar regions," he said in an email. "This is especially important in Laura's work because Arctic soils and marine sediments contain a lot of trapped methane that will get released as things warm up.

"Releasing methane to the atmosphere will then exacerbate the greenhouse effect."

Whitmore said methane could have a profound effect on weather at the North Pole.

"It can trap heat in the atmosphere, and it's going to exacerbate any climate variability we're seeing," she said.

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