On Sept. 5, a Damariscotta woman was aboard the first U.S. surface ship to arrive at the North Pole unaccompanied.
Sara Rauschenberg, of Damariscotta, joined a team of scientists aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter and icebreaker Healy for a trip to the North Pole to research trace metal elements in the Arctic Ocean.
The expedition was one of a series hosted by Geotraces, an international program geared toward improving the understanding of cycles and distribution of trace metals in ocean environments.
Rauschenberg, originally of Vermont, moved to Maine to become a research associate at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay seven years ago. Rauschenberg joined the trip after her supervisor, Dr. Benjamin Twining, wrote a proposal to the National Science Foundation to become involved in the Arctic Geotraces program. The National Science Foundation funded Twining’s research and Twining and Rauschenberg’s involvement with the program.
Rauschenberg said the mission of the expeditions was to identify the distribution of trace elements, such as iron, zinc, copper, and nickel, in the Arctic Ocean and the effects of trace elements have on the phytoplankton photosynthesis cycle.
“Phytoplankton produce about half of the world’s oxygen, and they need a lot of trace metal to photosynthesize,” Rauschenberg said. “We are trying to get a better understanding of how these metals occur in the Arctic.”
More than 20 different universities and institutions from across the country were represented aboard the Healy. The ship departed from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, Aug. 9 without the assistance of another vessel. Rauschenberg said U.S. boats usually travel in pairs when they travel to the Arctic due to the difficult work of breaking the ice.
With 51 scientists and 80 crew members aboard, Rauschenberg said the importance of sharing space and being considerate was quickly learned.
“We slept three to a room, with a bunk bed and a converted couch, and six of us shared a bathroom with a shower the size of a broom closet,” Rauschenberg said.
Operations aboard the Healy ran 24/7. Rauschenberg said the team had to be ready to take samples whenever the boat reached its destination, regardless of the time of day. Four meals were served throughout the day in order to accommodate the schedule, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight rations, which were otherwise known as “mid-rats.”
When it was time to sample, Rauschenberg’s job was to collect material to be analyzed for trace metals. Rauschenberg also collected phytoplankton from the water and ice to determine the trace metal composition.
Although Rauschenberg had been involved in other research expeditions in the past, including trips to Tahiti, Western Australia, South Africa, and Chile, this was the first time she had visited the Arctic.
“Most of my other trips have been in warm water, so the ice was completely new to me,” Rauschenberg said. “The ice adds an extra facet of complication to the expedition. It’s difficult to know how long it will take to go from point A to point B because ship speed depends on ice thickness, which is continually varying.”
Rauschenberg said the ice also made deploying the research instruments difficult, as the Healy would have to clear the ice in the area of research before the group could take samples. Rauschenberg described the technique as “essentially doing a donut to break the ice.”
“Once we deployed our instrumentation, we spent quite a bit of time pushing ice chunks out of the way so they didn’t interfere with the instruments,” Rauschenberg said.
The group also struggled with the cold weather in the Arctic Circle. Rauschenberg said the air temperature was around 5 degrees Fahrenheit without wind chill, with the water temperature just below freezing. Sometimes the cold weather affected the equipment, requiring it to be heated or replaced during the trip. Rauschenberg said actually having to handle the below-freezing water samples the team collected “wasn’t enjoyable either.”
Rauschenberg said the trip was filled with many memorable moments, including seal, puffin, and walrus sightings, visits from polar bears, and standing on the ice at the North Pole.
“Toward the end of the trip, once it started to get dark, there were several evenings where the Northern Lights were quite amazing,” Rauschenberg said.
The Healy returned to Dutch Harbor Oct. 11. Rauschenberg said the conclusion of the expedition is just the start of the research project, which will continue for several years. After analyzing the data they collected, Rauschenberg said she and Twining will collaborate with other researchers on the trip in the hopes of developing a better understanding of how trace elements “behave” in the Arctic.
“There have been a couple other studies in the Arctic, but there hasn’t been a study as thorough as this one,” Rauschenberg said. “We anticipate the Arctic will be a hot spot for research in the future, and the measurements we have taken can serve as a baseline for that future research.”
Rauschenberg said she would gladly return to the Arctic if given the chance.
“The feeling I got while standing on ice that’s as thick as I am tall, and looking at nothing but more ice, was awesome, in the true sense of the word,” Rauschenberg said.