From Panama to the North Pole

Maria Cristina Alvarez Rodriguez, OEB M.S. Student

Since I was a child, I have been drawn to science. I always imagined myself working in a chemistry laboratory and participating in research; unfortunately, this is a hard dream to have if you come from Panama, where research opportunities are few or non-existent. But I was lucky enough to receive a national scholarship to study sciences related to water resources internationally, and I used it to study ocean sciences at OSU. It was here that I was introduced to the different aspects of oceanography, and I learned that I could get involved in research.

After my undergraduate degree, I was accepted into the College of Ocean, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences to get my master’s degree under the supervision of Laurie Juranek, a badass chemical oceanographer. As part of the NSF-funded Synoptic Arctic Survey, an international effort to collect data to detect ongoing and future climate change, I embarked on a two-month-long journey that took me to the North Pole!

Figure 1. Synoptic Arctic Survey scientists on the Healy during ice liberty. Photo credit: Deborah Cordone.

My role in this exploration is to study dissolved oxygen concentrations in the Arctic basin. Aboard the ship Healy, we worked from Monday to Sunday for two months straight, collecting a variety of data. During what we called a “long station,” we conducted CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth) casts and deployed VPR (video plankton recorders), bongo nets, Van Veen grabs, HAPS Cores, and multicores at deeper stations.

When we did full CTD casts, we sampled from 24 bottles, each containing 12 liters of Arctic water, to be shared by multiple teams. The dissolved oxygen team, all from OSU (Laurie, Genevieve Coblentz-Strong and myself), sampled first in order to limit environmental contamination in our water. Laurie trained us to properly sample from the water, always watching out for bubbles — we don’t want bubbles! The first thing we need to do is to take the draw temperature, which is the temperature of the water when we first open the Niskin bottle. This is an important step for density calculations at the time the sample is taken. I rinse the flask and start filling it up with water, watching out for any bubbles, then I hand my co-worker the flask so she can “pickle” the water with chemicals that will “fix” the oxygen concentrations of the sample – keep it the same for later analysis. She gives the flask a good shake to mix all the chemicals. Once we finish, we fill the neck of the flask with deionized water to prevent any oxygen from entering the sample. After 30 minutes and a second shake of the flasks, we are ready to leave them in the dark so they can come up to room temperature.

Figure 2. Left to right: Emily Shimada (STARC), Maria Cristina Alvarez (OSU), Laurie Juranek (OSU), Genevieve Coblentz-Strong (OSU)

After us, the CO2 people always have their turn, then the methane group, then the biologists. In the end, everyone has taken some water to do their analysis. While the CTD team is sampling there is other science happening on the other side of the ship. Plankton nets are deployed to vertically sample from the water column. The biologists deploy the VPR, which is a camera that takes pictures of the microorganisms in the water column. There are pumps to filter water to collect particulate organic carbon in the water column – the pumps need to be under water for four hours!

Lastly comes the benthic (bottom) sampling, which uses different coring instruments to get samples of sediment from the ocean floor along with the organisms in it. At this point, it is already midnight, and the cores will take hours to process, extending to the early morning of the next day, when the O2 team starts doing Winkler titrations to get discrete oxygen concentrations from our samples. With my data, I hope to find patterns of changes occurring in the Arctic Basin, and since this is an area with scarce data, I will also be contributing to creating a baseline study of the transformation of this ecosystem for comparison with future data.

Figure 3. Maria Cristina performing Winkler titrations. Photo credit: Leonard Sussman

At the top of the world, the Healy crew organized what they call “ice liberty” which was the event in which everyone on the ship gets to go walk in the ice at the North Pole. The ice experts made sure the thickness was safe and they determined a perimeter in which we could hang out for two hours in the snow. We all got dressed up in our mustang suits, multiple layers of clothes below the suit, scarves, face coverings, beanies, and gloves. We made a line and walked down to the ice. It was a magical moment that I never thought I would ever experience. A Panamanian from Central America in one of the coldest places on Earth?

During this trip, we got to experience most of the items on the “bucket list for the Arctic.” On our way back, we saw a beautiful young female polar bear! She looked in great condition and the smell of the ship attracted her to the boat. It was incredible to see this magnificent animal, using the snow to clean herself. We also got to see the northern lights three times! One was incredibly intense, the green flashes of light dancing around the sky like a river flowing through the air. On open waters, we saw many bowhead whales and walruses. During these moments of awe and wonder, I felt an immense gratitude towards everything, and everyone involved in this exploration. Every single person in the Healy did their best to make the science happen. We felt joy during our work, made good friends, and learned from each other about what it means to be a human, a scientist, and a student.

Figure 4. Polar bear sighted during the expedition. Photo credit: Leonard Sussman

Photo credits: All pictures were taken during NSF-funded Synaptic Arctic Survey (SAS), Healy 2202 Research Cruise.

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