April 25, 2019  

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USM Student Reaches North Pole as Part of Research Expedition

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USM graduate student Laura Whitmore checks equipment aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy before embarking on a trip to the North Pole. (Submitted photo)

University of Southern Mississippi graduate student Laura Whitmore and a team of fellow researchers arrived at the North Pole on Saturday, Sept. 5 aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, the first U.S. surface ship to reach that destination unaccompanied.

Further, it marks only the fourth time a U.S. surface vessel has ever reached the North Pole, and the first since 2005. Healy’s crew and science party, totaling 145 people, departed Dutch Harbor, Alaska Aug. 9, in support of GEOTRACES, an historic, international effort to study the geochemistry of the world’s oceans.

Whitmore, a native of Palmer, Alaska, is a second-year master’s student in the Department of Marine Science (chemistry emphasis) conducting experiments as part of the unique 65-day research cruise. Her research focus involves the study of dissolved methane distribution and transport in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean.

Whitmore hopes the extensive research will provide clearer answers to a pair of crucial questions: what is the current distribution of methane in seawater, and how much of that methane is going into the atmosphere? She has spent the past year working the lab of Dr. Alan Shiller, a professor in the Department of Marine Science.

The National Science Foundation funded scientific expedition, with a diverse team from multiple scientific institutions is focused on studying the Arctic Ocean to meet a number of scientific goals, including the creation of a baseline of measurements for future comparisons. 

The United States is an Arctic Nation and the Coast Guard has operated in the Arctic since the 1860s.  Reaching the North Pole serves as a testament to the Coast Guard’s continued ability to provide access and presence throughout this increasingly important and operationally challenging region of the world. 

Healy is the United States premier high latitude vessel. She is a 420-foot, 16,000 ton, 30,000-horsepower icebreaker, capable of breaking over ten feet of ice. In addition to performing the Coast Guard’s other statutory missions such as law enforcement and search and rescue, Healy is a research platform with extensive laboratory spaces, multiple oceanographic deck winches, and berthing for 50 scientists. 

As the Arctic region continues to open up to development, the data onboard Healy during this cruise, as well as the Coast Guard’s ability to maintain access and presence in the Arctic, will become ever more essential to understanding how the scientific processes of the Arctic work, and how to most responsibly exercise stewardship over the region.