When applying to UMass Dartmouth’s marine science and technology master’s program, Marcia Campbell was struck when Graduate Program Director and Professor Miles Sundermeyer mentioned the possibility of a UMassD graduate research assistant getting to visit the North Pole as part of Professor Cynthia Pilskaln’s involvement with the Synoptic Arctic Survey (SAS) grant.
"Going to the North Pole wasn’t something I always set out to do, but once I learned it was a possibility, I was really excited about the chance to," said Campbell. "I enrolled in the fall of 2020, so the trip was delayed a little due to COVID-19, but I decided I’d wait however long it took for the opportunity to go."
Studying climate change
While studying marine sciences as an undergraduate student at Eckerd College in Florida, Campbell developed a passion for studying climate change due to its global importance and ever-evolving state.
"It’s really interesting and important to dig into the evidence that proves how our environments are changing," said Campbell. "Especially in the Arctic, which is getting hit harder and faster than the rest of the world. People don’t realize this because no one lives there and there’s not consistent data measuring it."
Visiting the North Pole
Over the last few years, research groups in Canada, China, Korea, Japan, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, and Canada have collected various biological, chemical, and physical oceanographic data around the Arctic Ocean as part of the international pan-Arctic SAS.
On behalf of Pilskaln, Campbell joined a team of 34 scientists and 100 members of the U.S. Coast Guard to represent the United States’ component of the project. The team set sail from Dutch Harbor on Sept. 4 aboard the U.S. Coast Guard’s Cutter Healy (pictured below), which is designed to cut through thin ice on its way to the North Pole.
"It’s hard to get to the North Pole, which means there’s not a lot of scientific results coming out of it," said Campbell. "I think we were only the third U.S. group ever to get to the exact 90° latitude point, the last being in 2015. Climate change evolves so quickly, it’s really important to get Pole-specific data to contrast and fill in the gaps over the last seven years."
As the only representative from UMassD on the trip, Campbell felt some nerves visiting a land where no one lives with 140 people she’d never met, but says she felt at ease pretty quickly into the trip.
"All of us were there for the same reason and mindset, which made it easy to clique with others," she said. "I also love learning new things, so learning to execute new tactics was a very cool experience. Seeing the Northern Lights, polar bears, and walruses also brought us all together."
The North Pole’s importance
"Oceans are really important for keeping carbon out of the atmosphere by absorbing it and burying it at a level where it can’t climb out of, protecting us from having too much in our atmosphere," said Campbell. "The Arctic is one of our key global carbon sinks because of all its open water. It’s a delicate balance, and one we need more data to understand as carbon levels continue to rise."
Campbell’s research focused on carbon levels in the ocean at different latitudes on the way to and from the Pole. Using McLane pumps (pictured below), she extracted particulate matter within the water to evaluate how much organic and inorganic carbon ends up at different depths.
Samples are being prepared on the SMAST campus before being sent to the University of Southern Florida’s stable isotope laboratory for further analysis. Campell hopes to have results back in roughly a month, when she’ll compare results to the 2015 U.S. Geotraces cruise.
Life in the Arctic
Campbell described the temperature on the trip as typically between 0° and 10°F, getting as cold as –2.2°F, which was comfortable under the group’s "mustang jackets" she’s pictured in above.
"The biggest surprise to me was that it wasn’t sub-zero degrees Fahrenheit and that there was such thin ice at the North Pole," said Campbell. "That’s a cause for concern and proof of climate change in the Arctic. Some of the veteran scientists on the cruise had made similar trips through the Arctic before and commented on how much thinner the ice was or farther back it began than when they last visited."
Looking back, Campbell remarked that the trip enhanced her academic experience by giving her a real look and feel into what worked and went wrong, while also helping her prospective career in science by building skills on the boat and expanding her network with other early-career polar scientists.
"I loved being on a cruise and having this experience at such a young age will hopefully help me to be selected for more trips like this in the future," said Campbell. "I’d love to go to the Antarctic or return to the North Pole to see how it changes over time. Also, I wouldn’t mind an equator cruise to feel a little warmth next time.
“Pun intended, being able to tell others I’ve been to the North Pole is an awesome ice breaker."
UMassD’s footprint in climate science
One of the nation’s most environmentally responsible colleges for 11 years running, UMass Dartmouth has proudly built a strong footprint in the studies of climate science and carbon emissions.
Students and faculty across disciplines have made impressive achievements in the fight against climate change, including an app for carbon emissions tracking (engineering), charting historical whaling ship data (history), developing the Blue Economy corridor on the SouthCoast (marine science & technology), and teaching environmental policy and law (public policy).