Bigelow Researchers to Spend Summer at North Pole

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The Boothbay Register - Online Edition

Jun 21, 2001 "Serving The Communities of Boothbay, Boothbay Harbor, Southport, Edgecomb" Vol 125, Number 24

Bigelow Researchers to Spend Summer at North Pole

Robin Beck

  Bigelow Scientist Paty
Bigelow Scientist Paty
Bigelow scientist Paty Matrai and her assistant Brian Thompson will take part in a two-month international research expedition to the North Pole on the Swedish icebreaker.
(Photo Robin Beck)

Dr. Patricia Matrai and lab technician Brian Thompson of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay Harbor are traveling as far north as you can go -- all the way to the North Pole.

They are part of a two-month (June 29 - August 29) international research expedition, "Arctic Ocean 2001," organized by Sweden's Polar Research Secretariat, the main focus of which is to study the atmosphere and biogeochemistry of the Arctic Ocean.

Some 50 scientific researchers from a dozen countries aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden will sample and analyze the sea, the ice and the air in several related interdisciplinary projects, the ultimate goal of which is a greater understanding of the large-scale systems of the Arctic and their influence on global climate.

Particle Research

One of the projects, in which the Bigelow scientists are involved, is on "The Sources of Particles Over the Arctic Ocean and Their Climatic Relevance," studying the impact of aerosols on weather.

Aerosols are tiny particles suspended in the air such as dust, sulphur, man-made pollutants, salt and biogenic materials from the sea.

"The Arctic is the first place to show climate changes because it is the most sensitive," says Dr. Matrai.

Matrai's research will focus on the biogenic type of aerosols, or particles, which are produced naturally in the ocean, such as those formed by the metabolism of phytoplankton or the degradation of marine bacteria, and then released into the atmosphere.

These can only be studied in the Arctic during the summer months when the ice breaks up and water samples can be taken. It is also the time when the Arctic is particularly free of man-made pollutants.

Thompson, who will board the ship in Gteborg, Sweden next week, two weeks ahead of Matrai, will take water samples in the Berents Sea as the Oden travels north toward the Arctic. These samples will be compared to earlier samples Matrai has gathered and to those from other prior scientific expeditions.

"We know less about polar waters than other waters," she says. She will join the research vessel off of Spitsbergen, Norway, an island at the edge of the Arctic ice shelf, via helecopter and remain aboard for seven weeks.


The vessel will travel north to the area of the pole and then drift south for a month, tied up to a large sheet of ice on which scientists will erect "ice camps" to study meteorology.

The hypotheses the scientists will test are: 1) that, unlike greenhouse gases which cause temperatures to rise, aerosols produce clouds which create a cooling effect by keeping the sun's rays off the ice; and 2) that the size of particle affects the light-reflecting capacity of the cloud, with the smallest particles (the natural biogenic particles) producing brighter clouds reflecting more light.

"My part is to see how much aerosol comes out of the water," says Matrai. "No one has yet studied how fast these particles are being produced," she adds, so she will coordinate a biology subgroup of research within the larger project on this.

In addition to these studies of radiation balance and climate, other projects to be undertaken during the five legs of the trip have to do with biogeochemical cycles in the Arctic Ocean; the circulation of warm water in the Arctic Ocean and its role in the global circulation system known as the "Conveyor Belt;" remote sensing of ice coverage and the sea ice as an indicator of climate change; and taking sediment core samples to acquire seismic data through which to study the history of the Arctic's climate.

Teacher In the Arctic

In addition to Thompson, on Matrai's team will be the first international Arctic exchange teacher whom Matrai will mentor.

Dena Rosenberger, a high school chemistry teacher from a San Diego suburb who has some prior experience in oceanographic research, will take part in the polar expedition. She will help with projects, journal the experience, adapt it for educational use and then share it with teachers and students, both in person and remotely via the Internet.

About the Teachers Experiencing the Arctic (TEA) program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation which is also funding Bigelow's research, Matrai says, "That is part of Bigelow's commitment... to expose teachers to hands-on science and provide outreach."

While the scientists will not be able transmit email messages or photos from the North Pole, they will be able to make telephone calls via satellite. Matrai and Thompson will call Bigelow with weekly reports which will be transcribed and posted on Bigelow's website ( Ms. Rosenberger's reports may also be available on the Bigelow site, and eventually, after they return Aug. 30, their digital photographs will also be posted.

Matrai has been on several oceanographic resarch expeditions, including another Arctic adventure in 1999, during which she corresponded electronically with young students, sharing her experiences as a scientist and answering their questions.

"I'll miss that this time," she says, "because it is summer and the kids are out of school... I really enjoy interacting with students." In addition to her work at Bigelow, Matrai also teaches at the University of New England.

Preparing for the Pole

To prepare for the trip, she and Thompson attended a safety workshop aboard the Oden in Sweden last month. They learned about shipboard fire-fighting, performed life boat drills where they had to jump off the ship and swim to the life boats, and were warned about the serious dangers of cold weather, polar bears, and melting ice in the Arctic.

They have emptied Matrai's lab here and shipped over 1500 pounds of equipment, as well as a box of books, to go on the ship. They will share their floating lab space with about six other projects.

Once they get to the High Arctic and the Permanent Ice Zone, what they can expect is air temperatures in the 20s and 30s (F.), water temps also in the 30s, and 24 hours per day of sunlight. They have packed many layers of clothing, lots of gloves and hand warmers, and are being issued outerwear by the Swedes.

On board the 354-foot-long Oden, when they are not analyzing water samples, they can take a sauna, watch TV or movies, exercise in the ship's gym, read in its library or dayrooms, and enjoy formal dinners and an open bar every weekend, possibly even a dance or two.

There will also be a chance for outdoor recreation on the ice, such as cross-country skiing or playing "tourist" at the ice camps which will be located some distance from the ship and require transport by helicopter or snowmobile.

The trip will be Thompson's first big research expedition. He has been working at Bigelow for three years, assisting principal investigators Mike Sieracki and Lew Incze as well as Paty Matrai. Aboard ship he will likewise be helping other scientists.

Thompson and his wife Emily (Colburn), a teacher at Wiscasset Primary School, live in South Bristol.

Matrai, who obtained her Ph.D. in biological oceanography at Scripps Institute, is married to fellow Bigelow oceanographer Barney Balch. They have two children, ages 7 and 11, and live in Newcastle.

Ask the Scientist

Anyone who would like to ask any questions about the trip or the research may send the questions by email in care of Bigelow's Director of Outreach, Annette deCharon, to:

[email protected]

Messages will be forwarded to Matrai until she leaves on July 12, and after that questions may be relayed to her by phone, except when deCharon herself will be gone on a research trip in the Gulf of Maine.

People may also e-mail high school teacher Dena Rosenberger at: rosen[email protected]

The expedition will be featured in periodic updates from Bigelow in this newspaper.

Dr. Paty Matrai and assistant Brian Thompson will board a Swedish icebreaker and drift among ice floes in the Arctic to study climate with 50 other international scientists.

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