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Southern Miss graduate student embarks on a research cruise to the North Pole

HATTIESBURG, MS -

This is a news release from the University of Southern Mississippi

University of Southern Mississippi graduate student Laura Whitmore hopes to discover a bit of magic at the North Pole this summer, whether she detects any signs of Santa’s workshop or not.

Whitmore, a second-year master’s student in the Department of Marine Science (chemistry emphasis), will participate in a unique 65-day research cruise to the top of the world aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter “Healy.” Her Arctic Ocean adventure begins Aug. 9 with departure from Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

A native of Palmer, Alaska, Whitmore is no stranger to icy climates. But spending more than two months aboard a massive, state-of-the-art research vessel in frigid ocean waters offers a different set of challenges.

“I always wanted to do something like this, but never expected to experience the reality of going to the North Pole,” she said. “I’ve never had an overnight trip on a boat before. I’ll have a very steep learning curve for how to live on a boat, especially in a region notorious for rough seas.”

Whitmore will join 49 other researchers – representing 30 institutions from across the world – for the U.S. Arctic GEOTRACES Expedition whose mission is to study marine biogeochemical cycles of trace elements and their isotopes. Her research focus will be the study of dissolved methane distribution and transport in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean.

As she points out, methane is an extremely important gas that, in the atmosphere, is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. And, as such, is quite relevant to global climate discussions.

“The Arctic Ocean is extremely sensitive to warming,” said Whitmore. “Most people think of the Arctic ice cap melting and habitat loss for polar sea life. However, there is another very interesting aspect to consider. The Arctic sediments are host to a very large reservoir of stored methane. While it is stored, it is not a threat to warming, but as seawater warms there is a chance that the stored methane can be released to the seawater and subsequently the atmosphere, where it can cause more exacerbated warming.”

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?

“Understanding these facets of methane distribution in the Arctic will set a baseline for future studies and enable a better estimate of the current impact methane from Arctic sediments has on climate,” she said.

After obtaining her undergraduate degree in Environmental Sciences from Montana State University (2013), Whitmore received a flyer from the Southern Miss Department of Marine Science promoting the graduate degree program. Despite the enormous distance from her familiar Pacific Northwest, Whitmore said the appeal of working with esteemed oceanographers at Stennis Space Center proved irresistible.

She has spent the past year working in the lab of Dr. Alan Shiller, a professor in the Department of Marine Science. Shiller selected Whitmore as his lab’s representative on this GEOTRACES cruise based upon her academic prowess and other obvious intangibles.

“Laura is not only book-smart, she’s also got a lot of common sense and is quite proactive with a can-do attitude,” said Shiller. “She’s the sort of student you can give a task to, and then stand out of the way while she accomplishes it.”

Shiller relates an example of Whitmore’s initiative that occurred during a cruise planning meeting earlier this year. “I was impressed with how, on her own, she approached senior scientists and asked about their research – ultimately volunteering to collect samples for one of them during the cruise,” he said.

Shiller notes that many students from his lab have participated in research expeditions in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans over the years. But Whitmore is the first to conduct experiments in the Arctic waters.

“Laura may well be the first Golden Eagle to make it to the North Pole,” he said. “This is by far the longest research cruise that anyone in my lab has participated in. The GEOTRACES program is the largest chemistry research program ever designed and funded. For USM scientists to be involved in it brings us positive attention and attests to our ability to conduct science on the global stage.”

The “Healy” is a 420-foot Coast Guard Cutter designed to break 4.5 feet of ice continuously at 3 knots (3.5 mph) and can operate in temperatures as low as −50 °F. The icebreaker has a maximum speed of 17 knots (20 mph). To avoid the claustrophobic possibilities of being cooped up at sea for more than two months, Whitmore plans to bring some familiar “friends” along for the ride.

“Among the essential items I will have with me are books,” she said. “We’ve got two months mostly Internet-free, although we can do some e-mailing. Alongside reading material, I have some good old-fashioned puzzle books to keep me entertained.”

Fully expecting to run out of fresh food at some point during the expedition, Whitmore also intends to stock up on her favorite snacks. “I have a sweet tooth and couldn’t imagine months without some candy,” she said. “I’ve got Mike & Ikes and chocolate ready to go.”

Beyond her research goals for the trip, Whitmore hopes to catch a glimpse of a narwhal or a bowhead whale. “A polar bear would be cool, too,” she said.

As for a Santa sighting, anything is possible.

Copyright 2015 WDAM. All rights reserved.

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