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Why We Go North

Dispatches from the Arctic

Editor's note: This blog post by Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA's Arctic Research Program, is the first in a series of posts from NOAA scientists aboard US Coast Guard Cutter Healy who are measuring Arctic environmental change.

Our journey to the Arctic this year for NOAA’s Distributed Biological Observatory – Northern Chukchi Integrated Studies (DBO-NCIS) project started in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, a tiny outpost in the rugged Aleutian Island chain that serves as a gateway to all points north. I started coming to Dutch Harbor long before everyone in America learned just how deadly it was to catch crabs in the Bering Sea. Unfortunately, beyond the reality TV shows, most people think that Alaska and the Arctic are far off frozen places that have little relevance to their lives.  However, nothing could be further from reality.    

When I made my first trip to the Arctic in 2003, the region was on the brink of the most extensive environmental transition in recorded history.   We didn’t know it at the time, but the Arctic was about to change and in the last decade we have witnessed a stunning series of record high temperatures and record low ice extents across the region.  These changes are disrupting ecosystems and migration patterns, they are thawing permafrost and altering the flow of rivers, they are destabilizing weather patterns, they are opening up new trade routes and access to natural resources, and above all, they are fundamentally changing the way we think about the Arctic. 

Our cruise this year includes scientists from across the U.S. who are collecting environmental intelligence that will help us better understand the rapid changes that are underway and how they will impact people in Alaska and throughout North America.  What’s even more exciting is that we have more than 20 scientists on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy who are making their first trip to the Arctic, including four NOAA Sea Grant Knauss Fellows. 

One of the Knauss Fellows, Taylor Armstrong from Kentucky, will be analysing water samples to see how ocean acidification is happening in the Arctic.  When I asked Taylor why she wanted to go north to the Arctic she said, “The cruise allows me to see how all these different oceanographers, atmospheric scientists, and marine biologists collaborate to study an area highly impacted by climate change.”

Another one of the Fellows, Emily Chandler from Maine, will be working to collect plankton samples to understand how ecosystems are changing. Emily said, “I wanted to see, firsthand, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy in action and what it takes to conduct science operations in the Arctic.”On the other end of the spectrum, Bob Pickart, Ph.D., a senior scientist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is making his 27th trip to the Arctic.  When I asked Bob why he continues to come back he said, “Much of the harsh Arctic environment remains unexplored, and we continually make exciting, groundbreaking discoveries -- it makes one feel like an explorer in addition to a scientist.” 

These researchers represent the incredible diversity of talent and enthusiasm that has taken over the cruise.  We know that there are emerging challenges and opportunities in the Arctic that will impact all of us. It’s reassuring that the Healy is full of people from all across the U.S., from California to Maine and from Texas to Michigan who are willing to journey north to gather the information we need to better understand the most rapidly changing place on Earth. 

For more information, please contact Monica Allen, Director of Public Affairs for NOAA Research, at 301-734-1123 or

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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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