UH scientist
joins polar studies

SEATTLE » The Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, just back from its annual research trek to the Arctic, is already preparing for next year's voyage: a joint venture with Sweden in the white world of the polar north.

The 420-foot icebreaker accommodates several teams of scientists, multidisciplinary and multinational, every six-month season, to make best use of the access it provides to one of the planet's most hostile environments, said Margo Edwards, a marine-geology researcher from the University of Hawaii who heads the Healy's academic advisory committee.

"It's beautiful up there -- very spare," Edwards said, displaying computer-screen photos of the pink, blue and white landscape of sea, snow and ice. "I've never seen so many shades of blue."

This year's focus was water, with scientists measuring nutrients, temperatures, salinity and pollution as water moves from the shelves to the deeper ocean. The results will be discussed at an American Geophysical Union meeting Dec. 13-17 in San Francisco.

Next year is geology. Edwards will be following up on a 1999 expedition on a Hawaii-based nuclear submarine. The work with a Swedish icebreaker is to "see what the structure is" beneath the sea. In 2006, polar bears and other Arctic wildlife will be in the limelight, with researchers using the Healy's two helicopters to collect data.

"The committee tries to encourage use of the Healy in new and interesting ways," Edwards said.

She and other scientists recently met with the Healy's executive officer, Cmdr. William Rall, and other officers to plan for next year's voyage on the vessel. The ship, operated by a Coast Guard crew of 99, can carry up to 51 guest scientists.

In 1999, Edwards and a colleague determined that glaciers, long a subject of land-based research and speculation, had moved north from Canada and Europe into the polar region. They found glacier footprints on the sea floor -- "flutes" left by passage of the grooved ice and "moraines," piles of rubble left when a glacier stops pushing across the landscape and withdraws.

Previously, land-based scientists had concluded the glaciers only moved south, sweeping down from the north onto the continents.

"We had expected to disprove 'Big Ice,'" Edwards said. "But everywhere we looked, we found evidence of ice pushing out from the continent."

This year their focus will be core samples of sediments, drilled tens of meters into the sea floor, to try to determine, based on the soil content and ancient sea creature remains, when 1,000-meter-thick big ice sheets were moving around up there.

The Healy also will be mapping the flutes and moraines, using a sonar system that focuses on the surface texture rather than hills and valleys -- like an aerial photo that shows streets and houses rather than a topographical map showing contour, Edwards said.



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