Geosciences Professor to Head Polar Expedition; Two TU Students among Ship's Scientific Crew

Monday, July 23, 2001

Peter J. Michael, professor of geosciences at The University of Tulsa, will lead a 65-day scientific expedition to the Arctic, coming within about 150 miles of the North Pole. Two TU undergraduates students will also be a part of the expedition scheduled for July 31 to Oct. 3.

Michael will be the chief scientist on the U.S. Coast Guard’s largest ship, the Healy, a 420-foot-long icebreaker. This will be the new ship’s first scientific mission.

A second ship, Germany’s Polarstern, is an equal partner in the expedition and will carry other scientists and a German chief scientist.

The American program is funded with a grant of $1.1 million from the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, including approximately $300,000 to TU. The project is known as AMORE, or Arctic Mid-Ocean Ridge Expedition.

“Our main goal is to learn much more about Gakkel Ridge, the mid-ocean ridge located about three miles below the surface of the Arctic Ocean,” said Michael. “We will recover volcanic rocks that we will analyze chemically to learn more about mid-oceanic ridges in general, including how the planet’s oceanic crust is created by seafloor spreading.”

The mid-ocean ridge is where the Earth’s crust is continually created by seafloor spreading, says Michael. “It’s the place where material and energy are transferred from the inside to the outside of the Earth. And it is the main mechanism by which our planet has cooled and is cooling.”

He says life on earth may have originated in hot waters that emanate from these undersea volcanic zones. The energy that supports the organisms that presently live in these hydrothermal areas is derived from chemical reactions, not by photosynthesis as on the surface of the planet.

Michael says the vessels will cover nearly 800 miles from Norway to the edge of the ice cap in three days, traveling at 12 knots. But once in the ice, progress will slow to 3 knots, depending on the ice thickness. Aboard the cutter Healy will be a Coast Guard crew of about 75 and some 20 people in his scientific party, including TU geosciences students Joel Donohue of San Antonio and Paul Schmieder of St. Louis, Mo.

Michael says the two ships will make the journey together for several reasons, including security. If one ship gets stuck in the ice, the other can help free it. Also, it is more efficient for two ships to travel together. While one ship breaks through the ice using two or three engines at full throttle, the other can follow at ease using only one engine. In addition, the Polarstern needs a clear path as it will be towing a sensitive acoustic receiver.

“We can try to understand the entire mid-ocean ridge by studying strategically chosen sections of it,” says Michael. Along the mid-ocean ridge, which runs some 40,000 miles under the oceans, volcanic material is added to crustal plates that move away from each other. Gakkel Ridge is special because its seafloor spreading rate is about one centimeter per year, the slowest on earth, compared to other ridges that spread at up to 18 centimeters per year.

Researchers will collect rocks using a 3-foot-wide dredge attached to a steel cable that is about a half-inch in diameter. It will take about an hour to lower the dredge to the sea floor.

The cable will also carry a plume recorder, used to record water temperature and clarity at different depths to detect emanations of hot water from volcanic areas. Scientists previously thought there was little volcanic activity along Gakkel Ridge, but in the summer of 1999 a submarine hydrophone detected possible volcanic activity near the east end of the ridge.

Temperatures will range from 0 degrees Fahrenheit to the mid-20’s, and because they will be so far north -- near 87 or 88 degrees North latitude -- it will be daylight most of the time. While on deck they will wear full body, insulated and water-proof suits.

Amenities are a factor for such a long voyage. Michael has already shipped 27 pounds of coffee for his scientific team. The ship has a library, a gym, a conference room with a large-screen television and two movies are shown daily over the ship’s entertainment channel.

Michael says the scientists will be able to walk on the ice, but under the watchful eye of an armed escort -- just in case a polar bear has strayed beyond its usual habitat.

All samples -- sediment, rocks, organisms and water -- will be shared equally with scientists aboard the German ship. Rocks likely to be dredged up include basalt, serpentine and peridotite. “Both ships carry helicopters, which will help us to exchange samples and scientists between ships at sea,” said Michael.

Other U.S. institutions involved in the project include the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and Oregon State University. German institutions include Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Max-Planck Institute in Mainz and University of Bremen.

The expedition has an official web site, which explains the mission and will include reports on the progress of the scientific projects: http://www.arcticvolcanoes.com/

Another web site -- http://tea.rice.edu/ -- features several teachers taking part in the expedition, including Michele Adams, who teaches 7th grade science at Musselman Middle School in West Virginia. Adams will participate in research activities led by Peter Michael. She will keep a journal of her trip that will be accessible on the web site.