Sunday, February 25, 2018
What the mud tells us about a changing Arctic

What the mud tells us about a changing Arctic

Dispatches from the Arctic

Editor’s note: This is the third dispatch from Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program, who is leading a team of NOAA scientists on a research cruise in the Arctic.

The back deck of the Healy is a tough place to work.  It’s wet, it’s cold, and the scientists slogging away there are always covered in mud.  That’s because getting samples off the bottom of the Chukchi Sea is an important part of our mission this year. 

One of the biggest transitions happening in the Arctic is occurring well beneath the surface of the ocean.  As the waters warm and sea ice melts earlier in the year, the prolific ecosystems that inhabit the seabed are changing. This could have major consequences for everything from walrus and whales to people.  Jackie Grebmeier, Ph.D., a research professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, one of the architects of this cruise, has been collecting animals from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean for 33 years. 

“Information from the sediments provides long-term insights into the overlying processes that are happening in the ocean and indicate the health and resilience of Arctic ecosystems to changing environmental conditions,” Jackie explained. 

NOAA Sea Grant Fellow Emily Osborne sifts through mud to identify marine life as part of research into changes in the Arctic ecosystems. Credit: NOAA, Jeremy Mathis

To collect this information, the crew on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy deploy a large scoop that grabs about 20 pounds of mud, brittle stars, clams, sea cucumbers and anything else that happens to be living on the bottom.  By picking through these samples, researchers on board can tell what’s living there, how well they’re doing and if any newcomers are showing up because of changing ocean conditions.  

Next, the team collects long tubes of mud, called sediment cores, that can tell us how the region is changing by looking at what’s been buried in the mud over time.  

Chelsea Wegner, a former NOAA Sea Grant Knauss Fellow and current Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, will be using these cores for her research.  I asked Chelsea why she chose to study the Arctic and she said, “I was inspired by my experience working with the U.S. Antarctic Program, so I decided to transition to the Arctic to do a research project in an area that is rapidly changing. By studying these sediment cores we hope to answer some questions​ that will help us better understand and describe these changes."

Emily Osborne, Ph.D., the Knauss Fellow in the Arctic Research Program, is making her inaugural voyage on the Healy as part of the benthic team as well.  “Being up here, I have seen that the Arctic Ocean is an incredibly unique, complicated and fascinating place and it is changing before our eyes,” said Emily.

The Healy research cruise is following a course along the Distributed Biological Observatory (DBO), an array of observational buoys, unmanned systems and other tools that collect observations at hot spots chosen because of high productivity of marine life and previously recorded rapid change. The DBO was established to be a change detection array and a core component of that change can be found in the mud.  

For more information, please contact Monica Allen, director of public affairs for NOAA Research, at 301-732-1123 or

Previous Article No ice to break
Next Article Fishing in the Arctic?