URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography to Lead Arctic Expedition

Inner Space Center to relay first live interactive broadcasts from Arctic Ocean’s Northwest Passage

Media Contact: Tony LaRoche, 401-874-4894 |
Polar Bear
The Northwest Passage Project, led by the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, departs Resolute Bay in the Canadian Arctic on Aug. 23 for a three-week expedition. Photo by Ken Burton

KINGSTON, R.I. – Aug. 20, 2018 – The University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography’s Inner Space Center is sending a team of natural and social scientists, students and a professional film crew to the Arctic Ocean’s Northwest Passage for an innovative research project that will relay the team’s work in real time to a worldwide audience.

The three-week expedition, which gets underway Aug. 23, will explore the changing Arctic Ocean, the planet’s last great un-navigated maritime frontier. As it does, it will share that experience through the Inner Space Center telepresence technology with select museums, as well as citizen-scientists, teachers, students and the public.

Using Facebook Live, the Northwest Passage Project, conducting research aboard One Ocean Expeditions’ vessel Akademik Ioffe, will allow viewers worldwide to follow the project and discuss the team’s research in a first-ever live interactive broadcast from the fabled Northwest Passage.

“It is important for people everywhere on Earth to understand how this region affects all citizens,” says Gail Scowcroft, associate director of the Inner Space Center and principal investigator for the project. “The region’s meltwater, water circulation, and flux of greenhouse gases between the ocean and the atmosphere are impacting wide-scale environmental and climatic changes, including how these changes affect people and wildlife diversity.”

The expedition’s chief scientist, Brice Loose of URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, is coordinating and leading the research into the exchange of greenhouse gases between the water and atmosphere, and changes in distribution and abundance of two vulnerable levels of the Arctic food web — plankton and seabirds.

The 364-foot research vessel, Akademik Ioffe, equipped with multiple laboratories, cranes, a “moon pool” shaft through the hull to allow lowering and raising of equipment, and a vast array of oceanographic research tools, departs Resolute Bay in the Canadian Arctic, Aug. 23, travels south and west to Cambridge Bay (via Bellot Strait), and then returns to Lancaster Sound and Pond Inlet, before traveling down the east side of Baffin Island, with many stops along the way. The expedition ends in Iqaluit, capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, on Sept. 13.

Major funding for the expedition comes from the National Science Foundation, with additional support from the Heising-Simons Foundation. This groundbreaking opportunity is also supported by world-leading expedition cruise operator One Ocean Expeditions, a key marine partner that has operated in Arctic waters for more than 20 years.

Aboard the Akademik Ioffe, the 37-member team – including 22 undergraduate and graduate students participating in the research – will collect water, ice and air samples to document the effects climate change is having on the environment and biodiversity in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The project will help fill significant gaps in critical scientific data about the region, using an array of oceanographic instruments during the ship’s 22-day transit.

The student researchers come from universities and colleges across the U.S., as well as Canada.

Zachary Kerrigan, 40, a University of Rhode Island graduate student in oceanography, will work both ends of the project – research and communications. Kerrigan, of East Greenwich, a 12-year Navy veteran, will work with the senior science team investigating how microbes that feed on methane respond to increased levels, which are expected as methane frozen in sediment is released as the Arctic warms. He will also interview scientists for broadcasts that are aired by partner museums, while also helping undergraduate students blog about their adventures. “There’s a little bit of everything. I don’t discount the adventure aspect. It’s going to be awesome,” Kerrigan said. “But it’s definitely going to be a career asset. I’m looking at this as working steady for three weeks. It’s not going to be a vacation.”

Sonia Pham, 21, a senior environmental science major at Virginia Commonwealth University, will help assess Arctic seabird distribution and abundance. With an interest in oceanography, sustainability, ecology, chemistry and physics, Pham is intrigued by links between scientific branches and the multi-disciplinary knowledge needed to increase understanding of global warming. “My dream career goal will always be to make a positive impact on the environment and promote sustainability,” said Pham, of Ashburn, Va. “I believe that being a part of the Northwest Passage Project is a small step to having a significant breakthrough in oceanographic research for the expedition and in studying environmental change in the Arctic region.”

Humair Raziuddin, 30, of Naperville, Ill., has traveled extensively, attracted by scientific work that helps advance the common good. In the Arctic, the sophomore psychology and biology major at the University of Illinois at Chicago will help measure nitrogen and carbon in the air and ocean. “[The experience] will give me the ultimate chance to provide my service to the most important issue of this century,” he said. “We need to know the rate of change in the Arctic because it is going to affect us all.”

Talia Byerly, 23, had planned to major in dance performance, but after trying scuba diving, she had a new view on life and her career goals. Now a senior, Byerly is studying marine biology at Florida International University and is passionate about coral reef protection. On the expedition, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., resident will examine Arctic Ocean physics, chemistry, plankton life and seabird abundance and distribution. Being a part of the expedition, she said, will give her “an insider’s understanding of how our actions as a society are impacting our environment, thus enabling me to be a better advocate towards environmentally responsible behavior and proactively protecting it.”

The expedition also will contribute to an understanding of the maritime history of the Northwest Passage, the role of the Inuit people in Arctic history, the effects of climate change on indigenous populations, and the geopolitics of a waterway confronted with threats from resource extraction, increased shipping commerce and pollution.

Sending that research back home, though, is a major part of the project. Live interactive broadcasts throughout the expedition will use the Inner Space Center’s advanced telepresence technology and video production facility, where 18 students and teachers will interact directly with researchers at sea.

Pre-expedition webinars, preparing viewers for the upcoming research experience, will be archived at the project’s website. The Inner Space Center will produce daily video from the expedition that will be available on the Center’s YouTube channel – along with its other social media sites on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

A live satellite link will connect the ship to viewers at partner sites, allowing audiences to communicate with the shipboard scientists and students. Interactive broadcasts will be beamed to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the Exploratorium in San Francisco and the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.

A television documentary, “Frozen Obsession,” will chronicle the expedition, the history of the Northwest Passage and the indigenous Inuit people and will air in 2019. For more information, visit GSO’s Inner Space Center website.