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UTSI Professor Serves on Icebreaker to the North Pole

UTSI Professor, Steve Brooks, was onboard our Nation’s largest Icebreaker, the Coast Guard Ship “Healy” this fall while making its solo surface cruise to the North Pole. The 65 day cruise was also the longest without port stops in Coast Guard history. The Healy is only the second U.S. ship to reach the North Pole and the first to make the trip unaccompanied. The UTSI professor was onboard to study the transport and deposition of air pollutants to the Arctic Ocean.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the international Geotraces program which aims to improve the understanding of biogeochemical cycles and large-scale inputs of contaminants to the ocean environment. Scientists from 35 nations have been involved in the program, which is designed to study all major ocean basins over the next decade. This Arctic cruise was coordinated with scientists and icebreakers from the U.S., Canada, Germany, and Norway

The Icebreaker Healy departed Dutch Harbor, Alaska in early August. The ship travelled through the Bering Sea and the Bering Strait meeting the German Icebreaker, Polar Stern, at the North Pole. The Healy had several encounters with Polar Bears. Being curious creatures, the bears strolled within feet of the ship on a couple occasions. Walruses were frequently seen in the southern portion of the Arctic ice pack and ringed seals swam within feet of the scientists working on the surface ice.

The ship’s cargo included boat kits designed by students at Tullahoma West Middle School that were left by Brooks on an ice floe along with a GPS tracking buoy. The boat kits of the West Middle School students, in Box #5, can be tracked on the web site The boats are labelled so that when found, the finder can input the boat number and location to the web site, and the school and student will be notified.

The UTSI professor was onboard to study particulate and gaseous air pollutants, and some of these same contaminants within the sea ice and surface waters. A contaminant of major concern is mercury, which is transported by the air to the Arctic. Mercury levels in Arctic wildlife are rising at a disturbing rate. Mercury is a highly toxic element that is transported primarily as a gas in the atmosphere. After deposition the element is absorbed and accumulated in the food chain, causing feeding and reproductive problems for top-level predators, such as Beluga Whales and Polar Bears.

Brooks has studied the atmospheric transport and deposition of contaminants to the Polar Regions for many years, and has led ground, ship, and aircraft-based scientific studies at the South Pole, the Greenland icecap, Arctic Alaska, and the Arctic and Antarctic Sea ice environments. He has been awarded the U.S. Navy Arctic Service Ribbon, the Coast Guard Arctic Service Medal, and the U.S. Antarctic Service Medal. He is an Associate Professor in the Dept. of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Tennessee Space Institute, and lives with his family in Tullahoma.