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Three years after being launched upon the ice of the North Pole, a miniature wooden boat washes ashore on a beach in Iceland. A local man walking his dog comes across the item, uncertain of its origin just yet. He recognizes a URL on the tiny vessel and decides to visit the website when he gets home. Bolli Thor didn’t know it at the time, but he had just come across an educational outreach experiment put in place by a team of 50 international Arctic scientists back in 2015.

In August of 2015, Associate Director of the Applied Research Center (ARC) and research professor in the Institute of Water and Environment, Dr. David Kadko, walked aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy for a 65-day long journey through the western Arctic Ocean. Kadko was the chief scientist of the NSF-funded U.S. Arctic GEOTRACES initiative, a $20 million international program that included a team of 50 scientists whose goal was to map the geochemistry of the western Arctic Ocean. The team set sail from Dutch Harbor, Alaska on the Healy on August 9, 2015, to begin their work gathering geochemical samples of the Arctic region.

During their trip to the North Pole, Kadko and his team collected thousands of samples throughout the region. They then measured the amounts of trace elements and isotopes in each sample as some trace elements are essential for marine life, while others can be contaminants. Many elements can also be used to better understand modern ocean-processes and the role of the ocean in historical climate change. Data were used to identify element residence times, and the approximate path, or marine circulation, an element would take through the Arctic Ocean.

Before leaving for the Arctic, the scientists launched the “Float your Boat” project, an educational outreach program that provided young students in the U.S. with the opportunity to take part in Arctic research. Students were encouraged to decorate small wooden boats that were then transported to the Arctic with the research team and deployed upon the Arctic ice. Over 1,300 boats (each with a unique identifier of the student and school it belonged to) were deployed and then monitored as they moved across the Arctic Ocean. The ice upon which the boats were deployed were tracked by satellite and each of the drift tracks for the boats could inform scientists of real time marine circulation patterns, thus helping them to understand how elements are being transported in the region’s waterways.

The boats were launched into the Arctic, tracked for a year and then lost at sea. That is, until Bolli Thor came across one of them just last month! “These are the coordinates, 63.962285, -22.734055, where I found one of your little wooden boats, near a small town called Sandgerði in Iceland where I live,” Thor wrote on the Float Your Boat website. “I found it at my favorite spot, where I usually walk with my dog called Tyra.” The boat he found belonged to Cecilia, a former student of Upper Nyack Elementary school (now a high school freshman). The hope is that more of these boats will be discovered as they end their long journey through the Arctic and begin washing ashore.

For more information about the GEOTRACES project, click here or view their Facebook page.