Notes from a Defense (cross-posted from S.A.G.A.N.)

July 28, 2013

I wrote this while my friend and colleague Marcela Ewert presented her work at her Ph.D. defense. She’s been doing a lot of really cool work about how Arctic microbes make their living despite the temperature and salinity extremes found in the sea ice and in the snow that rests on it. Here’s a link to some of the work included in her dissertation.

Jargon note: exopolysaccharides, also known as extracellular polysaccharides or EPS, are substances secreted by microbes (bacteria, algae, etc.) You may be familiar with extracellular polysaccharides like xanthan gum, which is produced by a soil bacterium and used as a thickener by the food industry. The exopolysaccharide produced by the Arctic microbes Marcela studies seems to be especially good at sticking to ice.

Colwellia and Psychrobacter are both species of sea-ice-dwelling bacteria.

Bacteria in Arctic Sea Ice and Salty Snow

Our universe is full of water ice
Whose particles in stellar-forming clouds
Are substrates on which molecules can splice
To veil the ice in thin organic shrouds.
On Earth, the ice on mountains and near poles
Plus snow and sea ice makes the cryosphere
In cold ecologies it plays its roles;
Sea ice and salty snow concern us here.

As sea ice forms, its icy fingers reach
Encapsulating nets of salty brine
And with the salty water, many creat-
ures will be trapped–by chance, or by design?
Bacteria and algae both secrete
Ice-loving exopolysaccharide
Which grips the icy matrix to defeat
The brine flow that would carry them outside
But in snow, changing temperatures and salt
To microbes like Colwellia spell doom
While Psychrobacter lives through this assault
And finds home where Colwellia finds a tomb.

But with the proper solutes all can thrive
And Arctic ice and snow can come alive.

Scatter, Adapt and Remember (cross-posted from S.A.G.A.N.)

June 10, 2013

Note: S.A.G.A.N. is a social network for astrobiologists, and I have promised I will write some poems for them. Like this one!

Last month I went to see a talk by Annalee Newitz of io9.com about her new book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember. In the talk, she went over some of Earth’s previous mass extinctions and their notable survivors, and discussed how humanity might manage to make it through the next one, whatever its cause might be.

It was an excellent talk and it inspired me to write the following poem.

Scatter, Adapt and Remember
inspired by Annalee Newitz

Four billion years after the Earth coalesced,
in the Cambrian period, life held a fest-
ival of evolution that still holds us rapt.
Lesson the first: to adapt.

Life took this to heart with impressive effect,
but the number of species has not grown unchecked.
Several times mass extinctions remorselessly zapped
All species that couldn’t adapt.

The survivors escaped from conditions grown harsh
by leaving their homeland of forest or marsh
for new habitats change hadn’t managed to shatter.
Lesson the second: to scatter.

They carried on re-population apace,
and their many descendants took over the place–
till disaster re-taught them the two things that matter:
how to adapt and to scatter.

They evolved new skills after each terrible blight,
like lungs, and warm-bloodedness, uteri, flight.
Then one kindled bright flames from a neuronal ember
and learned Lesson Three: to remember.

For a species had suddenly mastered the means
to store useful skillsets outside of its genes.
All able to learn from their cleverest member
how to scatter, adapt and remember.

When the next big volcano or meteor hits
We’ll survive through our cities, our brains and our bits
We’ll weather the storms of a years-long December(1)
And scatter, adapt and remember.

(1) e.g. snowstorms if your reference point is in Canada, firestorms if in Australia, torrential rains in Brazil, etc. There are a wide variety of disastrous Decembers to choose from.

Interstellar Ice

February 1, 2013

A couple of days ago I gave a talk at the Astrobiology Seminar about organic chemistry—IN SPAAAAACE. I chose the topic because I didn’t actually know anything about it to start out, so I learned a lot of cool stuff researching the talk. One of the things I learned is that ice (note that at ten degrees above absolute zero, “ice” can include things like frozen methane and ammonia as well as our old favorite water ice) is actually quite important to the formation of molecules in interstellar dust clouds.

Trifid Nebula

The Trifid Nebula, a hotbed (coldbed?) of interesting chemistry. From http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap130128.html.

Ice accumulates on tiny bits of rocky or sooty dust at the blazing rate of one molecule per day, and then acts as a surface on which chemical reactions can take place. Atoms and molecules just zipping around on their own tend to bounce off of each other, but on the surface of an icy grain they have time to get acquainted and engage in a little friendly covalent bonding. A surprising number of molecules can be built this way, including familiar ones like acetic acid, acetone, and ethanol.

Interstellar ice-grain chemistry could even be partly responsible for the “handedness” of chemistry on Earth, since circularly polarized starlight is one of the few known ways to create a bias toward left- or right-handed chemistry. What I didn’t know until researching this talk is that amino acids with a preference for left-handedness over right have actually been found in asteroids. The going theory is that a small initial bias toward left-handedness, perhaps created by interstellar polarized light, could have been amplified by as-yet-unknown chemistry inside the asteroid. Mystery!

The Very Model of a Modern Glaciologist

December 3, 2012

A “poster preview video” for the 2012 IGS meeting in Fairbanks. This is about the same project I’ll be presenting at AGU.

Lyrics:
I am the very model of a modern glaciologist
I’m master of all manner of arcane and icy knowledges
My derivation of the flow law rivals that of Dr. Glen
My icy glare can cause a melting glacier to refreeze again
My glacier surveys show my unmatched skill with a theodolite
I outdrink all my colleagues after seminar on Thursday night
The NSIDC sends me their data sets to analyze
I leap crevasses meters wide to save an ice core from demise

I’m here to demonstrate to you this model stuffed with elegance
Developed with the use of my superlative intelligence
It seeks to show why graphs of crystal fabric from depths Stygian
Can oscillate and swivel in a manner callipygian
The foremost of our multitude of possible hypotheses
Was that the ice preserved the stamp of ancient surface processes
To substitute for nonexistent measurements empirical
We based it on pure physics from the realm where cows are spherical

I reasoned that since snowflakes sometimes grow as columns, some as plates
Why shouldn’t grains within the snowpack lend themselves to sim’lar fates?
I made ten thousand crystals and then grew them all stochastically
And let simple diffusion change their size and numbers drastically
The output is a credit to my wit and perspicacity
And several high-speed processors all running at capacity
Come marvel at my poster and admire all my knowledges
For I’m the very model of a modern glaciologist

McCarthy Glaciology Summer School 2010: In Limerick Form

November 29, 2012

These are some limericks I wrote while attending the 2010 Glaciology Summer School in McCarthy, Alaska. I tried to write one about each subject that was covered in lecture, although I think there are a few missing. N.B.: the tidewater-glacier-as-leveraged-bank analogy is from the actual lecture.

Ice dynamics
Though its speed is exceedingly low,
Ice is fluid, as glacier shapes show.
Non-Newtonian viscosity
Determines velocity
According to Glen’s law of flow.

Ice fabric and anisotropy
At the microscale, ice grain migrations
Derive from crystalline dislocations
Anisotropies cause
New constitutive laws
To account for in our simulations.

Subglacial hydrology
Water flows through the glacier like blood
Makes it slide over bedrock and mud
When a tunnel melts through
Or ice dam breaks in two
Out comes pouring a Biblical flood

Tidewater glaciers
When these tidewater glaciers retreat
The destruction’s both fast and complete
It advances again
On a borrowed moraine
Like a leveraged bank on Wall Street

Mass balance
Adding up rain, wind, heat, cloud and sun
To get melt isn’t very much fun
You could try degree-day
It’s an easier way
But a somewhat less accurate one

Glacial thermodynamics
Now the species of glaciers are three
Cold are fully below zero C
Temperate’s always at freezing
Polythermal’s a pleasing
Combination of types A and B

Remote sensing with ICESat
When inspecting the tracks of ICESat
Look for spots that are curiously flat
Or locations that flex
From concave to convex
It’s a subglacial lake doing that!

Gravitational remote sensing
For the weighing of glaciers, a scale
Is inevitably much too frail
But science saves face
By celestial GRACE
Which delivers the mass-balance Grail

Laser Altimetry
To determine an ice-surface height
Send out regular pulses of light
Measure time to bounce back
Then, repeating your track
Demonstrates warming glaciers’ dire plight

Inverse methods
To extrapolate former conditions
Using presently measured positions
Although methods inverse
May inspire you to curse
They’ll reveal past climatic transitions

Debris-covered glaciers
Grand white Kennicott looms above town
But its foot is all filthy and brown
If we clean off the sand
It’ll look mighty grand
Till, uncovered, it melts, and we drown.

The consequences of setting forty glaciologists loose on a small town’s alcohol supply
There’s a flow law for ice strain and shear
What we need is a flow law for beer
Given glacier grads, N,
And a drink rate X, when
Will all booze on the shelves disappear?

The Story of Glacier Joe

November 28, 2012

Written at the request of the President of the International Glaciological Society, for the 2012 IGS meeting in Fairbanks. In the style of the classic The Cremation of Sam McGee by the great Robert W. Service.

The Story of Glacier Joe

There are strange things done ‘neath the midnight sun
   By the folks who study ice
They’ll spend hours of time on a glacier climb
   Just to check on some strange device.
With their crampons donned they ascend beyond
   The realms where sane folk go
Yes, they’re all bizarre, but the oddest by far
   Was the one called Glacier Joe.

The letters I.D. marked his sole degree–
   “That’s ‘Doctor of Ice’,” he’d say
From a glacial perch he’d perform research
   In his own peculiar way.

He’d carefully take his ablation stake
   Back home at the start of spring
For the sunny glare might cause wear and tear
   If snowmelt exposed the thing.
He hated to dig, so his snowpit rig
   Was a big overclocked hair dryer
He never would change, though his numbers were strange
   And his notebook often caught fire.

I answered an ad for a glacier grad
   That’s how I joined Joe’s lab
He’d heard some stories ’bout inventories
   And wanted to take a stab.
Our first sortie was altimetry
   With a stopwatch and big flashlight
But so blindingly fast those light pulses went past
   That our glaciers had negative height.

So next Joe raves about seismic waves
   And runs out to buy T.N.T.
But it came to pass that each change in mass
   Was just what we’d blown to debris.
He thought he’d shoot for the theory route
   With area-volume scales;
So Joe would divide feet-long by leagues-wide
   And end up with volume in bales.

Said Joe, “I guess the I.G.S.
   Are a bunch of clever sots,
They’re hosting some sym-pos-i-um
   So I’ll go expound my thoughts.”
He showed fifty-six slides dense as bricks
   With text in Comic Sans
And spoke with such flair that the Session Chair
   Dragged him offstage with both hands.

We went for beers with our glacial peers
   And they told us of what they did
And all this news made Joe enthuse
   Like a sweet-shop-dwelling kid.
So back we went to our field tent
   To add to our data stores
Energized anew, we both set to
   The task of drilling cores.

We drilled and cored and dug and bored
   ‘Til our hands were sore and tired
And I strained my eyes to analyze
   The samples we acquired.
Well, day by day went on this way
   And the data rose like the tide
But nary a bit of that data would fit
   No matter how hard Joe tried.

“I’ll never know how the glaciers flow,”
   Joe cried out in despair
“From the top to the bed, it’s all over my head–
   I tell you, it just ain’t fair.”
“I know some folks can use full Stokes
   But my models ain’t even one-D.
From densification to surface ablation
   These glaciers befuddle me.”

And after this spiel, Joe turned on his heel–
   And threw himself down a moulin!
With a rope from the sledge I raced to the edge
   But by then he was long gone.
Unhappy and damp I returned to the camp
   And pondered poor Joe’s fate;
Down the hole he’d been flushed to be frozen or crushed
   It was awful to contemplate.

But later that night in the fading light
   I awoke to a bellow grand
Like a trumpet brass from a deep crevasse
   Saying “NOW I understand!”
“It’s all so clear from way down here!”
   Exclaimed the voice with glee.
“Every wax and wane of stress and strain
   Is an open book to me!”

“I can see each kernel of snow and firn’ll
   Become a crystal grain
And each drop of melt makes its presence felt
   In the branched subglacial drain.”
The ice folks say that to this day
   A student or a seeker
Can strain an ear, and faintly hear
   From beneath the ice: “Eureka!”

There are strange things done ‘neath the midnight sun
   By those studying ice and snow
Yes, they’re all bizarre, but the oddest by far
   Was the one called Glacier Joe.

The Ballad of AGU

November 27, 2012

The American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting (usually just referred to as AGU) is when something like 15,000 scientists descend on San Francisco’s Financial District for a week. There are talks and posters, of course (so many talks and posters!) but as with any convention the main point is to connect with new colleagues and re-connect with old friends. This is a poem I wrote for the Cryosphere gathering at AGU a couple of years ago. The meter and rhyme scheme are modeled after “The Egyptian Diamond” by Randall Garrett.

I will be at AGU again next week! Monday is Science Open Mic Night at Jillian’s Billiards Club, so I have to decide what to perform, which is going to be tricky.

The Ballad of AGU

Sunday, just a bit past five
And you’re feeling half alive
With your poster on your shoulder as you stumble to your flight
You’ve been staying up too late
Your data won’t cooperate
And you found a whole new error around ten PM last night.

But now you’re at AGU
There’s a million things to do
There are friends from far-off places who you haven’t seen all year
In the morning, though, I’m betting
You will find yourself regretting
That moment you decided “Sure, I’ll have another beer!”

Bright and early, you will fight
The grand excesses of last night
You will struggle bravely out of bed and stagger to Moscone
There’s a talk you must attend
By an early-rising friend
And a cutting-edge announcement you suspect might be baloney

Now you’ve coffee cup in hand,
with which to aid your mental band-
width, for a firehose of data’s aimed directly at your brain
There’s a clever new device
To gauge the temperature of ice
And a host of novel ways to watch a glacier from a plane

There’s a brand-new data set
Barely even processed yet
That details the Greenland ice sheet’s elevation, shape and speed
There’s a fellow at a booth
Who, if his pitch has any truth
Sells an instrumental system that does everything you need

There’s an algorithmic way
To take the data from a day
And extrapolate behavior of the system for a week
There’s a dozen gloomy talks
On how the planet’s on the rocks
And the global warming outlook’s gotten just a bit more bleak

Then, before you’re really read
When your spiel is still unsteady
You’re onstage—your poster’s posted and your work you must explain
Visitors interrogate you
Some to praise, some to deflate you
And your voice is going hoarse from giving out the same refrain

But look! some kind soul brought beer
And the end is getting near
And suddenly it’s over, just as quick as it begun
Battling through the teeming streets
You reach a trove of drinks and treats
And the denizens of Cryosphere are here to have some fun!

Seussian Snowballs

November 27, 2012

I wrote this poem about Snowball Earth for the Pacific Science Center’s Polar Science Weekend. Usually I take considerable enjoyment in putting as many obscure and multi-syllabic words into my poems as possible, but in this case I was trying for a younger audience.

SNOWBALL

I. THE FREEZE, or, Ice-Albedo Feedback

A long time ago, in a place not so far
On the third planet out from a middle-sized star
A watery world, all flecked blue and white
Where conditions would shortly be perfectly right:

The gases that made up the atmosphere changed
As the continents gradually got rearranged
Reflecting more sunlight back out into space
And allowing heat out at a speedier pace.
As the planet cooled down, ice crept toward the equator
And the sunlight reflected grew greater and greater
And the planet cooled more and the ice grew still faster
And the ice sheets and glaciers were vaster and vaster.
When the tropical seas fell beneath the ice pack
It was clear from that point there was no turning back.

The planet was wrapped in a blanket of ice
So thick it could swallow the Space Needle—twice.
It looked like a snowball, so shiny and white
And therefore it reflected most of the sun’s light.
With no light to absorb, it stayed snowy and cold
Till this super-Ice-Age was millions of years old.

II. THE THAW, or, CO2 to the Rescue

But—volcanoes! Undaunted by ice, they don’t care
They just keep spewing lava and gas in the air
With the oceans iced up, gas had no place to go
And so, though the progress was terribly slow
Greenhouse gases built up for a very long time.
Very slowly, the temperature started to climb.
We don’t know all the details (we’re still finding out!)
We do know the ice melted—of that there’s little doubt.

For the planet was Earth, as you no doubt have guessed.
Ice now sticks to the poles (perhaps taking a rest.)
Though the Sun’s now too warm to let Earth freeze again
Earth-like worlds around other stars might well have been
Sealed up under the ice, like we were long ago.
Perhaps some worlds still lie under miles of snow.
There could even be life, waiting for things to warm
Or well-suited to cold with a strange alien form.

But this story I’ve told of seas dark and snow pale
Is just a small part of a more complex tale
For water and ice come in other shades too
From near black to snow white to umpteen kinds of blue.

So the thing I’ve been working to find out so far
Is: what makes ice and snow be the colors they are?

III. LIGHT AND ICE, or, Why Things Work This Way

Two ways that light works are the main things that matter:
We science types call them absorption and scatter.

All things absorb light, but some don’t absorb much–
things like air and Saran Wrap and windows and such.
The more “stuff” light goes through, the less light is left
So you’ll get more absorption from things with more heft.
And some things allow only certain shades through
Like ice, which absorbs red but still lets through blue.
That’s why glaciers are blue, and not red or green
(Or some times they’re a nice sort of aquamarine.)

So that’s why ice looks blue, but then why is snow white?
Snowflakes are just miniature ice crystals, right?
Indeed, snow is just ice in the form of small flakes
But what makes it unique is the shape that it takes.
See, when light hits a surface, it changes direction.
(You can see this yourself with a moment’s inspection:
Put a pencil in water—it looks bent, right where
It comes out of the water and into the air.
It’s not really bent, but the light you see is.
That’s what we call refraction in this science biz.)

So every time light hits a snowflake, it bends
And with lots of snowflakes, that beam of light ends
Up bouncing around and around ‘till it goes
Back out into the air and away from the snows.
That’s why snow looks so bright—any light that goes in
Will quickly be scattered right back out again.
This works much the same for light red, blue or green
Which is why snow looks white. (But, as you may have seen
Light that goes through enough snow will look a bit blue
Because snow’s made of ice, and it can absorb too.)

There are many more ways to change ice’s color
Ice is brighter with bubbles, while dust makes it duller.
And there’s probably ways that we haven’t found yet
So we’re out there looking for new ones, you bet!

Graupeling with Seattle Snow, or, Rime and Reason

January 17, 2012

Seattle is enjoying one of its all-too-rare episodes of snow—well, I’m enjoying it, at least. Upon leaving the house this morning to walk to work, I found the sidewalks lightly dusted with an interesting type of snow we in the biz call graupel.

Most snowflakes, the six-sided ones you probably think of when you think of “snowflake”, grow by the condensation of water vapor. The individual water molecules attach to the snowflake in an orderly fashion, like building a structure out of Legos, and you end up with a regular crystalline shape.

Sometimes, though, the snowflake will pass through a cloud of water droplets as it falls down to the ground. As it hits the snowflake, the whole water droplet will freeze almost instantly, retaining its rounded shape. The snowflake bounces around in the cloud of water droplets, accumulating more and more, and your orderly Lego structure starts to look like someone has been pelting it with spitballs. These frozen water droplets are called rime. When so much rime has accumulated that the underlying shape is no longer visible, the snowflake has become a pellet of graupel.

In the picture below (sorry for the questionable quality, it’s a cell phone camera) you can see quite a few snowflakes; I’ve circled one on the left that retains the crystalline snowflake shape, and one on the right that’s still clearly six-sided, but so covered in rime it looks like it’s wearing a fur coat. (My advisor called this a “textbook” rimed snowflake.) Elsewhere in the picture you can see a few pellets of shapeless graupel.

Rimed and unrimed snowflakes

Circled on the left: a classic snowflake. Circled on the right: a snowflake covered with rime (frozen water droplets.)

Incidentally, this also goes to show that you don’t need a microscope to appreciate snowflakes; your eyes will do just fine. I’ve found that a good method is to go out when the snow is falling and catch snowflakes on a fuzzy hat, either faux fur or knitted with especially fuzzy yarn; the snowflakes will be caught on the fibers, where they can be more easily examined without melting.

Ice roads and igloos

July 11, 2011

Ice melt to close off Arctic’s interior riches: study

One of the things I find interesting about ice is its use in engineering. Ice and snow are actually fantastic building materials for certain purposes–mostly due to their cheapness and ubiquity, but sometimes also because they have useful physical properties. You may have heard of Pykrete, the mixture of ice and wood pulp that was proposed as a potential material for aircraft carriers. The wood pulp increased the strength of the brittle ice; it also reduced its thermal conductivity, slowing down melt. But apparently the fact that ice flows under its own weight, combined with the fact that such a carrier could only be used in cold weather or with massive refrigerating apparatus, doomed the project.

In cold climates, however, ice is a natural material for all kinds of things. For instance, the ice roads made famous by the show Ice Road Truckers and whose impending loss is bemoaned in the article at the top of this post. Or the ice pier at McMurdo, mentioned in this post and shown below being trimmed to size by several explosive charges:

BOOM

Ice structures needn’t be solely functional. For one thing, it’s a popular sculptural medium. You’ve also probably heard of ice hotels like this one in Sweden or this one in Québec. Despite its beauty, though, ice isn’t the most functional material for living quarters; it conducts heat too well. For dwellings, you want something with good insulative properties: snow!

The most famous snow dwellings are those made by the Inuit people of the high Arctic: igloos. (“Iglu” can actually refer to any type of dwelling, but for my current purposes I’m most interested in the temporary, dome-shaped, snow-and-ice structures.) This webpage discusses igloo technique, including the use of lamps to melt the interior so that it will refreeze as structurally stronger ice. (It is worth noting that traditional cut-block igloos work best with a certain type of wind-packed dry snow that is, I think, much easier to find in the Arctic and Antarctic than in temperate regions.)

But snow shelters are useful for anyone camping in snowy conditions. This chapter of the US Antarctic Program Field Manual (PDF link) describes the basics of several different types of snow shelter. The quinzhee, for instance, used to be a major feature of McMurdo Happy Camper school. The US Antarctic Program approach is to build up the quinzhee by shoveling snow on top of a pile of equipment which is then removed to create a cavity; more traditional quinzhees may involve creating a pile of snow and later hollowing it out.

When I did Happy Camper they emphasized the snow trench as a shelter that could more easily be built by one person, if necessary:

Snug and warm(ish.)

The one disadvantage of a snow dwelling this small is that one is forever knocking snow off the walls and down the back of one’s neck. Igloos and quinzhees are far preferable if you have the time and manpower, not to mention being more visually impressive.


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