Archive for April, 2011

The many qualities of light

April 28, 2011

Yesterday’s fieldwork was bright and hot; it got up to 37 degrees Fahrenheit at one point. Here Bonnie and Naomi prepare to put the under-ice arm (which carries sensors below the sea ice to measure the transmission of light) through a hole we’ve drilled in the ice.


April 26, 2011

I really must remember that there are times and places for short sweet blog posts, and that one of those times is during very busy fieldwork days. It’s a bit of a catch-22, actually; there’s so much going on that the number of things I want to write about increases in inverse proportion to the time available to write about them. Our lodgings don’t have Internet, so my usual tactic of forgoing a little sleep to write blogs at the end of the day doesn’t work as well.

So far we’ve been out to the field twice and spent the rest of our time mostly in the lab. Our field site is a fjord about forty or fifty kilometers from town, called Tempelfjorden; we commute there on snowmobiles (“scooters” in the local parlance) which makes for a lengthy but scenic trip. Out on the ice, we make a plethora of measurements and take numerous samples–mostly of ice, but also of the snow on top of the ice. It’s been remarkably warm, near freezing most of the time; I get much colder working in the cold lab to process the samples than I ever do out on the ice making them.

We’re headed out again tomorrow; in the meantime, here are some pictures from our fieldwork.


April 21, 2011

Hello! I’m writing from Longyearbyen, in Svalbard. I actually got here yesterday afternoon, but was a bit too jet-lagged and befuddled by my ~24 hours of travel (Seattle to Newark to Oslo to Tromso to Longyearbyen) to do much.

I am surprised at how much this place reminds me of Antarctica, with its stark black-and-white scenery. One notable difference is the open water that comes right up to the land. We’ll be visiting some landfast (frozen to the shore) sea ice when we go to the field, but near the town the water is unfrozen. Our host/guide, Steve (not to be confused with my advisor Steve; maybe I will start calling him SvalSteve to avoid confusion), says this is due to warm Atlantic currents. Longyearbyen is slightly further North than McMurdo station is South, but due to its weather patterns and currents it’s notably warmer. Of course, it’s also warm because it’s Spring; the last sunset of the season was the day before we arrived, and a lot of residents will soon be leaving for the Easter holiday.

From Journey to Svalbard

Some Svalbard scenery.

There’s a surprising amount of tourism in this small city. People come to ski and hike and snowmobile and see polar bears; there are several sporting-goods stores near the short pedestrian corridor that serves as a sort of downtown. Snowmobiling appears to be a popular form of transport, with snowmobiles outnumbering cars two or three to one. Rifles are commonplace, since anytime you leave the city you’re apt to run into polar bears. (It’s rare that anyone actually shoots a bear, mind you; it’s very illegal to do it for any reason except desperate self-defense, and even self-defense cases are rigorously investigated.)

Snowmobile + rifle = typical Svalbard.

I’m here helping my colleague Bonnie do a project with the Norwegian Polar Institute–more on that later, as it sounds like tomorrow will be a long fieldwork day (we spent all of today sorting and prepping gear for it.) In the meantime, check out the blog of the other student accompanying us, Naomi to the North.

157 degrees of latitude in 63 days

April 18, 2011

So I’m about to leave again for another session of fieldwork and I haven’t even finished posting the updates from the last one. Embarrassing.

Anyway, on Monday I’ll be leaving for Longyearbyen, in Svalbard, an archipelago and territory of Norway at around 78 degrees North. I’m assisting my colleague Bonnie with some measurements of the optical properties of sea ice in the fjords near there–somewhat similar stuff to what I was doing in Antarctica, although not for the same project (the sea ice we’ll be dealing with there is much warmer and more full of algae than anything we’d expect to find on Snowball Earth, at least based on current models.)

I’m pretty excited about this! The Arctic is very different to the Antarctic, in a lot of ways, and despite growing up in Alaska this will be the first time I’ve been north of the Arctic Circle. While the Antarctic is ice-covered land surrounded by water, the Arctic is ice-covered water surrounded by land, so it’s much less isolated. Land ice and sea ice are very different physically, as well, with land-based glacier ice being quite stiff and slow and clean and orderly compared to chaotic, ridged, constantly-shifting, salty, life-harboring sea ice.
The Antarctic has no land-based predators larger than a tiny worm, whereas in the Arctic we’ll have to keep an eye out for polar bears, a species that has few compunctions about eating humans if given the chance. (I’m told that if we’re on our guard and prepared, we’ve little to worry about.)

I’ll post again when I get there.

A Field Scientist’s Work is Never Done

April 7, 2011

Original audio post.

Today’s science fell a bit flat, at least on my end. Ruschle and I went out to re-take some albedo measurements, but were frustrated by rapidly-changing cloud conditions that confused the instrument.

Ruschle covers the Sun so I can photograph the clouds around it, in an effort to compensate for their effects; eventually we just gave up.

Mel and Martin had better luck making snow measurements and taking samples. Right now, Martin is sitting behind me with his makeshift lab, pouring diethyl phthalate into snow samples to preserve them. We’ve been having a little trouble getting the stuff cold enough to set, but that’s another post, I think.

Anyway, I figured I’d talk a little more about the rhythms of life in camp. Life in any camp seems to be defined by its chores, so I’ll start with those. Thinking about chores, actually, I was surprised at how few I could come up with. Perhaps that’s because a lot of chores at normal camps involve cleaning things, and we happen to be living in a place with essentially zero dirt.

Responsibilities begin in the morning, when whoever slept with the satellite phone (it has to be kept warm, so it’ll work when it’s needed) calls McMurdo to let them know we’re still OK. Every field camp does this check-in. It’s a sort of failsafe, in case something disastrous happens and we aren’t able to contact anyone to call for help.

Whoever’s cooking breakfast–or sometimes whoever’s in the kitchen tent first–collects a bucket of snow from outside to melt for water. Melting snow is probably the most constant and time-consuming chore. All the water for cooking, drinking, dishwashing, and other miscellaneous uses must be melted in the big pot on the propane stove. Notably, bathing is not really on the list of uses. Living in unheated tents means that getting wet is more or less courting hypothermia, so we mostly do without. I’m sure there are ways to manage it [bathing], but for three weeks, in a place without dirt, we think we can get away with it.

The water-melting pot, which was in near-constant use when we were in the tent.

We hold an informal meeting after breakfast to decide, mostly based on the weather, what to do with the day. If we’re going out, we need to take the covers off the snow machines and inspect them before heading out to the field to do science. Coming back, we re-fuel and re-cover the snow machines. Without the covers, the engine compartments fill with drifted snow.

Snowmachines, neatly put away.

The cook for the day (tomorrow, that’s me) starts dinner while everyone else puts away the scientific instruments. (I’m thinking I might make some kind of Malaysian-style curry.) More snow is melted–again, usually by the Cook for the Day. Someone might sweep the kitchen, if it’s filled up with drifted snow again. Snow is kind of our equivalent of dirt, but it’s much less bothersome, since it generally evaporates if you leave it long enough. Still, when it accumulates in the kitchen, it becomes somewhat irritating.

Supplementary audio post.

Hey, sorry–I think my last post got cut off when the satellite phone went out. Somewhere around where I was talking about how it’s irritating when the kitchen fills up with drifted snow. I’m actually rather surprised that the satphone hasn’t cut out mid-post before now. Unfortunately the WordPress voice-post function is a bit primitive; the only option is to call, leave a post, and hang up. You can’t really edit it afterwards. So, I won’t try to re-record the whole post this time, since I was mostly finished anyway. After dinner, pretty much all that’s left to be done is to wash the dishes and decide who’s going to sleep with the satphone. So, uh, it’s about time for bed here, so I will bid you all goodnight and talk to you soon. ‘Bye.