Saturday, May 24, 2014

Science on the Ice

Yesterday was our third ice station and I got to go out onto the ice for the first time. I mostly bounced around between teams and helped a few different groups with their science work, but I also got to spend a little time just getting a close up look at the icescape and taking some pictures. It was really nice to be right in on the action and get a better idea of what the science teams are actually doing since the lab on the ship is much too crowded for any extra people most of the time. It turns out that apart from a few super high tech instruments field science is mostly conducted with things you can buy at the hardware store: tarps, coolers, hand saws, plastic bags, 5 gallon buckets, pvc pipe, plywood, duct tape, Gatorade coolers, and big yellow snow shovels. And a lot of the tasks are things that I’m totally qualified for despite not having a phD in biology or physics!

The Stanford team was taking ice cores the whole thickness of the ice, cutting them into 10cm long sections, and putting them in coolers to run various tests on them back on the ship. I spent most of my time with them separating plastic containers that had frozen together, handing things to people, and putting plastic bags of ice core slices into coolers. I had been imagining that the cores would have a lot of horizontal bands in them from different layers of ice or snow, but they really didn’t even though the ice was about a meter thick. They were pretty uniformly white except for the very bottom of each which was covered with a thin layer of brown ice algae. 

After a while of that I switched over to helping Chris from the New Hampshire team who was doing a new experiment on how permeable the ice was because it can hold fresh water melt ponds on the surface suggesting it was impermeable to water, yet the holes they drilled were immediately filling back in with salt water suggesting it was extremely permeable. He would drill a hole, pour water in through a big pipe, and time how long it took to drain out. We tried salt and fresh water and the salt water drained instantly while the fresh water drained a tiny bit at first and then held steady. So in theory the fresh water with its higher freezing point is freezing in the pores of the ice and plugging them so that after that it will hold the rest of the fresh water, whereas the salt water doesn’t immediately freeze and drains out. My main job was to shovel snow into buckets of fresh water and stir it up to try to bring it to exactly the freezing point before they poured it into the ice so that slightly warmer water melting the ice would not be a factor. (Disclaimer: that could contain any number of scientific errors, but that was how I understood it. Hopefully somebody here will correct me if I’m wrong.) 

It was really gratifying to actually get to be part of the field work and feel like I contributed a tiny bit to science! And everyone here has been incredibly indulgent of my never ending questions. It’s so great to be able to walk up to a respected ice scientist who is stirring a bucket of slush with the handle of a plastic snow shovel and say, “What are you doing? Why? Can I help?” Or at least I find it very satisfying! Finally people who appreciate my ability to come up with an infinite number of questions.

Being on the ice was pretty amazing in itself too. From the boat the pressure ridges and piles of rubble look small, like low stone walls, and the only time you get an any sense of scale is when you see a polar bear and it walks behind or climbs over a ridge and you realize how big the ridge must actually be to hide a bear. Being down on the ice was completely different, the chunks of ice were boulder sized and it really reminded me of glacial terrain and the boulder gardens that you find in Maine, only everything was white. The ground, the ridges, even the sky, were all the same exact color. I wanted to go exploring and climb around on the piles of ice, but nobody is allowed outside of the area that the ice rescue team has surveyed and marked as safe without a coast guard escort, and requesting someone to go with me so I could basically play in the snow seemed kind of excessive. Although if there was ever a situation where people would humor me to that degree while at least pretending to take it seriously this is probably it. Maybe next time. Artistic research. 


  1. That's so cool that you got to go on the ice! Did you get a red suit to wear, and did it fit?

    1. I did get a red suit, did you not recognize me in the picture?! It's actually really hard to tell who's who out there even at close range when we're all wearing hats and sunglasses and identical red suits. They're called Mustang Suits and mine actually fit alright.

  2. I hope you're the one wearing the polar bear hat.

  3. I'm glad you're getting to participate in the field work so much! It looks like something out of a movie. You are definitely doing something that most people will never experience. How thick is the ice?

  4. Sounds Awesome! I'm loving the photos. - Nate

  5. I am the one with the polar bear hat! I bought it in Dutch Harbor during the missing luggage fiasco when I was very cold.

  6. yay- enjoying following your adventure! and awesome hat!!!