Monday, May 26, 2014

Science Mission

I guess I should try to explain what’s going on here science wise at some point, so here is the basic idea behind the research happening on the cruise:

The name of the project is “SUBICE” or “Study of Under-ice Blooms in the Chukchi Ecosystem.” (How do scientists always manage to make their acronyms spell something relevant? How long does that take them?) Basically what happens is that in the spring daylight in the arctic increases dramatically from almost constant dark to almost constant daylight, and at the same time the sea ice starts to melt back from its southern edge bringing open water farther and farther north. When the newly ice free water is exposed to sunlight it triggers huge phytoplankton blooms that lay the foundation for the summer food web in the Arctic. The Phytoplankton are eaten by zooplankton and other tiny creatures like shrimp, krill, and fish larvae, those are eaten by fish, birds, and baleen whales, the fish are eaten by birds, seals, and toothed whales, and the seals are eaten by orcas and polar bears at the top of the food web. Without the phytoplankton there would be no link between the animals and the sun and the whole food web would collapse, so plankton are critical to all of the arctic wildlife all the way up to polar bears and whales.

Up until now the thinking has been that the phytoplankton blooms can only occur in open water after the ice retreats and exposes to the water to sunlight, but in 2010 and 2011 scientists in the Chukchi Sea accidentally discovered huge phytoplankton blooms UNDERNEATH the sea ice, which had never been seen before. Now they are returning to study the under-ice plankton blooms and try to learn more about them and the conditions that allow them to happen. One possibility is that there are types of plankton that are somehow adapted to live under the ice with limited sunlight and this has been going on all along, and it had just never been discovered before because no one was in the right place at the right time with the right equipment to see it. Another possible explanation is that this is a new phenomenon related to climate change. Over the past several decades Arctic sea ice has declined and there is more relatively thin first year sea ice and less thick multi-year ice. There are also more melt ponds of water on the surface of the ice that could act as lenses to let more light through. It’s possible that the combination of thinner ice and more melt pools is letting more sunlight through the ice and into the water below than before and allowing the phytoplankton blooms to start underneath the ice before it has melted back. If so that could have major unknown effects on the whole arctic food web.

The plan is to try to get far enough north early enough to get ahead of the melting and plankton blooms and be there to test the conditions before, during, and after any blooms that happen. So far it looks like we have succeeded in getting ahead of the spring. After some scarily plankton-evidence-filled samples farther south the last few rounds of water tests have showed only cold salty winter water, high nutrients, and no chlorophyll. In other words no plankton have been here yet. So now we keep doing sampling stations and see what we find. 

And now a bonus polar bear photo (the obligatory vacation animal butt picture):


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. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Land of the Midnight Sun

Amanda and I got up at 4am today because the bridge paged us about wildlife. We got all bundled up and went up there and it turned out to just be one seal, but it was totally worth getting up for the light! So this is what it looks like in the middle of the night above the Arctic Circle in May. The sun just skims the horizon for a few hours and then goes right back up, it's never dark and the sun is never below the horizon. It almost makes me want to get up for an hour in the middle of the night every night just to see it.

First Polar Bear

A lot has happened in the past couple of days! I slept late this morning (there are shift changes during the night that seem to involve a lot of slamming of 80 pound water proof doors right next to my bed, so sometimes it’s hard to sleep at night and last night was especially bad) and was woken up around 9 by an announcement of a polar bear off the starboard side. I jumped out of my top bunk, put on all my warm gear over my pajamas, and ran up to the bridge in time to see it. It wasn’t super close but it was clearly visible as a far away yellowish bear moving through the icescape. It was really well camouflaged, just slightly yellower than the blue-white ice and the white-white snow. It was just walking purposefully along the ice, climbing over ridges and going around huge blocks of ice. What an amazing thing to wake up to, a polar bear roaming the arctic ice! Where we are now the ice is in huge sheets with snow on top, and there are a lot of chunky ice ridges and big blocks of ice lying around looking kind of like rocks. I think that is from ice sheets colliding, kind of like plate tectonics making mountain ranges, but I need to double check on that. Luckily there is an ice expert on board!

Already I’ve been learning a little about the many different types of sea ice. There is a 24 hour ice watch on the bridge where people take shifts recording all the different ice types they see, the percentage of ice coverage, ice height above sea level, etc. Today was our first ice station where the boat stopped in the ice and the ice team got out and took measurements on the ice. They were out there for a few hours drilling holes, dropping instruments, taking cores, and making optical measurements with something that looks like a ghost buster backpack. I need to learn more about what exactly they’re measuring, but I think a lot of it comes down to the optical properties of the ice and how much light it is letting through to the water below. In between ice stations there are other sampling stations where scientists put all sorts of nets and instruments over the side to take samples and measurements. More on that later when I get a better grip on it myself.

It’s a little hard to figure out how to best use my time here. My natural temptation is to spend all of my time glued to the windows in the bridge or out on the deck just taking in the ever changing views and looking for wildlife. Which sort of makes sense since I may never have another opportunity to spend time on an icebreaker in the arctic. On the other hand I also have this incredible access to lots of scientists and grad students and I want to just follow them around and learn everything I can, look through their microscopes, loom over their experiments, and ask hundreds of questions. But there could be walruses out there at any moment! And besides, I’m trying really hard not to be in the way. Plus I have this work space and all this time with no other responsibilities or job. I don’t even have to make my own lunch! So maybe I should be working as much as I can, producing as much work as possible before I have to go back to the real world. But why come to the Arctic to spend my time in a windowless lab? The point is to actually experience it and learn from the people who know the most about it and make work about THAT. So it’s a little hard to find a balance between the science, the scenery, and actually making work. I am also trying to be patient while waiting for plankton imagery. It’s still early, and there will be more plankton and more images and hopefully people will start to have more time to share them and talk to me as we all fall into a routine. I need to remember that nobody is used to having an artist hovering around anxious for images and specific info that they may not even have. This is new for everyone.

And speaking of balance, I’m working on my physical balance too. I’ve been practicing yoga and being on a boat definitely increases the challenge, but it’s really satisfying to do standing balance poses while gazing out the porthole of a moving icebreaker!

Breaking ice
There are always birds following us  and diving and eating in the open water in our wake

Science on the ice!

A bearded seal 

Friday, May 16, 2014


We hit ice yesterday evening! Up until then we were pretty much just getting used to the ship, getting to know each other, and getting over any sea sickness. I haven’t been sea sick exactly but I haven’t really felt like myself until today. Apparently the desalinated water we drink is very very soft and completely free of the minerals and electrolytes that are in normal fresh water, so it makes you a little dehydrated no matter how much of it you drink. I haven’t actually looked it up, but that’s what I’ve been hearing. So besides the motion of the ship there is this kind of weird tired headachy dehydrated feeling. I woke up this morning feeling much better though. 

I have a work space in the “future lab” to do my work, but so far I’m mostly getting set up and just starting to get going with work. Mostly I’ve been talking to as many people and learning as much as I can, plus spending as much time as possible on the deck watching the ice go by. Sampling starts today, so after that there should be a lot more going on and a lot more material to work from. All of the scientists are really friendly and usually excited to talk about their work and answer my millions of questions. I’m learning a lot already and getting lots of ideas but still waiting for plankton visuals to work from.

But in the meantime there is plenty to look at outside on the deck. The ice is completely mesmerizing. It changes constantly and I could watch it all day if it wasn’t so cold out there. I found a little spot on the bridge with a good view too, so I’ve been spending some time up there. We saw some walruses on the ice yesterday but they were too far a way to see much without binoculars. I’m hoping for more wildlife as we get into more and more ice, but even just the ice itself is amazing. We also passed the Diomede Islands today which were beautiful. The clouds were really low and we could just see the bottoms of the mountains coming straight out of the water and into the clouds. There are two islands and one belongs to the Alaska and the other to Siberia, so now I have seen Russia! And wild walruses on icebergs! And it’s only day three. I have to keep reminding myself of that every time I miss a walrus or iceberg that someone else saw. There are still 39 more days of this, I have plenty of time.  

Leaving Dutch Harbor

Amanda is the official outreach photographer and also my roommate

Walrus pile!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

More Dutch Harbor Photos

We ended up spending an extra day in Dutch Harbor due to the lack of luggage, which gave me a chance to do some exploring. The second day was perfect sunny weather after the morning fog burned off. I climbed a hill and lay in the sun enjoying one of the most amazing views I've ever seen. Who would have thought I would ever be sunbathing on a mountain side on the Aleutian Islands!? 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Dutch Harbor

I arrived in Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian Islands yesterday after a week in Girdwood filled with lots of hiking (over 32 miles total!), delicious food, lots of beer, incredible weather, and great company. It was so nice to get to revisit Girdwood and spend a week with Libby with neither of us working.

So now I’m in Dutch Harbor where the science party is trickling in, most of the luggage is missing, and we’re pretty much just waiting. Dutch Harbor is kind of a strange place. There are two connected islands with the town spread out between them. I think I need an aerial photo to get a grip on the terrain, it seems like water and land are intermingled equally everywhere and I can’t really figure out what’s going on. The terrain is hilly and brown, no trees, no green anything yet, with lots of industrial looking buildings scattered on the hill sides and crowded down by the water. I haven’t really been able to find a town center yet, just varies little clusters of different kinds of buildings. The weather here is much more typically Alaskan, cold and raw with very low clouds hovering just over the mountains. It’s very desolate, not like anywhere else I’ve been but in some ways a little reminiscent of Maine with the rocky coast and brown hills only there are no trees at all here. But there are huge orange starfish and lots of sea urchins in the intertidal zone and bald eagles everywhere!

We’re supposed to leave port tomorrow morning, but if the luggage doesn’t arrive (which is apparently common here!) we may wait a little longer, or else we might have to go on a shopping spree at Alaska Ship Supply, the one real store here besides the grocery store. We stayed in a hotel last night but we’ll be on the Healy tonight and get to find out what that’s like. Suspense....

By the way, there might be a delay of a day or two between when I write these posts and when they're actually visible on the "real internet" so it might be old news by then.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Outreach Site

The site is finally live! There's not a whole lot there yet but there will be soon. Here's the link: