Oh, Canada!

DSCF1743

Hello Edmonton! You all may have noticed that we have not been blogging through our driving expedition- this is because, besides all of the incredible adventures we are having(!), we are really j u s t d r i v i n g. DSCF1753DSCF1737Yes, the Yukon Territory was beautiful enough for us to daydream of being a part of some serious winter mountaineering squad, and yes, it was awe inspiring enough for us to constantly lust after all of the untouched, skiable terrain, and YES, we saw some stray bison (buffalo?), but all in all we drove for 37 hours in three days.
Therefore, we arrived in Edmonton desperate for a home cooked meal and exercise.
Lona Ani, you are our saving grace! She and her husband Greg were some of the most hospitable people we have met in our journey so far, and without billable hours. IMG_3381Edmonton is the second largest city in Alberta, Canada next to Calgary. It is also the capital (we have realized in this trip that though there are only 10 Canadian provinces, very few Americans can name all of them, and far fewer the capitals). After driving through nowhere land for so long, the team was happy to have a day to train ourselves how to live in the real world again; Rachel and I went to a mall, and Ross frequented some type of racquet sports gym.DSCF1843
The next day was our first big outreach day, and we are going in with a bang. We were hosted by the Telus World of Science museum, a fantastic museum, much like the Museum of Science in Boston, that was teeming with people all on their day off from school. They gave us a space up on the second floor to spread our presentation out over two tables, science fair style.

Lona showing the blubber gloves to a local family.

Lona showing the blubber gloves to a local family.

Lona, a retired middle school teacher and current substitute-teacher for all grades, knows how to connect with younger kids a little bit better than we do, and as the target audience for this museum is middle school and elementary school age, she was an invaluable ally in the process. She set up her own table of activities: Blubber Gloves to demonstrate the effect of polar bear blubber, tubs of ice showing what kinds of ice contribute to sea level rise, and snowflake stencils for kids to trace out their own drawings.

These props and ours definitely drew people over to our set up. Our presentation often started with showing off a chunk of sea ice that we had sacrificed for outreach purposes.

Rachel showing off the poor melting chunk of sea ice.

Rachel showing off the poor, melting chunk of sea ice.

It was sitting in a tub, ultimately melting, and we would pick it up with gloves to allow people to feel the texture with their hands and experience how porous it is. We had an ICE-MITT box on display that was running; we used Box #8 because it had one of the larger temperature gradients.

A little girl dressed up in Ross' field attire and holding the core barrel. Literally, bless my heart.

A little girl dressed up in Ross’ field attire and holding the core barrel. Literally, bless my heart.

We also had a running movie of a lot of our footage from Barrow and our fieldwork. We brought in the core barrel to show off and to demonstrate our methods on. The most hysterical part, though, was the clothing. To set the mood, the museum did not have a mannequin for us to dress up so we had to use a skeleton. A skeleton sheathed in Ross’ overalls and under his giant Canada Goose coat is its own brand of wonderful. However, a whole other level is when a 6 year old is trying all of it on.

Though we were sad to leave Edmonton and it’s WONDERFUL science museum, we set off that day to Regina, Saskatchewan moving one time zone and 782 km closer to home. Next stop: Monona Grove High School in Wisconsin!DSCF1849

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So Long Barrow!

Good day followers,

Final polar bear sighting!

Final polar bear sighting!

The last day of our expedition was by far the most strenuous. That’s right; it wasn’t the -55˚, or the endless snowmobiling, or the sunless tundra that tired us out. It was leaving day. Let me outline this for you:
First, Ellyn woke up at 7 am to call border patrol because at 8 am she had an appointment to, yep, adopt a dog. (Her name is Nukka and she is glorious, tune in for more on that later.) Afterward, packing commenced. Each person had was to have packed the previous day, but let’s be real, who ever has time to pack. So we all packed the morning of in under an hour.DSCF1657
Now our duties were out of the house- so long hut 171, forever. We arrived at the Theater to meet Ross, who scoffed on his way out the door about how he was ready far before anyone else (this is not to say that he doesn’t get ready impressively fast, because he really does). Now that all of the boxes are full of 2 meters of ice, we had about 1700 lbs of cargo, not including our own luggage, plus about 300 lbs of gear. We had to get all of this, four passengers and a dog about 4 miles to the airport. Luckily the guys at UIC got four back up trucks to help us out.

View from our flight

View from our flight over the Brooks Range

We were able to fit only one ICE-MITT box with a generator per truck, so with each truck we had to take at least 2 trips. Each ICE-MITT was unplugged and loaded onto a truck and each box then got a generator to power it for the ride over. Once we got to the airport, we drove into the hanger, unloaded the ICE-MITTs, plugged them in to wall power, and reset their programmed temperatures. We had arranged earlier with the head mechanic at the Barrow Ravn Airlines to plug in at the hanger.
Next was the real challenge.

Packing the plane... this somehow worked

Packing the plane… this somehow worked

We had told the charter previously the exact dimensions of the boxes, assuming they were laid flat. We had not anticipated needing to put them on their side in the design, nor had we designed them for this. However, our plane was pretty tiny, and from the outside it seemed like getting all ten boxes into the plane would give just enough space for the pilots to fly it.

Nukka on her first plane! Not happy about it

Nukka on her first plane! Not happy about it

Luckily, I have better skills then my ability to guess volume, for this was not the case. However, it was no picnic to get the boxes in- we had to explore every avenue, trying to avoid tipping a box on its side. Finally, a mechanic came and took out as many seat as possible, leaving just enough space for the actual passengers (4) and the dog. The crew then fit in 9 boxes laying flat, though the remaining one was tilted on its side. We had to decide as a team that if the decision came down to flying or not flying we had to just bite the bullet on that one and see how everything turned out later. Such is the nature of field work – really that should just be our motto by now, “Just bite the bullet and try it already!” Not to mention this was another -55˚ wind chill day.

At the "hanger" in Fairbanks all plugged in

At the “hanger” in Fairbanks all plugged in

This was hour one. Have any of you guys seen 24? Where every episode the clock is ticking down the hour on the screen? Well, you can imagine that this was just how we felt the second we unplugged those boxes. See, after some testing earlier in our field research season we found that the boxes can maintain the temperature gradient within 1 or 2 degrees for about three hours after being unplugged. The plane ride from Barrow to Fairbanks is an hour and a half, and even though we had arrangements with the hangers on either end of the journey, loading and unloading the ICE-MITT boxes is a slow process, and means more time unplugged.

Our Uhaul and plane

Our Uhaul and plane

Because the boxes have to work so hard to keep the two ends the right temperature, it’s best if they are in a cool environment. Additionally, if the boxes have no power, they won’t warm up so fast in a cooler place. For this reason we sat in an airplane that was just about -10˚ the whole way. When I got dressed that morning I foolishly thought that I would be inside a lot, I was flying for goodness sake! But, boy, I have never been so under dressed. Natalie had to lend me a puffy jacket to put on my legs in the plane while we all spooned hummus and nuts into our mouths.DSCF1684
Finally we touched down in Fairbanks. THERE ARE TREES HERE! Did you know that? Because I had forgotten what they looked like, and Nukka had never seen one in her little doggie life. Try being away from them for 6 weeks, it really starts to get to you. However, if you thought it was warmer in Fairbanks because it’s farther south, it’s not. We unloaded the ICE-MITTS in pretty record time, got them all plugged in and reprogrammed, and, as predicted, their temperatures had barely shifted in flight. Dear staff at Ravn, you were amazingly helpful!

Finally set up in their Fairbanks garage

Finally set up in their Fairbanks garage

Our logistics person in Barrow, Josh, was there at the airport to pick us and our luggage up. We then had to drive to Uhaul to pick up the 17 foot truck that we have rented for the ~5,000 mi trip home (if you want to know how we talked Uhaul into this, I will refer you to Ross who can talk anyone into anything – don’t get too close).

IMG_3350We then had to return to the airport, load all 1700 lbs of boxes onto the truck, drive over to Josh’s office, unload them into a garage (the New Theater), plug them in, and reprogram them all. By this point it was 6:30 pm and we were all so hungry and cranky we went to the closest, and somehow the best, restaurant we could find: Lemongrass, a Thai-food place.

Mark and Ross outside of the cabin

Mark and Ross outside of the cabin

Lastly, being the best host ever, Ross’ friend and UAF Ph.D. candidate, Mark Oggier brought us to his cabin that is heated by a wood stove and has no running water. Quaint and pretty tight, the cabin was honestly my dream home.

Last Day of Coring!

Ellyn did not participate in the pose

Ellyn did not participate in the pose

Dearest Reader,
You are joining us in our final days in Barrow, AK. “Stuff hits the fan week” has commenced and all three final coring days are finished. I don’t think that you, dear reader, quite understand the implications of this statement: ALL OF THE ICE-MITT BOXES ARE FULL. DSCF1425We are completely done with the coring portion of our fieldwork. If you need a recap we have cored 33 “successful” cores – 20 of which are in ICE-MITT boxes, 7 of which are isothermal cores, and the remaining 6 have been test cores. This number does not include the many unsuccessful or broken cores that we had to take, often leaving up to six or seven holes in the ground on a particularly inefficient day (so you can just about quadruple that first number).

Natalie! Throwing of the team dynamic since Saturday (in a good way)

Natalie! Throwing off the team dynamic since Saturday (in a good way)

What I’m trying to say is that this last core is the end of an era! It is the end of six weeks of work (really, I’m getting way too ahead of myself; we still have two more days, reign it in, Ellyn). Though taking our last core on a bluebird day in the Arctic was spectacular and prideful, oh my gosh was it also a little sad. DSCF1480This was the last time I would venture out into the cold openness of the Alaska coastline with the intent of stealing its ice for scientific purposes; the last time that I would flirt with frostbite during a 40 minute snowmobile ride to our south site and go home with frost-nip instead. As it was one of our more efficient coring days (because Natalie Afonina finally arrived!), it all ended too quickly.DSCF1464

Watch it, Nelson.

Watch it, Nelson!

What else could we do to lament in our achievements but play on the pack ice blocks? Though, on a higher rung of our achievements recently is the fact that Nelson, our beloved bear-guard, has admitted that of all of the scientists, the ICE-MITT Team is just the most fun. And yes, he did join us in our pack ice gallivanting.

The Snow Catcher and The Ross

 

The Russian Team's Cool Car

The Russian Team’s Cool Car

Welcome to the latter half of our field research up here in Barrow! In fact, we are leaving here a week from tomorrow (Thursday). Since the winter is ending, researchers are finally starting to come back to the tundra and the ICE-MITT Team is getting some long deprived social interaction. We met a team from Russia, though it was not very easy to communicate through our language barrier. They’re starting  a two month road trip, driving from Barrow back to Russia over the sea ice and towing all of their supplies behind them. The most interesting part about them was their vehicles, though, which were tank-like trucks outfitted with these giant rubber inner tubes for wheels– not to mention that they were a little deflated. They were reminiscent of the Boston Duck boat, an amphibious vehicle that can travel over water or land. Or you could say they were like the piston bullies, the ruggedized “people-carriers” that take you out on the sea ice and ice sheet around McMurdo, the US base in Antarctica.

Ross Invading their space- jk , they're really friendly

Ross invading their space- jk , they’re really friendly

This realization of the end of our season is exciting, sad, and scary all at once. On the one hand, we are going to leave and embark on our journey home, finally to meet with all of the communities and schools that we have been corresponding with for so long. On the other hand we are leaving (frowny-face). Not only that, but also the fact that we have three ICE-MITT boxes left to fill—AKA 6 meters of ice left to core.

Rachel And Ross talk to the Russian Team

Rachel and Ross making friends

This extra space is not a mistake; we have not fallen behind schedule. One of our proposals in this study is to get spatial as well as temporal variability with our ice cores. This means we wanted cores form the beginning of the season as well as the end. Because Rachel and I actually have to make it back to Dartmouth on time to start class, we are missing most of the tail end of Barrow’s winter. Therefore, we have to put off filling those last few boxes until our final days here, giving as much temporal variability to the collected samples as possible. Ross and I are now referring to these three days of rapid coring as “stuff hits the fan week”, because we are attempting to successfully do in three days what took us the better part of our first three weeks. Stay tuned!

an Ice Anchor

An ice anchor

Though we are having a little down time in week 5 with no actual coring happening, we have finally erected the snow catcher! Lucky for us there have been 30-40 mph winds almost everyday because the snow catcher is designed to catch blowing snow.

Milton Academy flag ripped by so many days of wind storms

Milton Academy flag ripped by so many days of wind storms

Why do we do this? Well, as you all know by now, we are studying the brine networks in sea ice and the role that they play in heat and chemicals moving up and down through the ice from the ocean into the atmosphere and vice versa. One  highly debated subject is that once salts move through the ice, how can they get from the surface into the atmosphere to react with tropospheric ozone? One hypothesis for this process is blowing snow picking the salts up off of the ice and moving them into the air.

The first day setting up the snow catcher

The first day setting up the snow catcher

Thus the snow catcher! It’s a metal contraption that is held to the ground with five cables tied around ice anchors. You hang what look like butterfly nets from multiple rungs on the mast in order to catch the snow at various heights; we hung our nets at 0.5 m, 1.5 m, 2.5 m, 3.5 m, and 5.5 m from the ground. We left her anchored over night through a serious gale and returned this morning to check out the haul. DSCF1227Though you usually don’t expect too much snow in the top baskets, the wind was such that every single basket had caught substantial amounts of blowing snow.

Next day

Next day

We put snow from each basket into a vial and take note of what height it was caught at. We will melt down the snow (thank god, one less thing to keep frozen!) and carry it back to Dartmouth with us. The reason we can melt it down is that, opposed to our normal MicroCT procedure, we run these samples through an IC or ion chromatograph. This machine measures the ion concentrations in fluids and can decipher what those ions are. Specifically we are measuring Br, Cl, SO4, and NO3.

 

snow filled net

A snow filled net

For Your Entertainment

Yesterday was the best day to be the undergrad in the group. Rachel flipped the snow mobile, while I was on it, which was witnessed by a fellow research group riding home behind us. Mwhahahah. I can no longer be teased about my snowmobile flipping.

Later that same day, Ross and I were driving to pick Rachel up to go out to dinner with the aforementioned other research group. On our way over:

 

Site Flag at Site 3 still standing strong, through frozen

Site Flag at Site 3 still standing strong, through frozen

Ellyn: (seeing that the windshield is covered in ice) Um… Ross, do you, uh, maybe want to scrape the windshield?

Ross: We don’t even have an ice scraper.

Ellyn: Well, remember that time I was scraping the windshield? Yeah, that was with our ice scraper.

Ross putting the snow into vials

Ross putting the snow into vials

Ross: Where is it?

Ellyn: Under the backseat like in all cars.

Ross: (so full of disdain) Ehh, it’s okay.

Still driving, Ross and another car awkwardly almost hit at an intersection (in his defense there are no stop signs anywhere).

Ellyn: Hey! Those are the guys we’re about to go get dinner with.

 

Rachel changing out the nets for a second round of collection

Rachel changing out the nets for a second round of collection

Ross: Oooh, that’s embarrassing.

Then to my great pleasure, as the other team is driving behind us, the most wonderful thing happens. There is a curve in the road that Ross cannot see because of the ice on the windshield. So, he drives full speed ahead right off of the road down a small hill and into the snow, very gracefully I might add, with no apparent effort to stop.

Ellyn: (Hysterically laughing at this point) Do you want me to scrape the windshield now? **answered by a very unamused look from Ross, before he can’t help himself but crack up, too**

blue ice!

Blue ice!

The fellow research group pulls up on the road behind us, having seen the whole thing. Multiple spectators gather and we all watch as Ross pulls a multi-point turn that finally gets the truck unstuck from the snow bank and back on the road. (Again, hysterically laughing)

Rachel: (when at last we pick her up at the end of the road) Ross, did you do that so I wouldn’t  feel so bad about flipping the snowmobile today?

Needless to say, Rachel was very thankful to be upstaged.

Team Strut

Team strut

 

The Inupiat Tribe of Ukpeagvik

out on the tundra

out on the tundra

Far from the lush forest where I grew up, Point Barrow in dead winter is a tundra wasteland – a vast, empty climate that rejects you. The air is too cold for exposed skin, the wind is worse, the sun won’t rise and when it does the light is weak, and if the weather doesn’t drive you indoors, than the threat of polar bears will. I have never felt so disconnected from the outside world than I do here; I have never felt so threatened by it before. Walking down the beach, the first time restlessness was enough to drive us out of the house in three weeks, Rachel and I had to don our full winter gear and stop ever once and a while to look over our shoulder for predators.

Traditional Dance at Kivgiq

Traditional Dance at Kivgiq

In contrast to this aggressive landscape are the people. The Inupiat people are warm and welcoming, loud and bright, and blooming in their traditional culture. In contrast to my fear of this world is the Inupiat’s deep connection with it.

Inupiat, or Inupiaq, translates into the “real people.” This Inuit tribe has inhabited Barrow for as long as 4,000 years, having crossed the Bering Land Bridge into Alaska. Ross once asked, “Can you think of any other culture that has such a dependent connection with one animal?” The answer is probably no. After surviving millenia in such a harsh environment, the Inupiat have a deep connection with the landscape as well as the creatures that sustain the population, such as seal, caribou, and above all, the bowhead whales.

Subsistence Hunting:

commons.wikimedia.org

commons.wikimedia.org

Though the native name for Barrow is Ukpeagvik meaning “the place where we hunt snowy owls”, the hunting of the whales persists as a central aspect of the Inupiat culture. The sustenance that whales provide to the community is immense as one whale can weigh up to 60 tons. Because of the whales’ monumental size, hunters work in teams headed under a whaling captain.

The frame of an Umiaq made from whale bones

The frame of an Umiaq made from whale bones

Maktak is the skin and blubber of the whale, and common food for the community. Once a whale is caught it does not belong to the hunters but instead to the whole community. Every single person is entitled to a share of the whale, including even those native to Barrow who have moved away. The meat is rich in vitamin A and C, which is the significant source of necessary nutrients to a community that has limited access to fruits and vegetables.

Buffet of maktak

Buffet of maktak

The early Inupiats would use harpoons and umiaqs, canoes made from whalebones and ugruk (bearded seal) skin, to hunt the whales. The seams of the boat were coated in seal oil to waterproof them. Though the skins of the boats, made from up to seven ugruks, have to be replaced every three years, the bowhead whale is sensitive to the metallic sounds of an aluminum boat so some Inuit peoples continue whaling with an umiaq today.

bowhead whale skulls sit monument outside of many buildings in town

The umiaq is 24 ft long and can carry up to 30 passengers. Modern tribes will start the spring season by cutting trail to the ocean and towing the umiaqs behind a snowmobile; however, the ancient tribe could carry the boats over the ice because the umiaq is so light, only 150 lbs. Instead of the traditional harpoons, however, large guns are now used to kill the whales. Nelson, one of our bear guards, has told us whales can die instantly, though more often it happens over the course of three hours.

Though the whale meat harvested in early spring can last much of the year, the hunting season comprises only a short time. The Inuit hunting calendar is marked by various seasons, such as it is in the Northeast, but instead of deer or duck, the Inupiat are hunting seal and caribou. The Inupiat tribe used to move with the game as nomads for most of the year hunting whale in the early spring, seal in the late spring, caribou in the summer and fish in the fall.

Modernization:

Snowmachines

Snow machines

In 1826 Europeans came to the shores of the Alaskan north in search of a lost expedition group and renamed the area Barrow. Over time the Europeans brought commercial whaling ships, guns, trade, and disease, such as influenza, to Ukpeagvik. From that point onward the Inupiat people experienced rapid change. The European missionaries arrived in the late 1800’s and western medicine was introduced in 1920. Moreover, the North Slope is now home to the largest oil reserve in the Arctic, supplying jobs to the citizens of the nearby villages; dog sleds were replaced by snow machines, and seal oil lamps were replaced by electricity.

Celebrations:           

Ellyn in front of the Kivgiq poster

Ellyn in front of the Kivgiq poster – photocred to some very nice lady who took pity on my alone-ness

Many of the traditions of the Inupiat people, however, are still celebrated today. Subsistence hunting is still a pivotal aspect of the Inupiat culture and the hunting calendar is still followed, though with more rules enforced by the US government—the only government that has anti-whaling laws but supports subsistence whaling. Two festivals are celebrated around the whaling season:

Traditional mukluks

Traditional mukluks

Annually, Nalukatak, the Spring Whaling Festival, takes place after the whaling season. One of the former purposes of this festival was to thank and appease the spirits of the whales that were killed in order to sustain the Inupiat community, and to ensure through spiritual means that the next whaling season will be successful. DSCF0637“Naluk” means to toss up, and the festival is most famous for the blanket toss (the blanket is also made from seal skin like the umiaqs). People gather in the center of town to watch the whaling captains fly their flags and to throw their fellow denizens of Barrow into the air, traditionally whaling captains and their wives first. This is also the first time of the year in which whale meat is distributed. Whale meat can be in many forms: quaq is frozen raw whale meat, maktak is the skin and the blubber, and avarraq is the fluke (tail) cut into thin strips.

DSCF0606This year our team was lucky enough to witness another festival, Kivgiq.IMG_3064 This midwinter celebration, also called the messenger feast, comes after a strong whaling season, about every 2-3 years. People from all over the Arctic Circle come to attend what is mostly a festival of traditional dancing. For a whole week there are performances happening from 9 AM to midnight ranging from dancing to singing to praying; not to mention the craft fair where many residents display and sell beautifully hand-crafted artwork often using baleen or seal skin. (Rachel even bought earrings made from walrus whiskers)

Kivgiq craft fair

Kivgiq craft fair

The dances are lead by a line of men keeping time on drums made of the lungs or liver of a whale, and singing in Inuktitut, the common language. The dancers express their stories mostly with their hands, which are gloved for emphasis (and possibly other reasons that I could not find on the internet.) In every intermission between dance groups the drummers play a familiar song during which many members of the community go to the dance floor to partake in a dance that apparently everyone knows—the women all have one part and the men have another.IMG_3071

Elders sit in the front, and most of the floor seats are reserved for them. One woman who works at Lilliana’s Fresh Baked told us, if you are going to sit in front of an elder it is okay to be kneeling but you cannot block their view.

Drummer line

Drummer line

Often someone would be giving a speech at the stage about one thing or another, unheard over the loud sounds of community members coming and going between dances, but often an elder or whaling captain would be called out and congratulated. It seemed, too, that every person knew the oldest man in the crowd and paid their respects to him. Many elders were invited up to dance in front of the drummers and show their incredible and lasting spirit. We even saw one boy wearing a t-shirt that said “elder in training.”DSCF0614

Current issue with Climate change:

Within recent years climate change has become a growing concern for the Inupiat population. A warming trend in the Arctic affects the extent and thickness of the sea ice, which makes harvesting bowhead whales, seals, or caribou more difficult since the ice serves as the hunting ground. Additionally, warm winters are making travel over the ice more dangerous.

Community Dance

Community Dance

Furthermore, land fast ice is slower to form, making the coastline susceptible to erosion as it is now exposed to the winter currents for a longer period of time. A group representing the people of the Arctic, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, is very concerned about climate change and makes the case that the effects on the North Slope are a threat to the human rights of the Inuit people.

 

Traditional Recipes
Ahmiiniluk

Cut and clean tuttu (caribou) intestines and fry

 

 Palaugaaq

Put Quagak (duck) or Nigliq(goose) in a pot of water and cover

Boil for ½ hour and then let simmer for several hours or until the meat is falling off the bones.

Add onions, rice, salt and pepper to taste and cook for another ½ hour

Stir in a little flour and stir until thickened

 

Barrow’s Finest Pickled Maktak

Boil maktak for thirty minutes with plenty of salt and pepper. Cut into bit sized   pieces

Make brine (4 pints):

2c white vinegar          2tsp mustard seeds

1 ¾ c sugar                  1tsp black pepper

4 bay leaves                1tsp allspice

5 cloves                       1tsp pickling spice

Bring to a boil until the maktak begins to float (about 10 mins); let cool

Put maktak in jars with slices of lemon, onion, and orange

Pour brine over maktak and let it stand for one week in the refrigerator

 

Mamaaq

This is the white stuff at the base of baleen plates on a bowhead whale, often called Eskimo chewing gum. Cut the mamaaq off from the baleen plates. Chew! You may soak it in seal oil first.

 

Akutuq (Eskimo Ice Cream)

Every family will have their own version—Akutuq is a rich-tasting concoction that resembles frozen froth.

1quart caribou fat

2-4c of berries

Grind the caribou fat very fine. Bring to room temperature and add berries. Stir well and chill for about two hours.

 

Sea Ice Gen. Ed.

Pack Ice

Pressure ridge

Although you’ve been following our Alaskan adventures for three whole weeks, you may still be wondering: What even is sea ice? And why are we so interested in it?

Sea ice is frozen ocean water and so unlike a glacier which forms on land from accumulated snowfall. A quick glance might suggest that sea ice is a solid barrier between the water and the air, but it’s actually rather permeable, like skin or soil. Sea ice contains an interconnected network of pores containing brine (salt water) and air. Because of this, sea ice plays a role in the exchange of heat, moisture, and gases between the atmosphere and the ocean.

How does sea ice form?

Snowmobiles at the edge of land Fast Ice

Snowmobiles at the edge of a Pressure Ridge

Microtopography: In the Polar regions, the winter air temperatures are much colder than the water.  This leads to the formation of tiny crystals of ice in the sea, which are referred to as frazil.  As more and more little crystals of ice form, they begin to gather together and turn into larger pieces and finally a solid sheet. Because the air is so cold, the ice crystals begin to grow downward into the sea. The freezing temperature of salt water is lower than that of fresh water, so the newly formed crystals are almost completely fresh.

Brincicles dripping out of brine channels on rafted Pack Ice

Brincicles dripping out of brine channels on rafted Pack Ice

The salts are expelled as the crystals freeze, making the water around the new ice saltier. Fingers of ice, columnar crystals, grow downwards as the  water and ice lose heat to the atmosphere. The highly concentrated saltwater is expelled into the channels between them, producing what we have been referring to as brine channels.

Pancake Ice

Pack Ice (Ross Sea, Antarctica)

Macrotopography: When frazil ice joins up and begins to form a larger floating plates of ice, they may be jostled together, broken or even rounded and curled up at the edges so that they look like pancakes (hence the term pancake ice). Landfast ice is attached to the shore, while drift or pack ice farther out moves with currents and winds. As pack ice is constantly moving it often collides with the landfast ice, producing pressure ridges – enormous pile ups of ice blocks, with other blocks pushed under or rafted onto one another. The Inupiat people must chop a path through the pressure ridges in April in order to hunt whales near the ice edge.

Blocks of Pack ice

Blocks of Pack Ice after Colliding with Land Fast Ice

The sea ice reaches thicknesses of at least a meter in the first year of growth. If it survives over a melt season (summer), it is called multiyear ice. Multiyear ice can be several meters thick. Even first year sea ice though, forms very large blocks in the pressure ridges. Some of them have a dark layer on the bottom, or even in the middle. This is sediment entrained during formation, sometimes, or an algal layer. If there is a piece of ice that has sediment or algae on the bottom and it get flipped and shoved under another piece of ice, you’ll see a dark layer in the middle of the ice.

Dark layer depicted in the middle

Dark layer in the middle of part of a 1 meter core

Effects of Sea Ice Decline: 

First-year sea ice is more porous, and saltier, than multiyear sea ice, which has had summer and winter seasons to drain, flush and refreeze. Overall, we know that in the Arctic the overall extent of sea ice has been declining in recent decades, this can be seen from satellite images of the region. Also, on the whole, a greater proportion is melting each summer (the summer sea ice cover is shrinking). So Arctic sea ice is declining and is increasingly first-year ice.

Rafted Pack Ice

Rafted Pack Ice

This has an effect on the marine ecosystem as the ice is a home for the algae; the bottom is a sheltered surface for the algae to grow, rich in nutrients, and translucent to the polar sunrise in the Spring as it is only 1-2 meters thick. Algae is at the bottom of a great marine food chain leading up to whales, a sustainable food source and income source of native peoples in the North.  The Inupiat also need the landfast ice to be extensive and thick to support a successful whaling season. So the decline of the sea ice here puts a millennia old ecosystem and 1400 year old culture in jeopardy.

Rachel playing in the Pack Ice

Rachel playing on a Pressure Ridge

Because of its network of pores, sea ice also plays a role in the transfer of heat and salts from the ocean into the atmosphere. When the structure or volume of the ice is changed, these processes are also affected. This can cause cause changes in the surface heat budget and chemistry of the local ocean, the regional troposphere, and by extension the global atmosphere.

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For example, algae release reactive organic halogen gases containing iodine and bromine. When phytoplankton bloom in the polar springtime, the effect is seen in regional tropospheric ozone levels (not the ozone layer). Although bromine and iodine are minor constituents in the composition of seawater, they play a disproportionally large role in tropospheric chemistry – taking part in autocatalytic (self-perpetuating) reactions that reduce tropospheric ozone. If there is less ice to support the algae, it will affect this positive feedback loop.

What is our Research?

3D model of 2cmx2cm ice sample highlighting brine channels

3D model of 2 cm x 2 cm ice sample highlighting brine channels

So what are we studying? What is our greater scientific question? We are looking at the microstructure of the sea ice to better characterize the pore networks. Sea ice and climate modelers need to make a number of assumptions in order to develop models that explain and predict environmental changes. Among these assumptions are the properties of sea ice, porosity for example. The better the information the modelers have, the better models they can build and the better we will understand our climate – past, present and future.

Slabs of  Sea Ice

Slabs of Sea Ice

Back at Dartmouth, we are studying the characteristics of the pore networks in sea ice with a MicroCT scanner (a miniature CAT scan). With this technique, we are able to take X-rays of sea ice, produce two-dimensional cross sectional images, and then construct these images into a three-dimensional model of the sample. We can take this data and quantify the shape and connectivity of the pores and demonstrate how these properties change with depth in the core and with temperature.

Pack Ice

One really interesting property that I personally have found through my research with the MicroCT has been the change in anisotropy of the pores along the depth of a sea ice core. Isotropy means sameness (in dimensions for example) in all directions. Our data has shown that the porosity in the top and bottoms of the cores is isotropic while that is the middles is very anisotropic; this means that the pores on the top and bottom of the cores are globular and round, while the pores in the middle of the cores are long and skinny. This characteristic of sea ice microstructure is due to a few reasons:

the porous bottom of sea ice freezing in long finger-like crystals

the porous bottom of sea ice freezing in long finger-like crystals

  1. The frazil ice at the top is a jumble of small crystals that have been packed together causing the globular pores. Sometimes there is also snow-ice, where you get snow on the top of the ice that is rained on or flooded and then becomes part of the ice. If the snow had any air spaces that were not filled with water, they would tend to be isotropic.
  2. The anisotropic middle is due to the formation of columnar sea ice explained above. The ice crystals freeze downwards and expel the brine into brine channels.
  3. At the bottom, there is incomplete columnar growth (a very rough, porous bottom) which can again leave globular pores. The ice is very new and warm.
Mountains of Rafted Ice

Pressure Ridge

The novel aspect of our research this time around is that we will be keeping the ice at its in situ temperatures from the time we collect it until the time we analyze it (this is achieved with the ICE-MITTs). Up until now, sea ice cores have been stored at uniform temperatures throughout, or isothermally, such as in a -25˚C freezer. Super freezing the ice, just like warming and refreezing the ice, can cause structural changes internally. We are excited to see how the ICE-MITTs change or improve our data.

At least I didn’t get eaten

Mom (and maybe any other moms out there), please don’t read this next story.

My new friend coming to visit

My new friend coming to visit

We had just had a pretty lovely evening watching the aurora at the northernmost tip of land to truly ensure total darkness (not that Barrow really has lots of light pollution). It was a perfectly clear night giving us spectacular stargazing. Having a two jet aurora flickering across the sky really made it magical. Recognizing my inability to take good photographs, I had perched myself up on top of a large snowbank while Rachel fiddled with trying to set appropriate camera settings. Before she was able to capture a good shot, someone came by and asked us to tow them out of a snow bank. Since it was quite chilly, we decided to just head back to our hut afterwards, sadly without a good aurora photo. As I lay trying to fall asleep though, the sudden urge to get at least one good aurora photo kicked me out of bed.

Our polar bear friends (from a different day)

Our polar bear friends (from a different day)

I haphazardly threw on my Carhartt biberalls, my big “aurora green” expedition Canada Goose park, and my -100 degree boots, all half buckled/zipped, but enough to keep me warm. I laid down on the snow right outside the hut, setup the tripod, slowed the shutter speed down to the max of 8 seconds, increased the ISO, and finally thought I was starting to pick something up in the image. Although the aurora was starting to fade, especially right next to the hut, I was starting to get a feel for what was needed. On the other side of the truck, I heard some footsteps. Strange, I thought for so late at night as I continued to adjust the camera and prepare the next photo. With my fingers freezing during the following 8 seconds, a trigger goes off in my mind, alerting me that something isn’t right.

Worth it for this photo?

Worth it for this photo?

It’s 1:30 am. Our hut is the last building, with nothing but open tundra on one side and on the other, just the road followed by the expanse of sea ice. More footsteps. Rachel is definitely asleep. There’s a chance that Ellyn is still awake, but she wouldn’t be walking around quietly outside. There really is no reason for anyone else to be here. I grab the camera, and stumble over my excessively large clothes to get on my feet. Just on the other side of the truck, perhaps 30 feet from me, are two 8-foot tall polar bears. Suppressing my fear and trying to remain calm, I quickly scan for safe spots: the hut and the truck. Before I even have the chance to observe what type of mood the bear was in (This is not as weird as it sounds. The first thing they teach in bear safety classes is to determine if the bear looks aggressive, surprised, curious, protecting its cubs, etc. as your response will be different in each case), or consider if the bears had been stalking me for dinner as I lay quietly on the ground snapping photos, I’m already inside the truck. I had quickly determined that the hut was too dangerous as it would require me getting closer to the bears in order to reach the front door, while the truck was only a few feet from me. I start up the truck and the engine quickly scare the bears off. Although I tried following in the truck, they are quickly on the sea ice and out of sight before I can get a photo or wakeup Rachel and Ellyn. I’m quickly learning there is a very practical reason that every building in this town has an unlocked mud room.