Welcome back readers. After a 2-year hiatus, my feet are itching to get back to the ice. I have been rewarded with a 2 month campaign to Barrow, Alaska, as part of the ICE-MITT project. I know most of you are here for the incredible polar pictures (sorry, no penguins in the Arctic and if I see a polar bear, I will NOT be stopping to take its photo). Stories and photos of the lab prep work ahead of time may not be as exciting as the aurora borealis, but I thought I would share a small taste and a bit about the upcoming campaign. The goal of this project is to collect sea ice cores and analyze the microstructure to determine how brine channels (the salt water pathways that weave through the ice) vary both spatially and over time.
What is an ICE-MITT you may ask? If you recall from my previous expeditions, collecting and then analyzing sea ice is not the easiest task in the world. First, you need to actually find sea ice. This means heading either to Antarctica or the Arctic. You will be needing lots of clothing, food, and money, and will not want to skimp on any of these. Next you will need an ice corer to actually extract a core of ice. You are still not finished yet though, since you still need to get your ice back to the lab for analysis. Herein lies the major problem. The structure of ice changes with temperature and your ice core is not all at the same temperature. The bottom is really warm since it is in contact with the ocean (roughly 30 °F) and the top is really cold since it is in contact with the air (perhaps -20 °F). During my previous expeditions, we simply put the ice cores in a well-insulated box with cold freezer packs, shipped, and hoped for the best (Note: dry ice and liquid nitrogen techniques have also been used but they adversely damage the sea ice structure). The ICE-MITT (Ice Core Extraction while Maintaining In-situ Temperature Transitions… nice acronym, eh?) attempts to solve this problem. An ice core is placed inside the ICE-MITT and it will keep the ice core at whatever temperature you want.
Seems like magic? At first it seemed impossible to me as well. Thankfully I happen to be at an engineering school with some really smart people. It has taken over 2 years to transform this project from a crazy late night conversation with Rachel into reality. I could spend the rest of this entry trying to thank everyone who helped along the way but I would still end up accidentally forgetting someone. Two undergraduate engineering classes helped create and model the basic idea/design of the system. However, it was largely the magical hands of Gunnar Pope that turned the ICE-MITT into a real functioning system. After about 6 months he had the prototype mostly working. This left me about 4 months to replicate the design and build 9 more units. At first this seemed daunting but doable. Then as I started working, I realized a single ICE-MITT consists of 851 different pieces, countless solder joints (I had never soldered a single thing in my life prior to this project), and perhaps 150 hours of work (+/- a lot… truthfully I have no idea how many hours it takes except that it has consumed my life for the last 4 months). Suddenly this project was beginning to look impossible. Once again we reached to the incredible resource of Thayer undergraduates, and with the help of Anna and George, we pulled off the impossible. The day before the fall term ended, we had mostly built all 10 ICE-MITTs. All that remained was turning them on…
The lights went on, the electronics worked, fans started, but the plates that are meant to keep the ice cold would not get cold. As Gunnar had foretold, there is essentially 0% chance that a project of this scope will work on the first try. It is actually remarkable so much did in fact work. However, hours before heading to a conference in San Fran, we were able to identify the issue and I knew what had to be done upon getting back. I had a clear end date of Jan 15 for shipping to ensure everything would arrive safely in Barrow. After returning home Christmas day and powering through some long days (with some help from friends… thanks Karl, Alden, and Steph!), I am happy to report that everything was finished with a few hours to spare. Continuing the good news, we just received email confirmation that all 10 ICE-MITTs have safely arrived in Barrow, AK, and are awaiting our arrival. All that remains now is to hope that the ICE-MITTs are indeed good enough to maintain our ice cores at the correct temperatures while we are in Barrow, during the road trip home, and while back at Dartmouth.
Did I hear road trip? Yes, indeed! The ICE-MITTs need to be plugged in to work and are an active cooling system (air fans remove heat from thermoelectric modules). By our best estimates, they can be unplugged for up to 2 hours without significantly changing the ice temperature. Since we can’t fly on a plane with such a system, we have decided to buy a trailer, generator, and road trip it home. There will be much more on this subject later, but you can follow along on this incredible 5,000 mile road trip of ICE-MITT: The Tour coming this March both at this blog and our group’s blog (www.theicemittproject.wordpress.com).