May 13

Traveling to the North Pole, Part 7: Sampling

Category: Arctic,JHUAPL,Travel,Work

I promised that I would reveal what we do in the tent on the side of the airplane.  It’s no big secret; I was just waiting for the opportunity to get the right images.

The purpose of my trip here is to support the Switchyard project, which is a collaboration between multiple universities and funded by the NSF.  This paper provides a good description of what it’s all about, but here’s the synopsis:

The Switchyard project samples the marine environment in the Lincoln Sea (just north of
northern Ellesmere Island, Canada and Greenland) north to the Pole. We call this the
“Switchyard” region because like a train switching yard, different water masses and sea
ice types converge into this region and are sent on their way <…>.

 This is the water that influences the downstream deep water formation
and thus global ocean circulation, and so it is crucial to document <yearly>changes in
this region to achieve both understanding and a predictive capability.

Specifically, I am supporting the hydrochemical section of the project.  The “hydro section” is run by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which is part of Columbia University in New York.  I work for Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, which is collaborating with LDEO on a new data-collection buoy for which I’ve written the firmware.  I’m also responsible for fielding it, repairing it, and generally tending to it during this field test.  I am also assisting LDEO in the deployment of the hydrochemical sample collection equipment.

The work has been in progress for several years, and hopefully will continue for many more, so that people can get a better picture of Arctic change over time.  In a nutshell, though, we can already see that:

  1. The amount of fresh water in the Arctic is increasing, and that it’s coming from melting ice;
  2. This water is draining into the north Atlantic.

What does this mean?  The north polar ice cap is melting more than it used to – it’s warming up; in the next few decades, perhaps within my lifetime, it could be that in the summer, at least, there would be no (or little) ice at the north pole.

University of Washington oceanographer Mike Steele gave a talk to station personnel during one of our non-flight “weather” days here, and an audience member asked “How do you know that global warming wouldn’t be happening naturally, despite human influences?”  This is a good question and an understandable one.  My answer is to compare it to smoking: we are all mortal, but those of us who smoke are, on average, aging faster and with forseeable illnesses.  It is absurd to maintain that smoking does not affect health, even if you can’t predict with precision exactly how it will effect a specific individual.  It is like this with the planet: it is unlikely that the warming we are observing is not being accelerated – or caused outright – by people.

Look at it another way: mass extinction by bombardment from outer space is a natural, recurring phenomenon.  However, that doesn’t mean that we should not be concerned about such things happening naturally, or that we should start pushing asteroids into the earth.  I’m pretty sure that if someone were to try pushing one down, the rest of us would try to stop them from doing it, and if we knew one was coming naturally, we would also try to stop it.  The fact that something occurs naturally is irrelevant to a discussion of safety; rattlesnake bites, lightning, and broken hips in the elderly are also natural, yet we still try to avoid them.

So to anyone who questions the global warming phenomenon, I say that yes, there is uncertainty about why it’s happening, how fast, and what effects it will ultimately have – just like drinking, smoking, getting hit by lightening, or driving without a seat belt - all of which also may not kill you.  There is no reasonable debate about the fact that global warming is occurring and that the things people are doing to the planet are the kinds of things that will make this change happen faster than is natural.

Now that my rant is complete…  The pictures of the hydrochemical sectioning process.  We fly a twin otter aircraft from the airfield at Alert, and based upon the weather, choose to go to one of ten locations on a line from here to the pole.  The same ten locations are sampled every year.

We pull hundreds of pounds of equipment out of the plane, assemble a gas-powered ice auger, and drill a hole in the ice.  If there is deep snow on the ice, we have to shovel it out of the way first.  As the chips come out of the hole, some of us work with shovels to keep the hole clear.  Every so often, we must pause and attach another flight (section) of ice auger bit in order to get deeper.

Eventually the auger punches through the bottom, and water momentarily gushes up through the hole.  the water has a startling azure color to it, like the tropics.

Sometimes the ice is also clear and the whole area takes on a beautiful color:

We then set up a tent around the hole and start up a heater to make it possible to work comfortably inside.

The sampler has 12 bottles, arranged in groups of 4 within “cassettes.”  The cassettes are manually stacked on top of each other and fasted together to make a torpedo-like package that is lowered through the hole using a winch.

As the last cassette is placed, the assembly is lowered to depth – usually about 500 meters or so.

Using another hole drilled a short distance away, I was able to use my scuba camera on a pole to get these shots of the package coming through the bottom of the ice.  The ice in this location was about 5 feet thick.

Only about half of it is visible in this next image:

Here is some video showing the process, with interesting views under the ice.

As the assembly glides down into the water, instrumentation returns values for depth, conductivity, and temperature.  On the way back up, where there are “interesting” features in these measurements, a computer command is sent ordering one of the sample bottles to close, collecting water from that depth.  Within the tent on the top of the ice, one of us operates the computer, and one or two of us manhandle the winch and cassettes as they go down and come back up.  When they return, they are pretty heavy!  We have to lift them into the plane, where they are stored in coolers until we return to the lab at Alert.  Once there, scientists will perform measurements on some of the water, and package the remainder for analysis back at LDEO.

Meanwhile, we’ve drilled another hole outside and, using the most high-tech methods available, lowered a bottom sounder below the ice.

This mess of equipment collects the bottom sounder data and GPS position and sends it home via satellite.  We hope to streamline it – this is only the first experimental deployment of the thing.  Although it does not float, because it sits at the surface it is technically a buoy, and we’ve named it the “Arctic iBuoy.”


1 comment

1 Comment so far

  1. Gaelyn May 13th, 2012 11:57 PM

    Wow! What an amazing set up. Fascinating research and more evidence of climate change. Fantastic shots from underwater, and such a pure color.

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