Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » Steve Hastings Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 Planning for an Arctic Season Sat, 31 May 2008 06:35:33 +0000 Steve Hastings BARROW, ALASKA– Each year, in the midst of the short Arctic growing season, Arctic researchers reflect on the season to come. We tell ourselves we will do things differently next year: remember this, remember that, or do something else in a different, more efficient manner. There are many logistics to consider.

Our field site.

It seems the first thing an Arctic researcher learns (and learns well) is how to pack everything but the kitchen sink. Sending off even for a simple forgotten or depleted supply item such as paper bags, bolts, etc., can take one to two weeks from the field. Then, there is the cost of multiple last-minute small shipments versus one large one ahead of time.

An eddy tower made up of expensive scientific equipment as well as pipe fittings, PVC pipes, and plastic tubing.

One notable international Arctic ecologist who did lots of research in other countries had a noteworthy piece of advice: “Never get ahead of your freight.” It can be rather embarrassing to get your whole team on site, only to have to wait a week or two until your equipment arrives.

When you do need something, last-minute express shipping is actually the least expensive way to go, given that it costs up to $200 per day per person to hire someone in the Arctic to wait ahead of time for your equipment to arrive.

Some of our freight ready to be shipped.

To simulate warming on the tundra, we often use clear fiberglass panels that one might pickup at a garden shop.

I am not sure why, but it usually takes you at least one season in the Arctic to learn what your most critical resource really is: your fellow researchers, be they undergraduates, graduate students, technicians, or PI’s (project Principal Investigators.)

Indeed, selecting your field team can be the most important thing you do to ensure a successful season. When you share the bad mosquitoes, long days of freezing rain, muddy conditions, same old food, dirty clothes, lack of sleep, tight quarters, and no place to ‘get away’, camaraderie carries you that extra mile. One notable discovery I made is that the more closely the ratio of males to females on the team is one to one, the higher the spirits. (Another one of those mathematical puzzles…)

Paulo Olivas, a PhD student at Florida International University (originally from Costa Rica), about to head out into the field to install water wells. The water wells tell us where the water table is, and are nothing more than 1 inch diameter PVC pipes with lots of holes drilled into them. Paulo inserts them into the tundra then periodically goes back to see how far the water level is from the surface.

Here, Paulo uses sophisticated fiber optics to look at the sky and the plants. The instruments read the quality of light entering through both then, by comparing the plants to the sky, can determine the physiological state of the plants.

So, after Arctic researchers figure out their freight and learn the importance of the people they will work with all summer, how do they design experiments that work in Arctic conditions using equipment that: is not too heavy; is unlikely to break, freeze, or rust; doesn’t cost an arm and a leg; and is easy to make and repair?

Well, in some cases there is no alternative to an expensive piece of equipment– be it a data logger, data analyzer, radiation sensor, etc. However, invariably, prior to each season, I find myself walking the aisles of hardware stores, trying to come up with new and novel ways to implement new experiments using readily available materials. In part, this can save money, but more importantly, hardware stores are typically more accessible in the Arctic than scientific warehouses!

Using a car washing wand, Paulo holds his light sensor over this experimental plot to measure the plot’s activity. Note that the plot is bordered with a white PVC pipe– the kind you might purchase at Home Depot.

Handling these logistics are just some of the things that scientists do during the off-season while they plan for the next session in the field. This is, of course, on top of analyzing the data, writing reports, attending meetings, publishing papers, writing the next proposals, teaching, and interacting with the public.

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Arctic Winter Gives Way to Spring Mon, 19 May 2008 19:32:47 +0000 Steve Hastings BARROW, ALASKA– The seemingly endless circumnavigation of the earth around the sun has come to that point in the journey again where the Arctic region breaks out of the cold, dark winter into spring’s light and warmth.

Because of climate change, spring comes earlier than in the past and fall lingers later into the year. The growing season for plants still lasts just 60 days, though, with the frost-free season lasting only 34 days.

Up here in Alaska, we have another harbinger of spring: the snow bunting. A type of sparrow, snow buntings have a striking white head and chest and black beaks and wings. They have a short musical warble, often repeated and sung while in the air. Of the migratory birds, they are one of the first to show up at winter’s end. Their song, and flashes of black against the snow on an early warm day, reassure you that spring is not far away.

Snow bunting in snow– a sign that spring is coming.

While the melodious sounds of snow buntings assure us all that winter is winding down, it can be a stressful period for the researchers down in the lower 48 states. This is especially true if you have a large team of scientists, which may include Principal Investigators, Post-Doctoral researchers, and graduate and undergraduate students. If they arrive too early, there’s lots of standing around, waiting for the snow to melt. However, lo be it to those who arrive late after the snow has melted!

Researchers who live and work in Barrow year-round, like me, can continue office and lab activities, periodically glancing outside to watch the disappearing snow transform the tundra into brown. Usually, I can tell when we have two days left of snow machine travel to the site, so we switch over to moving the larger pieces of equipment needed in just the nick of time. Then we can concentrate on initiating our measurements in the field.

Our site in winter.

Our site in spring.

To avoid arriving too early or too late, most research teams I’ve worked with over the years send up a small contingent of new students and more experienced Arctic researchers. There’s always work to do in preparing for summer field work: breaking things out of storage, calibrating equipment, making data sheets and, in general, getting organized for the long days of research ahead. Often, after the new researcher is guided and instructed on various tasks, the older researcher will stay busy checking on freight, working up data from last year, revising a paper from work over the last couple of years for publication, or putting the finishing touches on a proposal to follow up on current research.

Our field lab during the warmer research season.

What we are all waiting for is “breakup.” Over the last couple of months (March-May) the tundra has been covered with a blanket of snow, often two feet deep. By late May, the layer gets thinner and thinner until patches of brown tundra show up, growing larger each day. The water from the snow melts, then freezes overnight until the landscape is made up of a lens of surface ice with patches of snow. Finally, overnight or during the day, pools of melt water break through their snow and ice dams. This melts other areas until, almost everywhere you look, water is flowing and rushing towards distant lowlands, only marginally following the tiny tributaries characteristic of the tundra. Walking to the sampling sites, careless or inexperienced researchers can often find pools deeper than expected, filling their boots with icy water.

The melting tundra.

Then, in less than five days, the water stops flowing and much if it drains away, confined to tiny drainages and lakes. Winter has ended and spring has started with summer close on its heels.

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