Sunday, April 27, 2008

Polar Bear Sighting!

Thought that might get your attention! In reality, we have not had any polar bear sightings (or PPBs for that matter either). There was a polar bear that wandered into town last week - but it was quickly hustled out of town by the wildlife management staff (or so we are told, as we didn't actually see it ourselves).

We've been chastised for not updating the blog in several days. So, I will update you on the events of the last few days. First, a photo that I took of what is called a "sun dog". This is caused by reflections and refractions of sunlight on ice crystals present in the atmosphere. The scientific name for this phenomenon is "parhelion". There is a lot of cool physics involved in the formation of a sun dog. If you see a sun dog it means that the air has horizontal plate crystals of ice ... WOW! (Okay, if you actually said WOW to that, I encourage you to investigate further just how these parhelia and halos form ... just google "parhelia" or "sun dog").

Regardless of what causes them - it's a cool picture!

We've had reasonably good weather in terms of temperatures, however the winds have been howling considerably. This, we believe, led to the recent demise of one of our air samplers. Ian and I went to the BEO late last week for the usual maintenance routine of the sampler located out there and found it to be non-functional. The motor had shut down. Frozen up is the better phrase. Although we can't be sure, it seems that the winds were working against us and blew snow up into the motor and it froze up (even the heat tape couldn't prevent it). Luckily, Ian worked his magic and it is working again. And with only a few choice four letter words!

So then it was time for the usual maintenance of the air sampler on the roof of the lab. Wouldn't you know it, that one broke too! This, however, was due to a broken connection which Ian also was able to repair. So we're back in the air sampling business again.

Glenn has also been continuing the photochemistry experiments. The wind has been working against us there as well. We bury our samples at known depths in the snow (to see how the chemistry changes depending on where in the snowpack the chemicals are) ... but then the wind blows away the snow and exposes previously buried samples. So Glenn plays a constant game of "bury the samples again". But, we're getting good results so far ... some really interesting things going on for sure. More on that in our upcoming Nature paper. ;) (That'll be an inside joke of sorts for our fellow chemistry geeks out there).

In our spare time we've been enjoying the sights in and around Barrow ... taking occasional trips along the coast to look for polar bears, renting movies (yesterday's rental included Envy and Hellboy), eating out in town (our favorite is Osaka - a great little Japanese place), etc. We're also very grateful for the care packages we've been receiving from friends and family.

This coming week may be a bit more eventful as we are planning to do a snow sampling transect from out on the ocean (NE of Point Barrow) and continuing down to the southern portion of the BEO (Barrow Environmental Observatory). It should cover many miles and will likely take most of a day to complete. Will have to remember to pack a lunch that day ...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day

Today is Earth Day! We discussed how best to celebrate this event here in Barrow. Some of the ideas we came up with (and reasons they ended up being not such good ideas for Barrow):

1.) Plant a tree.
This won't work, unfortunately, because trees can't grow in Barrow. The growing season is too short and the permafrost prevents the extensive root system trees need to survive.

2.) Pick up trash along the beach.
This won't work, because the beach is currently covered in a few feet of snow.

3.) Cut back the thermostat.
Are you kidding? It's freaking freezing here!

4.) Open your windows to let in the fresh air of Mother Nature.
See #3.

5.) Take the bus/subway/train to work.
Sorry, no train, subway or buses in Barrow. You could snowmachine, though! Even better - tie up a sled to pull behind it and "carpool" with your buddies hanging on for dear life in the back.

6.) Convert to solar power.
Why, that's a brilliant idea for May to August! Not such a good idea for November to March.

7.) Exercise outdoors in order to really appreciate Mother Nature.
Sure - I'll just throw on my sneakers, shorts and a tee and jog along the beach. Nothing better than a good dose of frostbite in the morning! It really wakes you up!

8.) Wait until the evening to mow the lawn, especially on "unhealthy air" days.
No problem there! No lawns to mow up here!

9.) Keep your tires properly inflated to reduce wear and increase gas mileage.
Great idea ... I'll get to that right after I fix the flat caused by this unpaved road here!

10.) Weatherize and insulate your home.
Really? I'd never have thought about that up here, where it is 30 below!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Suit Up! It'll be Legendary!

Here is a little preview of what it takes for us to get geared up and go out in the field. Enjoy!

As Seen on TV

This week, a Brazilian film crew was working in Barrow for their version of the show "60 minutes". (Or at least, that was the closest analogy they could come up with). The lead reporter, Ana Paula Padrao is Brazil's version of Diane Sawyer/Barbara Walters/Christiane Amanpour. They interviewed several people here at BASC, including the facility's executive director (Glenn Sheehan), science coordinator (Steve Hastings) and our group. They spent several hours with us and went into the field and videoed our work and interviewed us about our project, its relation to climate change and the ramifications of pollution for the indigenous peoples here in the Arctic. The show is to air in Brazil sometime in late May or early June, of course translated to Portuguese. We were excited to be involved in the show and it gave us quite the ego boost to be told our project is "fascinating" and would be of great interest to their Brazilian audience.

Now, if we only spoke Portuguese!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Taste of the Arctic

This afternoon we were treated to some local delicacies ... muktuk, whale meat, whale tail and caribou. Lewis Brower (the BASC station manager, pictured below) brought in a plate of these treats for us to try. The photos below show the four samplings we were able to enjoy.

The first was muktuk (shown in photo below). This is the skin of the whale and the blubber immediately underneath. It had a distinct fishy flavor, but not too strong, and was very oily. The texture was chewy.

The second was whale tail. This is like muktuk, but specifically from the tail portion of the whale. Very similar flavor to muktuk, but a different texture ... more chewy than muktuk.

The third was whale meat. This was my personal favorite. It had a sweet, fishy taste and was very tender - almost melting in your mouth. The meat was fibrous - more so than I would have suspected (but then again, whales are mammals!). Any fans of sushi would really enjoy this, I think.

All of the whale was from a bowhead whale.

The final delicacy was caribou. You could definitely tell this was a land mammal, with a bit of a gamey flavor (but not nearly as "gamey" as I would have guessed). It too was very tender. And yes, this is raw, in case you were wondering.

The plate was empty by the time we finished. So far, Lewis has avoided taunting us with the really exotic fare (specifically, fermented walrus), which he assures us is an acquired taste.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Dr. Bill's Quick Update

Well, I’ve been here in beautiful Barrow, Alaska for a week now. I wasn’t out of the airport, in the cold, for more than 5 minutes before I decided to grow a beard! It can be so very cold. The clothing that the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium lent to me is fantastic. I wore it “snowmachining” on a morning when it was minus 22 degrees and didn’t even notice the cold (too much). Last night, I went out to help a Villanova team member gather samples. I wore my Pennsylvania ready winter clothes and froze!

We begin our webcasts to Bristol High School 3rd period on Tuesday. Our guest will be Mr. Lewis Brower, a member of the local Inupiaq community. He will speak on local history and culture. On Wednesday, I will host a webcast discussion of the status of Bristol High School’s iron study. On Thursday, the Villanova group, an extraordinary band of young scientists, has agreed to webcast a discussion of their projects dealing with the photochemistry of pesticides in the Arctic snow.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Barrow Health Care

Yesterday I was able to experience first hand the Barrow health care system. It seems while innocently chewing on some snack mix I managed to crack a tooth. Cracked teeth are no fun when you routinely breath in -20 degree air ... it sends quite the pain through your head when that happens! It also makes eating slightly difficult.

So, I made an emergency appointment at the dental clinic, which is located in the Samuel Simmonds hospital in town. They were able to get me in right away and I was treated by a terrific dentist, who shares my name (well, at least the first one)! Amanda Gaynor. She took an x-ray to determine if the crack extended to the root (luckily it did not). She felt the best course of action was just to fill it back in, but warned I might need a root canal once I get back home. Joy!

She blew some high pressure air in the crack and asked me how bad it hurt. A little ouchy, but not too bad ... so she gave me the option of doing it without novocaine. I said, "sure, why not, I'd rather not have a numb chipmunk face for the rest of the day". She had it ready in case things got too painful ... but I made it through and about 20 minutes later had my tooth back in normal condition.

The longest part of the hospital visit was waiting 40 minutes at the pharmacy to get my prescription (some antibiotics). (Mental note: don't go to the pharmacy on Friday when everyone else is getting their meds before the pharmacy closes for the weekend!). Oh, and Ian deserves a medal for waiting in the truck for an hour and a half while I had all this work done. Thanks Ian!

So all in all, it wasn't a bad experience ... I'm just glad I'm working somewhere that a cracked tooth can be fixed on site!


Monday, April 7, 2008

Joy of Spring Festival (Piuraagiaqta)

This weekend in Barrow (April 4th - 7th) the community ushered in the Spring season with the annual Piuraagiaqta celebration. Activities ranged from Maklak racing to a chili cook-off. On Saturday we had the opportunity to participate in the parade as representatives of BASC, also known as the "Barrow Arctic Surf Club." We revived a float from last year's 4th of July parade and retrofitted it for the bed of a Ford F250. The pieces of the float were found under 2 feet of snow by the warehouse and had to be painstakingly excavated by hand (see photo below).

Assembly took place in 3 hours the night before the parade, requiring the use of any scrap lumber we could get our hands on and the tools we could find at 11pm. The assembled float was kept in a secure location until morning so as not to ruin the surprise. The morning of the parade we gingerly drove the giant wind sail of a float the 3 miles to City Hall where we were to assemble for the start of the parade.

The parade traveled from City Hall down the block to Arctic Pizza. We went past the Wells Fargo Bank, heading along the coast towards the post office, ending at the Inupiat Heritage Center. Overall the parade lasted about 45 minutes and we managed to throw six 5 gallon buckets of candy, about 250 packs of Rice Crispy treats and 250 packs of cookies to the excited kids (and adults) lining the parade route. All along the way, we blasted Beach Boys music (appropriate for our "surfing" themed float). None of us want to hear the Beach Boys for a while now.

We also were able to make a new friend along the way. Deanna is a postdoc working at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks) and is working at BASC for only a week or two. She's here by herself and so we "adopted" her and had a great time with her during the parade. (She has one heck of an arm for throwing candy!). She is in the white parka in the photo below.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

PPB Revisited

Out on the Trail

The past few days have been filled with the repeated calibration of our air samplers.  I have had some trouble getting them to operate correctly in the cold and the best advice we got from the manufacturer was to "put a light-bulb in it" for some warmth.  Anyway, more on that later.  

Today I suddenly found myself in dire need of calibration data from one of the air samplers which was soo conveniently located 7 miles into the tundra , and only accessible by snow machine.  I got my tools together, radioed in for a snow machine, and was on my way by 4:30 pm.  About half-way to the control shed where the air sampler was located I started to notice a decrease in the visibility of the trail I had to follow.  I made a good decision and turned back (especially due to the ever present danger of polar bears and this being my first unescorted journey).  Now I was never in any danger, I mean I'm not that stupid to mess with polar bears or the vast expanse of the tundra.  Below is a clip of my trip back to BASC.  What you can't see in this video (and neither could I!) are the wind blown mounds of snow which snuck up on me and tried to throw me off the snow machine.

Later in the day we had some real snowfall and it was time to collect some fresh samples.  The wind wasn't too strong but it was snowing hard enough that there was a complete "white-out".  From a first-hand experience there is nothing in nature that is more confusing and disorienting than the horizon disappearing.  All I could see was white, there was nothing for me to focus on... until I heard something.  All it took was a simple "uh, guys...?" and we found ourselves trying to keep up with our own legs which were leading us to the nearest shelter.  You see when you mix not being able to see a great distance with the largest terrestrial carnivore on the planet you become a bit skittish, but not without good reason.  We were only about 50 yards from the lab and most likely in no danger but it is good to be safe!

Obviously our flight response was in full gear.

In the foreground is one of our sampling buckets, just past that is a small ridge which drops about 10 feet to our sampling site.  Can you imagine what it would look like to see 3 scientists, all decked out in white, scurrying up that?  Notice the lack of horizon.

Fooled by a PPB! (Potential Polar Bear).  Rifle training starts tomorrow...