Thursday, May 22, 2008

Back from Blog Break

After an incredibly long hiatus, here's something new from Barrow.This entry is brought to you by Frosty the Snowman, a.k.a. Dr Rowland, a.k.a. He Who Does Not Blog.

The absence of blog entries is certainly not because we've had an absence of activity - far from it. Since Dr G departed for the sultry climes of SE Pennsylvania, we have:

i) observed and participated in the landing and distributing of three separate whales

ii) done lots of science

iii) visited Ipalook Elementary School and tried to show the students that science is fun

iv) completed a transect in which we collected snow samples from Point Barrow, the northernmost tip of the US mainland

v) said farewell to Hut 163 and hello to our new digs in the NARL Hotel

vi) experienced persistent guilt and nagging about the lack of blog updates. For the record, this comes from deep within our own sub-consciences and is in no way connected to Dr Grannas' emails... (The sub-conscience is related to the subconscious, but is altogether creepier, guiltier and more nagging.)

vii) seen the arrival of more than 40 new people - scientists, students and media - to BASC
viii) seen the first tufts of tundra peeking through the increasingly slushy snow cover

and ix) done a bit more science, just to be safe.

Certainly the biggest event for us was the chance to help out with the spring whaling season. I'm somewhat reluctant to talk about it in depth, mainly because whaling is a particularly sensitive topic in New Zealand - politically and emotionally - and I don't want to put anything into the public arena, ie the internet, that may be misused or misinterpreted. For the same reason, there aren't going to be photos of dead whales posted here. If you're interested, talk to Ian or I when we get back to 'Nova.

So... what can I safely say about the whole whaling experience.

First - everyone is pretty buzzed when a whale is caught. As far as I know, most Inupiat people in Barrow still depend heavily on hunting for their food supply. While whale isn't the only item on the menu here, it is one of the most relished. One of the top priorities when cutting up and storing the meat is to make sure there's some put aside for big holiday celebrations such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Second - whales are heavy! After one has been successfully harpooned, it may swim a considerable distance before it tires and a boat can approach to deliver the coup de grace. The whale is then towed back to the whalers' ice camp. While the whale is being towed, calls go out over the radio letting people in town know of the catch and asking people to come and help haul it up onto the ice. A pulley system is used to facilitate the hauling, and if there are too few hands to pull, a snow machine is used to give a little extra aid. Most of the work is done by hand, however.

Third - whaling here is legal and carefully regulated to ensure that the whale population isn't over-hunted. In the past, commercial whaling has had a massive impact on many different whale species, which is why it is for the most part outlawed today. Each year, there is a quota drawn up for the number of harpoon "strikes" allowed by whaling crews from each Eskimo village on the North Slope. This year, there has really only been one week in which the conditions of weather and ice allowed for successful whaling. It was a really good week - I think there were eight whales caught in total - but that is still much less than the maximum number allowed. At least to this non-expert, it doesn't seem that subsistence whaling activities are going to have any adverse effect on the population.

Finally - the smell of freshly cut whale is very distinctive. To remove it from clothing, etc, we were advised to empty a six-pack of cola into the washing machine, then put our gear through a regular wash cycle.

Now for some stuff that I can show pictures of.
We put together a collection of hands-on science experiments for the young (and young at heart) to run for one of Barrow's "Schoolyard Saturdays" a few weeks back. Unfortunately, other local events meant that noone outside of BASC showed up. We did, however, get some inquiries from the local school district, and the result was a visit to Ipalook Elementary School to do some fun science that's (very) loosely related to the work we do in the field. If you can make the connection "we sample stuff in the air, so using air pressure to crush soda cans is related to our work", you can do anything... Our main goals were to have fun and show that science is all about guesses (I mean, hypotheses) and observations, rather than (just) labs and high-tech gadgets.

Here, we are "watching" sound by observing salt grains dancing on a stretched plastic film. Stretch plastic film over the top of a pie dish, secure it with a rubber band, then sprinkle a pinch of salt on top. The salt grains bounce around when the film vibrates due to sound waves in the air. We got the best results by striking a metal pan with a wooden spoon above the film.

And here, we are messing around with water - specifically, the combination of surface tension and air pressure that keeps an index card "stuck" to the rim of an inverted cup of water while it is held over an eager volunteer's head.

Okay, anyone still reading this must really have nothing better to do, so I'll sign off here.

Frosty - aka Dr Rowland

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