Sunday, March 29, 2009

Arctic Scenery

Things are going well here on the tundra. My photochemistry experiments are cooking away in the bright, bright sunlight we've been having (see the pic below of me "tending" my experiment). The weather has been nothing but sun (and a little wind here and there) for almost two weeks now. I'm just waiting for the next blizzard to blow in, because it certainly can't stay this nice for much longer! The only bad thing that I have to report is that a fox peed on my radiometer the other day! The nerve!!! :)

I've made it out a couple times this week to do snow sampling. Usually this is a task that belongs to Alexis ... but she took a short hiatus from the field to travel to Boston for the NCAA basketball tournament. She must have been a good luck charm, because not only did Nova win the Sweet 16 game, but they also won the Elite 8 game against #1 Pitt. Now we're on to the Final Four!!! Alas, Alexis will be back in Barrow when that game is played, so she'll have to suffer through watching it on TV instead. Oh the trials and tribulations of a grad student. ;)

Meanwhile, I've put together photos taken during our 2008 and 2009 fieldwork ... check out the video below. You will notice at the end a dedication to Arnold Brower, Sr. Arnold was a highly regarded elder in the Barrow community here and was the oldest active whaling captain (86 years old) here as far as I understand. We got to meet him last year and talk with him about his hunting activities, his involvement in the community, his thoughts on climate change, etc. He was a fascinating man. Very sadly, he died last fall while out on a hunting trip. His snowmachine went through thin river ice and, although he was able to get out, he wasn't able to make it to shelter in time, and passed away. It was a great loss to the Barrow community. He was a great man and I feel very privileged to have had a chance (if just for a short time) to get to hear some of his stories. His son, Lewis Brower, is actually the station manager here at the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (the organization that handles the logistics of those doing fieldwork here in Barrow).

Friday, March 27, 2009

Blogging for the Discovery Channel

Well, it seems we've made it big now ... I've been asked to blog for the Discovery Channel about the life and times of a researcher in the Arctic! Check out the link below to the blog site for our field campaign.

A lot of the entries are pretty similar to the ones you'll see here. But with information on multiple blogs (also check out the OASIS blog link, at right), perhaps we can better reach the masses with our harrowing tales of braving the elements and fighting off polar bears in the name of science.

Okay, yes, I realize that last bit was a HUGE exaggeration ... but didn't it sound exciting!?!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Out on the Sea Ice

Last night I had the opportunity to go out on the sea ice with a group of researchers from Environment Canada. They have some instrumentation set up at the edge of a refrozen lead, measuring things like mercury and halogens, which relate to ground level ozone depletion events being studied during this OASIS field campaign (all very fascinating to the atmopsheric chemistry type like me). In case you are wondering, a lead is an area of the sea ice that opens up to expose the water ... these are certainly not permanent and can close up, refreeze, or get bigger depending on the winds and ocean currents. This trip to the ice was mainly to check on the status of the instruments and to do some snow sampling.

The trip out is done on a snowmachine (snowmobile to those of you down south, or ski-doo to you Canadians) over a pretty bumpy trail that was "hand carved" through the ice with ice axes. You may envision the frozen ocean as a nice flat sheet of ice, but in fact it is quite the opposite. As the sheets of ice move and bump into each other, big piles of ice form, several stories tall in some places. It really is quite a sight. Here are a few pics:

A gorgeous sunset on the Arctic Ocean ...

A view of the "rubble ice", caused by ice sheets driving in to each other, raising up the ice in big chunks, some the size of a tractor trailer ...

Me (on left) helping Sandy Steffen (Environment Canada) sample frost flowers. This was how I justified my presence on the trip. :) This flat area of ice where we are at is a refrozen lead. The ice here is about 40 cm thick, or about 16 inches thick. It doesn't sound like a lot, but 16 inches of ice can hold a LOT of weight (you could pretty safely drive a tractor trailer over ice just a few inches thick).

Me about halfway up the climb on the rubble ice ...

As I write this blog entry, the Environment Canada team is racing out to their site to bring in their equipment. The winds are shifting and the area we were at last night will probably be a new pile of rubble ice soon, or may break off entirely from the ice closer to land and drift away ... the ice sheets are moving and it would not be in the best interest of the equipment to leave it out there to either be crushed, or fall in the ocean.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Our Box Office Hit

Watch below for a glimpse of what is sure to be a box office sensation! This movie provides excitement, danger, thrills and chills at -40F.

"Stunning" says People Magazine

"Two thumbs up" raves Entertainment Weekly

"Action, intrigue and pure entertainment. This movie just keeps you wanting more" mumbles Rolling Stone

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bear with me ...

Sometimes when you go out on the ice, you get to see the wildlife. Like polar bears! These shots were taken last week by Tom Douglas, during a sampling trip on the Arctic Ocean a few miles offshore from Barrow.

See him there in the distance, at the foot of the rubble ice?

A zoom in of the bear ...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Flowers in Barrow ... Frost flowers that is ...

It's another weekend here in Barrow, which for us doesn't mean much ... we still work on the weekend like we would any other day. Alexis is busy processing her most recent snow sample. Actually, in this case, the sample isn't snow, but something called frost flowers.

Frost flowers grow on the surface of newly formed sea ice and are very highly saline (i.e. salty). Previous measurements have shown that as these frost flowers form they can scavenge things from the atmosphere, like mercury. So we'd like to know if they can scavenge organic pollutants, like the pesticides and industrial chemicals we are measuring here. If frost flowers are good at scavenging these pollutants we expect to see very high concentrations of the chemicals, compared to other "normal" snow samples we have taken here. So Alexis went out on the sea ice (over the Arctic Ocean) yesterday and sampled four buckets of frost flowers ...

Here is Alexis (blue parka in foreground) getting ready to sample

A closer view of the frost flowers:

An up-close view, showing the structural detail of the crystals:

Today I'm dealing with more mundane tasks, like keeping our GC (gas chromatograph, shown below) happy. I did some routine maintenance today and am re-calibrating the instrument (something I do pretty routinely ... once per week or so). To make sure everything is accurate, this meant remaking the calibration standards, too. Way too tedious for my taste, but something that has to be done ... oh, the life of an analytical chemist.

Since Tuesday I've been monitoring our PCB photochemistry experiment. PCBs are industrial chemicals that are not currently produced in the US (most countries banned production in the 1970s and 1980s), but are found almost everywhere in the environment. They are found in wildlife here in the Arctic, sometimes in very high concentrations, which is a concern. We'd like to understand if there is any chemistry occuring in snow and ice that might affect PCBs and how they cycle around here in the Arctic.

Every day I go out around 1 pm and sample 36 different vials containing different PCB molecules (6 different experiments, 3 "cooked" vials and 3 "dark" vials for each). The "cooked" vials are the ones that have been sitting out on the snow exposed to sunlight and the "dark" vials are control samples that were kept dark, wrapped in foil, in a box buried in the snow. Analyzing these will help us know how much chemistry is caused by sunlight and how much (if any) happens when the sample is not in the sun. Working up 36 samples for GC analysis takes about 2-3 hours ... then another 12-14 hours of analysis time on the instrument. Luckily, our instrument has an autosampler, which means no one has to be around for the 12-14 hours of instrument analysis time ... it does it all by itself! However, once the samples are analyzed, it's another couple hours of work to make sense of the numbers the instrument produces ... (I guess if the instrument did EVERYTHING I'd be out of job, huh?)

Right now, it looks like the two PCB compounds I'm studying are VERY slowly degrading. The degradation is so slow that I've now decided to only go out every OTHER day to sample.

Soon I'll be starting another experiment, with a different compound ... but I'll save the sordid details of that for a later posting ... :)

Oh, and one more thing: Today Villanova's basketball team made it to the Sweet Sixteen. Go NOVA!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Field Notebook .... Don't Leave Home Without It ...

Photographic evidence of why it is ALWAYS a good idea to have your field notebook with you ...

Otherwise, you have to sharpie your data on your arm ...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Brrrrr ....

It's another cold day here in Barrow. Today the temp was -24F as I walked to the lab building at 9 am. Luckily the winds are fairly calm today ... but even so, with an 8 mph wind, the wind chill dropped to -42F.

So for those of you who might be interested, here is a chart that allows you to determine the wind chill based on air temperature and wind speed. So you can see, at very cold temperatures, just a small breeze can make a big difference in how cold it feels (and how quickly frostbite will set in).

So here's the "WHY" behind wind chill: Because of a phenomenon knows as "evaporative cooling", your skin can feel colder than the actual outside temperature. It takes heat to evaporate a liquid ... so let's say the liquid in question is the moisture on your skin. As it evaporates, it is taking heat from the surroundings, which will cool those surroundings. So as the moisture from your skin evaporates it takes with it some heat and hence cools your skin surface. Also at play is a phenomenon known as "convection", a major mode of heat transfer. There is "natural" and "forced" convection ... natural convection is just due to the diffusion of heat away from a body. Forced convection means something else is helping along that heat transfer. In the case of wind chills, the wind is helping to force the convection process. In both cases, the rate of heat loss depends on the real air temperature and the wind speed above the surface (in this case, your skin).

So, since we're talking science ... today we started a photochemistry experiment. (Photochemistry = light induced chemistry). We have samples that contain a pollutant that has recently been identified in the Arctic: tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), a brominated flame retardant. Brominated flame retardants are added to many consumer products like electronics, fabrics, upholstery, etc ... in order to slow down or minimize the extent of fire. These flame retardants do great things in terms of keeping people safe from potential fire hazards, but we're now finding out that some of them aren't so good for your health ... and that they are getting transported all over the planet. We want to know if this particular pollutant is reactive in snow and ice and if it is, what might it turn into. So today I put out on the snowpack a set of sealed vials (pictured below) that contain a known amount of TBBPA in clean water and in refrozen Barrow snowmelt water ... we'll see if the TBBPA goes away and if it is more or less reactive in the snow samples. This might give us an idea of how it will react in the snow and ice in the Arctic.

In other news ... today the OASIS team presented a talk to the Barrow community about the work we are doing here. Remember, OASIS means Ocean Air Sea Ice Snow interactions. Sandy Steffen (of Environment Canada) and Paul Shepson (of Purdue University) did a great job - mainly determined by the fact that as I looked around during the seminar no one was sleeping! Below are some shots before and during the talk ...

Stay tuned for more exciting happenings from Barrow!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Live from Barrow ... It's Saturday Night!

... and excitement abounds ... (that must be obvious, since I'm sitting here at 1:30 am writing up a blog entry!)

Today was a somewhat productive day, although it doesn't feel much like it, as the fruits of our labor aren't readily apparent just now. We did a bit of lab cleanup, changed out a gas tank on our instrument (which required carting large gas cylinders between buildings), cleaned our snow sampling containers, and various other random tasks. I spent a better portion of the afternoon getting snow sampling containers ready for shipment to Umiat, Alaska. One of the guys working for BASC is taking a couple weeks to trek (via snowmachine) from Barrow to Umiat, almost 200 miles SE, for hunting. After a random conversation in the hallway he offered to do some snow sampling for us, which is great, as there would be no way for us to get a sample from that type of area. It is much farther inland and any samples from there will be great for comparison to what we are measuring in Barrow.

Umiat is actually not a town or village, as it has no permanent residents per se. It is a "camp" of sorts and fuel stop for aircraft operating in the area. But after a couple phone calls and emails, we managed to coordinate with a weekly charter flight from Barrow to Umiat ... today I dropped off our sampling materials and they'll be shipped down to Umiat on Monday. Then, our hunter friend (aka snow sampler) will pick up the materials when he arrives, do the snow sampling, then send them on the next charter flight back to Barrow. THEN we'll finally see the fruits of the mission, when we get to process all the snow that we hope makes it back safely.

Another interesting photo opportunity arose this afternoon. A balloon is being used at the OASIS measurement site that allows for sampling of different chemicals in the atmosphere. Very long inlet lines that connect to various instruments get tethered to the balloon, along with sampling containers that can sample at various heights. Using the balloon (and the instruments doing the measurements), scientists working here will be able to determine how the behavior and concentrations of different chemicals change with height in the atmosphere. Here is a cool picture I took, showing the balloon in the sky, around 4 pm on Saturday, with the moon.

This evening we spent a nice evening eating out at Brower's Cafe. An international contingent went to dinner including Americans, Canadians, Austrians, Germans and someone from Jersey. :)

The day concluded quite nicely with a (somewhat subdued) showing of the Northern Lights. After some fiddling with my camera (exposure times and such), I was able to capture a few images ... but these certainly don't do the aurora justice. I'm hoping for a more "spectacular" show, as I think I can get a lot better pictures. But these will have to do for now.

And that ... is a Saturday night in Barrow ...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Snow Sampling ... aka Snow Trashing

Today was our second day of snow sampling this week. Our French snow physics expert (Florent Domine) is now in the field and has his operation set up. He dug a snow trench today and did a series of measurements of density, permeability, surface area, etc. These types of parameters are important if you are trying to figure out how chemicals in the snowpack move around due to changes in temperature, or snow crystal size and shape, etc. Once Florent's samples were taken, we got in there and dug up our own samples. Unfortunately, when you analyze for the types of pollutants we look for, you need to get a BIG snow sample. About 20 gallons of snow is one sample for us. Remember - snow is not as dense as pure water ... so if you fill a 5 gallon bucket up to the brim with snow and then let it melt ... you get back not even 2 gallons of water. Because we took such large samples, our work essentially destroyed his beautifully dug snowpit ... so I think we are now referred to as "The Snow Trashers". But, it's okay ... we made sure to wait until everyone else had their work done, then went to town digging up the pit.

Here are a few pics of the snow sampling activities:

Alexis (the body lying on the ground) relaxes while we wait for the others to finish their sampling .... AAAAHHH, Arctic Life is Good! Notice our buckets in the background ... after about an hour of sampling, these will be filled with snow.

Didier Voisin (another Frenchman!!!!) samples from the deep end of the snow trench.

After a couple hours outside at -15F or so ... you get a little frosty. Notice my eyelashes and the little bit of my hair that was sticking out from under my hat ...

And this is what we get when we're all done ... buckets and buckets of snow ... they get sealed up, and sit in our lab here at Barrow to melt. Then, we extract the polluants out of the melted water and ship those extracts home to Villanova to analyze. That will be how Alexis spends her summer!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Canadians Search for Alien Life ...

...okay maybe not ... here is the real story:

A group of scientists from Environment Canada is working here in Barrow as part of the "OASIS" campaign that we are also a part of. They have designed and built a portable sled system chock full of atmospheric measurement equipment...things like ozone monitors and mercury analyzers and meteorological parameters, etc. The sled is lovingly called OOTI (Out On The Ice). It is meant to be snowmachined into place almost anywhere you'd like to go, and then it can be left to measure away while the scientists go back to the warmth of their labs.

The OOTI sled is currently being tested on a lagoon about 6 km away from BASC. Communication with the sled is done by radio signals, picked up by the strange looking antenna in the picture above (being used by Andrew Sheppard). Problem is, there needs to be a direct line of sight between the antenna and the sled ... which was not available down the hall in the Environment Canada lab ... so they came to our lab to try things out our window.

Alas, no luck.

So now the Canadians are off to find a better place to mount their antenna and look for alien life...oops...I mean, communicate with their instruments.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

In Like a Lion

March came in like a lion here in Barrow, Alaska. We woke up today to -15F temps, with a wind chill of -46F. We had a blizzard warning and gale force winds since Friday ... there have been no flights in since Friday morning either ... so those scientists hoping to go home over the weekend are changing their plans accordingly. The BASC parking lot is one big snow drift and it was only by luck that we were able to find a parking spot near a plug-in for the truck.

Here you can see the drift behind the van, up to its bumper.

Here you can see that the snow is up to almost the top of the bed of the truck parked at the end of the building.

Here is a short video of the blowing snow and wind conditions, filmed on 2-28...

But, if March came in like a lion ... maybe it will go out like a lamb???