Sunday, June 27, 2010

Moving On

Guest blogger Karen Romano Young aboard the icebreaker Healy, June 26, 2010.

Say it ain’t so.  My time with ICESCAPE aboard the jolly red icebreaker Coast Guard Cutter Healy has come to an end.  Kathryn Hansen, NASA’s cryosphere writer, joins the ship via helicopter from Barrow on Monday, June 28.  Then the helicopter takes me back to that small town on the edge of the Beaufort Sea, the northernmost point in North America and home to our community observer, Benny Hopson.

Benny has told me a lot about Barrow, told me about some whale scientists to talk to, and advised me to attend the Nalukataq, the celebration that marks the spring whaling hunt. If I’m lucky I’ll meet Harry Brower, Jr., a whale researcher who brought in the first bowhead  of the whaling season -- and I might even get thrown into the air at the blanket toss that’s the hallmark of Nalukataq.

I’ll be busy in Barrow, but I’ll be sad too, regretful about having to leave this wonderful group of scientists and “coasties”, which is what we affectionately call the men and women who look after the research needs of our country so well -- and who have done each of us aboard ICESCAPE so many good turns.  I’m grateful to the scientists, too, for their patience and forebearance in the face of my efforts to understand their work. This has been a crash course in Arctic ocean science for me, and it has been full of difficult concepts and surprises.

One thing that is not a surprise is the continued confirmation that the Arctic ice is melting due to climate change, and that the climate change is due to global warming, and that the melting of the Arctic ice is a sign of the averse effects of human activities on our planet. Scientists, Coast Guard, and everyone who spends time in the Arctic is in agreement about the decrease in the sea ice that supports a vital and rich food chain, and which contributes to the circulation of water throughout the planet.

I’m glad that NASA cared enough to send the scientists to study the Arctic ecosystem in an effort to get new evidence to support and strengthen their satellite surveillance of the area. And I’m grateful that they sent me along to help cover it.  I appreciate all three of my blog hosts, and to Ann Downer-Hazell, host of the Science + Story blog: hey Ann, I kept my promise. I found you an eddy chaser!

His name is Bob Pickart, a physical oceanographer from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.  Pickart and  his technician, Frank Bahr, are here measuring the circulation and water types throughout this cruise, using an instrument called the Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler, which emits sound signals from the Healy’s hull. “It emits sound that reflects off the particles (plankton and other substances) in the water.  If the bugs are moving, that tells you how the water’s moving relative to the ship.” Pickart uses the ADCP together with the CTD to link the character of the water with the currents and the sea floor, and supplies data about it to the other ICESCAPE scientists. As the cruise moves north (without me!) of Barrow and into a particularly volatile area, Pickart will shift gears, taking a more active role in guiding the ship’s path -- and maybe getting the chance to chase an eddy or two.

Pickart’s images from an expendable probe called the XBT reveals temperature at different depths. Can you spot the eddy? (top left)

Eddies form near the boundary of two different water types where there is often a strong current running parallel to the boundary. The current begins to “wiggle” and eventually pulls water from one side of the boundary to the other in the form of a lens (or eddy in oceanographic jargon). Bob Pickart provided this animation of eddy formation.

In the Arctic these eddies are tiny, often only 10 miles across. If Pickart can find an eddy, the Healy may attempt to stay with it, giving Pickart and the rest of the ICESCAPE team the chance to examine one up close. “It can be like finding a needle in a haystack,” says Pickart. But it’s a worthwhile needle, one that could reveal the mechanism that carries cold Pacific water from the shelf into the central Arctic, where it helps maintain the halocline, the salty barrier layer that keeps the deep, warm Atlantic water from rising to the top of the water column, where it could melt the Arctic ice sheet.

Oceanographers know the Pacific waters get there, but not how.  Pickart’s focus haystack is the shelf break jet, formed at the boundary of the Pacific water and the central Arctic water. This jet is known to be unstable, and the hope is that it will be spinning off eddies of cold Pacific winter water at this time of year.

The original plan had been for ICESCAPE  to run transects (paths of stations) in lines radiating out from Barrow, using the instruments we’ve been using since Dutch Harbor -- finding out what sorts of organisms live in the water, what they live on, and what their health is. As a group, the scientists understand the vitality of Barrow Canyon -- a deep canyon north of the town of Barrow -- and are eager to see what is happening here. Enter Bob Pickart to run quick stations using the CTD and ADCP only to measure salinity temperature and velocity in hope of finding one of these cold spirals  down deep.

What they find by chasing an eddy may contribute greatly to the understanding of how water, and other vital properties, moves through the Arctic -- and that, in turn, will make it easier to see how the Arctic will be affected by climate change.

Thank you for reading my  ICESCAPE blogs at Science + Story.  For more on ICESCAPE, please see my blog posts at Climate Central and NASA What on Earth? and Haley Smith Kingsland’s blog at the ICESCAPE site.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Walrus Post

Guest Science + Story blogger Karen Romano Young aboard ICESCAPE, Coast Guard Cutter Healy, Arctic Circle, 21 June 2010

“ ‘The time has come,’ the walrus said, ‘to talk of many things --’ ”

Such as what a big red ship was doing pushing through the ice floes at the head of Kotzebue Sound the other night, and what the big brown tusked lumps on the ice were thinking.

The walrus hauled out on the floes seemed to raft by us like Huckleberry Finn drifting down the Mississippi; actually of course they were immobile as swimmers lounging on poolside, while the Coast Guard Cutter Healy passed them by.  They were serene, but we on board were not. One cadet spotted a big bull swimming, and dashed along the rail to stay parallel to it, calling, “Walrus, my boy!”

Inside the ship in the Future Lab, my friend Haley Smith Kingsland, who’s writing the ICESCAPE blog for the official ICESCAPE site, googled up the collective noun for walrus: pod or herd. But, after seeing the walrus in their stoic groups along the floes, I searched for a more stately term. It ought to be a court of walrus, or a panel of walrus, or a parliament. This animal has attitude, and we can only imagine what it thinks of us.

But enough anthropomorphizing. My fantasy life aside, there is quite a walrus story, with a rich inner life, and with broad ramifications.  The walrus, some say, could be as much a poster child for the effects of climate change as its compatriot, the polar bear.

Walrus require ice to haul out on once they’ve finished diving deep and scouring the bottom for benthic (bottom) creatures such as snails and clams. But what happens when the ice melts? Walrus spend 80 percent of their time swimming, foraging for food at the sea floor, and then they haul out to rest on the ice.  Now that the Arctic climate is changing, the ice cover of the shallow continental shelf has melted back, and what ice can be found it too often over waters too deep for walrus to dive through on one breath.  The walrus have to move their poolside perch to the beach, too far from the food they rely upon.

Besides, the food they rely upon in turn relies upon algae that forms at the bottom of the ice. Without the ice, without the algae, without the benthic life...the Arctic could find itself without the number of walrus that once thrived here. And so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has petitioned for endangered status for the Pacific walrus.  A detailed report will be published in September 2010 in the Federal Register.

For another view, here’s a walrus doodle I did based on my walrus photographs and the information I found by researching the work of scientists Chad Jay of the U.S. Geological Survey, Carleton Ray of University of Virginia,  and Lee Cooper and Jacqueline Grebmeier of the University of Maryland Chesapeake Biological Lab, and by talking to ICESCAPE’s own Karen Frey, from Clark University.

Visit the Coast Guard Cutter Healy online.

Read the official ICESCAPE blog.

For more of my ICESCAPE experiences, please check
Climate Central:
NASA’s What on Earth?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Into the Bering Sea with ICESCAPE

Hey, it’s me, Karen Romano Young, guest-blogging on Science + Story from the Arctic Ocean.
After weeks of planning and losing sleep and counting the days, I’m finally aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy as it steams out of Dutch Harbor north, north, north into the Bering Sea, heading for the Arctic Circle.

This is the voyage of ICESCAPE, a contingent of 48 science crew and some 90 Coast Guard. For five weeks this group will explore the Bering Strait, Chukchi Sea, and Beaufort Sea, examining ice and sea in hope of reaching a better understanding of what climate change is doing to this region.
The sea is like slate, like shale, glowing with reflections of the sky, multilayered in shades of grey like rock, not steel.  As we move through Dutch’s giant rocky gates, we roll along gently with only a few reports of seasickness so far. My swivel stool rotates ten degrees with each swell.

The sky is all cloudy but with layers and streamers of cloud that let through just enough light to make you realize there really is color there if only the sun would come out -- but no, it’s gone again, above the clouds, where it’s mostly been, for the three days we’ve been to Dutch Harbor.

Dutch Harbor feels like a place at the end of the world, like the place in the epic novel The Golden Compass where Iorek Byrnison, the heroic polar bear, is enslaved. Maybe that is because of the icy mountains and harsh creatures -- a Supreme Court-gone bad of bald eagles, the ubiquitous sprawling king crabs that decorate t-shirts and mugs  (this is the home of The Deadliest Catch, after all -- I even met Lenny!). Maybe it’s because of our trip in, on a Saab 340 twin-propeller airplane so heavily laden with scientists and gear that it had to stop twice to refuel at tiny island airports, over the 800-mile flight.

Ahead of the Healy’s giant red prow, the sea troughs deepen. We’ve been advised to expect 9- to 12-foot seas, so those who haven’t completely secured their labs and berths hurry to do so. I sit on the stool next to and sleep in the bunk over Emily Peacock, from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Emily is a baker at the local pie shop, an owner of Chihuahas, and a technician in the lab of biologist Sam Laney. She has shown me how to secure my laptop, with cord strung across the hinge through two eyes screwed into the plywood countertop. I used bungee cords to create a little safe hammock in a corner for my books, cameras, and sound equipment. And now I’m back on deck again, sniffing the sea and shivering.

It’s in the 40s, and rain is spitting down. I hang on tight as I make my way, against the wind, up one of Healy’s many slick, steep ladders. I wonder what’s ahead, how long it will be before we see a whale or seal, how long before we reach ice.

Just before I left my home in Connecticut, late last week, ICESCAPE co-chief scientist Don Perovich, of the Army’s Cold Region’s Research and Engineering Laboratory, sent the science group a map showing the sea ice.  Here it is:

I wrote him,

Dear Don,

Beautiful!  What satellite is it from? And, to what degree does this meet your expectations?

Back came the answer:

Hi Karen

The image is from the website  [The Cryosphere Today, UIUC website]
I think it is from SSMI. There is less ice than I expected.

If you check there, you’ll see a new map of the Arctic ice, out this week, and can make your own comparisons.

Overall there is less ice in the Arctic than usual, and less for this date than in 2007, the year known for having the least ice there has been in the years since 1979, when the Arctic ice has been measured.

What would this change in ice mean to our mission? Today I asked ICESCAPE Chief Scientist Kevin Arrigo and his research partner Gert Van Dijken.  For their views, check in with my blog at Climate Central.

In days to come I will be blogging there, here,  and at NASA’s Earth Science blog, What on Earth?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Real Professors of the Far North

My son and I just finished reading The 7 Professors of the Far North, John Fardell’s 2005 arctic adventure romp. We really enjoyed the Tintin-esque vibe of the exotic setting, the even more exotic methods of transportation, and series of narrow escapes. (In this undated interview, circa 2006, Fardell cites both Tintin and Narnia as influences, and it shows. You quite easily could imagine these kids slipping through the wardrobe into Narnia, and Fardell’s illustrations pay homage to the late, great HergĂ©). Much as I enjoyed it, I closed the book wishing Fardell had added a tad more actual arctic science to the mix.

Well, over the next two months we'll all have the chance to follow the progress of some real-life professors of the far north, members of the NASA-sponsored ICESCAPE mission to study the effects of climate change on pack ice and the arctic ecosystem.

Don’t you wish you could tag along? Then be jealous—very, very jealous—of Karen Romano Young—children’s book writer and science explainer extraordinaire. Karen is the author of many books, including Across the Wide Ocean, four titles in National Geographic's Science Fair Winners series, and the forthcoming novel Doodlebug: A Novel in Doodles. She's been to sea before, and down to the bottom of the ocean in the submersible Alvin. So it's not suprising that she landed the gig of accompanying the ICESCAPE crew to the Arctic Sea on the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy this June and July. Karen will be checking in with Science + Story off and on while she's at sea as a guest blogger.

Science + Story: First, I'm unspeakably jealous! What will you actually be doing on board?

Karen Romano Young: Drawing, photographing, bothering, interviewing, looking over shoulders, asking questions, observing...I am writing a series of books about science notebooks--[a method being used in K-12 education in the lower grades to teach kids the method of observing and recording data scientists use]. The first book will be a science notebook about an investigation in the Arctic. The working title is Wren's Science Notebook: Investigating the Arctic. I published another book, Arctic Investigations, in 2000, but over the last decade the science has changed radically because of climate change.

S+S: It sounds fantastic. Why is NASA interested in the Arctic?

KRY: Previous research missions have usually included either open-ocean scientists or ice scientists. NASA is bringing them together in order to create dialogue and-- ultimately--a new discipline in science, focused on the sea-ice-air interface called the cryosphere.

S+S: So, in a way, you will be present at the birth of a new science?

KRY: Yes.

S+S: How did you convince NASA to save a berth for a children's book writer?

KRY: I can't think of a better place for a children's book writer to be than at a scientist's elbow as the discovery happens. On her blog, Melissa Stewart writes about research that shows that some huge percentage of scientists can trace their career choice back to an experience they had or mentor they knew when they were 7, 10 years old. For some kids, that experience may be a book.
Karen's ICESCAPE mission sets sail from Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutians, on June 15. Stay tuned for a schedule of her blog posts. I hope she will be able to tell me she saw a narwhal, if not a villain’s narwhal-shaped submarine. And maybe she will be able to tell me what “eddy chasing” involves.

For more about Karen, visit her website, For more about ICESCAPE, visit the mission website.