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

http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/  [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?


  1. Karen - What a wonderful trip! I am jealous - I've known a few teachers who have also been aboard the Healy, and just had a student complete a research project on the ship. I will have to give him the blog address to follow your trip. It's supposed to be in the 90's here in Connecticut over the next few days - wish I was with you. I will follow your blog! Louise McMinn, Scofield Magnet Middle School

  2. Oh wow--what a fabulous journey! Thank you for sharing it with us. :-)

  3. Super interesting and informative, although a bit too vivid - I feel seasick here in my apartment in San Francisco. Hmmmm. I'll be following you on the Healy!
    -Terri Spath