Posts Tagged ‘arctic’

Barrow — Jan 16

January 19, 2012

16 Jan 2012

Ice conditions are still unstable.  Our UMIAQ support team spent the morning doing reconnaissance of our intended sampling sites. After yesterday’s efforts they suggested that since it might be dangerous, it wasn’t a good idea for anyone on the science team to accompany them. Because the ice is still forming and the ocean is a powerful force, the ice can break-up pretty quickly. The team first scouted out our near shore site, but it was inaccessible due to a major crack between it and our ice trail. We use a trail cut through the ice to guide us on a safe snow machine run over it. They continued on to our second site located further out into the ocean and to the north. The ice in that area seems to be more stable. They liked what they saw and decided that it would be safe for us to set up camp there.

Brower Frantz, UMIAQ logistics leader proudly stands by the ice camp.

After making this decision the team came back, loaded up the camp gear (tents, generators, heaters, ice augers, etc) and went back out. This time Steven Baer from the Bronk group went with them to help orient the tents and make some basic measurements. Before starting we need to know the ice thickness, water depth, and usually how far light penetrates. In this case there basically isn’t any light but hey, we’re scientists. Measuring zero’s (or close to zero) can be just as important. Its data!

Meanwhile, back on the NARL campus where our labs are, there was a flurry of activity as we all checked and prepped our gear. Finally, around 3pm the camp was set-up and we were ready to go. I was pretty worried about how late it was getting, but because we have such a short time up here and the ice was deemed safe now we needed to push a little bit. Who knows if we’ll even get another chance given the dynamic condition of the ice.

The ride out was relatively uneventful. The ice was remarkably smooth compared to our previous trips.  As was explained to me, when the ice first forms it is relatively flat and it only gets jumbled up later as storms, wind, currents, and tides push it around. Flat ice generally means that it is new ice.  That is what was worrying everybody. We know the ice is still forming and moving a lot. Hopefully it won’t move while we’re on it! After about 30 min of driving we made it to our camp. Having well established sampling routines by now, this is our 6th expedition, we all got to work unloading our gear and starting to sample. The Yager group occupies their own tent (the smaller one) while the Frischer and Bronk group occupy the larger one.

Ice Camp 16 January 2012

In the Frischer tent I got started right away making measurements of the water column. We are using a new instrument that lets us measure depth, temperature, salinity, oxygen, chlorophyll, pH, and turbidity. It’s a pretty nice instrument but a bit delicate and the computer software is not straightforward. We transported it as if it was a delicate infant wrapped in blankets with warm water bottles and hand warmers to make sure it didn’t freeze on the way out. I think we overdid it! When I unwrapped it in the tent it was positively hot. The instrument worked well and we got a good look at the water conditions. As expected the water temperatures was -1.8 deg C, salinity was around 33 PSU (normal for the Arctic coastal ocean), there was almost no chlorophyll in the water (no light no algae in the water). Most importantly the water column was well mixed which means that we could sample at one depth and be reasonably assured that it would be representative of the whole water column. We decided to sample at 2 meters below the bottom of the ice.

Graph of water data from the MANTA, Eureka Environmental

After I was finished measuring the water the Bronk group got rolling. They rinse and fill what seem like a million small bottles to which they add a very small amount of nutrients enriched in their stable isotope concentrations. Stable isotopes are non-radioactive form of elements (atoms) that are slightly heavier than the normal form. For example, the normal atomic weight of Carbon is 12 (meaning it has 12 protons) while the stable isotopic form has a weight of 13. We refer to it as 13C.  Because 13C  is slightly heavier than 12C, it can be measured on a mass spectrometer. By measuring how much of it goes into cells during an incubation, the rate of uptake can be calculated. The Bronk group is making some of the first ever measurements of nutrient uptake rates by microbes in this region of the Arctic coastal ocean.

The process went pretty smoothly but since it was so cold, even in the tent, the pipettes which they were using to inject the stable isotope into the samples were freezing and slowing the process.

Dr. Debbie Bronk injects stable isotope labeled nutrients into seawater.

Meanwhile in the other tent the Yager group were having even more problems with freezing. They are collecting water samples to make measurements of the carbon chemistry and general activity of the microbes, so it is especially important that their samples do not freeze and are not exposed to the atmosphere which can contaminate the dissolved gas content of the seawater. Unfortunately, their samples were freezing.  However, after getting them off the ice floor of the tent and placing them into a seawater bath (a cooler filled with seawater) they seem to have solved the problem and were able to collect most of the samples they needed.

Dr Tish Yager and Colin Willams collecting water.

When the Bronk group was finished it was our turn.  Our sampling is probably the most straightforward, but we need to collect a lot of water.  We’re collecting enough water so that we can extract DNA and RNA from the bacteria in it.  We collect about 140 liters (about 40 gal or 310 lbs). Using a specially designed submersible pump we collected water in seven 20 liter carboys wrapped in neoprene and then place them in a cooler of snow. Believe it or not, the snow actually keeps the water from freezing. But, as simple as it sounds, we had our problems too. The generator that was running our pump ran out of gas.  Actually, the generator had a gas leak so it’s lucky it just ran out of gas and didn’t explode. But, because of excellent planning on the part of the UMIAQ team we had two generators on site. However, that meant the Yager group was without lights in their tent. We solved that problem by moving two snow machines so they pointed at the tent and the headlights provided enough light.

Finally we were all done and got all our gear and samples loaded back onto the sleds.  It was unbelievably cold and windy and we were all tired and ready to get back. The trip started off smoothly until I managed to get my sled stuck. It’s really tricky pulling a very heavily loaded sled. I had to slow down over a series of small ridges because the person in front of me slowed, and that was all it took for the snow machine to sink a little too much into some soft snow and lose traction. With all of us helping we disconnected the sled and managed to lift the back end of the snow machine out of snow, enough to get it moving. Then we were able to push the sled back to some more level ice and reconnect it to the snow machine. It was exhausting! But the fun wasn’t quite over. As we started moving again Debbie, in an effort to make it over the hole I had dug with the snow machine, went a little too fast over the area and bumped into Rachel and Jenna who were on the snow machine in front of them. No real harm though. Jenna fell off the snow machine but it was into soft snow and she wasn’t hurt. The brand new snow machine Deb was driving suffered a cosmetic crack in its fairing. Without further incident we all made it back safely to campus and quickly rushed our samples to our respective labs for processing.

Victoria and I spent the next 5 hours in our cold room filtering all that water we had collected. We had hoped to start another humic addition bioassay that is a component of Zac Tait’s thesis research, but it was just too late so we decided we’d do that first thing in the morning. After all the filtering was done, our samples put away safely, and all our gear cleaned-up it was time for some well deserved rest. I felt weary and frozen to the bone but pleased with the progress we had made.

Even though the sun won’t shine, tomorrow is a new day.

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Day 2 in Barrow

January 18, 2012

Marc Frischer continues his account of his and Victoria Baylor’s research trip to Barrow, Alaska.

15 January 2012

Today we again woke up early and began setting up our labs. Actually day and night are surprisingly similar around here.

Good morning, Barrrow!

Victoria spent most of the day setting up our molecular lab in the BARC building. It is in this lab that we will extract RNA, DNA, and preserve other samples from the bacteria we collect from the Arctic Ocean. One of the questions we are addressing in this project is whether Arctic bacteria are competing with Arctic phytoplankton for nutrients (specifically nitrogen) and whether when more organic carbon from melting permafrost reaches the Arctic coastal ocean if this competition is intensified. We suspect that an intensified competition between bacteria and phytoplankton (algae) for nitrogen will lead to a less productive Arctic food web in a future warmer Arctic ocean. One way to address this question is to measure how actively bacteria are using the most prevalent form of nitrogen in these waters, nitrate (NO3). By looking for this gene and measuring how active it is, we are learning about how this critical nutrient cycling function is controlled.

Victoria setting up lab in BARC.

While  Victoria was setting up the lab I was setting-up the lab (walk in freezer) where we will be filtering water and conducting a bioassay experiment (more on that later). I also spent some time making sure our sampling gear was organized and functional. The pump we use to collect the water from under the ice had seized but luckily with the help of Lance Bennett (part of the CPS team) we got it running. We also brought with us a relatively new instrument to measure water conditions that I am not too familiar with. Initially I couldn’t manage to get the instrument to communicate with its hand held computer, but after a long struggle I finally got it to work. Hopefully I’ll be able to remember everything when we are actually out on the ice.  It’s a cool instrument though, it measures water depth, temperature, salinity, pH, turbidity and the concentrations of chlorophyll and dissolved oxygen all in real time.

Eureka Manta water quality instrument

While we were setting-up, our logistics team accompanied by Steven Baer (VIMS) as a representative of the science team was scouting our sampling sites. For those of you who may not be familiar with our sampling plans, when the ocean is frozen the way we sample is to set-up a camp on the ice, drill holes, and collect water through them. To safely do this we need to be on well secured and thick ice. This time of year the ice is pretty dynamic as it is still forming and major storms can move it around quite a lot. In advance of our trip this year we had identified several possible sampling locations that were consistent with our science needs, but they need to be checked every day. So this morning the UMIAQ team checked. Unfortunately its seems as our original site developed a major crack in the ice and is moving so we had to switch to a different site a few miles northward where the ice appears to be thicker and is more securely grounded (frozen to land). However, even there the ice seems to be moving a lot. So the camp didn’t get set-up and the plan is to revaluate tomorrow morning. That means we wait, but it’s much better to be safe than to risk everything. If there is one thing I have learned during this project it is to be patient and to trust the support we are getting from our local logistic support team.

We’ll just have to see what tomorrow brings. The weather is predicted to be pretty mild.

[Picture- weather forecast for 16 January 2012]

Arriving in Barrow, Alaska

January 18, 2012

Marc Frischer continues his account of his research trip to Barrow, Alaska.

14 January 2012

This morning, we again caught a 6am flight. This time the flights took us to Fairbanks, Prudhoe Bay, and then into Barrow. As usual the scenery from the air was spectacular!

Alaska Mountain Range near Fairbanks

After another 5 hours of flying we landed in Barrow.  It was 11 am but it could have been 11 pm. Barrow is still experiencing 24 hours without the sun though we expect to see the sun for a few minutes when it rises for the first time since November 18 on January 23rd. We should see the sun for about 30 min that day.

Arriving in Barrow

Although the sun isn’t above the horizon, for several hours a day there is some light as the curvature of the Earth creates a long twig light period. Because there is so much white ice and snow which is highly reflective, it’s actually quite bright given that the sun isn’t even up.

After a brief meeting with the rest of the science and logistics support team to get re-oriented and check in, we immediately set out re-locating all our gear and setting-up our various laboratory and field staging spaces. We spent the rest of the day doing that but managed to find all our stuff and get it re-distributed into the right places. Tomorrow we’ll set it all up and make sure that it is all working. One surprise was that the facility where we do most of our water filtration (The Beach Freezer) was practically snowed in with a big drift of snow. The door was accessible though, so no problem.

Marc by the Beach Freezer

[Marc  in front of a snowdrift by the Beach Freezer]

This trip our team consists of:

Tish Yager and Colin Williams from the University of Georgia (UGA), Debbie Bronk, Rachel Sipler, Steven Baer, and Jenna Spackeen from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS), and myself and Victoria Baylor from the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography (SkIO). Next week are also expecting to be joined by one more member of the UGA group.

We are being assisted by a very competent and can do attitude logistics group from UMIAQ and CH2MHILL Polar Services (CPS).  Without this support we absolutely couldn’t accomplish anything here.

Around 5 pm we called it quits for the day and headed out to our favorite Barrow restaurant Arctic pizza for dinner, more planning and to catch-up with each other.

Back to Alaska, a final trip…for now

January 18, 2012

Note: Marc Frischer and Victoria Baylor are back in Barrow, Alaska for their final research trip on their climate change project .  They will be blogging about their “adventures.” In this post, March Frischer writes.

13 January 2012

It’s back to Barrow again!  This will be our last trip of this project so it’s a bit bitter sweet for us.  We are very excited about collecting the last of our field data and proceeding to the next phase of the project.  It’s exciting to, after 3 years of hard work collecting samples and data, to finally be in a position to analyze it.  We should have enough data now to address our main questions about microbial processes and the potential change that may occur in the Arctic as the permafrost melts and releases all of the organic material that has been stored there for thousands of years.  On the other hand we’re going to miss the excitement of the trips and the raw beauty and drama of the high Arctic that we have had the opportunity to experience.

As with our previous trips we have been hard at work arranging the logistics for this trip.  Making sure we have all our equipment and supplies in place and organizing our sampling logistics and team.   A good piece of advice for anyone conducting field work in remote locations: never get ahead of your gear. Because it is the winter (again) the challenges of working in Barrow are at their highest.  We are expecting temperatures to again be well below zero ranging from -20 to -40 degrees below zero with significant wind chill.  Last time we were in Barrow we experienced temperatures of -47 deg F and wind-chill approaching -70 degrees.  So far the weather forecasts are a bit better than that for this trip.

Another major logistic challenge for us during this trip will be organizing ourselves so that we can retrieve all our gear that has accumulated in Barrow.  We are not allowed to leave anything on the NARL campus once the project is completed. Victoria and the rest of our team have been working very hard to figure out how we’re going to get all our stuff home or give away what might be useful for people in Barrow to take ownership of.  We are planning on leaving  a lot of basic supplies (test tubes, bottles, graduate cylinders, etc) to a local middle school science teacher, Debby Green, who’ve we’ve been working with, but that still leaves us with a lot to get home.  We’re expecting to ship home on the order of a ton of gear.

Travelling across the country in the winter is always a bit risky, but our trip was smooth and thankfully uneventful.

Zac who regularly participates on these trips couldn’t come this time because he is about to be a father. His daughter Iris is due on 4 Feb, but he volunteered to take Victoria Baylor and me to the airport for our 6 am flight. It was still dark when we got to the airport. We flew to Chicago and had plenty of time to get something to eat and check in for our next flight to Anchorage.

”]We arrived 7 hours later in Anchorage, collected our bags and took the airport shuttle to the hotel where we spent the night. We’ve stayed there several times over the past years so the place is familiar and comfortable. We’ve found that it is really helpful to get a good night of sleep before starting one of these trips.

This picture is for my son David. One of his favorite superheroes is Wolverine from X-Men. This is a real Wolverine David.

After checking in and getting settled (Victoria had to run an errand.), we went to a nearby restaurant Gwinnee’s for dinner. Gwinnee’s is a kind of an Alaskan Cracker Barrel, but it’s not a chain.  Victoria doesn’t drink but she took the opportunity to serve the bear a beer. I guess she figured that it must be thirsty.

Victoria at Gwinee’s restaurant

Marc Frischer talks about climate change on WSAV

November 14, 2011

Dr. Marc Frischer was on WSAV’s Coastal Sunrise program this morning to talk about his upcoming talk on climate change. If you missed it, you can see the replay here.

Back to Alaska!

August 19, 2011

Hello from Barrow, Alaska! This is Victoria Baylor and Zac Tait, members of the Frischer lab at Skidaway Institute. We are here to collect our final summer season samples and perform some experiments. We arrived safely in Barrow on August 11th after spending most of the 10th traveling and spending a night in Anchorage. The trip is so long, that we had to spend the night in Anchorage AK. We stayed at our usual place, the Holiday Inn Express in Anchorage and enjoyed fine dining at Simon & Seaforts. We have to admit the food was exactly spectacular and with a good nights rest we were ready to head off to Barrow on the 11th.

We made it safely to Barrow and were met by Dylan and Glenn Roy, two of the UMIAQ  Logistics personnel, and Rachel Sipler from the Bronk lab at Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS.) The first thing we noticed as we walked off the plane in Barrow, Alaska was all of the snow and ice was gone. The ice was just beginning to melt on the roads at the end of the last trip in May but now the landscape was transformed into a gravelly, boggy mud-puddle. We left with Rachel, then checked into our hut and were surprised that our entire group plus Karl Newyear , Chief Scientist of UMIAQ, would be occupying the same space. That’s 8 people in one hut…..and only one bathroom.  It was our first group housing experience.

Victoria and the "welcome sign"

After getting settled in, we decided to set-up our labs. We pulled all of our supplies down from storage and distributed them to the Barrow Alaska Research Center (BARC ) lab and the Beach freezer cold room. After setting-up, with no more work to do, we did our grocery shopping and returned home to await the arrival of our other team members. That’s when we received the news that Barrow was out of fuel and we were being asked to reserve our fuel as best as possible. We also received the news that due to high winds we would possibly delay our first sampling trip which was scheduled for Thursday morning.  There were two barges on the way to deliver gas but it was uncertain when the gas would be available.  Not having gas was certainly going to put a damper on our sampling plans by boat so we began to think about other options.

Winds were blowing as high as 25-30kts. Winds like those made usually simple tasks like opening and shutting car doors quite the task. So in light of the weather, all we could do at that point was wait and hope for the best. Part of our summer sample collection involves going 30-40 miles from Barrow to collect water from tundral melt pools that haven’t been influenced by civilization. These melt pools contain organic carbon compounds which we hypothesize will stimulate bacterial activity when released into the coastal ocean.  We usually collect this water by travelling away from town by boat but because of the fuel and weather issues, that wasn’t possible.

On Friday & Saturday, we concentrated our efforts on setting up both our BARC lab for RNA extraction and gear cleaning and the Beach freezer cold room where we’d be filtering water for DNA & RNA collection and Zac’s tundra melt-water incubation studies.  As part of his thesis project, Zac is trying to find out if bacteria will be able to “eat” this material and if they do if it would increase their usage of nitrate. Because nitrate is what limits the productivity of the Arctic Ocean (i.e. how much of the green things at the base of the food web can grow) if bacteria start using more of it this could profoundly affect the food web in the Arctic. If the permafrost (frozen tundra) melts with a warming climate it could mean less fish, seals, bears, birds, and whales.

Things went pretty smoothly with setup. We washed all of our supplies and organized our work spaces.  Then, our group met to discuss sampling options in light of the rough weather. We worked closely to try to create some feasible scenarios that would allow for Zac & Rachel to collect tundra melt-water.  After a meeting with the logistics personnel, the option of using ATV’s to collect the tundra water was presented, but we had to wait to see how things would work out with the weather. So to lift our spirits the group went out to eat delicious Chinese food at Sam and Lee’s and caught a few minutes of the first football game of the season. This also happens to be the highest latitude football game played in the world.  The score at half time was Barrow 35 – Away team 0.

Zac caught chugging down his 3rd bowl of chicken egg drop soup.

 

The Barrow Whalers “Thunder on the Tundra”

By Sunday we got a break in the weather and we were given the green light to go ahead and use the ATV’s to gather tundra water. Rachel, Zac, Lynne, & Marta (Lynn and Marta are also from the Bronk lab at VIMS) all suited up and headed off with Brower to go find some tundra melt-pools.

Our guides for the trip

The  ATV trip was an incredibly a bumpy, yet fun ride. The guide’s idea of a ‘trail’ was simply a general direction across the tundra.   It was hard to compare the terrain on this trip to anything we have encountered. The closest comparison we could think of is: the tundra is like a very rough, frozen ocean, turned to mud. We then rode across this rough landscape at high speeds on ATVs; it was both scary and exhilarating. Needless to say, some ibuprofen and bed-rest were welcomed at the end of that trip. Fortunately, the trip was successful and we were able to get plenty of tundra water containing the high concentration of humic acids that we needed to get our experiments started.

The winds decreased further by Monday so it was decided that we could go on our first sampling trip on the ocean.  At 10 in the morning, we loaded our gear and everyone, with the exception of Victoria  and Marta, headed out. Within 2 hours, the group returned and unfortunately couldn’t go out due to the low tide.  A second attempt was made at 1pm and the boat was launched. While the group was out, the winds picked up again. The decision was made that is was too treacherous to return to the same boat ramp that we left from, so we had to continue around Point Barrow, directly into very high winds and seas to a more sheltered ramp. Several times the boat was airborne after being launched over a 5 or 6 foot swell. We did eventually make it back, but it was a punishing ride. We came back at around 5pm with water samples and told Victoria and Marta about a huge polar bear we’d seen just up on the way back from the boat ramp.

The sampling team (l-r) Rachel, Tara, Lynne, Karie, & Zac

While the group unloaded the boat, Marta and Victoria went to check get some pictures of the Polar Bear. We were later told that there was a serious storm and somehow the polar bear ended up stranded in the ocean and swimming 100nmi to shore. It was huge and completely out of energy after the long swim. We watched the bear, feeling at ease since a bear guide who was armed with a rifle was nearby.  Later, several people from our group witnessed the bear get shot by a local hunter. Rest in peace Polar Bear.

Polar Bear

Back in the Beach freezer cold room, we worked for several hours filtering our waters samples to collect DNA & RNA samples. Zac finally had both humic and seawater to set up his incubations. We worked pretty late but we were quite excited that we were finally able to get samples.

Tuesday was primarily a lab day and we extracted RNA and prepared for the Wednesday’s boat trip.  The other groups worked to process their water samples. We were able to get out again on Wednesday for sampling. So far weather predictions are in our favor and we look forward to having a couple of more sampling trips before the weeks end.

Monday 2 May 2011 – Mystery Object

May 4, 2011

Today is another day of cleaning and packing. Before getting back to the packing job we decided to pack-up all our samples, get them into the dry liquid nitrogen shipper (See previous discussion in this blog.)  and attempt to send them home. If you recall we were concerned about this because the only shipper in Barrow, Northern Air Cargo, has temporarily lost their license to ship hazardous. Nothing about our samples is hazardous, but we were unable to procure official paperwork that documents this. Anyway, we thought it was best to ship as early as possible just in case we ran into a problem. Also, the earlier in the week that we ship the more likely it will be to have it arrive during the working week when there will still be someone at our home labs to receive them. So first thing this morning we packed up the samples and went to the NAC offices. They didn’t even blink an eye. So the samples we collected are now headed home to Savannah and we didn’t have to worry at all.

After our success at the NAC office we returned to continue packing. Our goal is to have everything organized and next to the packing crates where we will store them. Midway through the afternoon another group of scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who are investigating ice algae, arrived and began to set-up their labs for a month long visit. As is usual in scientific circles, it didn’t take long for us to find many common interests.

I was also very excited that, among their gear, they had brought some nice microscopes and agreed to let me use one to look at some water samples. Earlier in the week Lollie and Adriane, while filming with their underwater cameras, captured images of something that I couldn’t identify. They looked like they might be very large algal cells and one thought I had was that they might be ice algae beginning to bloom in the Arctic spring.

Mystery objects from under the ice. Frame capture from video shot by Lollie Garay.

I showed the video to the Juhl group, but they were a mystified as we were.  We came to the conclusion that perhaps they were developing eggs or larvae of something undergoing a mass spawning event. Unfortunately we don’t have a way of determining the size of objects in the images which might help us indentify them. Lollie is working on figuring this out though, so we should be able to determine size. Although the Juhl group had brought some nice microscopes,since we didn’t have fresh water samples our examination of water samples were also inconclusive.  If anyone out there recognizes these objects please let me know.

After this pleasant diversion it was back to packing.  Tomorrow all that is left is to clean-up the equipment and supplies that we are still using for Zac’s thesis experiments, finish our inventories, seal the boxes, and put them back into storage.

Speaking of Zac’s experiment, after packing and chatting with the Juhl group, it was time for us to take our last samples from those experiments. The incubations lasted for 6 days and we’re hoping that that will be enough time for us to see the effects of humic additions on bacterial activity, growth, and utilization of nitrogen and carbon. The samples are now all collected and Zac will be analyzing them over the next couple of months. We’re holding our breaths for the results.

Zac’s experiment. Bacteria inoculated filtered seawater with added humics (1), humics and organic nitrogen (3), glucose (5), and seawater only (7). Each bottle was duplicated, but only one is shown in this photo. Note that bottles containing humics are considerably darker than those not receiving humics. The bottles were incubated in the dark at just over freezing temperatures.

Finally, we are completely done with all our science activities and it was time for a celebratory dinner.  We invited the Juhl group to come with us to try out a relatively new Chinese restaurant in town; Sam and Lee’s.  It was fantastic, better than any Chinese restaurant in Savannah in my opinion.  I had a spicy duck dish that was both delicious and copious.  I took home a doggie bag for lunch for tomorrow.

Sunday 1 May 2011 – Last Lab Day

May 4, 2011

Today was our last full lab day and the beginning of the end for this trip.

After breakfast in the cafeteria, Zac and I began to purify bacterial messenger RNA (mRNA) from the water we had filtered yesterday. mRNA is the molecule that acts as the intermediate between DNA and proteins. All the information necessary to code for complex macromolecules like proteins are stored in DNA, but in order to use those instructions a cell must transcribe its DNA information into RNA that can then be translated by another complex molecule called a ribosome into proteins.

Truly life is amazing and it boggles the mind how complex and elegant it is. From the very smallest scale of atoms and molecules to the grandest scales of the universe, everything is connected. Anyway, I digress.

Our goal today was to purify RNA from the bacteria that we had captured on our filters so that we can determine which genes are turned on and how active those genes are. We are particularly interested in those genes that bacteria use to assimilate inorganic nitrogen because we suspect that the addition of new carbon in the form of the humics released from the melting permafrost will require bacteria to use more inorganic nitrogen. If this is true we should see an increase in the genetic expression of the genes involved in inorganic nitrogen assimilation.  Anyway, that’s why we need the RNA.

The initial step of our purification procedure requires two sets of hands and that was my job this morning.  Once we had safely gotten our filters containing all those bacteria into the first extraction reagent which stabilizes the RNA I was free to start packing-up our labs while Zac completed the RNA extractions.

Zac purifying RNA

I started with the cold room where we had filtered all the water.  Although it took us many hours to set-up the lab and to make sure that we had everything in exactly the right place, it only took me about half an hour to dismantle it.

Cold room during use and after being cleaned-up.

It’s kind of sad to tear down a lab that was so functional, but we know we’ll be back in the summer to do it again. Just for grins we left one little piece of orange tape on the floor to see if anyone else uses the space before we get back.

Once Zac finished the purifications we really got busy rinsing and cleaning all our gear and getting everything ready to be packed away.  At around 3pm we stopped to sample Zac’s ongoing experiment; there’s only one more time point to go in that study. Then we went to help Lollie pack her bags and get checked in for her flight home.

Because the airport here is so small but still requires the TSA agents to screen all bags, travelers are encouraged to check in early. This greatly reduces the check in wait times and relieves congestion in the very small arrival/departure area.  After Lollie checked in she went back home and finished preparing a fabulous Mexican dinner for the whole team.

Alas all good things must come to an end and finally it was time for Lollie, Adriane, and Debbie to head back to the airport to start their long journeys home.  We miss them already.

Saturday April 30, 2010 – Last sampling day of the trip

May 3, 2011

With our new ice camp all set-up yesterday, this morning we were ready to go back out on the ice to collect our last set of samples for the trip. When we left building #36 it was foggy with a few snow flurries and it was a relatively warm -8.9°C (16°F).  By the time we got out on the ice and waited around, (Brower, one of the members of our logistics crew, went back to pick-up the electric generator that we forgot and that runs our sampling pump.) the sun came out; the wind picked up; and the temperature dropped. Again it was breath takingly beautiful, but it felt considerably colder. We passed the time waiting by hanging out in the tent, eating pretzel m&m’s that Steven had brought but that we ate all up before he could get any, and telling stupid jokes.

Did you hear the one about the baby polar bear that didn’t think he was a polar bear?  Why don’t you think you’re a polar bear the polar bear daddy asked?  Because I’m fricking freezing said the baby polar bear!

Yeah, not so funny but it passed the time. Soon Brower had returned and we were back in business.

We quickly collected our water and loaded it on the sleds. All week we’ve been having trouble trying to keep our heavy coolers filled with water from falling off the sleds. Today was no different. No more than 2 minutes after leaving, we noticed that our coolers were about to slide off. We stopped and re-tied them properly. The trick is not to pile them up on each other but to spread them out on the sled. Of course we figured this out on our last trip of the expedition. After re-tying our sled we made it back to our lab without incident and quickly began processing the water.

The right way to load a sled.

After working out all the little filtration problems with the previous two samples, everything went smoothly. It kind of reminds me of making pancakes. Have you ever noticed that no matter how many times you’ve made pancakes before, the first batch always turns out funny?  It seems like the same is true for filtering water. We finished in record time and were able to sample Zac’s experiment a little early. This made Tara and Karie happy since they are helping us measure the activity (productivity) of the bacteria, and this involves a 4 hour incubation step. The sooner we get them samples the sooner they can go to sleep!

Still, I missed lunch and working on the ice and in a cold room just a touch over freezing all day sure does build-up an appetite. At the cafeteria they were serving Beef Burgundy one of my all time favorite meals. Boeuf bourguignon it was not, but it sure was tasty, warm and completely satisfying.

Beef Burgundy dinner at the Ilisagvic college cafeteria.

After such a huge meal and long day I went back to my room planning to catch-up on computer work and to go to bed early. But at around 10:30 Zac and Steve called me to tell me that they were heading into town to hear a local band that was playing at the roller rink and did I want to join them? The band is called “The Barrow Tones.”  Now how could I pass that up? So we picked-up Adriane who also wanted to go and off we went to find the roller rink. When we arrived, we learned that the band wouldn’t start playing for another hour and that was just a little too much for us. However, we didn’t leave before hearing the band rehearse and soaking in the scene. Think heavy metal in a 1970’s disco. Instead of enduring that, we retired to Steven and Zac’s hut for Mint Milano cookies and quiet conversation. Still, it was well past 1am by the time I got to bed.

Friday April 29, 2011 – Moving Ice Camp

May 2, 2011

Today was another lab day, and although our special pipettes still hadn’t arrived we felt we had to go ahead and process our RNA samples.  During our first trip to Barrow last spring we had experimented with holding these samples until we got home before processing them. The results were not good, and so we decided that we had to process the samples as soon as possible after they were collected. We felt it was risky to even holding the samples a single extra day so we moved ahead using our back-up pipettes. But can you believe?! Exactly as Zac was finishing-up with the extractions the pipettes were delivered. The only saving grace was that both Zac and I had both missed lunch and when we unpacked the box and found the Twizzlers and peanut m&m’s that Victoria had used as packing material we were thrilled.  Thanks Vic!

While Zac was hard at work in the lab purifying RNA, I spent the morning and most of the afternoon out on the ice helping to move our ice camp. During our last trip in January we were unable to reach our primary sampling site about 1.5 miles offshore due to ice conditions and the lack of a suitable ice trail, so we had to settle for a location closer in. The water there was quite a bit shallower. Although all our measurements indicated that we still were in oceanic and well-mixed water, we can’t be certain that we can directly compare the data from that site to all the rest of the data that we are generating. So during the planning for the current trip we had decided that if we managed to get two samples from our primary site and we still had time during this trip, that we would move our camp and sample from the more inshore location.

Sampling both locations at essentially the same time will allow us to directly compare results from both the near shore and offshore locations. We’re hoping they are similar!

All has gone well, so today we began to implement our decision and moved our ice camp inshore.  With Rachel Siple, myself, and the UMIAQ crew, we headed out on the ice. Reaching our destination we drilled an exploratory hole in the ice and measured the water depth and ice thickness. We’re really looking for 10 meters of water, but our minimum is 8.  Unfortunately at the first hole we drilled we only had 7M of water so we were a bit disappointed.  From experience we knew that the bathymetry in this area is highly variable so we moved about 30 meters from the first hole and drilled another.  At this location we measured the water depth to be a little over 8 meters. Although marginal, it met our criteria.  We are still hoping to find a better site. We got back on our snow machines and moved to the other side of a very large ice ridge and drilled a third exploratory hole. Alas, the depth was even less there so we decided to go ahead and set-up camp at the second place we looked.

Setting up an ice camp.

Setting-up camp involves removing the snow from the area (lots of shoveling); positioning holes for the pump inlet and outlet (for the big tent) and a large hole to accommodate the Niskin bottle in the small tent; and documenting water depth, ice thickness, water temperature, salinity, and light attenuation.  It’s especially important that we know light attenuation since we need this information in order to set-up our incubations back in the lab and to decide at what depth to sample.

All this was pretty hard, manual labor and, to my surprise, I found myself sweating and discarding some of my layers of clothes despite the cold temperatures.

Drilling a hole in the ice.

Drilling all those holes was especially hard work and made me appreciate more than ever the support we are receiving from our UMIAQ logistics team.

While drilling one of the holes we had a visitor from a ctenophore. I sent this picture to a colleague Jenny Purcell and she identified it as Bolinopsis infundibuluma common Arctic species of ctenophore.

The Arctic ctenophore Bolinopsis infundibulum.

Jenny is a world renowned jellyfish authority from Western Washington University. Ctenophores, commonly known as comb jellies are almost all predators that feed on small zooplankton. Their most distinctive features are their “combs” which consist of cilia that they use for swimming. Interestingly, ctenophores are the largest animals that swim by means of cilia. Bolinopsis is commonly found throughout the Arctic Ocean in the upper 500 meters and subsists on small zooplankton species like copeopods. Undoubtedly this individual was enjoying eating all the organisms growing at the bottom of the ice pack and we must have disturbed his/her lunch when we drilled our hole. I say his/her because Bolinopsis is a hermaphrodite.

By about 2pm we were finished and headed back and I arrived just in time to watch Zac finish his lab work and eat Twizzlers.

For dinner Steven Baer (a Ph.D. student with Debbie Bronk) and I had planned a Shabbat dinner for everyone. We are Jewish and enjoy the ritual of Shabbat that marks the end of the week and gives us all a moment to stop and reflect on the many blessings of our lives. Steven prepared an awesome dinner of pasta primavera and hosted us all to dinner. Steven had also brought candles from home and I managed to bring a bottle of wine. Because we can’t buy wine (or any alcohol) in Barrow (at least not legally) I had to smuggle it in. In the local grocery store we found a loaf of bread that resembled a Challah. Challah is a type of bread traditionally served at festive Jewish meals.

Barrow Shabbat table.

So, with everyone in attendance we took a moment to pause our work, say a few prayers, and enjoy a fantastic meal together. It didn’t last long though since most of us had to run off to finish something or other, and to get ready for tomorrow’s sampling expedition.  But at least it was a moment.