Posts Tagged ‘ocean’

Scientists use underwater robots to excite students about science

March 3, 2014

Can underwater robots catch the imagination of middle and high school students and spark an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics? Researchers and educators from the University of Georgia’s Skidaway Institute of Oceanography and Marine Extension (MAREX) think so. They are creating an education program focused on autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), also called gliders or underwater robots.

The program, “Choose Your Own Adventure,” will capitalize on Skidaway Institute’s expertise with AUVs and MAREX’s extensive history of marine education. Skidaway Institute scientist and UGA faculty member Catherine Edwards, and MAREX faculty members Mary Sweeney-Reeves and Mare Timmons will direct the one-year project.

Catherine Edwards (center) demonstrates an AUV to Mary Sweeney-Reeves (left) and Mare Timmons.

Catherine Edwards (center) demonstrates an AUV to Mary Sweeney-Reeves (left) and Mare Timmons.

The AUVs are a cutting-edge technology in marine research. The torpedo-shaped vehicles can be equipped with sensors and recorders to collect observations under all conditions. They are launched into the ocean and move through the water by adjusting their buoyancy and pitch. Because they are highly energy-efficient, gliders can remain on a mission for weeks at a time. Every four to six hours over their mission, they surface, report their data by satellite phone and receive instructions as needed.

Skidaway Institute’s AUV, nicknamed “Modena,” has been used in several recent projects, including “Gliderpalooza,” a simultaneous, cooperative launch of 13 AUVs from different institutions in 2013.

“Gliders are education-friendly, but the existing outreach activities are stale,” said Edwards. “Our program will develop the next generation of AUV outreach programs by combining cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research with educational activities and strong STEM components.”

The proposed work will highlight the problem of working with the strong tides that are characteristic of the Georgia coast. A big issue in operating gliders there is developing a guidance and navigation system that will function well in that kind of environment. The fast-moving Gulf Stream, located roughly 100 miles off the Georgia beaches, also introduces navigation problems.

“Although the AUVs have Global Positioning Systems and can be programmed to travel a set course, tidal and Gulf Stream currents can exceed the glider’s forward speed, which can take the instrument off course and keep us from collecting data where we need it,” Edwards said.

However, on the education side, the predictability of tides makes the proposed program highly intuitive and education-friendly.

“Students who grow up and live on the water already have an intuitive sense of tidal currents,” said Timmons. “Students understand why currents change during certain phases of the moon. This coastal intuition will provide a foundation for us to start an innovative, hands-on approach to STEM activities.”

Activities will depend on grade level so middle school students will have different objectives than those in high school. However, all the activities will address the direction and speed the AUV travels to a destination. The AUV direction and speed will depend on the sea state of coastal waters such as strong currents, storms or high winds.

To address the problem of strong tides, Edwards and a team of Georgia Tech graduate students, co-advised by Fumin Zhang, have developed the Glider Environmental Network Information System, called GENIoS, which optimizes a glider’s path based on data from real-time observations and ocean models. Current doctoral students Dongsik Chang and Sungjin Cho are working to upgrade the system to integrate real-time maps of surface currents measured by Skidaway Institute radar systems.

The education plan is to involve two local educators, April Meeks and Ben Wells, who teach in the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System. Since the activities are multidisciplinary, their expertise in building math curriculum will be valuable as the team integrates concepts of marine science, math and engineering into classroom activities.

“After the initial planning phase, we will be taking the program on the road to Chatham County schools,” said Sweeney-Reeves.

Activities will include student role-playing as an AUV maneuvers through a playing field of vector currents on a large game board. Successful arrival at their destination depends on how the individual pilot responds to currents, wind and density changes in route.

“The real fun will begin when obstacles, like underwater volcanoes, a giant squid or other surprises, cause the pilot to reroute the course of the AUV,” said Sweeney-Reeves.

The activities will allow students to develop analytical skills in a program that will be compliant with Next Generation Science Standards for the 21st Century in the common core state curriculum.

The funded study will include two short glider deployments. A summer 2014 deployment will be used for field-testing, software validation and developing real-world scenarios for the outreach program. A fall deployment will serve as an opportunity for classroom participants to communicate with the glider in real time.

“We hope this one-year program will serve as a springboard for future funding and continued joint outreach by Skidaway Institute and Marine Extension,” said Edwards. “We’d love to develop computer games and apps for tablets and mobile phones that let students fly gliders through even more realistic scenarios based on the measurements we collect in real time.”

The program is being funded through a joint grant from Skidaway Institute, UGA Public Service and Outreach, and the UGA President’s Venture Fund. The UGA President’s Venture Fund is intended to assist with significant funding challenges or opportunities. The fund also supports small programs and projects in amounts typically ranging from $500 to $5,000.

For additional information, contact Catherine Edwards at 912-598-2471 or; Mary Sweeney-Reeves at 912-598-2350 or; or Maryellen Timmons at 912-598-2353 or


Slash-and-burn activities source of oceanic black carbon

August 14, 2012

For years, “slash-and-burn” techniques were used to clear Brazil’s massive Atlantic Forest.  Although the large-scale burning was halted in 1973, the black carbon left behind from those forest fires is still draining into the area’s rivers and eventually into the ocean. For the first time, a team of scientists, including Aron Stubbins from the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, has studied this carbon outflow and produced estimates of the amount of black carbon being introduced to the ocean. Their study has been published in the August issue of Nature Geoscience. Stubbins was one of seven co-authors of the paper. Thorsten Dittmar from the Max Planck Research Group for Marine Geochemistry in Oldenburg, Germany, and Eduardo de Rezende from the Universidade Estadual do Norte Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil were the lead authors.

Photo Courtesy: Laboratorio de Ciencias Ambientais, Universidade Estadual do Norte Fluminense, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Humans have used fire extensively as a tool to shape the Earth’s vegetation. Brazil’s Atlantic Forest once covered 1.3 million square kilometers and was one of the largest tropical forest ecosystems on Earth. Because of the extensive burning for land-clearing, the forest has been reduced to less than ten percent of its original size.

The research team estimated that prior to 1973, the burning of the Atlantic Forest generated as much of 500 million tons of black carbon. The burned plant material initially sits on the ground or is absorbed into the soil, but eventually it is carried away by rainfall drainage into creeks, rivers, and, eventually, the ocean.

One river in the area carries 2,700 tons of dissolved black carbon to the ocean annually.

“We scaled our findings up to cover the remainder of the watershed,” said Stubbins. We estimate the former-forest contributes 50,000-70,000 tons of dissolved black carbon to the marine environment.”

What is not known is the fate of the dissolved carbon once it reaches the ocean. Black carbon is thought to be very slow to decay in the oceans. So the black carbon entering the oceans maybe accumulating as a carbon store that locks carbon away from the atmosphere for hundreds if not thousands of years. Its influence on marine life is also unknown at present.

“What is certain is that slash-and-burn will continue to ravish forests creating more black carbon in the soils left behind,” said Stubbins. “This study shows that the effects of these fires extend on the carbon cycle extend through both time and space. Although the initial impact is immediate and local, the long lasting export of black carbon spreads the impact of these fires throughout the global ocean.”

The article can be viewed at:

The Alaska adventure continues

January 24, 2012

18 Jan 2012

Given the uncertainty of the ice conditions today was an evaluation and re-strategizing day. We began with a big meeting of all the science and logistics team members. We went over the previous day’s adventures and discussed options. Obviously we have come all this way to conduct our research, but we won’t do it if it isn’t safe. Since all of our previous sampling locations are now unavailable, we are left with the option of locating another site or not sampling at all. Brower suggested that further south, because of differences in oceanographic conditions (only 1 northward current) the ice might be more stable than it is where we have been sampling in the Chuckchi sea near Point Barrow. At Point Barrow three currents converge making it a much more dynamic location oceanographically. This can lead to ice instability. Our other option is to head north where, according to Brower, the ice hasn’t moved for the past several days and therefore is probably stable. The problem with that site is that it is very shallow. We much prefer to sample deeper water since we are trying to study water column processes representative of the Arctic Coastal Ocean, and the shallow site may be heavily influenced by processes that occur in the bottom sediments.

So after the big meeting, we were again in standby mode to allow the logistic team to visit and evaluate our options. By the late afternoon it was clear that the southern deep water option was not available.  The ice was clearly unstable there too. Plus, the site was far enough away that it would have been difficult to stage an expedition and get our samples back to the lab without them freezing on the trip home.  After verifying that the Northern site was safe it was decided that that is where we’d go.

Map of Barrow region showing potential site locations

Since it was a light day and everyone was done reasonably early we all decided to go out to dinner. We went to Pepe’s North of the Border, a Barrow favorite. Pepe’s is a Mexican restaurant that has been in business for over 30 years run by the proprietor, Fran. Fran was originally from Seattle and came to the North Slope over 40 years ago as pipeline engineer. She stayed, eventually settling in Barrow, and is still active at the youthful age of 82.

ArcticNitro gang enjoying a meal at Pepe’s North of the Border, Photo Jenna Spackeen

Skidaway Institute scientist studies hydrothermal vents, undersea volcano

August 22, 2011

Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Aron Stubbins joined a research cruise this summer to study hydrothermal vents, but what his fellow scientists found was a recently erupted undersea volcano.

Aron Stubbins

The Axial Seamount is an undersea volcano located about 250 miles off the Oregon coast and is one of the most active and intensely studied seamounts in the world. What makes the event so intriguing is that Bill Chadwick, an Oregon State University geologist, and Scott Nooner, of Columbia University, had forecast the eruption five years before it happened. Their forecast, published in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, was based on a series of seafloor pressure measurements that indicated the volcano was inflating and is the first successful forecast of an undersea volcano.

The discovery of the new eruption came on July 28, when Chadwick, Nooner and their colleagues led an expedition to Axial aboard the R/V Atlantis, operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Using “Jason,” a remotely operated robotic vehicle (ROV), they discovered a new lava flow on the seafloor that was not present a year ago. The expedition was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“When eruptions like this occur, a huge amount of heat comes out of the seafloor, the chemistry of seafloor hot springs is changed, and pre-existing vent biological communities are destroyed and new ones form,” Chadwick said. “Some species are only found right after eruptions, so it is a unique opportunity to study them.”

Stubbins was on the cruise to study the dissolved organic matter being released from the hydrothermal vents in the ocean floor with Pamela Rossel from the Max Planck Institute Marine Geochemistry group in Oldenburg, Germany, and David Butterfield from the NOAA Vents program. Funding for Stubbins and Rossel was provided by the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg ( and Max Planck Institute, both in Germany.

“The material from the vents reaches over 300 degrees centigrade,” Stubbins said.

At that temperature, the heat modifies the dissolved organic matter, altering its chemistry and reactivity, and therefore, its fate in the water column.

“These ecosystems are amazing,” Stubbins continued. “They include large worms, snails, fish and shrimp that live thousands of meters below the ocean. All this life is fueled, not by the sun, but by chemicals released from the vents”

The manipulator arm of the ROV Jason prepares to sample the new lava flow that erupted in April 2011 at Axial Seamount, located off the Oregon coast. (photo courtesy of Bill Chadwick, Oregon State University; copyright Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Immediately after an eruption the whole system is in flux, continued Stubbins. Vents in the ocean floor called snow blower vents produce streams of white particles, creating a snow globe effect. These snow blowers are only short lived.

“Getting samples from these ephemeral systems provided us with a novel opportunity to gain new insight into these deep sea ecosystems” said Stubbins.

For Chadwick and Nooner the eruption was vindication for years of hard work. “The acid test in science – whether or not you understand a process in nature – is to try to predict what will happen based on your observations,” Chadwick said. “We have done this and it is extremely satisfying”

For Stubbins and Rossel, the journey of discovery is just beginning. “Nobody knows how much carbon is pumped into the ocean by these snow blowers or the other vents associated with the eruption” Stubbins said. The good fortune of sampling right after a major eruption has provided a unique opportunity to find out.

Global warming may mean big changes to marine ecosystems

July 20, 2011

As the Earth’s climate continues to warm, what kind of effects will we see in the ocean and the world in general? Seeking the answer to that broad question is one of the reasons scientists from the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography are working with an international team of scientists on an experiment in Bergen, Norway.

“There is really no doubt that our planet is changing,” said Skidaway Institute scientist Marc Frischer. “Levels of carbon dioxide are increasing, and we are seeing changes in climate. There is very little controversy about that anymore.”

According to Frischer, scientists need to investigate what those changes will mean to life in the ocean — from the tiniest bacteria up to fish and larger organisms.

“Those are the kinds of questions that are important to us humans, because we are dependent on the life in the oceans for our existence here on Earth,” added fellow Skidaway Institute scientist Jens Nejstgaard.

Frischer, Nejstgaard, Skidaway Institute research coordinator Stella Berger, and graduate student Zachary Tait are part of a team of 37 scientists who have come together from 13 countries to join their individual expertise in an effort to solve some of these very complicated questions.

Skidaway Institute mesocosm research team (l-r) Zac Tait, Jens Nejstgaard, Marc Frischer and Stella Berger

“What’s happening with climate warming is not only are we increasing temperature, we are also increasing the carbon dioxide (CO2)which has the effect of acidifying the ocean – just like a can of cola,” said Frischer. “In this experiment we are studying not just temperature or acidity individually, but their combined synergistic effects”.

What makes it so complicated to study is that there are many different organisms interacting with each other, and at the same time reacting differently to the climate change.

“So instead of just picking out a few organisms to look at in the laboratory, we have to investigate large representative pieces of the ecosystems to tell what effect the climate changes will have on the environment,” said Nejstgaard.

The experiment was conducted at a mesocosm facility of the University of Bergen. There, the scientists could enclose two and a half cubic meters of natural seawater in each of 14 tanks, recreating an ecosystem with all the biological and chemical components that exist in the natural water column. They are called mesocosms because they represent intermediate systems that are bigger than a laboratory test tube but smaller than the ocean. The researchers changed the temperature and CO2concentrations in the mesocosms, and then observed how the various parts of the ecosystem reacted.

The Bergen mesocosm facility

“Mesocosms provide the opportunity to conduct controlled experiments that are impossible to do either directly in the ocean or in the laboratory,” said Nejstgaard.

The team also added a third factor to the experiment. Gelatinous organisms are an important part of the oceanic ecosystem, but typically they are fragile and do not survive the process of pumping seawater into the mesocosm tanks. In order to more closely mimic the natural marine environment, the researchers added tiny gelatinous organisms called appendicularians as representative “jellyfish” to the tanks after they were filled.

The Bergen mesocosm facility is the longest continuously operating mesocosm facility in the world. It has run for 33 years and Nejstgaard has led international experiments there for the two last decades.

Since 2009, Nejstgaard has directed the first European coordination of mesocosm facilities, MESOAQUA (, together with Berger as a scientific coordinator. Although Nejstgaard relinquished his position in Bergen in order to join the faculty of the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography in January 2011, Berger maintains a part time position in the MESOAQUA program. Frischer and other Skidaway Institute scientists have been collaborating with the Bergen facility for more than a decade. This was their fifth experiment there.

The funding for this experiment was complicated. Both American and European scientists applied for research grants. The Europeans got their funding; the Americans did not. The funding came from the Norwegian Research Council, the Nordic Council of Ministers (NordForsk) and MESOAQUA. Luckily two of the three European grants provided some travel support for non-Europeans, making it possible for the Skidaway team to participate.

Although the team was international, the original design for the project came from a small group including Frischer, Nejstgaard and Norwegian colleagues. Their primary focus was on the effect ongoing changes would have on oceanic bacteria. Very preliminary results look good for bacteria, but not so much for the rest of the marine ecosystem.

“Our preliminary data suggests that rising acidity increases bacterial activity, which has some profound implications on how the ocean is going to change,” Frischer said. “If conditions favor the growth of more bacteria, they will benefit at the expense of other types of microscopic marine life, particularly marine algae like phytoplankton.”

Phytoplankton are a major part of the bottom of the food web. Their productivity has a direct effect on the food supply for microscopic animals (zooplankton) and all larger marine animals. On the other hand, energy that goes into the bacteria is believed to just cycle among very small organisms that are hard for the larger organisms to eat. If that is so, the global warming spell even more problems for the ocean’s already troubled fisheries.

“When you start looking at how all the little pieces are connected, those insights we gain will help us understand how our planet will change and what that will mean,” Frischer concluded. “That is what we are trying to learn and it is important to every aspect of our society.”

Since it is important to investigate the effect of environmental changes on different natural communities, the Skidaway Institute team hopes to be able to obtain funding to continue experiments in Bergen, and elsewhere, including in our own backyard.

“We hope to develop a world-class mesocosm research center at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography where we believe the potential exists for the Institute to become a leading facility for the region,” said Nejstgaard. “Such a center would contribute to future studies of the many environmental challenges that face our region.”

Wed 27 April 2011 – Lab Day

May 2, 2011

After yesterday’s first day on the ice, today was supposed to have been spent processing all the samples we collected.  However, we forgot our special set of RNA-only pipettes and are still waiting for the set that Victoria sent by Fed-X. We have a back-up set available, but we are concerned that sometime in their past they may have been used with the preservative formalin, something we really don’t want to contaminate our precious RNA samples with.  So we decided to postpone our RNA purifications in the hope that the new pipettes will be here tomorrow.

The thing about shipping stuff up here by Fed-X is that Fed-X doesn’t actually ship to Barrow, they ship to Anchorage and then transfer them to a company called Northern Air Cargo (NAC). Although NAC does get it up here, like all things in Barrow, they are not necessarily punctual. We checked at their warehouse today if the pipettes had arrived but they hadn’t.

We also tried to confirm that it was going to be ok to ship our dry liquid nitrogen containers home this time.

Liquid Nitrogen Dry Shipper. For the record it is not a shipping hazard.

It turns out that for some reason NAC lost their license to ship HAZMAT (Hazardous Materials); we don’t know why. Dry liquid nitrogen containers are not considered hazardous since the liquid nitrogen is trapped in Styrofoam and therefore cannot spill, even if the container is tipped over or even breaks. However, they do look a little suspicious and we just wanted to confirm with NAC that they could be shipped. It would be a disaster if we couldn’t get our samples home.  We need to keep our samples super cold otherwise they will be ruined.  The temperature of liquid nitrogen is -196°C (-321°F) which definitely classifies it as “super cold”.  However, the one person we needed to talk to wasn’t available so we’ll have to wait for that too.

Even though we weren’t working that hard in the lab the other groups were. The Bronk group (Debbie, Quinn, Rachel, and Steven) were in full swing and, as Deb likes to say, were “filtering like the wind.”

“Filtering Like the Wind”. Bronk group hard at work..

The basic design of their primary experiment is to incubate the water samples we retrieve from under the ice in the presence of various nutrients that have been “labeled” with a slightly heavier version of that nutrient (either nitrogen or carbon) so that that uptake or release of the nutrient can be measured on an instrument called a mass spectrometer. After a defined period of incubation, in this case 24 hours, the sample is passed through a filter and all the cells that incorporated the labeled compound of interest are captured on the filter and then can be analyzed.

Incubating water samples at ambient temperature and light conditions (Bronk lab).

From these experiments we derive uptake and release rates of various nutrients by the microorganisms we are studying. Watching the Bronk group filter is like watching a well choreographed ballet.

Meanwhile, back in our lab, after postponing our RNA purifications and fruitlessly trying to retrieve our pipettes and make sure we can send our samples home, we did manage to sample Zac’s ongoing experiment. As promised Zac wrote a few words about his project:

Hello blog readers, this is Zachary Tait. I am a masters student at Savannah State University and have been working on this Arctic project with Dr. Frischer at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography since the beginning of 2010 when I moved to Savannah from North Carolina.

Zac setting-up his experiment.

In the last year, Dr. Frischer and I have been planning my masters project and this is the first trip that it has been implemented. The focus of my experiment is to measure the effects that the melting of permafrost will have on the microbial community in the coastal Arctic Ocean. As permafrost melts in the Arctic, the organic materials locked in the soil will flow into the Arctic Ocean, possibly changing the dynamics of nutrient uptake in the food web. I have set up 8 incubations to test what effect  permafrost material has on bacterial growth and nutrient use, and am very excited to report that the experiment is going well. This last year of planning has paid off.

We are taking a total of 40 samples per day, most of which have to be filtered through a syringe filter that is wearing our hands out much more than expected. We will have extra firm handshakes when we return!

Zac filtering.

The experiment is going to run through Monday then the samples will be sent to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, University of Georgia and back to our lab on Skidaway Island. It is going to be a group effort getting all of the samples processed.  Luckily, we have generous partners willing to help.

This experiment will be repeated two more times in the summer then the winter of 2012.  Hopefully, I will be able to post some results on the blog this summer.

Extra extra, this just in on the radio, the first whale of the season has been landed.  A 29 foot Bowhead!

Samples! – January 26, 2011

January 28, 2011

Dr. Marc Frischer continues his account of his research expedition to the north coast of Alaska.

Today was the day. The weather was relatively mild (only -25 deg F); the crack seems stable; and everyone was ready to go. So, after a brief lesson in snow machine operations, we were off.

Snow machine lesson. Deb is a serious study (Instructor is UMIAQ employee Alice Drake – more about Alice later)

Because of the ice conditions we had to locate our camp a bit closer to shore and in shallower waters than we would have liked. We prefer to be in deeper water to be assured that we are sampling coastal ocean water. We would like to be about another half or ¾ mile offshore. However, being closer to shore does has some advantages. The camp is only about 2/3 miles away from our labs (as the crow flies) and 1.3 trail miles. This means that even going slow it only took us about 15 min to get to the camp.

Arriving at the camp our logistic support team quickly set-up the generators and heaters, established a bear watch

Bear watch

and then let us get to work. We quickly assessed the conditions to make some decisions about sampling. The ice is about 0.9 meters (2.95 ft) and the depth was approximately 10 meters (33 ft). For geographic geeks, the camp is located at 71° 17’ 30’’N 156° 45’ 55’’W.

I also attempted to measure some basic water quality parameters to get a sense of the structure of the water column, but alas, the instrument we were using didn’t seem to have liked being frozen during the trip out to the camp. However, even if we can’t trust the numbers, they did suggest that the water was less salty then expected and that there was a salinity gradient from the surface to the bottom. We were hoping this wouldn’t be the case, but it was one of our concerns being so close to shore. We’ll see how this affects our results. Regardless, it will be interesting and we will learn something new about the microbes in the Arctic coastal ocean during the winter.

Sampling couldn’t have gone more smoothly. Everyone worked together, the equipment performed well with the possible exception of our temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen instrument. All our preparation paid off in spades. After about 2 hours we were ready to return to the labs to start processing the water that we had collected. So with the sleds loaded up and all of us just a bit colder, we headed back. This time the sleds were much heavier so it was a bit more treacherous.

Zac managed to toss me off the back of the sled when he hit a particularly rough spot.  That in itself wouldn’t have been so bad (no damage done), but he didn’t notice that I had fallen off and he continued.  Luckily we weren’t the last ones in the convoy, and Alice Drake was kind enough to pick me up and run me back to my sled which had finally stopped when Zac eventually realized I wasn’t there.  Advice to graduate students, it is not very smart to dump your advisor on the ice and take off!

The sampling team (I’m not it the picture – someone had to take the picture)

After dinner, a huge pasta and chicken parmigiana meal at the cafeteria which really hit the spot, we spent the rest of the evening cleaning-up and documenting our days work. Tomorrow will be a day in the lab where we’ll purify RNA from some of our samples and get everything ready for the next sampling event. Hopefully on Friday.

Until then,


Notes from the Arctic – The end is near. August 30th, 2010

August 31, 2010

Hi All,

For a brief moment this morning the sun graced us with its presence and it was glorious.

Arctic summer splendor.

Today was our last day of sampling at our standard station and we made the best of it. Captain Quuniq and Nelson again took us out to our standard station and we quickly sampled and came back in to process our samples in the lab.

Sampling complete!

Compared to conditions yesterday afternoon, the ocean was a bathtub today. And, with all the kinks worked out of our equipment and protocols, we made record time processing the samples. Victoria was even able to complete our RNA purifications by dinner time.

Molecular biology on the go.

All the samples are now safely stored in liquid nitrogen and in shipping containers ready to be shipped out in the morning.

Shipping containers ready to go.

With all the sampling complete and after a quick and not very satisfying dinner of Ramen noodles, it was time to think about starting the process of cleaning and packing-up. Since our stuff is scattered all over the campus its quite a daunting task gathering everything, cleaning all of our salty equipment and packing it so that it will be organized and ready for next January.

Its nearly 2 am now and I’ve been at it since 7 so I think I have to cut this one short. Tomorrow promises to be a busy day of cleaning and packing, but the end is near and we’re all looking forward to heading home.


Notes from the Arctic – Questing for Humics August 29th, 2010

August 30, 2010

Dr. Marc Frischer continues his log of his research trip to Barrow, Alaska. Here is some background information on the research project.

Hi All,

This morning we woke up to reasonable weather, but not the beautiful calm and sunny day that was forecast.  It was still foggy and the wind was blowing, but not too bad.  The temperature was in the mid 30’s (F), but it felt much colder due to the wind.  Captain Quuniq thought that we’d better head straight for the Mead river if we were going to have a chance today of getting those humic samples we’ve been searching for and, if the weather holds, complete our third and last sampling for this trip at our standard station off of Barrow.  So we headed back to the Niksiuraq boat ramp and headed southeast to the Mead River.  Along with Captain Quuniq was his cousin Nelson who had just returned from a trip on the Mead River.  Quuniq brought him along to help out on the boat and help navigate the shallow river waters.  Of course they had another agenda as well, but more of that later.

The trip took about two hours mostly hugging the coast to stay out of the wind and waves as much as possible.  As we entered the Bay where the Mead River empties into the Beaufort Sea, we slowed down to avoid shallow hazards and to examine the water periodically for the brown tea color characteristic of high humic acid concentrations.  Humics are the remains of decaying plant materials that, just like tea leaves steeped in water, turn the water brown.  From a chemical perspective humics are carbon rich organic material that microbes should digest and re-inject them into the realm of biology.  One of the big climate change questions is what is going to happen to all the humic material that will be released as the permafrost melts?  In the western Arctic (where Alaska is) there are literally kilometers of this material in the form of ancient peats buried and currently frozen.  Their release into coastal waters will likely have profound implications for the food webs here from the microbes all the way up to whales and humans.

Alaska tundra in the summertime.

But back to the trip.  Although we could clearly see the presence of peats in the summer tundra, the water really didn’t have the brown color we were looking for in the bay or river.  Probably there was just too much fresh river water diluting the humics.  Our strategy was originally to sample at the river mouth where we hoped to find high concentrations of humics in the water, but since this wasn’t the case we decided to get off the boat and examine one of the many pools that form in the tundra.

The first place we landed we were rewarded two-fold.  First, not 10 meters from where we beached the boat, we found exactly what we were looking for.  Second, up on a small ridge were two beautiful Caribou bulls.

The caribou that got away.

So we all got off the boat, Rachel Sipler and myself carrying our water collection gear and Quuniq and Nelson with rifles and ammunition.

Quuniq and Nelson heading off to hunt caribou.

They are both passionate subsistence hunters and even though they were on the job taking care of us geeky scientists, they just couldn’t let an opportunity like this pass them by.  I suspect that they knew they would find Caribou here and were just waiting for an excuse to go hunting.  Who can blame them?   Soon we were happily collecting our tea colored water and they were stalking the Caribou.  Fortunately for the caribou, the gods weren’t with them today and they missed all their shots.  Rachel and I were pleased though, since if they had been successful we would have had to share the ride back with two huge dead caribou.  Not something we really wanted contaminating our science gear and beautiful clean humic rich water.

Rachel Sipler sampling the humic rich tundra pool water.

Humic rich water, just what we were looking for!

After we were all through we all returned to the boat and headed back towards Barrow with the hope of completing our second sampling mission.  However, once we got out of the river it became apparent that indeed as Quuniq had predicted, the wind and waves had picked-up significantly.  The trip home took over three hours and when we tried to reach our standard sampling site, it was immediately clear that it was too rough to get there safely.  Hopefully we’ll be able to get out tomorrow since that will be our last chance before needing to pack-up for our departure.

So please wish us luck again,


Notes from the Arctic – 2nd Sampling Day August 28th, 2010

August 29, 2010

Hi All,

We made it back out on the water today!  When we woke up, although it was still foggy, the wind had dropped significantly so that the station manager Lewis Brower and captain Quuniq agreed it was safe for us to go out.  We still had 3’ swells, but the chop was mostly gone.  After checking our gear, most of which was already loaded on the boat from yesterday and suiting up in our very attractive Mustang survival suits, we headed-out to the Niksraq ramp to the east of the station (past the football field and duck camp).

Debbie couldn’t join us today since she was scheduled to present a talk on climate change and ocean acidification to a local audience.  We try to make presentations each time we are here in an effort to give something back to our hosts.  Obviously I couldn’t attend the talk since I was out sampling, but I heard it went very well.  The room was packed and there were lots of questions.  Debbie said that she felt she had just been through another doctoral defense since the questions were so extensive and good.

Back to the sampling trip.  On our way out from the Niksraq launch, as we pass Point Barrow, we cross from the Beaufort Sea into the Chuckchi Sea.  Today, without all the chop, where the two oceans meet was distinctly visible with the Chuckchi looking a bit browner then the Beaufort.  Very cool!

Where two oceans meet. The Chuckchi and Beaufort seas.

We made it to our station and anchored this time.  After our first trip captain Quuniq made sure he had a suitable anchor and enough line to keep us on station.  This made our sampling much more efficient.  While we were anchoring we were visited by a small group of bearded seals, one of which, a 9 footer, gave us quite a show by jumping all the way out of the water.  Unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough with the camera.

Sampling went smoothly and even more efficiently then our first day.

Collecting samples

It seems that practice does help.  It only took us 1.5 hours from the time we reached our station until the time we left and it felt much easier.  We were really working as a team anticipating each others needs and helping each other out as needed.

Once back to shore we quickly got to work setting up our experiments and processing samples.  For Victoria and me, that means filtering a lot of water.

Victoria filtering water samples

We all finished-up by 7:00 pm and decided to go out to dinner for Chinese food at a local restaurant called Northern Lights and, with the possible exception of a somewhat surly waitress, it was a very good dinner.  Better then last night for sure.  While at dinner we were able to discuss our plans for tomorrow.  Because we are a day off our planned schedule we decided to attempt to do an abbreviated sampling tomorrow and make a trip to the Mead River to collect those humics we’ve been looking for.  The weather forecast predicts favorable conditions with the winds continuing to lessen.  If all goes well we will be able to collect our final samples for this trip and find the humics we need for our next trip in January.

Wish us luck,