Posts Tagged ‘tundra’

Back out on the ice cap

January 24, 2012

19 Jan 2012

Well fed and rested we were ready for another day on the ice. Because of all the uncertainty surrounding the ice conditions we are all trying to make the most of the opportunities we get. Today, in addition to collecting our normal samples, the Bronk team (Stephen and Rachel) are planning to stay a bit longer to collect ice cores and Niko is going to attempt to collect samples for his methane studies. It’s a lot to do and necessitated rather intricate planning, so that we always have enough snow machines, sleds, drivers, guides, and bear guards. Everything started smoothly. We all set out about 11:00 as the dawn twilight began (still no sun, but some light) and headed north. First, we headed north over the frozen tundra and then out onto the ocean. The ice at our new location was very jumbled and rough, which made for a bit of a bumpy snow machine ride. However, the rough ride was reassuring since it meant the ice was probably quite stable. The roughness in the ice and the formation of pressure ridges is largely due to wind moving the ice around and piling it into the shore.  Eventually, with enough pressure it becomes locked in and grounded to the bottom.

Once at the site we began to set-up the camp. Since it was a new camp we had to drill new ice holes and situate the tents over them. We also set-up propane heaters in each of the tents, and unloaded all our gear. It was a cold morning but absolutely spectacular to be out on the frozen Arctic Ocean.

Marc and Victoria geared-up

Drilling an ice hole

Ice camp

Tony Kaleak

Arctic icescape

Everything was going smoothly. First, Victoria and I deployed our Manta water quality instrument to measure the water column and then the Bronk group took over. Then disaster struck! While moving one of their very heavy sample boxes Debbie’s foot slipped into the ice hole and she fell. Her hand hit the propane heater;her down coat touched the hot chimney and melted. Feathers went everywhere. Debbie screamed. It was chaos, but no one panicked. Debbie was quickly pulled to her feet and, besides a nasty burn on her hand (and the destroyed coat), she was fine.

Dr. Debbie Bronk after the fall, it could have been much worse!

We turned the heater off and, when the feathers settled, we were able to continue. But, we thought it best to get Debbie back home so that someone could look at her burn. So while Debbie was escorted back, the rest of us finished-up sampling and then followed her in.

Once back we all got busy in the lab processing the precious water samples that we had collected.

Dr. Tish Yager in her filtering zone

We all realized how lucky we all were today and grateful to be back safely. I for one slept well.

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

Too Cold To Go – January 24, 2011

January 25, 2011

Marc Frischer continues his account of the challenges of conducting research during the winter on the north coast of Alaska.

Another balmy day in Barrow, as I’m writing it is currently 46 below.

Our day started with a meeting of the full logistical support team.

Discussing ice conditions prior to cancelling Monday's trip

The main issue of discussion was how cold it was and whether it was too cold to go out on the ice.  We had entertained thoughts of setting up our ice camp (2 tents, 3 holes in the ice, generators and propane heaters) today, but by 11:00 when it was still 40 below and after much discussion, our lead ice expert and native elder Charlie Hopson declared it unsafe.

Truly I was relieved.  Besides, the weather forecast is predicting warming through the week and since most of our team hasn’t arrived yet and our first actual sampling trip isn’t until Wednesday,  I decided that we have the luxury of waiting a bit more.

Anyway, Zac and I still have plenty of setting-up to accomplish.  So, instead of a trip on the ice, we spent most of the day continuing to unpack, setting-up our three work areas, and replacing the wiring on our submersible sampling system with Artic grade electrical wire.  Turns out that regular wire easily breaks at temperatures as cold as we’re experiencing.

Zac (r) and Lance Newyear (CPS logistics) rewiring our sampling pump

Later in the afternoon a few of the logistics support team took a ride out to the site to break trail, level the surface where we’ll set up the tents , and to make sure that the site was still suitable for occupation.  The trip went smoothly except that they discovered a crack developing in the sea ice close to shore.  If the ice was to dislodge from the shore there is a chance that our camp (and us with it) could go floating away into the Arctic Ocean.  Needless to say, we are monitoring this crack very carefully.  We shouldn’t forget that just because it is covered in ice, underneath the coastal Arctic ocean is still churning and can be a very treacherous place with strong and often changing water currents.

Meanwhile, Lollie and I took a little trip of our own onto the ice covered tundra to get a clear photograph of the sun’s brief appearance.  The sun was noticeably higher on the horizon today compared to yesterday.

Sunrise, January 24

Later in the evening the next contingent of our research team arrived.  From Tish Yager’s group Tara Connelly and from the Bronk group Quinn Roberts, Rachel Sipler, and Steven Baer.  Now we’re only missing three.  After getting them settled in we called it quits for the day retreating to our rooms to catch-up on other work and getting ready for tomorrow.  Or at least that was what I was going to do until the water went out in the building that the women are staying in.  Since water is delivered by truck to that building and there was nothing to be done until the morning, we quickly gathered some buckets of water from the lab so that they could at least flush the toilet a couple of times during the night.  No showers I’m afraid.

Tomorrow morning we’ll meet again with our support team.  Hopefully we’ll be able to set-up our camp.


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 – Weather Day August 27th, 2010

August 28, 2010

Skidaway Institute professor Marc Frischer continues this daily log of his research trip to Barrow, Alaska. With him are Skidaway Inst research tech Victoria Baylor and researchers from the University of Georgia and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Hi All,

Its been a long day of waiting and finally giving-up on getting out to sample.  The wind picked-up even more and the fog has stuck around all day.  We were all set for an 8:00 am departure, again led by captain Quuniq, but we had to scratch the mission.

Although we were all disappointed and worried about completing our research, we trust the experience and common sense of our local logistical support.  So we spent the morning making good use of our time reorganizing our plans, taking care of the many details and small tasks left over from yesterday’s lab day.  The unexpected “day off” also gave us the opportunity to meet with the local logistics support staff at BASC (Barrow Arctic Science Consortium) to plan our next trip in January 2011.  This place will be completely different with our sampling site covered by ice, temperatures around -40°F, and only a few hours of light a day.  Although the weather is extreme now, just wait until January!

I also had an opportunity to meet with Glenn Sheehan, the director of BASC, to discuss future projects and to start making a dent into the pile of other work that has been piling-up.  All in all it turned out to be a pretty productive day, just not in the way I had expected it to be.

In the late afternoon we all decided to go into town to visit the Iñupiat Heritage Center and to eat dinner.

Marc at the Heritage Center

The Heritage center is a small museum dedicated to preservation, advancement, and education about Iñupiat culture.

A Bowhead Whale model at the heritage center

The museum features exhibits, largely photographs, taxidermy animals, and art objects documenting past and current Iñupiat culture.  One of the nicest aspects of the center was that they host local artists that are eager to talk to visitors about their culture and crafts.  We helped the local economy by buying a few pieces ourselves.

Marc with scrimshaw artist

I bought a scrimshaw Bowhead whale baleen personalized for my son David (don’t tell him, it’s a surprise present) and Debbie bought a few.  We also both enjoyed talking with the artists including Mr. and Mrs. Patkotak who, in addition to producing amazing ivory and baleen art, lead a successful whaling crew.

Debbie wanted to take a picture with them since she collects pictures of strong women and Mrs. Patkotak was definitely women of strong character.

Deb Bronk with local Barrow couple

We continue to be impressed with the local Iñupiat people and culture.  Despite the harsh life and climate here, they clearly enjoy their lives and are well adapted to the lifestyle.  We have a lot to learn from them.

After a bizarre trip to an incredibly tacky but not for tourists store called “La Bamba” found nestled in a local neighborhood, we found are way to dinner at the famous Brower Café.

Local Barrow neighborhood taken looking away from the La Bamba store

The café is located in a building originally built by the first international polar year expedition in 1883.  Unfortunately, the dinner wasn’t as inspiring as the history or scenery.

Research team on the beach behind the famous Brower Cafe

After dinner it was back to the station, a little more work, and off to bed.  Hopefully we’ll be able to get back to research tomorrow if the weather allows.

Until then,


Notes from the Arctic – Lab Day August 26th, 2010

August 28, 2010

Hi All,

Just finishing-up here in Barrow today.  Today was a big day of processing all the samples that we collected yesterday.  Our general strategy for this trip is to alternate between sample collection days and sample processing days.

Again we woke up to foggy skies and moderate temperatures (low 40’s), but today the wind was blowing 20-25 knots (23-29 miles per hour).  The Bronk group actually did have some field plans this morning; they were hoping to travel by boat to the mouth of the Mead River to collect humic rich water.  Their goal is to collect local humics for their experiments.  Currently they are using Nordic humics in their studies so having materials from around here would probably be a little more relevant.  However, after hemming and hawing about whether it was safe to go today, we finally decided not too.  Probably a very wise decision.  However, I was a little disappointed because I was hoping to tag along to help and sightsee.  Alas, good sense prevailed and we all stayed on shore processing samples.  Me and Victoria extracted our RNA samples leaving the DNA samples for processing at home.  Because RNA is so unstable, we have to process them as soon as possible or risk losing them to degradation so we’ve set-up a mini molecular biology laboratory here to do the job.  The Bronk group (Debbie, Quinn, and Rachel) “filtered like the wind” processing 56 samples that had incubated 24 hours.  The Yager group (Tara and Karrie), who were up most of the night last night were back at it all day processing their samples.  Despite the tedium everyone was in good humor and feeling good about the progress we’ve been making.

Football stadium

In between sampling processing I did take the opportunity to visit the brand new outdoor football stadium and what I thought was a whaling camp but turned out to be a “Duck Camp”.

Duck Camp

This is where the local hunters congregate for bird hunting.  It still looks like ice fishing camp to me.  My favorite hut is decorated with faux palm trees (remember there are no trees here in the tundra).

That’s about all for now but stay tuned for tomorrow’s report.  Hopefully it will be another day on the water.

Skidaway Institute scientists study Arctic climate change

December 1, 2009

Climate change will have profound effects on the Arctic ecosystem, and those effects may be felt around the world. Skidaway Institute of Oceanography professor Marc Frischer is launching a three-year project to examine the effects of rising temperatures in the Arctic and how those changes will impact the marine food web.

The project is funded by a $356,139 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“We know global climate change is impacting the fragile Arctic environment,” said Frischer. “Atmospheric concentrations of heat absorbing greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide are rising; the Arctic sea ice and permafrost are melting; and models are predicting significant changes in precipitation patterns in the Arctic.

“What we don’t know is how living systems will respond or adapt to those changes and how, ultimately we as humans will have to adapt to those changes.”

The work will be conducted in Point Barrow, the northernmost location in the US, at a NSF supported research station operated by the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium.

Pt. Barrow, Alaska, in winter

The landscape at Point Barrow is tundra that sits on top of as much as 1,300 feet of permanently frozen soil called “permafrost.” The concern is that with climate warming this permafrost will begin to melt and release an enormous amount of organic material into the coastal ocean.

“What you have now is have is up to 1,300 ft deep frozen soils consisting of ancient forest peat locked in the permafrost,” said Frischer. “What will happen when the permafrost starts to melt and that material, called humic acid, is released into groundwater, streams, rivers and ultimately into the ocean? That is what we want to know.”

Frischer’s focus will be on the microscopic organisms that comprise the very bottom of the Arctic Ocean food web. They include a wide variety of tiny organisms. On one end are the autotrophs, organisms that consume inorganic material and produce energy through photosynthesis, like plants. At the other end are the heterotrophs that consume organic material and obtain their energy from what they eat, like animals.

The humic acid material is rich in carbon, but lacks nitrogen, a key element that both autotrophs and heterotrophs need to make use of the carbon in the humic material. For every carbon molecule an organism uses, it will also need nitrogen.

“If you are going to grow more things, then that nitrogen has to come from somewhere,” said Frischer. “Our hypothesis is that as this humic material enters the coastal Arctic, there will be a greater demand for nitrogen at the base of the food web.”

Whoever gets that nitrogen, whether it will be the plant-like autotrophs or the animal-like heterotrophs, will determine how much organic production ends up farther up the food web in larger marine animals and eventually humans.

“This will all be set by whoever wins the war for nitrogen,” said Frischer.

Over the course of the project, Frischer and his team will travel to the Arctic several times a year. While in the Arctic, Frischer’s team will focus on making observations of the system and conducing experiments to determine what organisms are growing, which organisms are using the humic material, and determining where they are getting their nitrogen from and how they are doing it.

“We will manipulate the nutrients in the water samples and see how the different micro-organisms react,” said Frischer. “From that we should be able to project how the natural environment will react and ultimately contribute new data that help us understand and predict the biological effects of climate warming in the Arctic.”

Frischer will be working with two collaborators on the project, Patricia Yager from the University of Georgia, and Deborah Bronk from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Both Yager and Bronk received independent grants from NSF to participate in the study.