last of the lab work

Today I finished the filtering lab work, took a walk around town, and am about to go help pack things up.  The time here has gone very quickly because we’ve kept busy.

samples yesterday in the freezer, awaiting analysis

At least I got to work in a normal lab with a nice view.  The other lab work was done in the cold room at -15, which was actually colder than anything we experienced outside.  I caught a glimpse of Bonnie imaging some thin-sections of ice through the cold room window.

micro and normal pictures were taken of the ice structure

Sea ice is hardly a uniform substance.  There a brine pockets where salt concentrates, and there is porosity and even fine vertical channels that convey water through the ice.  You also tend to find green stuff growing on the bottom.

a thin section of sea ice on a light table for imaging

The thin sections of ice are a lot like thin sections of rock that geologists look at to study fine mineral structure, except that they have to be made and analyzed in a cold room before they can melt.

a view out from town

It’s another gorgeous day.  Today you can even see the mountains across the main fjord.  Some ice blew in the other day, which you can see covering the water to the right.

too many exclamation points

Each of the days we’ve been out in the field has been nicer than the last.  The weather has been nicer, and I’ve also been less tired.  I guess I finally beat the jet-lag: just in time to turn around and go home.  Tomorrow is the last day.  One more day in the lab plus packing up.

Yesterday was gorgeous here.  Who knew I needed to come to the Arctic to get my vitamin D quota for the year?  It was 37 degrees Fahrenheit yesterday in Tempelfjorden.

we shed our outer layers in the warm sunshine

When we first drove onto the ice I was a little nervous.  It had rained since our last outing, which weighed down the snow, as well as causing some melting.  The snow thickness was a little less and it was also slushy in places.  It’s better not to think about how you’re driving on a skin <70cm thick over a vast deep fjord when you’re on the snow mobile.

Don’t worry.  It wasn’t going to break or anything.  The ice is pretty amazing.  I feel very lucky to be seeing all this in person.  The weight of the snow actually pushes the ice down below the natural water line – that is, below the level that it would float too by itself, as illustrated by a slab that we cut out and then replaced in our work area.

a cut slab of ice demonstrates the buoyancy of sea ice not weighed down by snow

It seemed we had gotten better at doing our slew of measurements.  At the end of the day we had a little time to drive closer to that glacier.  Apparently it’s not that safe near the interface, but we got just close enough for a better view.  Amazing.


Finally we were back in town, had another late dinner, and walked back to the place where we’re staying.  On the way we stopped at a sun dial that Squid on the Ice wanted to see during the midnight sun.  Sadly it was too cloudy for the sun dial to cast a good shadow, but I did stop to appreciate these lovely high clouds.

Cirrus clouds lit by the midnight sun!


part of a map that’s on the wall in the hallway

Google doesn’t have great imagery here, but [update: it’s gotten better].  Point A is Longyearbyen.  Point B is approximately where we were doing field work yesterday in Tempelfjorden.  We got there via the in-land valleys.

View Larger Map

flavors of doing science

I’m glad that we got two days of rest after that last field day.  Tomorrow we go out again for the third (and last?) time, and I think I am well rested for it.  Today I spent the day in the lab filtering snow and ice samples.

operating the hand pump for sample filtering

Field work and lab work is rather different from working on computer simulations.  I’ve done both before in different flavors, but somehow I’d forgotten.  It’s definitely more of the kind of thing that most people picture when they picture science.  We are measuring things and doing experiments.  It’s nice not to sit in front of the computer all day long, and something about it feels more authentic too, since I am not immune from being influenced by our social constructions of what a scientist is.  At least we challenge the image of the scientist as old and male.  Our research party is majority women and the men are on the younger side too.

I don’t know why more people don’t cross over and engage in multiple approaches to doing science.  But every sub-field I’ve explored in the physical sciences has a rather arbitrary divide between the theory and experiment people.  When you’re out in the field you develop intuition about the complexity of the system you are studying, as well as a sense of the variability and its scales.  But you can only look at limited areas over limited times, and ultimately it’s nice to be able to generalize.  If you’re thinking about how you would model a complex system, perhaps you ask different questions in the field.  I’m not sure.

As I’ve engaged in this filtering process, I’m reminded of something my undergraduate advisor said about lab work: it doesn’t hurt to be a little bit obsessive-compulsive.  That’s very true for this work, for which we want to keep the whole process, from collecting samples to melting and filtering in the lab, obsessive-compulsively free of contamination.  Since what we are measuring is the content of light-absorbing material on the filter at the end, it wouldn’t do to introduce other materials at any stage of the process that aren’t found in the snow and ice when we got to the field site.

plume from the Longyearbyen power plant

It should also be noted that we get to the field site via snow machine.  There is exhaust and sometimes other snow machine tracks nearby, although we try to get away from the well-traveled paths.  Furthermore, we are about 40km from Longyearbyen, where a giant smoke stack in town spews pollutants and there are mining operations nearby.  Our samples are not representative of the Arctic or long-range transported pollutants.  They are, however, combined with the other measurements, part of a dataset that is useful for understanding optical processes in sea ice.  We don’t need representative ice to study how concentrations of particulate impacts how light is absorbed, reflected, and transmitted.

field day #2

For our second day out in the field, we left several hours earlier, and got back about one hour earlier.  We also got a lot more measurements done.  Another colleague from the Norwegian Polar Institute accompanied us yesterday.  We set out again on snowmobile for the same general area.  Here is a picture of that sailboat in the ice.

a local tourist destination

We started by measuring albedo and transmittance again (see “the science part” below).  Then we got down to business.

Bonnie wearing the Backpack of Science, making albedo measurements

no one warned me I'd be shoveling Arctic snow

We cleared an area around the hole in the ice that we drilled.  Thus, we could measure transmission of light through the snow+ice, and when we’d finished shoveling, through the bare ice as well.

all finished?

at least it was a gorgeous day

We also brought back some more ice cores and snow samples too.  On the way back I finally tried driving a snow mobile.  It’s kind of fun, although it is also a long drive and a bit tiring.

taking a break

reindeer: highlight of the trip back?

Scanning for bears even vigilantly, I noticed some white four legged creatures ahead beside the driving track.  Luckily, they were just reindeer.  They are kind of cute.  It makes me feel bad that they were on the menu the previous night… although not as bad as seeing whale on the menu.  Not to be culturally insensitive, but eating whales really bothers me.  Anyway, I digress.

Snow-mobile driving was great, except that the machine tried to eat my boot.  Exhaust from the motor kept my foot warm on the drive, but it was a bit warmer than I realized.  Good thing the boots were well-insulated.

melted remains of a snow boot

This one had to be pulled from the snow mobile where it had melted on.

town, lab, ect.

Here are some pictures from Friday to give you a sense of the town where we’re staying.

the main pedestrian street

The university is a big presence here.  The facilities are quite nice.

UNIS building, down the hill

hallway outside the office for visitors, which I'm using to upload blog posts

If you’re not a scientist here then you’re probably a tourist.  There is even a big fancy hotel to stay in.

the Longyearbyen Radisson

I got started doing some lab work.  Here’s the filtering set-up.  I will do more of that today on our new samples.

the lab space we are borrowing

the science part

As promised: more descriptions from field day #1.

The first thing that I helped with when we got out into the field was digging and examining a snow pit.  There were about 20cm of snow on top of the sea ice.  We created a flat wall and examined the layers.  It was a lot like when geologists look at sediments, except that the grains we are examining melt as we look at them and describe them.  We also took temperature and density profiles of the snow layers.

snow pit

A thin wind-blown layer covered another not-too-dense layer.  Below that was some snow that was metamorphosed.  Maybe it was exposed to rain.  The crystals under the magnifying lens were more developed than the round grains in the layer above.  Below that was a much denser layer that might even have seen some refreezing.  The weight of the snow pushes the sea ice below sea level.  Water seaps up and may help refreeze the lower layers of snow.  There was a good centimeter of ambiguity about where the snow ended and the sea ice slush began.

A narrow hole was bored throught the ice to measure its thickness: about 70cm.  Albedo measurements were made.  I didn’t help with that the first day out, but maybe another day.  Albedo is the fraction of incoming light that is reflected by the surface.  Lots of properties effect the albedo, including the amount of soot or other light-absorbing foreign matter in the snow or ice.

Squid on the Ice photographs segments of an ice core.

We are also estimating those concentrations.  I took snow samples from the two thicker layers of snow.  We also took an ice core that was sectioned into 10cm chunks to be melted and filtered.  Thus we should have a dataset that includes albedos, light-absorbing material concentrations, and also transmittance.

dipping the arm in the ice to measure transmittance

Transmittance is what it sounds like: you could also call it transmission.  It’s the amount of incoming light that makes it through to the water below, or whatever was neither reflected nor absorbed.  To measure transmittance we are using two different instruments to compare.  Both involve sticking an arm down through a hole in the ice.  Ours, from the UW, bends when it gets below the ice because there is buoyant floaty material wrapped around the bottom part.  Then there are instruments attached to the end that measure visual light in a few different ways.

It takes a while to get through making all of these measurements, especially the first day out, and especially when the field assistants (e.g. me) don’t know what they are doing at all.  The first day was understood to be a bit of a trial run though.  More on field day two coming!

the adventure part

(to be followed by the science part)

safety: This is for you mom.  We have a satelite phone and one of those buttons you can press in a real emergency to marshall emergency retrieval from the field.  There are flare pistols to scare away bears.  Apparently they are also startled by the snow mobiles.  We would leave the area, even abandoning expensive equipment before we would shoot a bear, but there is also a decent sized rifle.  Furthermore we are not nearly as isolated as I would have expected.

snow machines parked at the field site

Yesterday some other scientists made the trip out with us and set up right nearby to take some biology-related samples.  Groups on snow machines or dog sleds kept passing nearby throughout the day.  Who knew this was such a high-traffic area?  The child of civilization in me is kind of glad that there are other people around.  In fact, from where we set up we could see a boat that is frozen into the ice each year as a tourist attraction.  They have a restaurant and ten room hotel in there.  There are about 2000 people in the town of Longyearbyen, mostly scientists and tourists.

the other scientists just beyond our site

snow mobiles: This was my first time riding such a device.  We had only three for four people on the first day, so I was the passenger.  I’ll try out driving another day.  It’s pretty fun to ride.  You really need to hold on though.  After we’d been going for a bit I was able to relax the death grip, breath, and enjoy the scenery, confident in my grabbing on reflexes for when we went over bumps.

warm clothes: We were wearing driving suits on loan from the Norweigan Polar Institute.  They are one piece suits and very warm.  I spent ten hours outside working and commuting yesterday and I was not cold.  If you wear enough clothes it’s really not a problem.

a colleague models a snow suit while drilling an ice core

scenery: The pictures don’t capture it.  We drove up one valley, through a pass, and down another to get to the side-fiord where we worked yesterday.  Unfortunately there’s lots of snow everywhere, so you can’t see the rocks that well.  What can I say: my geologist training precedes this new polar science stuff, and I’d rather look at rocks.  They seem to be mostly sedimentary in this whole area where we are though.  There is even coal, which they mine and seem to use to power this town.  The mountains are still amazing to look at, and you get a sense of the geomorphology.  We drove through glacial carved valleys which now contain braided rivers when they are not frozen over, and dump out into fiords.  We may or may not go to another site next week which would involve traveling on an actual glacier.  But from the work site yesterday you could see the blue ice of a glacier edge further up the fiord.  Just wow.

the blue ice of the glacier that dumps into this fiord

clear evening

That same evening, around 11pm, there is a clearer view out that same window.  We got here just after the last sunset of the spring.  It is strange going to bed when it is still light out.  It is light all night, but somehow I haven’t had trouble sleeping, due to doing lots of stuff and being really tired.  For example, last night we got back from the field after 10pm.  It’s nice not to worry about driving home in the dark.  More on that field day later if I have time.  Today we are doing stuff in the lab and getting ready to go back out again tomorrow, since the weather is supposed to be good again.

the view from the window when it's clear