The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...' --Isaac Asimov
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Day 1: On the Ice

January 14th, 2014 by eric

Barrow, Alaska
January 13, 2014
-24°C (-11°F), partly cloudy, light wind

We made two trips to the ice today. The first trip was to a near site, just offshore, at about 10 am. At that hour it is still dark and we needed headlamps to work — the sun hasn’t risen here since November 18, and it won’t rise again for about a week (January 22). We were scouting for a site to repeatedly sample over the next 6 months, as the ice warms and starts to melt. We have several scientific goals revolving around exploring the diversity of life within the ice at small scales, as this diversity changes dramatically over the course of the year.

Brandon Hassett works with Rolf Gradinger on a group of fungi called Chytrids, which are parasites. In this case they are thought to be parasitic on algae, like sea ice diatoms — the chytrids suck their guts out and leave them for dead.

Kyle Dilliplaine works with Rolf Gradinger on animals called Turbellarians that you can *just barely* see with your eye.

And I’m Dr. Eric Collins — I work on bacteria and how they survive the long cold winter. If life can survive in the extreme environments found within Arctic winter sea ice, then why couldn’t they survive on other planetary bodies within our own solar system, like Europa or Enceladus? That’s what I’m aiming to find out.

The place we’ve come to — Barrow, Alaska — is a kind of mecca for Arctic research. There have been scientific explorations taking place here for over 50 years. Uniquely located at the confluence of two major Arctic seas — the Chukchi and the Beaufort — Barrow is an important base for Arctic oceanography and sea ice studies.

Barrow is located at the northern tip of Alaska, and Point Barrow is the most northern place in the United States. At a latitude of 71°, we’re still 2100 km (1300 miles) from the North Pole, but it hardly feels like it! Barrow is remote, but still only a 2 hour jet flight from Fairbanks, which makes it conveniently accessible. The town has also invested heavily in research and boasts a well-equipped laboratory (Barrow Arctic Research Center) coordinated with the National Science Foundation, and logistical coordination provided by UMIAQ, a subsidiary of the local Native Corporation, UIC.

Barrow is a small town/large village of 4,000–5,000 people, with a majority (60%) identifying as Alaskan Native, mostly Inupiat. There is a great cultural center here (Iñupiat Heritage Center) and a local college (Iḷisaġvik College). The people are enormously friendly and many live a subsistence lifestyle fishing and hunting birds, seals, caribou, wolves, polar bears, and bowhead whales.

Our closest sampling site is located several hundred meters (yards) offshore of the main scientific campus, located at NARL. We stay in huts on a campus that is shared with the college. We stage our field work out of a large heated garage called the Theater.

In the afternoon we were joined by another team from UAF who are here to set up a “mass balance” station that will autonomously measure such factors as air temperature, ice temperature, ice thickness, and ice resistivity as the ice grows and changes over the coming year. These are all important measurements to take to better understand the physical processes that drive sea ice growth. Especially because the ice system is changing so rapidly in the Arctic, we need good data to feed to models so that they can better predict the future fate of Arctic sea ice.

So after successfully testing out our ice sampling protocols (and noting down a few items we wished we had taken the first time around), we headed out again in the afternoon to find a good spot for the Mass Balance site. Though the sun never rose above the horizon, we had a couple hours of “civil twilight” in which to work, before it quickly became dark again.

While the other group was looking for a clean, flat pan of ice, we set about taking some cores. There was considerably less snow at the Mass Balance site, which could suggest thicker ice because snow insulates the “warm” ocean (-2°C, 29°F) from the “cold” atmosphere (-20 to -40°C, 0 to -40°F), and keeps the ice from freezing as rapidly.

However, despite having only 5 cm (2 in) of snow, once we started measuring the ice thickness we found that the ice was actually somewhat thinner than at the offshore Site 1, which had significantly more snow (30 cm, 12 in). One reason for this could be ‘rafting’, a situation in which two huge sheets of ice are being pushed against each other, and one of them gives way and slides above (or beneath) the other sheet. This may be caused by strong winds, and leads to a “doubling up” of the ice sheet and thus the ice thickness. It also changes the structural properties of the ice, for example when we were taking cores we always found a natural break about halfway through the core that provided evidence for a rafting event.

With our sample collection complete, we high-tailed it back to town to clean up and get ready for dinner — Fondue! Courtesy of our bona fide Swiss French comrade, Marc. Delicious. Alas, field work being what it is, after dinner we returned to the lab for another 5 hours, finally crawling into bed around 3 am after a marathon water-filtering session.

It was a good first day, I can only hope the rest of our time here goes as smoothly!

cheers from Barrow,

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