Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The End of the ICE-MITT Tour

Pretty mountains (sketchy driving though)
Thank you for joining me on this wild and crazy 2 month long expedition.  We are back at Dartmouth after 6 weeks in Barrow, AK, and a long 2-week 4,700 mile journey across Canada and the USA.  I apologize for the lack of posting during the road trip.  Excuses can include 10 hours of non-stop driving, waking up early to pack all the gear, extreme exhaustion, lack of internet, etc.  Or realistically, it was simply a bit of burn-out.  The one thing it was not though, was a lack of beautiful scenery and exciting stories as the road trip was pretty epic.  Looking back at the last two weeks, a few observations:

Starting the road trip in Fairbanks, AK went well and Fairbanks is a pretty awesome city.  University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) has a small ski park complete with jumps and rails right on campus.  There are awesome snowshoeing/cross-country ski trails all around campus.  It was daunting jumping into the truck with 3 of us and Nukka crammed into the cab about to start 4,700 miles of driving, but also exciting at the same time.

So many great ski lines
Never stay in a town called Destruction Bay.  Poor choice on our part.  Things were going very smoothly (wow... I still can't believe I was able to say that) right up until this evening in Yukon Territories.  It was pretty warm this evening and we awoke to find out that we can't keep the generators running through the night.  Although the exhaust was being piped out the back of the Uhaul, the generators still made too much heat and the back of the truck was around 90 ºF.  Although the ICE-MITTs well exceeded all expectations, it was simply a bit too challenging trying to maintain the desired temperature gradient in that climate.  Thus, we slowly began witnessing our first major uncontrolled temperature fluctuations.  Our solution was to minimize the time the generators were running and anytime we weren't on the road, we plugged into wall outlets (surprisingly easy to find at hotels despite a few interesting but minor mishaps).  We also experimented with using dry ice to cool the back, but it was simply too large of a space for the amount of dry ice we could obtain.  In the future, we need to either cut a hole for venting in the truck (Uhaul probably wouldn't be too happy) or find a refrigerated truck.  We did keep the back of the truck door partially opened and tied together with rope.  Canadians, true to their reputation of being overly friendly/helpful, continuously tried waving us down on the highway to let us know that the back was open.  The first few times I was concerned that perhaps the generators were falling out the back.  Eventually, though, it got old pretty fast and was difficult to let people know that we were not purposely ignoring their dire warnings.

Little kids pretending to be polar scientists
The Yukon is beautiful.  It was such torture though being on such a time crunch and also not having my skis.  Around every turn was a mountain more beautiful than the last.  Ellyn and I were nearly drooling the whole way picking out which ski lines we would take.  I know British Columbia is quite beautiful as well, although the section we drove through was quite flat.  Edmonton, AB was a well needed break point and our first opportunity (of many) to share our work with the general public.  We stopped at the Telus World of Science museum and setup our demo/display for people to enjoy.  It was such a blast sharing our adventures from the last 2 months and letting kids try on our Arctic clothing and play with the corer and real sea ice.

Entering the USA in North Dakota was our first sign that we indeed were making good progress.  It was fun meeting up with friends now that we passed along the way.  We also had countless incredible interactions with teachers and their classrooms as we continued the trek back to Dartmouth.  Once the Uhaul finally pulled into campus last week, I think we were all thoroughly exhausted.  Although there was some loss of the precise temperature gradient in the sea ice, we were pretty psyched to still have Arctic sea ice after such a long adventure.  The number of obstacles/challenges we overcame is simply staggering.  We turned off the generators for the final time, loaded all of the ICE-MITTs into a cold room at the med school, cleaned up our disaster we had created in the back of the Uhaul, and enjoyed a weekend off... finally.

Why did the bison cross the road?
Or so we thought...  It turns out that the cold room in the med school failed that first night and turned the cold room into a sauna, thereby melting all of our sea ice.  Although this was indeed a bit of a dagger to the heart (losing our ice at this point after overcoming so much), it is important to keep things in perspective before anyone starts sending any condolences.  As a science project, we may not have the desired results.  However, as an engineering project, the ICE-MITT tour was an incredible success.  Our invention worked!  We showed that we could maintain a temperature gradient in sea ice, even in a room temperature environment.  The proof of concept represents a major step forward for transporting sea ice for future analysis.  We had also prepared ourselves for total ICE-MITT failure by taking extra sea ice cores and shipping them isothermally with FedEx prior to leaving Barrow.  Thus, we can still perform microstructural analysis with microCT on these cores that are now safely in the Thayer cold rooms.

Sadly, this does represent the end of my 3rd (and potentially final) field season at Dartmouth.  However, the adventures and stories I've had during these 3 expeditions will remain with me forever.  Plus, knowing my interests, I'm sure I'll find my way back to one of the poles, if not both, at some point in the future.  Until then, so long.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Nukka the ICE-MUTT

Nukka the ICE-MUTT
Meet Nukka, our ice-mutt.  Long ago, shortly after coming up with the acronym ICE-MITT, we decided that we needed an ICE-MUTT now for this trip.  As much as I love dogs, I never truly thought this dream could actually become a reality since my condo by-laws don't allow dogs.  However, there is only so much joking/wishful thinking you can do with Ellyn regarding dogs before she just accepts it to be fact.  Shorty after arriving in Barrow, we found our way to the animal shelter/vet where there routinely was several strays awaiting adoption always chained outside.  It turns out that Barrow has a problem of too many dogs ending up at the shelter from abuse, abandonment, or some other reason.  After hearing this at our first (of many) stops to play with the dogs, it was already a foregone conclusion: we were going to have an ICE-MUTT and there was no way Ellyn would be stopped.  Of course there was still quite a few logistics such as getting the dog on a plane to Fairbanks, a 5,000 mile road trip in a Uhaul with a dog, who will actually adopt the dog when we get home, border patrol in both Canada and the USA, etc.  However, before I realized this was indeed happening, Ellyn had already picked out a puppy, figured out the logistics, and had her family agree to adopt a dog from Barrow.

Meeting Nukka for the 1st time
Nukka is a beautiful mix of husky, pit bull, and potentially some other breeds.  She is roughly 1 1/2 so Ellyn and I decided to split the difference of our birthdays and give her an "official" birthday of October 19, 2013.  Her full name, Nukkalaq, means "little sister" in Inupiat.  Until this week, she had never known a life outside of Barrow.  That means no mountains, trees, or many of the strange creatures we have in the lower 48.  The actual adoption day, the day we packed up and left Barrow, was a bit of an adventure.  The night before we realized that she might not be able to cross border patrol in the USA since her rabies shot was less than 30 days ago.  Ellyn woke up early, and frantically called and visited the vet to find that Nukka did indeed have shots from much earlier so we would be ok to cross.  Whew, we still have our ICE-MUTT.  3 hours later, after loading all of the ICE-MITTs into our tiny little plane, we cleared out the front seat for Nukka and her crate, and she left the snow and ice of Barrow for the first time in her life.  In Fairbanks, we transitioned to our Uhaul, and the front cab became her new home.  Of course, as it turns out neither border patrol ever ended up checking her papers.

Nukka likes to drive the Uhaul
If you have ever done a long journey in a Uhaul truck, you can begin to appreciate what a drive from Fairbanks to New Hampshire might be like for 3 adults and a medium=sized dog crammed into the front cab.  Nukka spends her days rotating from the laps of Rachel, Ellyn, and myself, often sprawling across all 3 of us at once.  Recently, Nukka has decided that she enjoys driving and has started to lean up against the steering wheel.  At first, it was only her head on my lap.  Then slowly she started plopping the majority of her body on my lap as I drove.  Next the head moved to be slightly leaning on the steering wheel.  Once she started putting the paws on as well, I had to remind her that was where my hands belong.  Today, she pushed even further and ended up honking the horn a couple of times, so we have had to set some new ground rules for driving.  Although my space has become quite cramped, driving with a dog on your lap almost makes you forget how long this trip is and truly does make the miles go by much faster.  Nukka is also a very fast learning, and already knows: sit, lay down, paw, double-high-five paw, and working on stay.  She has also learned that we humans like to have snacks for long drives, and this makes for easy stealing when crammed in the cab of a Uhaul.

Nukka sees mountains for the 1st time and doesn't know what she thinks of them
Quick status update: We just reached the United States in North Dakota.  Presented at a science museum in Edmonton yesterday, which went very well.  Still have ice cores in the truck and ICE-MITTs running.  Some issues with the back of the Uhaul getting to hot from the generators, but more on that later.

Monday, March 16, 2015

One ridiculous day of an ambitious trip

Loading the ICE-MITTs onto our plane
This is a ridiculous and ambitious project.  When I talk to my family and friends, they all think I'm crazy.  I get that.  First of all, I'm well aware that I'm not normal (nor do I aspire to be).  But beyond the personal characterization, I understand that the general public considers any work in the Arctic or Antarctica to be foreign, unusual, fascinating, and just a bit different.  One of the primary reasons for having this blog is to describe and share this incredible world with those in my life.  Add in polar bears, a true electronics engineering project in -30 degree weather, and a logistical nightmare complete with snowmobiles, trucks, chartering a plane, Uhauls, generators, a 5,000-mile trip across the country with sea ice, and I start seeing why you all are explicitly calling me crazy for this project.  However, it isn't fully until I start talking to all of the seasoned "experts" in the field and their eyes begin opening upon hearing about what we plan to do, that I truly appreciate just how ambitious of a project this is.  Every step of the way, from the natives in Barrow to the sea ice scientists to the logistics support team, they all can't quite believe we have made it this far already.  There are just so many places where things could go wrong and this project falls apart.  Remember, if the ICE-MITTs stop working for just a few hours (I'm still shocked that they are OK while unplugged for 2-3 hours), the temperature gradient is gone and the experiment is a bust.  Once we left Barrow, there is no option of simply getting a new sea ice core (although word on the street is that Massachusetts Bay had some sea ice this winter?...).

Psyched for the flight
March 12 was pegged as the day that all had to go perfect because there were just too many opportunities for failure.  After barely sleeping the night before from packing up all of our gear, we awoke and eagerly threw our belongings into the truck.  We then corralled 5 trucks and generators to transport the ICE-MITTs in 2 trips from our base to the airplane hanger.  Despite a few hiccups, we plugged the ICE-MITTs into electricity at the hanger by 11:15 am and so far, they are all still working.  Next up was to gather the last of the gear and then start loading the plane.  The guys take one look at our stuff and astonishingly ask if we do indeed need to try and fit all of it into this small little Beechcraft 1900.  Although I had gone over the measurements ahead of time with the owner and told him that we would weigh about 2,400 lbs in total, all evidence suggested otherwise in regards to fitting.  At first they tell us that the only way it can be done is if we tip the ICE-MITTs onto their side.  I've never done this before and know they aren't built to carry their weight on edge, and am thus, super reluctant to agree.  However, before I cave in (what other option do I have?), I see the pilot chucking seats out of the plane.  Right.... Next they are asking us if we do really want all 4 people and our dog to fly (Dog?? Yes, we now have an ICE-MUTT by the name Nukka.  Ellyn adopted her and there will be a whole post devoted to her later).  A few magic tricks later, I see all of our ICE-MITTs, gear, and at least 4 seats on the plane, are somehow packed in and ready to go, with only 1 ICE-MITT tipped on edge.  Time is 12:45 pm, which although only 45 minutes behind schedule, represents 45 minutes more of time where the ICE-MITTs are unplugged.

From plane to Uhaul
Our pilot Wayne is great and agrees to keep the heat off on the flight (although slightly uncomfortable, less likely for ice to melt).  After a beautiful flight over the Brooks range and seeing mountains and trees for the first time in 6 weeks, we touch down in Fairbanks, AK.  3:15 pm.  We quickly unload the ICE-MITTs from the plane and find some outlets on the runway to plug everyone back in.  Miraculously, all ICE-MITTs are still functioning, and even more impressively, the temperatures had only changed by 1-2 degrees despite being unplugged for 3.5 hours.  Next up is getting our 17-ft Uhaul and two 5-kW generators for this epic roadtrip.  All those logistics go smoothly so we return to the airport, transport the ICE-MITTs to a temporary storage facility, and head to my friend Marc's cabin to spend the evening.  (Quick side note: Ellyn realizes she had lost her cellphone, but she somehow finds it buried in a snowbank when we return and search at the runway).  Long at last, we celebrate a well earned dinner and my first opportunity to buy a beer in 6 weeks, at a delicious Thai restaurant. 

All ICE-MITTs (and Nukka the ICE-MUTT) safe in Fairbanks
After a couple of days in Fairbanks, it was sadly time to depart.  However, since the weather had welcomed us with some more -30 degree days, we were more than happy to head southwards.  The time in Fairbanks enabled us to "safely" pack our Uhaul, and rig our generators to funnel all the exhaust out the back.  We said goodbye to Natalie who flew back to Dartmouth, and the 3 of us plus Nukka piled into the small cab to begin our 5,000 mile journey home.  Although we still have quite a few miles (and likely adventures) ahead, I've got to say it is a big relief to see all 10 ICE-MITTs working while connected to 2 generators in a Uhaul, and still maintaining their desired temperatures.  Yes, this is indeed a ridiculous expedition, but that is part of what has made it so exciting and enjoyable. 
Marc hosts us at his cabin in Fairbanks for 3 nights

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Finish with a Bang

Team shot from final day on the ice
Tonight is our last night in Barrow, Alaska.  The last night of our field campaign.  In some ways it is very sad to be leaving such an incredible, majestic landscape that is so unique and foreign to anything back home.  It marks the end of my 3rd successful field season and sadly I don't have any concrete plans to head to either pole in the near future (although if anyone is looking for an extra field hand... I am always interested).  Unlike the end of most expeditions though, we are still a long ways from home.  Although we are leaving Barrow tomorrow, our epic road trip is just commencing.  This will be an adventure-filled 5,000 journey across Alaska, Canada, and the northern USA to attempt to bring our ICE-MITTs (and the sea ice inside) safely home to Dartmouth.  You can be sure to catch all of our stories and fortunes (or misfortunes) right here on this blog (internet connectivity and my non-laziness/tiredness not withstanding).

Mr. Polar Bear comes to bid us farewell
According to you, my readers, (by virtue of the number of site visits to this blog) the most interesting/exciting/awe-inspiring parts of this trip has been polar bear encounters and aurora sightings.  I whole-heartedly agree.  Thus, for our final full day here, the powers that be complied and gave us a final farewell of both.  Ellyn has a philosophy that polar bears come out when the aurora will be good.  Seeing as all 6 of our polar bear encounters have coincided with good aurora viewing evenings, she may be on to something.

Ellyn takes in the aurora on our last night
We had pretty much just finished packing when Natalie and Rachel decided to take a walk in town.  For those of you following closely, Natalie just arrived last weekend and is here only for our final week.  She was one of the students who helped come up with the original design of the ICE-MITT over 2 years ago.  Shortly after they left, Ellyn and I received a text to put on our coats.  Immediately we knew this meant a polar bear must be around so all 4 of us jumped into the truck and hit the road.  As we are driving down the road (quite slowly I might add as we were carefully scanning around to find the polar bear), we suddenly see him (or maybe her?) strut out and cross the road directly in front of us.  This prompted Rachel to ask the age-old question, "Why did the polar bear cross the road?"  At only 10 feet from our truck, this was definitely our closest encounter and easily the highlight of Natalie's week here in Barrow.

To top it off this evening (just minutes ago), Ellyn and I did one final drive to the end of the road at the northernmost point in the US.  The aurora spirits rewarded us with one final beautiful showing of dancing greens shimmering across the sky.  A beautiful reminder that the Arctic is one of the most special environments in this world.  A place I know that I will surely return at some point in my future.

Goodbye, for now, Barrow

Thursday, March 5, 2015

One week to go

The intrepid ICE-MITT team
Wow.  Where does the time go?  Ellyn and I did a radio show Tuesday night (you can listen to the podcast here: and it suddenly struck me how quickly the time has gone.  When doing work in the poles, it is well known that the best laid plans are really only suggestions/guidelines at best.  However, during the planning stages of this project, I truthfully thought that the field portion here in Barrow was going to be very relaxing and restful (at least in comparison to the crunch I had been in all fall trying to build the ICE-MITTs).  We only had 10 ICE-MITTs and wanted both spatial and temporal variability in our core collection over the 6 weeks we would be here.  We had briefly discussed collecting a few cores immediately from several different locations, perhaps a couple of cores in the middle, and then the final cores during our last few days.  If all goes smoothly (ha!), it really didn't sound like a ton of work.  I even started thinking that I could catch up on writing papers from past projects during all of the "free" time that I would have.  Well, for those of you who have closely followed all of our adventures or have spent any time in the Arctic/Antarctic yourself, no explanation is necessary to find where 5 weeks went (thin ice, misbehaving ICE-MITTs, broken ice cores, an electronics graveyards, weather, polar bear encounters, etc.). 

Installing the wire harp
Well, for those keeping score at home, we currently have 7 ICE-MITTs running and 3 ICE-MITTs empty and awaiting cores from the final week.  We have found several good coring locations for spatial variability, have kept a steady schedule for temporal variability, and without a doubt have had quite a bit of weather variability.  We have also twice cut out a 3 ft by 3 ft hole in the ice and installed a "wire harp."  We are using this to measure electrical impedance and temperature of the ice as it grows.  Yesterday, we realized for the first time that we were both ahead of schedule scientifically and had beautiful weather.  Thus, we took the opportunity to collect some "free" extra data points for our last project.  If you recall, this project involved erecting a blowing-snow catching tower.  We then analyzed the chemistry of the blowing snow to determine at what point salts such as bromide are converted into reactive gases (e.g. bromine) and participate in ozone depletion events.  When your research requires expensive field campaigns, you do not let a day (especially a beautiful -15 ºF and only 10 mph winds day) go to waste.

The snow catcher back in action
So what's next?  Immediately in our future is 1 final week of collecting 3 ice cores, packing everything up, chartering a plane to Fairbanks, and starting the epic ICE-MITT: The Tour road-trip home.  However, once we get back to Dartmouth and relax for perhaps 85 seconds, we get started on analysis before the ICE-MITTs decide they are tired and want to quit.  This involves cutting up the ice core and taking small 1" cubic samples to analyze with a micro-CT (think Cat-Scan at the hospital, except smaller and inside a cold room).  This allows us to create a virtual 3-D reconstruction of the sample showing the ice, air pockets, and brine channels.  At this point, we get to invoke all of the fun mathematics of topology to describe the network of brine channels, and analyze how transport processes are controlled by the microstructure.  If this sounds interesting to you, please let me know as we have endless hours of samples to run on the micro-CT and haven't you always wanted to put chunks of ice into a CT machine?

Micro-CT image showing brine channels of different sizes in different colors

Sunday, March 1, 2015

When Disaster (Almost) Strikes

(Part 1)
Planting a flag from a school to be visited on our trip home
Perhaps I jinxed ourselves.  I was starting to feel pretty good about our progress during this field campaign.  We had just passed the halfway point and half of our ICE-MITTs were filled.  More remarkably, they seemed to be working as desired.  I even mentioned that perhaps we could have a few days off since we wanted to space out our core collection.  Ellyn and I decided to celebrate by watching a movie and sleeping in a bit the next morning.  That morning, I hear Ellyn head out the door to drive Rachel to the office.  As I groggily consume my breakfast, I'm jolted awake as Ellyn returns a few minutes later telling me to get dressed and get out the door in 30 seconds.  Apparently, 2 of our ICE-MITTs have gone brain-dead.  We quickly get over to the Theatre (the Quonset hut we use for staging and storing the ICE-MITTs) to find that 2 ICE-MITTs do indeed have no digital display.  We frantically begin uncovering them (of course these 2 are stacked on the bottom) in the howling wind and blowing snow.  Upon opening the first ICE-MITT, we find the power supply covered in snow and thus, have a pretty good guess on what the problem is.  However, now that we have the troubled ICE-MITT indoors, the snow is melting onto the rest of the electronics.  Further, every second the ICE-MITT is unplugged, we are not cooling the core to the desired temperature and are slowly losing the critical temperature gradient (Note: once the temperature profile is lost, the structure of the ice changes and can not be recovered).  In the back of my mind, a timer starts ticking, marking how long we have before this ice core is no longer usable.  Of course, this timer is not precise as I'm not sure when during the night the ICE-MITT died.

Finding the temperature profiles still intact
If we are to save the ice cores, I see two options: A) Take the core out of the box and place into a new ICE-MITT or B) Replace the power supply, hope nothing else failed or short-circuited, and try to restart the current ICE-MITT.  I'm afraid of option A since we could damage the core during the move, are exposing it to really warm temps, and are running low on empty ICE-MITTs.  The timer in my head tells me I can only try one option, and thus, put all of my eggs in basket B.  As we open up the electronics, I also find a damaged resistor.  I quickly set up a soldering fix and play with the electronics, while Ellyn quickly cleans out any visible moisture.  We pilfer a power supply from an empty ICE-MITT, plug-in, give a quick high-five upon seeing the box now works, and start on the 2nd dead ICE-MITT.  Another frantic, but successful, repair has both boxes up and running again.  We venture back out into the storm and attempt to wrap all of the ICE-MITTs with tarps to protect against more blowing snow.  Anyone who has tried to fold a sail in a hurricane knows that this is a near impossible task.  After a very ugly, but somewhat thorough wrapping, we peek at my computer logging the temperature profiles from all the boxes.  We are relieved to see the cores are indeed ok and that the temperature profile remained intact.  The failures must have been fairly recent and the layers of insulation did their job (Note: this will also be key for the plane ride from Barrow to Fairbanks in 2 weeks).  We head in to town for a late, but well-earned lunch, and happy that our work for the day was now complete.

Or so we thought... After lunch, we return to find another ICE-MITT had gone brain-dead.  Having done this fix twice already, we quickly assumed positions and started replacing power supplies again.  However, we had now run out of extra power supplies.  This time we decide to combine two ICE-MITTs that each had only filled 1 of the 2 core slots.  This also allows us to better protect all of the remaining power supplies from future failure.  During this fix though, we realize several of the push buttons on the exterior became damaged during the exchange.  Once again we poach from empty ICE-MITTs, set-up a quick soldering station, and are able to keep everything up and running.  I'm not sure if I've ever been as happy as I was that evening finally going to bed and seeing all of the display panels still reading the desired temperature profiles.   Crisis averted.

 (Part 2)
Our ICE-MITTs battle the weather
I'm starting to sense a theme in the Arctic: wind, blowing snow, and low visibility are not your friend (despite having wished for those conditions frequently during our last project).  This week's weather has oscillated drastically from warm and calm to blowing white-out.  This morning we woke up to a calm 5-10 mph winds and warm temps.  We decided to try a new site, successfully extracted a two-part core, and even stopped for our first seal viewing during the trip home.  After getting our fill of seal photos (and convincing our bear guard not to claim his dinner), we started cross frozen Elson Lagoon to take us back.  Within minutes though, the weather turned and we found ourselves in 30+ mph winds and complete whiteout conditions.  I can barely see the snowmobile in front of me, not to mention the horizon or even the ice below me.  Having seen the forecast in the morning, I am thankful to have worn my warm clothes despite the hot start to the day.  As our guide begins stopping more frequently, I realize that this is going to be a long trip home.

Spotted seal on our trip home
Without any landmarks, the guide is forced to navigate solely based on the GPS.  Frozen fingers and battery life prevent keeping the GPS constantly out, and trying to follow a straight line in these conditions is near impossible.  I pull out my phone for a second mapping aid and for the few minutes before the battery dies, we are able to see we have drifted a bit further south than we wanted.  Luckily at that moment, the sun peeks through and we have a reliable point of reference for a brief window.  Our guide has me lead as I try to take a straight line with the sun directly to my left.  Upon reflection, plowing forwards into a complete wall of white and nothing in front of me is a pretty mesmerizing feeling (and a bit like trying to walk around outside with your eyes closed).  Although still a good ways from home, it is a relief to hit land again and know that we are off the lagoon (although in truth, there isn't much difference driving across tundra vs the lagoon).  Shortly before reaching the road however, I look back and realize our guide has disappeared into the empty whiteness.  At this point we had reached a building/structure so Rachel, Ellyn, and I gather together and can identify our location.  We radio in and after a few interesting minutes, our guide circles around the other side of the building.  We return back, psyched to warm up, and impressed to find our ICE-MITT still humming away as though in paradise.  Since our radio conversation had been heard by the rest of the staff, we are even treated to home-made cookies upon getting back to our hut.

Moral of the stories: There is no such thing as being over-prepared in the Arctic both in terms of the science and in terms of safety.  Although we have emptied much of our ICE-MITT parts reserves, I'm very happy we haven't had to tap into the safety reserves/survival gear but thankful we always have it with us.     

Monday, February 23, 2015

Halfway Point Check-in

Since we have just crossed into the second half of our field campaign here in Barrow, I thought it was a good time to summarize what has occurred so far:

- Polar bear encounters: 4
Our newest polar bear friend
- Arctic fox seen: 1
- Caribou herds seen: 1
- Lowest wind chill: -55
- Snowmobile flips: 1 (ask Ellyn)
- Fingers lost: 0- Days spent out on the sea ice: 12
- Total ice cores collected: 23
- Ice cores collected and kept with their temperature gradient in tact: 8
- Ice cores collected that have now become "test" ice cores: 9
- Ice cores collected with temperature purposely not kept (control experiment): 6
- ICE-MITTs sitting outside and working as desired (each one can hold 2 cores): 5
- ICE-MITTs sitting inside and ready to go out: 4
- ICE-MITTs sitting in the hospital and awaiting new power supply: 1
- Power supplies broken: 3
"Graveyard" for ICE-MITT parts
- ICE-MITTs repaired at some point: 4/10
- Repairs to/rewiring of ICE-MITT #4 (my least favorite box): 6
- Total ICE-MITT parts now in the graveyard:7
- Middle school classrooms visited: 2
- Community potlucks attended (complete with lots of whale to eat): 2
- Hummus containers consumed: 7
- Authentic Mexican lunches eaten (new take-out restaurant in town): 12
- Dinners at Northern Lights restaurant (our favorite of the 6 restaurants in town): 9
- Nights with beautiful aurora viewings: 5
- Aurora viewing nights that ended with polar bear encounters: 2
- Bottles of alcohol consumed: classified
- Valentines Day chocolate boxes eaten: 5 (containing roughly 96 chocolates)
- Large holes cut into the sea ice: 1
- Dogs visited at the Barrow animal shelter: 5

Ellyn playing with an ICE-MUTT
And some mid-term report card grades:
Science: A-
The ICE-MITTs work! As most of my readers know, I don't really consider myself an engineer, but am faking my way through this project as a mechanical/electrical/software engineer.  Having built the ICE-MITTs personally and having essentially no time for testing prior to shipping, I put the probability of success around 20%.  Although we have had some breaks/repairs, the ICE-MITTs more or less work as intended.  I'm still afraid to say this out loud in case I jinx them.

Wildlife: B+
Polar bear encounters have been incredible, although one was a little too close for comfort (see earlier blog post on this subject).  This grade stays in the B range though until we have more fox, caribou, or seal encounters.  Obviously, whale spottings would boost this eternally to the A range, but are unlikely since we try to avoid the open water.

Outreach: A
Our first trip to the middle school was fantastic and the kids were thoroughly engaged.  Coming up, we have 2 radio shows planned, potentially a couple more events with the Barrow schools, 6 stops along our road trip home, and lots of great blogging.

Weather: C
When we arrived, sea ice conditions were pretty poor.  There were very few regions with ice thicker than 3 ft (required for our ICE-MITTs) and even open water just 1/2 mile from shore.  However, our first week or so was quite cold and the ice started to grow.  Recently though, we have had a heat wave with temperatures getting above 0 ºF.  At first glance, this seems nice for doing work outside.  Unfortunately though, here in Barrow warm temperatures usually mean strong wind with lots of blowing snow and white-out conditions.  Thus, we aren't able to even go outside this morning.  For reference, ideal weather would be temperatures around -10 ºF, no wind, and ice about 5-6 feet thick.

Ice Core Wars

Saturday, February 21, 2015


Drums, dancing, and banging on loud box
Honor the elders. Prior to my visit, I had a general understanding that the Inuit cared for their elders in a stronger sense than most people do in the rest of the United States. However, I didn't gain a full appreciation for this until being here in person. Honoring ones elders isn't simply an expression up here; it's a constant part of the daily life. Whether it be at large gatherings, on the radio, walking around town, in a restaurant, on billboards, etc. there is constant conversation regarding the subject. For example, a radio host doesn't simply make a comment in passing. If he is discussing a controversial subject, part of the conversation is that you should seek advice from the elders. They have lived, survived, and thrived in this community for a long time and know what works well and what doesn't. Respect their ability to make decisions as they have more experiences to draw upon and seek their counseling on new topics. This doesn't mean do whatever the elders tell you, but rather ensure that they are an integral part of the conversation and allow them to lead.

Traditional dancing
We had the good fortune of being here in Barrow during the Kivgiq festival last week.  This festival (the Messenger Feast) is held in late Jan or Feb every 2-3 years, attracts people from all across the North Slope of Alaska, Canada, and even Russia for 6 days of solid dancing and feasting.  The name historically comes from the feast for the two messengers sent to travel to neighboring communities and invite them to the festival.  The main celebration was in the high school gym and featured dance troupe after dance troupe dressed in festive clothing, beating whale-skin drums, and performing traditional dances.  Performances would run all day and well into the wee hours of the night, with seemingly no concern for young kids awake until midnight.  Every community in attendance had at least one dance troupe, with seemingly everyone participating in the dances, from the young kids all the way through to the elders.  All elders were given reserved seats up front and each group would usually begin by honoring the elders up front as well as the elders in their troupe.  It was truly remarkable the reverence elders from all regions are shown.

2 caribou stews, frozen fish, whale meat
Wednesday featured the community potluck, a feast attended by several thousand people, quite impressive for a community of less than 5,000.  I had the opportunity to try several different caribou stews, frozen fish, and whale meat of many varieties (boiled, raw, frozen).  Muktuk is the most well-known way to eat whale, where you are given raw pieces of the skin and blubber.  The hardest to eat was a frozen hunk of the flipper that I personally thought needed a chainsaw to get through.  Other than the flipper, I do quite enjoy whale but think I prefer the caribou stew.  As part of the festivities, there was a large craft fair with exquisite hand-made goods including carvings, slippers, earrings, mittens, miniature boats, etc.  The grand finale of Kivgiq came to an end with a procession of all the groups amassing into an epic final series of songs.  The mayor of Barrow gave a few words and the "final" song continued on for many, many iterations.  Eventually I left close to 1:00 am when it seemed the chant for "one more song" would never end.          

Young drummer

Closing ceremony

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

At least I didn't get eaten

Mom (and maybe any other moms out there), please don't read this next story.

My new friend coming to visit
We had just had a pretty lovely evening watching the aurora at the northernmost tip of land to truly ensure total darkness (not that Barrow really has lots of light pollution). It was a perfectly clear night giving us spectacular stargazing. Having a two jet aurora flickering across the sky really made it magical. Recognizing my inability to take good photographs, I had perched myself up on top of a large snowbank while Rachel fiddled with trying to set appropriate camera settings. Before she was able to capture a good shot, someone came by and asked us to tow them out of a snow bank. Since it was quite chilly, we decided to just head back to our hut afterwards, sadly without a good aurora photo. As I lay trying to fall asleep though, the sudden urge to get at least one good aurora photo kicked me out of bed.

Perpetual sunset here in the Arctic
I haphazardly threw on my Carhartt biberalls, my big “aurora green” expedition Canada Goose park, and my -100 degree boots, all half buckled/zipped, but enough to keep me warm. I laid down on the snow right outside the hut, setup the tripod, slowed the shutter speed down to the max of 8 seconds, increased the ISO, and finally thought I was starting to pick something up in the image. Although the aurora was starting to fade, especially right next to the hut, I was starting to get a feel for what was needed. On the other side of the truck, I heard some footsteps. Strange, I thought for so late at night as I continued to adjust the camera and prepare the next photo. With my fingers freezing during the following 8 seconds, a trigger goes off in my mind, alerting me that something isn't right.

Ice sculptures (filling the spot for the bear photo)
It's 1:30 am. Our hut is the last building, with nothing but open tundra on one side and on the other, just the road followed by the expanse of sea ice. More footsteps. Rachel is definitely asleep. There's a chance that Ellyn is still awake, but she wouldn't be walking around quietly outside. There really is no reason for anyone else to be here. I grab the camera, and stumble over my excessively large clothes to get on my feet. Just on the other side of the truck, perhaps 30 feet from me, are two 8-foot tall polar bears. Suppressing my fear and trying to remain calm, I quickly scan for safe spots: the hut and the truck. Before I even have the chance to observe what type of mood the bear was in (This is not as weird as it sounds. The first thing they teach in bear safety classes is to determine if the bear looks aggressive, surprised, curious, protecting its cubs, etc. as your response will be different in each case), or consider if the bears had been stalking me for dinner as I lay quietly on the ground snapping photos, I'm already inside the truck. I had quickly determined that the hut was too dangerous as it would require me getting closer to the bears in order to reach the front door, while the truck was only a few feet from me. I start up the truck and the engine quickly scare the bears off. Although I tried following in the truck, they are quickly on the sea ice and out of sight before I can get a photo or wakeup Rachel and Ellyn. I'm quickly learning there is a very practical reason that every building in this town has an unlocked mud room.

Worth it for this photo?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Follow the Red Light

Ellyn learning how to core
Follow the red light. Don't let it get too far away. Ignore any feelings your other senses might be telling you. I keep repeating this mantra in my head as we speed along on the snowmobiles. All around me is an open expanse of flat white; it is a white-out ski day without the falling snow somehow. I have zero idea of where the horizon is and can barely even see the ground in front of me. My goggles are icing up so it is hard to know if the pure whiteness is from my surroundings or simply ice on the goggles. Probably both. My fingers are frozen and my right thumb on the throttle aches. However, I can't stop to adjust as the red light might disappear. The nice warm hood on my coat flips back and I debate the merits of using my left hand to grab the hood and hold it in place versus keeping my hand tucked away to avoid losing all feeling to the fingers. Every few seconds I'm thrown off the seat as the snowmobile jumps over another ridge of ice. In case you were wondering, sea ice is not flat at all. Without being able to see the oncoming bumps, I imagine riding a bronco must feel quite similar. Behind me, I'm pulling a huge white wooden sleigh that carries our beloved ICE-MITTs. Having built them myself, I'm pretty sure any one of these bumps will totally break all of the tiny electronics or snap one of the frozen wires. Inside of the ICE-MITT is a perfectly preserved ice core that I'm trying my hardest not to break. Having accidentally broken a few with only our hands due to weak layers in the ice, I have no idea how these bumps aren't destroying the integrity of the core. Each time, I quickly glance back to make sure the sled is still attached and the generator is still running.

Cutting the core to exact ICE-MITT length

And placing into ICE-MITT (very gently)
We take a slight turn and now the oncoming wind has found a way to the one square inch below my balaclava. Again, I know I can't stop and readjust because the red light of the snowmobile in front of me, and my ticket back to the warm hut, might disappear and I'd be left in this stranded white abyss not knowing which way to go. I'm pretty sure they would stop at some point and realize that I was gone, but I'm also fairly certain that the batteries on my radio have died. Better not to risk it. The speedometer isn't working on my snowmobile, but even if it were, I probably wouldn't be able to read it. I don't know what the windshield is at -30 degrees while driving at 40-50 mph and into a headwind, but I'm sure it doesn't classify has warm. The true miracle is that our bear guard knows exactly where he is and leads us on a direct path back to land. Or at least I think we have hit land as the snowmobiles lurch over a huge hill and the white ground below begins to have a dirty gray tint. We continue on for what seems like forever, and suddenly buildings start to appear. Before I know it, we are back at our storage facility, quickly unloading the sleigh, and plugging the ICE-MITT into wall power. I can't really believe my eyes as the end plates of the ICE-MITT continue to read the same temperatures we recorded as we pulled the core out. And I'm beat.
(Note: photos for this post are from a different day for obvious reasons)

Non-standard coring technique

Monday, February 9, 2015

Front runner for best day

Why hello Mr. Polar Bear
Ok. You can ignore the last post. It was pretty cool seeing a polar bear 500 feet away and all. However, how about 3 polar bears. 30 feet from your truck. Right after you saw the most incredible northern lights display. The evening you successfully extracted a multi-meter core while maintaining its temperature profile for the first time in science. Now that's what I call a good day (and makes me somewhat forget about all of my friends skiing knee deep powder back east).

We had all been feeling pretty tired after a long day in the field (I promise, at some point I will blog more about the science. However, the “other” stuff is just so incredible that it is momentarily taking precedence). Although it was getting pretty late, I wanted to head back to our storage area to check on the ICE-MITTs and make sure nothing had melted. As I got into the truck and started driving over, I thought I saw a flickering light overhead. I knew I was pretty tired so I tried to ignore it. Perhaps the light was just fog. The fogginess was growing though and somehow the stars behind it were still visible. Then I realized, oh damn, that's the Aurora Borealis. I quickly turned around, woke Rachel and Ellyn up, and we all drove out to the very point of Barrow and away from any light pollution.

Note: This aurora photo is from my trip in 2011
If you haven't seen the aurora before, there really is no way to describe it. It's a mystical movement of lights, usually green but occasionally other colors as well, dancing across the sky. Tonight we had long circular waves of green that transformed into green brush strokes morphing into dark green linear curtains. Every so often a wisp of pinkish red would swirl into the painting and vanish moments later. The details of the science takes away from the beauty. Very briefly though, the aurora results from electrons and protons entering our atmosphere and hitting atomic oxygen (as well as occasionally nitrogen). This results in oxygen being excited and then releasing that energy in the form of light, usually in the green spectrum, with the colors dependent upon the height of collision. All of these interactions are related to the solar wind and the magnetosphere, but essentially mean that the aurora is found in moving rings around both the north and south magnetic poles.

What yummy garbage we have here
Oh right, the polar bears. As we were driving back to the hut, we saw 6 trucks in a semi-circle with their headlights on. After wondering why they would be watching the aurora with their headlights on, I realized that they were all focused on 3 polar bears who were raiding the local whale bone dump. Locals drag the discarded whale carcass out to Point Barrow after harvesting nearly all parts of the whale, and this is naturally a favorite hang out spot for local polar bears. We sat and watched as these polar bears had a feast just 30 feet from the safety of our truck. Although I think we could have driven away fast enough, I was feeling slightly concerned every time one of the bears would try to stare down and intimidate the truck to our right. It was a very surreal man vs nature encounter that I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. The bears were quite visibly agitated by the trucks, but they were encroaching upon human dumpsters. I think the only part that truly bothered me was when the bears tried to leave, two of the trucks continued to follow them. Note that this was not the first time in my life that I have stared at an animal that would like to devour me if I were to step outside the safety of my vehicle. This also reminds me to ask how fast the snowmobiles can go before we head out onto the ice tomorrow.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Polar bears!

First polar bear sighting!
Today we saw a polar bear. In the wild. On the sea ice. How many times in your life do you get to say that? Ok, we did see him from the safety of our pickup truck and he was far enough away that I don't know if he was a he or a she (although if we were a bit closer, I'm not sure if I would have known anyways). Rachel and I had been heading into town to pick up some supplies when we heard on the radio that a polar bear had been spotted right outside the shop where we were headed. Obviously, we sped forward, spotted the bear a few hundred feet offshore, and started gawking. After 15 minutes, we realized Ellyn was not in the car (and thankfully not on the ice), but had been left back at the hut. Not wanting her to miss this opportunity, we quickly picked her up and returned to find the bear still ambling along. Mr. P. Bear was simply minding his own business, taking a leisurely stroll, or perhaps looking for some seals to eat. It was really the perfect way to encounter a polar bear. Although we have a bear guard with us at all times on the ice (don't worry mom), I still think I prefer to have the encounters while inside our truck. It only troubled us slightly to realize that Mr. Bear was walking in the exact direction of our field site which we were headed to in about an hour.

Read for my Arctic run
What was more troubling upon reflection was that our bear encounter was along the same road I had gone for a run yesterday. Now running in Barrow is hard enough without the thought of polar bears. However, I had been tasked with the mission of having perhaps the first tracks on Strava in the area and I wasn't about to let 50 below zero windshield get in my way. I stuck some toe warmers into my hiking boots, layered up with my blue puff jacket, balaclava, and goggles, and braved the elements. I had been warned by the staff here that polar bears are often spotted to the north, so it would be best to run to the south. Once I started running, the temperature and wind weren't too bad (I actually was overheating a bit). The fog and blowing snow though made it so visibility was pretty poor. Once the ice started building up on my goggles though, I could barely see the road beneath my feet or the occasional car drive by. I only went for about 3 miles, but was pretty bummed to learn that my phone decided it was done with this weather after the first 1.4. I think I might have a guess for why even the locals think I'm crazy here.

My outfit for going into the field
This day was off to a good start already. However, we then successfully extracted an ice core, maintaining it at the correct temperature, for the first time in scientific history (more on this in the next blog post). If this day couldn't get any better, we then had a delicious feast at the Japanese restaurant, where the Paradise roll was perhaps the largest roll of sushi I have ever seen. For dessert, Ellyn and I realized that we both love Ben and Jerry's mint chocolate cookie ice cream, and to our delight, the grocery store did indeed have it. To top off this great day, we were hand delivered a case of Alaskan Brewing Company's Icy Bay IPA (beer is quite a delicacy in a town where they don't sell alcohol) by the taxi driver Rachel and Ellyn had befriended in Anchorage and just happened to be on his way to Barrow. 

Best present to finish off the day