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.     

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