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Men and Women on Edge 2

Bruce Chatwin came up during a late-night party aboard FS Polarstern this morning after all work and packing was completed this last day of a 4 week expedition to Fram Strait, a deep connection of the Arctic to the North-Atlantic Oceans between Greenland and Spitsbergen. I admire Bruce Chatwin for his keen eye that saw unusual patterns among people and places and the gently way that he puts it all into fine prose. “Patagonia” was perhaps his most-read book of small stories set within a grand landscape sparsely populated, but “Songlines” is his master-piece where he traces the way ancient mariners of the Australian interior bush and desert found their way home.

Bruce Chatwin never made it to the Arctic with its endless horizons of ice, snow, fog, and water. If he had made it, he would have found and described a strange group of people who work and live here on borrowed time. His spiritual daughter, Sara Wheeler, did make it to the Antarctic where she lived for seven months as a writer-in-residence supported by the US National Science Foundation. She lovingly describes scientists, technicians, cooks, and pilots with deep insights and detail. I often felt as if I had met her characters in different incarnations on ships and in camps of the past and present. I recommend Sara Wheeler’s “Terra Incognita” to anyone who has or will spent real time aboard research ships or in science camps. You will find every one of those weird mates whom Sara describes for you on your ship and camp. It is a book full of laughter and forgetting. No, no, Milan Kundera does not fit here.

We are all sailors on the edge of the civilized world on FS Polarstern, myself included. We are a diverse and potentially volatile mix of skills, languages, countries as we come together for a short moment to work together. We are considered weird, strange, and at times even socially unacceptable as we all push limits of both science and culture. This can be dangerous, but excesses are buffered when women wield power besides men. Closed societies such as ships or people stranded in strange places are more stable with women than they are without them. The Donner Party of 1846/47 serves as an example, there are others.

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And Sara pokes gentle fun of closed male-dominated societies that often are also rigid, autocratic, and absurdly out of date. Reporting from FS Polarstern in 2014, I can say, that change for the better is on the way, but areas exist where improvements can be made. Change takes time, sometimes a generation. Germany is a country in transition the same way that most dynamic and democratic countries are. The large presence of foreigners on FS Polarstern moderates, modernizes, and modifies otherwise stagnant views and perspectives. German scientists study abroad and intermarry with “foreigners” in increasing numbers. This mixture of people of diverse countries, cultures, and continents bears much hope for the future. It was very exciting for me to see those changes 20-30 years after I emigrated from Germany to the United States of America.

Thank you, Germany, for giving me this opportunity to work, observe, and be part of a great expedition to Greenland.

EDIT: Original post was too long and rambling. On advice by wise female council, I decided to turn this into two separate posts. This is the second. July 5, 2014.

Of Moorings, Elephants, Norwegians, and Codswallop

The oceans are cruel, unforgiving, and destructive. Microbes, algae, plankton, fish, and whales all evolved slowly to make the seas their home. We men and women of science and technology race to catch-up with our steel, our sensors, our computers, our hope, and our wishful thinking. We place ourselves on powerful ships to lower fancy rigs into the water that poke the deep and icy Sea to reveal her secrets. We often wait a year or two or three to pick up our litter of machinery hoping that the sealed battery, electronics, and computer containers are still there with added data. There are thousands of small things that all must go just right to be successful, but one only needs one failure, one oversight, one faulty wire, one scratch or one hair on a rubbery seal, or one wrong letter in a deployment command code and the entire enterprise is doomed to fail. Sisyphus of the Greek tragedies come to mind as does Captain Ahab and his insane quest to control nature. We need time to evolve.

Less than 100 years ago Harald Sverdrup was the first to deploy a machine in the Arctic Ocean off Siberia to measure ocean currents. He used these data to write about tides, forces, and balances to make predictions on how wind and ice drive ocean currents and vice versa. This was many years before he transformed ocean-research to ocean-going research as director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California during the Second World War. As a “Resident Alien” from Norway he helped the Americans win the war by organizing scientists into skilled ocean-going groups to better predict waves, weather, and acoustics. Revolutionary measurements and advances were made with minimal bureaucratic overhead and results were used immediately to land troops on African and European beaches, to send planes with bombs to raid on Germany and Japan, to equip destroyers with sonar to hunt and sink submarines. After the war Sverdrup returned to his home country to direct the Norwegian Polar Institute with a deep sense of duty to help rebuild a Norway devastated by war and occupation. The basic design of his current-measuring device still exists today, made by Aanderaa. This Norwegian company has a stellar reputation for simple yet robust design that transitioned into the computer age.

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It is very easy to deploy ocean moorings by slipping them gently into the water. In contrast, it is not so easy to get the sensor package back years later, because they have to respond to commands sent via remote control, a metal rod has to turn a motor to release a set of buoy and floats from iron anchors, the buoy has to raise everything to the surface, the sensors and the water-sealed computers driving them must be hauled onto the ship with ice, fog, or waves all complicating matters, and finally, there must be working connection to the data storage unit that must have operated correctly. Each step appears simple enough, but the long drawn-out sequence of many such steps, each critical, makes this such a risky and tricky business. Corrosion of metals in seawater, too, attacks any unprotected surface, hence many sacrificial pieces of metals are placed on any mooring with metal components. The pin to a shackle rusting away can endanger an entire mooring line. It boggles my mind that anything ever comes back, as often it does because of people like this one:

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Olaf S., Benjamin R., and Agnieszka B. successfully recovered two moorings yesterday that were placed in 2012 in water more than a mile deep. It speaks to their skill and that of the crew they are with both now and 2 years ago. It was a good day’s work without much time to sit down for meals, Olaf told me on deck where he was in the weather all day. Ben made the fateful decision the day before not to release the moorings for much fog and ice would have endangered the mooring once at the surface, but he was there the following day at 4:30 am to decide on the release that was successful. Those are hard calls to make. There are 9 more such moorings that need to come back and one that will require lots of additional attention: The day prior we had sailed through fog and ice all day only to find one mooring collapsed into a messy pile of rope, imploded buoys, metal, and sensors about 8000 feet (2600 meters) below the surface. The cause for this failure is not known, but speculation is, that a 30’’ steel float got crushed when an iceberg or some other failure depressed the float below its breaking point. It was a frustrating day, but a little less fog, a little less ice the following day, and Ben, Olaf, and Agnieszka led several successful recoveries yesterday. It was also the last day of our expedition.

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We still have a long way to go in our attempts to describe or understand the oceans to better predict how it impacts present and future climate. I compare this task to three blind men poking an elephant: One near the back notices a bushy tail that appears to correlate with a smelly source of gas, the second gets under a foot, describes a very hard woody surface that subsequently crushes him, while the third in front notices a rubbery pipe that wiggles like a snake. Their individual descriptions are costly, accurate, incomplete, and misleading. I often wonder, if our physical descriptions of the ocean do not have similar qualities, never mind more complex areas that involve living things such as elephants. Codswallop!

Posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow

Day-3: Working on Ocean Physics, Chemistry, and Biology

Position: 65:36’N and 00:23’W
Time: June-9, 23:33
Temperature: 9.6 C Air and 9.8 C Water

More than 5 different groups finished moving and unpacking the content of
15 or more containers filled to the brim with gear that was packed months
ago. My gear shipped from British Columbia, Canada and its 7500 pounds of
stuff filled a little over one container. The ship is large and spacious,
but moving boxes filled with scientific instruments, supplies, and tools
into labs, work spaces, and decks creates friction. All 52 scientists
aboard waited for weeks, months, or years to do this work and we only got
the next 3 weeks to do it all. Everyone was anxious to get the stuff out
of boxes to start the experiments. It always amazes me, how quickly and
smoothly this initial “friction” is overcome by the social grease of
meals, by the excitement of science, and by the many new men and women one
meets aboard a large research ship.

Everyone was a little out of their comfort zone for the first day or two,
but now we have all settled into new routines: Dry and wet labs are filled
with reagents, equipment is connect to computers, and the first data have
been collected over night. It was funny to see this happen as if someone
had flipped a switch: Walking down a broad  walkway inside the ship, I saw
Cathrine L. from Canada fix a sediment trap, Janine S. connect wires to a
water sampling device, Ulrike B. huddle over a control unit of a device to
penetrate the bottom with glass sensors, Katrin L. and Agniezka B. prepare
ARGO floats, and Jonathan P. connect metal pieces to built a mooring.

It took me almost 24 hours to finish this blog as scientific work and fun
social interactions aboard take up almost all waking hours of which there
are only about 18, so, current information:

Position: 68:50’N and 01:07’W
Time: June-10, 21:27
Temperature: 8.5 C Air and 8.5 C Water

 

Posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow

First Day at Sea: Moving In

Position: 57 34.9 N and 05 10.9E
Time: 11:25pm June-7, 2014
Temperature: 14.3 C air and 12.8 C water at surface

 

We are a few miles south-west of Stavanger, Norway passing through the rich oil fields of the North Sea between Scotland, Denmark, and Norway without any rig in sight. The sun has long set, but it still lingers just below the horizon painting the sky in vivid reds. Four young scientists huddle on an upper deck with clear view of this sky with blankets around their bodies for warmth that, so they tell me, they used to sit and watch for several hours of sunset. They are giddy and silly in witty jokes, gently teasing each other. It is the end of our long and strenuous first day at sea.

 

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The first day at sea is always rough both physically and mentally: Lots of boxes with gear must be found, moved, emptied, and its content moved again. Space to work is set-up in unfamiliar environs. There are many people one does not know, but one depends on each other for help and support. People come from different cultures and countries with different ways to talk to each other to get things done. Some do not talk at all. And yet, through some mysterious magic, it all works out in the end. People are naturally curious and watch how others do things by visiting each others empty rooms become living and work quarters.

 

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People from different scientific disciplines have evolved along different lines and their way to do things differs, even a task as simple as moving boxes: Some like to stack many of them on palettes that are then moved by fork-lift, others prefer smaller carts that contain a single box only. Routines that give us comfort in daily life do not exist yet. Emotions swing wildly as there is way too much excitement. All the manual labor is done with high hopes of potential successes that may or may not bear fruit. Arctic ice can and likely will be cruel to some and blissful to others. Pleasures can be as small as a successful lift of an expensive piece of equipment moved vertically by crane from the F-deck to the A-deck far above. The crane had to swing over the water and did so, of course, without falling in. The scientist responsible had never seen such a thing and marveled exuberantly that her vertically profiling laser system is still there for her to do the science she is here to do for her PhD thesis work. I was one lucky guy receiving the news in the form of a massive verbal bear hug while grabbing myself a cup of tea. Fun.

 

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Hard to imagine that the pilot helping steer us out of the port of Bremerhaven left us only yesterday, the beginning of the first day now over. So much has happens aboard a ship, but I have to stop here as it is now 1am Sunday which is a regular working day.

 

Position: 57 49.9 N and 04 56.4 E
Time: 01:02 on June-8, 2014
Temperature: 14.2 C air and 13.2 C surface water

 

Posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow

 

Simple Design, Intense Content

Saturday, 4:30pm, no breakfast, no lunch, but lots of reading, thinking, and dreaming on how to draw that perfect plot. How can I convey data and science from Greenland Continue reading