Sweden’s Icebreaker for Petermann Gletscher 2015

Sweden’s icebreaker I/B Oden will sail for Greenland this summer to pick up about 50 scientists to work the ice, land, water, and glaciers of north-west Greenland with Petermann Gletscher as its focus. I will be working with Celine Heuze of Gothenburg University, Jari Kruetsfeldt of Stockholm Technical University, and Christina, a Swedish High School teacher. Together we are responsible to run the water sampling and ocean sensing.

We met 3 weeks ago on the ship in Landskrona, Sweden where we loaded all our boxes filled with computers, electronics, bottles, rubber hoses, and some more computers. We also met the ship’s crew and a larger group of scientists and engineers from Oregon State University in the US, Gothenburg and Stockholm Universities in Sweden, and the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat that runs the ship. For 3 days we worked, ate, slept (somewhat), and worked some more to get ourselves and our equipment unpacked and organized.

There is nothing romantic about working in an industrial area lugging boxes and stuff up and down stairs from back to front and back again. Despite all the cranes, winches, fork lifts, A-frames, and other tools, it is still back-breaking labor as much is still carried to and fro by hand while watching for heavy loads overhead, sharp corners below, and tight corners to maneuver around. Hard-hats and steel-toed boots are NOT optional. The only positive here is that shared pain brings people together to lower the pain via teamwork.

While most people seem fresh and happy, this wears off after 3 days of intense work not captured in photos. Sleep deprivation sets in as everyone tries to cram too much work into the 24 hours available. And yet, it is during these short and intense work periods, that new friendships and scientific collaborations emerge quickly even though people do not always look their best.

As an example, here is me as a zombie after about 4 nights with little sleep

As always, I try too much as I perform my duties on the water sampling and ocean sensing during the day and fight a nasty Iridium satellite communication problem  at night.  At the University of Delaware we designed, assembled, and shipped off to Sweden an air and ocean weather station to be deployed above and below the floating tongue of Petermann Gletscher. There was no time for testing as all gear to deployed on Petermann Gletscher in August had to be in Landskrona in May.

Despite the looks, I was ecstatic on the inside, because I had just solved a crucial sub-problem when an e-mail reached me that a small NASA grant was coming my way to actually pay for the science that I hope to do during this summer. This, however, is another story for another day.

Accidental Careers: Oceanography and Marine Engineering

A student at a vocational High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma asked me three questions today about my career choices as he ponders his’ in Marine Engineering

1. If you had to do anything over, related to your career or education, would you do anything differently?
2. What advice would you give to me as someone interested in pursuing a career path similar to yours?
3. How many coworkers or workers do you work with on average in your job position?

that I answered as follows

The author working at sea in 2003 or 2004. [Photo credit: Chris Linder, WHOI]

The author working at sea in 2003 or 2004. [Photo credit: Chris Linder, WHOI]

1. No.

2. Follow your passions; do what you enjoy doing; try new things; don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but learn from them; find people who share your passion and try to work with them.

3. It varies, let me add it up the people I had direct contact with the last 10 days; 2 scientists in Sweden plus 2 scientists in England, plus 2 scientists in Oregon, plus my 2 PhD students, plus 3 UDel colleagues all to prepare for two expeditions this summer to Greenland and Alaska; plus 3 UDel administrators, plus 1 undergraduate in a class, plus 5 professors on a budget committee to teach and help run the university, plus 1 person in California (fund-raising), plus 1 colleague in New York (writing papers), plus 2 engineers in Massachusetts (instrumentation), plus 1 sales manager in California (cable design), plus my wife for moral support, stress relief, and discussions … that adds up to about 26 people.

As your first question did not really count, I do add a personal comment on careers and career choices:

We all have only one past that we cannot change, but the future is always wide open with infinite new possibilities, new opportunities, and new people that all too often we cannot imagine or plan for ahead of time. For example, I grew up in a family in Germany where NOBODY on either my mom’s or my dad’s side of the family ever finished High School. As a result I had no idea what one does with High School (I wanted to become a paratrooper at 16, an anarchist at 18, a student at 20, a nurse at 21, etc.), what one does with a university degree, what one does after a PhD, etc. I always enjoyed reading, learning, and traveling, but it was unimaginable to me that this could lead to a job or career. Thirty years later I am still in awe and stunned by it. I did neither know nor touch computers until I left Germany for Britain at age 26. Now 90% of my work is writing and coding on a range of computers. Most things along my specific career path happened by chance and pluck, some bad, but mostly good. This is why item #2 above is so important. Passions and people also change over time, and so do we.

Thank you for the questions, Hunter.

Sun Set in Nares Strait, Greenland

The sun bathed the southern reaches of Nares Strait in light again after four months of total darkness of the polar night. It is still cold, about -30 degrees centigrade, but the long shadows cast by mountains, hills, and even icebergs from Humbold Glacier are a feast for my eyes:

Kane Basin with Humbold Glacier, Greenland in the east, Ellesmere Island, Canada in the west as well as Smith Sound in the south, and Kennedy Channel of Nares Strait in the north. The visible image was taken Mar.-2, 2015 at 17:30 UTC by MODIS Terra.

Kane Basin with Humbold Glacier, Greenland in the east, Ellesmere Island, Canada in the west as well as Smith Sound in the south, and Kennedy Channel of Nares Strait in the north. The visible image was taken Mar.-2, 2015 at 17:30 UTC by MODIS Terra.

The sun dipped above the southern horizon just for a few hours. The light reflected by the ice and snow of North Greenland was captured by a satellite overhead. From these data I constructed the above image with the axes in km. The frame is big enough to fit both Denmark and Massachusetts into it. The image shows the southern entrance to Nares Strait with its prominent ice arch and the “North Water” polynya in the south. You can “see” individual ice floes in this image as well as rows of sea smoke over the thin ice of the polynya that are all resolved at the 250-m pixel size. Petermann is still dark and not shown, but give it a week, and we’ll get sun there also.

I will be watching this ice arch closely, because together with a group of 50 international scientists I am scheduled to sail these icy waters aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden this summer for a multitude of experiments to take place in Petermann Fjord with data sampling of adjacent ice, ocean, and land. As a group we will try to reconstruct climate and its physical processes that impact change from tidal to glacial cycles.

Tribal Interactions and Arctic Research

Arctic field work connects people of different backgrounds, disciplines, and tribes. Last week I spent 3 days in Maine where I met with Arctic archeologists, anthropologists, and students of all ages. Susan Kaplan and Genevieve LeMoine run the Arctic Peary-McMillan Museum and do extensive field work in Labrador, Cape Sheridan atop Ellesmere Island (Canada), and northern Greenland. A class of smart sophomore asked more questions than I could answer in the morning and a diverse group of citizen did the same in the evening. I represented the “physics tribe.”

We learnt of each other after I posted an illustrated essay “Ruins of Fort Conger” that contained this image taken near Petermann Fjord in 2012

Fort Conger rebuilt 1900 by Peary

Carl Rose on the left was a seaman on our last 2012 expedition while Jonathan Poole is a marine field technician with whom I work often. They stand before a hut built by Admiral Robert Peary in 1900 on one of his early excursions to reach the North Pole. The 2012 photo bears remarkable similarity to one taken in 1909 that Genevieve LeMoine describes on her blog with title “Tides of the Arctic.”

Donald MacMillan and Jack Barnes at Fort Conger, spring 1909 [From LeMoine, 2013]

Donald MacMillan and Jack Barnes at Fort Conger, spring 1909 [From LeMoine, 2013]

It shows Donald McMillan and Jack Barnes in 1909 during a later Peary expedition. The pictures and histories are displayed at the “Glimmer of the Polar Sea” exhibition at the Bowdoin’s Peary-McMillan Arctic Museum. These huts are the closest “shelter” to Petermann Fjord about 50 miles to the east. The men visiting Fort Conger in 1909 and 2012 look towards the ocean which in 2012 looked like this

Discovery Harbor off Fort Conger, Ellesmere Island as seen from helicopter in 2012.

Discovery Harbor off Fort Conger, Ellesmere Island in 2012.

We visited the site in 2012 to recover an ocean sensor that, so we hoped, had measured tides and temperatures for 9 years earlier. For 9 long years we had no way to tell, if either sensor or data existed. Only after recovery in 2012 did we jubilantly find sensors and data. At the time we deployed this sensor in 2003 technology did not exist to get data out from the ice-covered ocean. We are trying to develop technology to change this. The non-trivial goal is to get such data out as it is collected without waiting for 9 years. That’s what my crowd-funding project is about: Develop new technologies and share all data, results, and excitement.

If funded, this project will produce results immediately as ocean temperatures (and salinities) will be transmitted to the word wide web for anyone to use as she or he sees fit. Please help and be part of the cutting edge of Arctic Oceanography: Tell your friends, tell your family, and tell your colleagues about the science, about the Arctic, about the beauty, about the climate, and about the physics of the ocean.

Heartbeat of Ocean and Air of Greenland

While cables are designed at a small company in southern California,while instruments are shipped to friends at the British Antarctic Survey in England, while instrument locations are contemplated by a small group of scientists, technicians, and graduate students, I am also on a journey back in time to check up on the heart beat of the air we breath and the oceans we sail. The Arctic heartbeat to me is the annual change from the total darkness of polar night to total sunlight of polar day. This cycle, this heartbeat takes a year. There is 24 hours of day in summer the same way that there is 24 hours of night now. Let me first show, however, where we are heading before I look at the heartbeat.

I love making maps and this is a rich and pretty one that shows North America from the top where Petermann Fjord and Glacier are (tiny blue box on left map). The colors are water depths and land elevations. The thick dotted red line is where a very large iceberg from Petermann traveled within a year to reach Newfoundland. Teresa, one of the contributors to my crowd-funding project, sailed up there to Newfoundland to see this iceberg. And she made a movie out this voyage. So, what happens up there in northern Greenland only takes a year, maybe two, to reach our more balmy shores. What happens in Greenland does NOT stay in Greenland. Vegas, Nevada this is not.


Now on to the map on the right. This is the tiny blue box made much larger. It looks like a photo, and in a way it is, but a photo taken by a satellite, well, only one “channel” of this specific satellite, the many shades of gray are mine, it is NOT the real color. The glacier is in the bottom right as the white tongue sticking out towards 81 N latitude. Red lines there are water depths of 500 and 1000m. The blue dot in the top-left is where I had to leave an ocean sensor in a shallow bay for 9 years, because we could not get there to retrieve it for 6 years. Lucky for me (well, some smart design helped), the instrument was still there, collecting and recording data that we knew nothing about for 9 long years. It took smart and hardy fishermen from Newfoundland aboard the CCGS Henry Larsen to dangle my sensor out of the icy waters. And here is the heart beat it revealed:


Top graph is ocean temperature, bottom panel is air temperature nearby. And as you go from left to right, we move forward in time starting in 2002 until the end of 2012 when the last ocean measurements were made. The red lines are a linear trend that represents local (as opposed to global) warming. Both go up which means it gets warmer, but careful, the bottom one for air is no different from a straight line with zero slope meaning no warming. It does go up, you say correctly, but if I do formal statistics, this slope is no different from zero just due to chance. The top curve for the ocean, however, is very different. It does not look different, but the same statistics tell me that the warming is NOT due to chance alone. Oh, in case you wondered, the two dashed lines in the top panel are the temperatures at which seawater freezes and forms ice for the salinity range we see and expect at this embayment. As you add salt to water, it freezes at a lower temperature. This is why we put salt on our roads in winter, it makes the water freeze less fast.

I am a doctor, so here is my conclusion: Ocean heart beat is a little irregular and the trend is not good news for the ice. Air heart beat looks normal, the trends may need watching, but I am not too worried about that just yet. Watch the oceans … that’s where the heat and the action is these days.