Tag Archives: Arctic Ocean

American Adventures Abroad: The Four Germanies

I am American and damn proud of it. I was born in Germany, left almost 30 years ago, and, like a plant from another ecosystem, I am exposed to the new Germany for the first time. I know the difficult histories of both West and East Germany that since 1989 are one united country. The 100 people aboard the research icebreaker R/V Polarstern perhaps represent this new country well. Most crew and scientists were born and raised in either East or West Germany, extinct countries which each had a range of characters to form a distinct and diverse German fabric:

The first person I met when boarding the ship in dry dock was X. After introducing myself as an American scientist to sail the FS Polarstern in stilted if decent German, he revealed to me that he volunteered in the NVA, the soviet-style Nationale Volks-Armee for more than 10 years. Like many low-level Nazis a generation or two before him, he argues that not all was bad in the regime that he served. While this may be true, it strikes me odd, that this is the first things one reveals of oneself and a regime that created walls and killing zones to prevent its own citizens from leaving. Suspecting an uneasy history of guilt, I did not argue despite strong feelings to present different perspectives. Hence his next move is to state that American activities in Europe, Asia, South-America, Middle East, and Africa are the root source of all the problems in these regions. Again, not taking the bait, I listen, ask gentle probing questions to expose more detail, however, not much follows after the first rant that, perhaps, reflects a general feeling more than fact. I heart variations of this theme often in Germany both at sea and on land.

Our nurse and stewardess Kerstin also hails from the former East-Germany where she grew up the same time that I did in West-Germany, but unlike X., she embraces life as it presents itself without resentment, regret, or judgment. She signed on for a year working aboard Polarstern for a sense of adventure and to see the world in a different way. She is naturally curious on all things that relate to people, science, and life. She has little interest in politics, ideologies, and theories on how the world works, but she uses her own mind, experiences, and stories to make everyone around her laugh often. People like her should run the world.

The second Mate, Felix, was in charge when I boarded the ship. He is probably in his early 30ies and gave me the first tour of the ship in dry dock, a task that revealed a deep pride in the ship, its capabilities, and all it represents in a forward-looking modern Germany. He has clearly sailed to many ports and dealt successfully with people of different countries, cultures, and educations. Despite cursing and cussing of an ol’ salt, he is a hard-working, no-nonsense guy who gets things done efficiently. He also smokes like a chimney and likes to drive the ship while breaking sea ice. He did this often and smartly throughout the expedition.

A wonderful surprise to me aboard this ship is the large number of foreigners. There are three Danes aboard one of whom hails from New Zealand; two Canadians, two Belgians, and two Englishmen are aboard; while Brazil, China, Netherlands, Poland and the USA are each represented by one scientist. The two Canadians may as well come from two different countries, as one hails from English-speaking British Columbia and the other from French-speaking Montreal. Catherine’s Quebecoise language and perspectives are the most beautiful of all on this diverse ship. I could listen to her for hours …

Then there is a fourth group aboard who are perhaps the largest: They are the very young Germans who were born after the collapse of the communist empires in the East and they will become the new Germany. It is a foreign country to me, one I like from the distance, and it is a very young country with much potential to make a positive impact in the world.

Science party aboard R/V Polarstern after 4 weeks at sea in July 2014.

Science party aboard R/V Polarstern after 4 weeks at sea in July 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.


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:


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.


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

Deep Sea Biology and Chemistry: Muddy Business

Mud, mud, and more muddy mud was hauled from the bottom of the ocean for
the last five days from depths of one, two, and even three miles below the
icy surface. The biologists aboard are having a field day with mud and all
life forms that relate to mud. The mud is on their faces, mud is on their
pants, mud is on sampling dishes, there is mud in the air, mud in the
hair. People on this ship poke, grab, extract, label, profile, and film
mud. There are people filling vials with mud, people sucking water from
the mud, people running mud through fancy coffee filters, people preparing
mud with chemicals for later analyses.

The fascination with mud, mine included, makes me wonder if perhaps there
is something to the many creation stories that we all evolved out of the
mud. Perhaps what is done here and elsewhere is to decoding mud in search
of life and how life works deep down. The clean and un-muddied people are
shallow water physical oceanographers like myself who barely touch water,
never mind mud; but I got a beer cap of mud from 3 miles down sitting on
my computer as I type these lines.

It was not always like this for me: I grew up a few miles behind the dikes
of Germany’s West Coast. No promising sunny California with its rocky
inter-tidal, but endless tidal mud-flats extending to the horizon on a low
tide. We had battles with mud as kids when the tide was out and were
hosed down a few hours later by the incoming tide. Water waist-deep, we
then dove into the ground, head-first to feel the gentle impact of the
soft mud half a foot thick. Fun, children playing with mud. It was fun
because it was both dirty and smelly business.

Strangely, though, the mud that many biologists aboard are excited about
does not smell … but let me double check by asking Ulrike B., if she lets
me smell some of her mud that she just captured with a massive contraption
that she had moored about a mile deep for 36 hours collecting mud in
containers and sampling it with fine glass electrodes to measure microbial
activity. Microbes are tiny critters neither plant nor animal, a little
like the bacteria that give you the sniffles, and they are everywhere
doing lots of funny chemistry in our stomachs, throats, as well as the
bottom of the ocean.

The mud aboard does not smell, not even a tiny bit. Ulrike B., who is from
Belgium and who knows the mud-flats of the North Sea well, just told me:
“I had to smell the mud at first, too, it is none of that stinky mud we
got in the North Sea.” Wondering why, I was told quickly, “… lots of
oxygen …” as she handled 3 samples sorting and preserving them. Ian S., a
British chemical oceanographer without an urgent task at hand explained in
more detail the difference between smelly estuarine and deep sea mud:
“Most of dead matter sinks from the surface to the deep sea where bacteria
help decompose it by uses dissolved oxygen in the water-column. Hence
there usually is enough oxygen in surface sediments for bacteria to deal
with the small amounts of organic matter that arrive.  In shallow waters
more organic matter arrives, at the bottom, bacteria use it up quickly and
then switch to other forms of oxygen that often releases sulphur
compounds, giving shallow sediments a strong smell.

There was also something about receptors that made me think of oxidation
potentials, but I had my answer, I felt.


So, in summary, the North Sea mud smells, because there is so much life in
it. And as this life dies, it starts a new cycle that uses up the oxygen
in the mud. The fancy word for life is “organic matter” as it refers to
plants and animals. These plants and animals also fix carbon, the stuff
that we burn in our cars that makes our globe a little warmer each year on
average. When these carbon-based life forms die and sink to bottom of the
ocean, they decay almost the same way on the bottom of the ocean as a
banana peel is rotting away on my compost pile at home.

The process of “rotting” uses up oxygen. There is plenty in the air, but
not always on the ocean floor, except the deep ocean, few rotten bananas
here. Microbes probably help to eat up the dead stuff using oxygen and
making nutrients that then becomes food stuff for living things. Better
have a biologist proof-read this, as this stuff is not my cup of tea.
Physics and mathematics are so much easier to deal with than this fuzzy
thing called life and its many competing and co-operating cycles

Posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow

Wild Women Working Science Aboard Polarstern

My wife of 20 years teaches at Padua Academy, a private catholic High
School for girls only. It mostly serves families where the girls will
become the first in their families to go on to college. I am thinking of
them right now, as  an hour ago there was a flurry of activity on the deck
of FS Polarstern after 2 days of endless grinding and breaking ice. And it
was predominantly women of all ages who were leading, directing, and doing
science. Some even carried a gun to protect themselves against polar bears
as they went for an excursion onto an ice floe nearby.

There is Ilka P. who studies ice, plants, and tiny animals who live below
the ice. She is also the gun safety officer for the science crew. Her
research group includes Bibi Z. from Denmark and Ulrike D. from
Germany, both graduate students. All three fly helicopter to get to the
ice often, but tonight they went out on a zodiac to take their snow and
ice samples in wet-suits. Bibi’s job is to analyze the ice for the life that
uses what little light gets through snow and ice allows there to be. When not
flying helicopters, riding zodiacs, or hiking on ice floes, she usually
works in a refrigerated container far below decks in a thick parka, so she
is rarely seen.

This is very different from both Ilka P. and Ulrike D. When not guarding others from polar bears on the ice, I see Ilka often next to me in a dry lab with lots of computers, screens, winch controls etc. She analyzes small samples of melted ice for algea with a very high-tech machine that I do not fully understand, but it works much the same way that blood samples are analyzed in a crime lab. Ulrike’s work is much easier to understand as she cheerfully explained to me that she is baking microbes in something like a pressure cooker to clean the containers used to store the microbes living near the ice. She always walked past our mooring assembly line below decks and made as much
noise with her pressure cooker as I did when testing my acoustic releases. At first I believed that she was the first to jump out of the zodiac onto the ice flow to help others along, when it actually was Ilka.

Then there is Nicole H., a biologist from Germany who quietly focuses on collecting zooplankton samples with a long net that profiles the water column, vertically extracting “stuff” in 5 containers at 5 different depths. She does all this while the zodiac is made ready with people, guns, and gear moving past her. She does all this while a group of engineers and other scientists get ready for yet another bottom-landing contraption to collect sediment, water, and critter samples from the bottom of the 2500 meter deep ocean. Ms. Grumpy Pants was among them (she shall remain anonymous), but Nicole stood like a rock focused on one thing within the storm of activity that surrounded her. There is a lot of love and dedication to detail in Nicole’s focus the same way there was in the hectic excitement of Ilka, Ulrike, and Bibi. This is science at its best. It has a rythm.

If you want to have fun, independence, challenge, and a sense of adventure rather than being judged on your make-up, prom dress, or popularity in High School, then science is for you. The make-up and the boys will fade rather quickly, but the thrill of science and making discoveries will stay
with you for a long time … it will also pay a good salary, but, more importantly, then, it often provides good and exhilarating companionship. And as Mandy K., a chemistry laboratory technician proved during some friendly banter on deck yesterday: even a 20 year old stands up with good
humor to any men aboard. Strong, wild, and mostly smart women.


Post scriptum: Jonathan P. just tells me, that there actually was a polar
bear on a neighboring ice floe. The bear was carefully watched and all men and
and women returned safely back to the ship.

Posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow

Icebergs, Islands, and Instruments off Isle de France, North-East Greenland

Andreas Muenchow

Leaving all land behind when FS Polarstern sailed for Greenland almost 2
weeks ago, we saw land again for a few hours last Sunday. A small
ice-capped island called Isle de France was ahead of us. Solid ice was to
the west, open water to the east, and Greenland proper appeared just
faintly above the western horizon. We arrived at 5 am in the morning, but
the northern summer light changes more with the clouds, absent this day,
than it does as day becomes night. We are more than 1000 km to the north
of the Arctic Circle and about half-way between Bremerhaven and the North



Waiting for the mooring work to begin, we sailed along a row of large
and grounded tabular icebergs and ice islands that appeared strung out
like pearls on a line where the ocean’s water was about 100 meters deep.
Sea- and ice-scape looked the same eons ago when massive ice-sheets
covered much of northern Europe and North-America before people invented
agriculture and turned from nomadic hunters and gatherers to settled
farmers and peasants. And while everyone awake admired Greenland’s beauty
and serenity that Sunday morning, I had only one thought: Here go my

The ship paused for a few hours to wait for me and Jonathan to ready
instruments that we needed to placed on the ocean floor. They are
designed to measure ocean currents for the next 2-3 years and will give
us better ideas on how ocean heat and currents melt
Greenland’s glaciers from below. We already had deployed four such
instruments the day before out of sight of land and icebergs. Now we were off Isle de France to complete our shelf mooring program with 3
instruments placed across the south-western slope of Norske Ore Trough.


This ‘trough” is really a broad and deep submarine valley that connects
the deep Fram Strait 150 km to the east to Greenland’s largest glaciers
100 km in the West and North. The valley may act as a pathway, so we
think, to move warm ocean waters from Fram Strait near the bottom across
the broad and confused continental shelf of Greenland. It is coastal oceanography that we do, but the heat that our coastal flows
transport towards the glaciers does impact a changing climate that
changes land, sea, and icescape both here around Greenland and
elsewhere as ocean sea level rises when ice on land becomes ice on water
and eventually water in the ocean.

As fast-flowing floating glaciers disappear, such as Zachariae Isstrom did
the last 10 years, the ice-sheet behind them on land often accelerates and
thins because ice-shelves attached to glaciers act a little like a cork
does to a bottle of Champagne. The bubbly inside exerts a high pressure
against the cork separating the Champagne from the lower pressure outside,
especially if shaken. If you loose the cork or remove it explosively, then
the bubbly will spill out quickly. The friction of an ice-shelf may have
retarded the advancement of the ice-sheet behind in a subtle balance of
forces. Now, as the ice shelf is removed, a new
balance of forces will have to establish itself. The transition from one
to another stable state usually occurs via accelerations: The glacier
speeds up, stretches, and as it stretches, it thins and may allow the sea
water to advance deeper shoreward to melt more ice that was before not
in contact with the ocean. It is a positive feedback and the potential
exists, that the glacier keeps retreating faster as a result. Both
Jacobshavn Glacier in South-West Greenland and Pine Island Glacier in
Antarctica do this now.


But I digress and want to return to Isle de France with its pearl string
of tabular icebergs within about 5 km off our first moorings. At 170
meters below the surface a strike by one of these stunning mountains and
islands of hard ice will perhaps wipe out a mooring, but perhaps the
goddess of the sea will steer the perhaps 50,000 year old towers of ice into shallow
water where they will ground for a few years. Either way, I will be
watching these icy islands from afar for the next few years in what
becomes a most exciting and pleasurable puzzle with many pieces. Some may
fit and some may be missing. Perhaps the best we can hope for is
a sketch or an outline. Control of nature is vanity, we are merely
temporary sailors on a mighty ocean with ice that will last longer than
either us or whatever sensor we may place in her ways.

posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow