Narwhals

August 21, 2009
"Narwhal," from Leviathan: Watercolors of Whales from William Jardine’s The Naturalist’s Library. Source: University of California Rare Books Collection

"Narwhal," from Leviathan: Watercolors of Whales from William Jardine’s The Naturalist’s Library. Source: University of California Rare Books Collection

We got to thinking about narwhals this week as we came across a new NSF grant awarded to Martin Nweeia of Harvard University. Nweeia has been working with Inuit colleagues in Canada to understand the purpose and function of the narwhal’s spiral tusk, and his new grant supports continuing efforts. Extremely shy inhabitants of the pack ice off western Greenland and parts of Canada, the narwhal has largely remained an enigma, its appearance a wheel on which to spin legends.

But the “unicorn of the sea” is actually a tooth-bearing whale. The tusk is one of the narwhal’s two teeth; it erupts through the whale’s mouth and can grow to more than 8 feet long. Though some females will grow the tusk, it is mostly found on males. Why? What adaptive pressures could make this whale sprout a giant tusk?

Nweeia’s team has been collecting information to answer that question. Through interviews with Inuit elders in Pond Inlet, Baffin Island, Canada, and in northwestern Greenland—elders who have observed narwhal behavior and tusk function for their entire lives–Nweeia analyzes hypotheses related to tusk function. For example, some think that the narwhal tusk is for show, like a male lion’s mane, or a peacock’s tail. In a similar vein, others suggest male narwhals use the tusk for defense, or to fight for dominance during mating season, much as elk bump horns in autumn. Still others postulate that the tusk helps the narwhal keep breathing holes open in the frozen-over sea or to skewer prey hiding under the ice.

Aerial photo shows a pod of narwhal amidst pack ice. Photo: Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Image Collection

Aerial photo shows a narwhal pod amidst pack ice. Photo: Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Image Collection

Nweeia’s own study of tusk structure, coupled with direct observations recorded in interviews with Inuit, suggests a more delicate, sensory function. The tusk, enervated along its entire length and therefore likely to be highly sensitive, may actually function as an environment-monitoring apparatus. It may be able to detect water properties—salinity, pressure and temperature, for example–that could help male narwhals select the best waters for breeding, or know when water conditions may cause the pack ice to freeze up around them if they remain.

The Nweeia team has a Web site, http://www.narwhal.org/index.html, where would-be armchair narwhal experts can brush up on everything narwhal: biology, mythology, Inuit traditional knowledge and more.

Meanwhile, National Public Radio this week aired a series on narwhal research in Greenland led by Kristin Laidre of the University of Washington. Journalist Nell Greenfieldboyce joined Laidre, who, with the help of Inuit colleagues, is trying to catch glimpses of the elusive mammal’s underwater world.

Inuit colleagues used kayaks and harpoons to help Laidre fit narwhals with tracking devices. Photo: Kristin Laidre

Inuit colleagues used kayaks and harpoons to help Laidre fit narwhals with tracking devices. Photo: Kristin Laidre

Laidre’s research involves placing small satellite tracking devices on the backs of narwhals. Information collected can help scientists understand narwhal movement patterns and diving depth, for example. But fitting these shy creatures with the devices is no easy task, as the NPR piece shows clearly.  (For two weeks Laidre watched as narwhals would flirt with the nets she had cast only to steer clear of them in the end.) Without assistance from her Inuit colleagues, who helped the researcher attach trackers via specially treated harpoon, Laidre would not have captured even one whale in her nets this summer.

Male narwhals seem to use their tusks for play in these social groups. Photo: Paul Nicklen. Read the field notes page of the feature to find out how it felt to stand, freezing, among the pack ice waiting for a photo op.

Male narwhals seem to use their tusks for play in these social groups. Photo: Paul Nicklen. Read the field notes page of the feature to find out how Nicklen felt to stand, freezing, among the pack ice waiting for a photo op.

We also found this National Geographic feature on the narwhal, from 2007. Author Paul Nicklen grew up on Baffin Island. He admits in the field notes section of the piece that he struggled to balance his appreciation for traditional Inuit practices and his sense of loyalty to his friends, the hunters, against his criticism of some modern hunting practices he witnessed. A riveting story with abundant pictures and other media make this an appealing site for narwhal fans.


And a Musk Ox, Too

August 19, 2009

Also spotted along the Dalton Highway last week: one lovely musk ox in a field of fireweed.

Photo by Brad Stefano

Photo by Brad Stefano

Are you also thinking of Ferdinand the Bull?


A Caribou View

August 19, 2009
 “We stopped to take some pictures and this caribou crossed right in front of us,” reported Brad Stefano (CH2M HILL safety manager), who snapped these shots.

PFS' Jay Burnside exchanges glances with a large caribou. Pictures by Brad Stefano

Last week a group from the National Science Foundation and CPS visited Toolik Field Station (the University of Alaska’s research outpost on the north slope of the Brooks Range).  Because you can’t get there from here, we flew to Prudhoe Bay up on Alaska’s northern coast, borrowed CH2M HILL vehicles, and drove to and from Toolik on the Dalton Highway, which parallels the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Toolik is a bit over 100 miles south of Prudhoe Bay, but it’s a bumpy three-hour drive over the so-called Haul Road, which was built to carry oil workers up to the fields in Prudhoe Bay. But what the Haul Road lacks in comfort it makes up for in scenery, and last week was no exception. Our group was treated to a caribou feast—for the eyes, that is—as multitudes could be seen alongside the road on their seasonal migration.  

“We stopped to take some pictures and this caribou crossed right in front of us,” reported Brad Stefano (CH2M HILL safety manager).

“We must have seen hundreds of caribou,” he continued. “We were traveling in a convoy of three trucks, but they didn’t seem to care about us—they weren’t afraid at all. That seemed a little ironic because there were also a lot of bow hunters around.”

Dude, act like you don't see the truck. Or the hunters.

Dude, act like you don't see the truck. Or the hunters.

The group watched a dozen or so bow hunters dragging a felled caribou along the road.  As an aside, guns are illegal near the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which runs about 800 miles from the southern coast of Alaska at Valdez to Prudhoe Bay where the oil fields are.


Glacier Quakes

August 18, 2009

Meredith Nettles of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a scientist studying glacier dynamics in Greenland, sent a link to her project Web site the other day. There, in addition to basic information on her NSF-funded study, you can find a few pictures from the first of two field trips this year and a sheaf of photos from previous years as well.

The team accesses its monitoring sites via helicopter, landing on the scarred surface of the glacier. Source: Nettles Web site

The team accesses its monitoring sites via helicopter, landing on the scarred surface of a southern Greenland glacier. Source: Nettles Web site

Nettles and colleagues Gordon Hamilton (University of Maine) and Jim Davis (Smithsonian), along with Danish and Spanish colleagues and technical experts from UNAVCO, have placed Global Positioning Systems (GPS) networks on two of Greenland’s most active outlet glaciers, Helheim and Kangerdlugssuaq, both on the island’s southeastern coast.  These glaciers dump massive quantities of fresh water into the Arctic Ocean, and back around 2005 scientists noticed that they (and other glaciers in Greenland’s south) seemed to be flowing a lot faster all at once:  a statue placed on Helheim Glacier in January 2002 would have advanced an impressive six kilometers toward the ocean by year’s end; but during 2005 the same statue would have raced seaward some 11 kilometers—about half a football field a day, Gordon Hamilton estimated.  In addition to accelerated advance, the science team observed that the glacier—about 700 meters (nearly half a mile) thick from muddy bottom to tumbled top, seemed to be thinning rapidly as well, which suggested further destabilization.

The calving front of Helheim Glacier, 2006. Photo: Meredith Nettles

The calving front of Helheim Glacier, 2006. Photo: Meredith Nettles

The seasonal processes driving these changes are what the Nettles collaboration is attempting to discover. For the past few years, researchers have gone to one or both of the glaciers and placed GPS instruments on the ice to create the monitoring networks. (On the Helheim, the team has also placed time-lapse cameras and instruments to monitor climate, seismic and tidal activity.)  These have then collected precise information about the glaciers’ movements, sending data via radio signal to a collecting station on a rock outcrop which in turn sends data back to the Nettles lab via Iridium phone.

Here researchers install a GPS instrument in the middle of nowhere--actually a northern section of the Helheim). Photo: J. Vilendal Petersen

Here researchers install a GPS instrument in the middle of nowhere--a northern section of the Helheim). Photo: J. Vilendal Petersen

The networks have captured information about so-called glacier quakes, phenomena discovered less than a decade ago by Nettles and colleagues monitoring other seismic information. The team noticed that seismic signals were being recorded in clusters around the coast of southern Greenland, an area traditionally associated with little seismic activity. Further study revealed that the seismic activity was caused by sudden, fierce movement of glaciers lurching forward, but the physical processes where not known.

Since then, Nettles and others have learned a bit about these quakes. Nettles talked with Popular Mechanics earlier this year, explaining how glacier quakes work:

“We saw a couple last summer from our helicopter, near the calving front. We were at the outlet to the Helheim glacier, in a system of fjords with sheer rock walls that are 500 meters [more than 1600 ft] tall. Typically, you start to see a rift open up in the glacier and then this big block of ice starts to roll over. The block that breaks off might be a couple of kilometers long and it’s the full thickness of the glacier, which is about seven hundred meters—mainly underwater. . . . It takes a couple of minutes to fall, and as it’s rolling, it has to move this thick melange of ice and water that’s in front of it out of the way. You start to see the icebergs moving very, very fast down the fjord or, if they’re close to the calving front, you see them being popped up, straight towards the helicopter. Then you see just tons of water streaming off of the new iceberg as it is being formed. We have instruments to detect the resulting tsunami about 35 or 40 kilometers away.”

Not for the faint of heart.

Instruments located on Helheim Glacier, Greenland.

Instruments located on Helheim Glacier, Greenland.

After capturing a season’s worth of data on the GPS networks, the Nettles team is back in the field this week removing the Kangerdlugssuaq network and winterizing that on the Helheims. She indicated that she is pleased with the data capture. See for yourself by clicking “Telemetry Status” on the project Web page.


In the Media

August 14, 2009

 

The map of sea level pressure (in millibars) from July 1 to 31, 2009, shows a strong high-pressure cell over the Beaufort Sea. In 2007, a similar high-pressure cell, combined with unusually low pressure over eastern Siberia, contributed to the record melt. Source: NSIDC

The map of sea level pressure (in millibars) from July 1 to 31, 2009, shows a strong high-pressure cell over the Beaufort Sea. In 2007, a similar high-pressure cell, combined with unusually low pressure over eastern Siberia, contributed to the record melt. Source: NSIDC

A strong high-pressure system bringing abundant sunshine in July helped to shrink arctic sea-ice extent at roughly the same rate as was seen in 2007, says the National Snow and Ice Data Center in its latest news release.

Visit polar bears in Kaktovik, Alaska, with Richard Nelson (whose one-man show on Alaska Public Radio, Encounters,  receives NSF funding). This Men’s Journal article will take you there.

For a Canadian perspective on the joint CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent and USCGC Healy mapping expedition, read a series of reports by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Watson, who is aboard the Louis.

Ned Rozell is going to ‘Monster Island’ next week!  Details in his latest Alaska Science Forum piece.

That 13-mile-long, hairy, gelatinous, black goo found floating by subsistence hunters in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s North Slope earlier this summer? An oil slick? No. A monster? No. An algae bloom.


Bridge your Science to the Public with a PolarTREC Teacher!

August 13, 2009
By Kristin Timm
Despite language differences, PolarTREC Teacher Tim Martin works with an international research team at Lake El’gygytgyn in Northeast Siberia. All photos courtesy ARCUS

Despite language differences, PolarTREC Teacher Tim Martin works with an international research team at Lake El’gygytgyn in Northeast Siberia. All photos courtesy ARCUS

PolarTREC – Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating, a project of the Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S. funded by the National Science Foundation – matches K-12 teachers with polar researchers to participate in polar research, as a pathway to improve science education. The program integrates research and education to produce long-term teacher-researcher collaborations, improved teacher content knowledge and instructional practices, and broad public interest and engagement in polar science.

Through PolarTREC, primarily K-12 teachers spend two to six weeks in the Arctic or Antarctic, working as an active and integral part of the science team. While in the field, teachers and researchers communicate extensively with students across the globe, using a variety of tools including online journals, forums, and interactive webinars that often reach hundreds of students at a time. Researchers report that the outreach activities provided through PolarTREC help bridge their science and the public and makes broader impacts fun, rewarding, and easy.

PolarTREC Teacher, Tom Harten, a.k.a. the “Murre-minator,” prepares for another day’s work marking sea birds in the Pribilof Islands.

PolarTREC Teacher, Tom Harten, a.k.a. the “Murre-minator,” prepares for another day’s work marking sea birds in the Pribilof Islands.

“I have a much stronger belief in the work I do now that I know that there are people out there who value my work,” one researcher said after participating in PolarTREC. “The experience I gained in working with both PolarTREC and their top-notch teachers taught me how to communicate my research better and even how to more effectively plan my research program so that it can be embedded into larger interdisciplinary problems.” According to initial evaluation data, other PolarTREC researchers reflected similar satisfaction with their participation in the program. Many also added that both their research and the scientific process benefit from including a teacher on their team. The need to explain their research and “boil it down to the raw essence” helped the research teams see how their work fits into a “bigger world picture” and how they can present their science effectively to a broad audience.

PolarTREC Teacher Simone Welch works with researchers onboard the USCGC Healy slicing and preparing ice cores for analysis back in the lab.

PolarTREC Teacher Simone Welch works with researchers slicing and preparing ice cores for analysis back in the lab.

PolarTREC applicants (teachers and researchers) are thoroughly reviewed by a selection committee of their peers, and initial matches are based on similar science interests. Researchers selected to participate in PolarTREC receive about eight best match teacher applications, have the opportunity to interview three of them, and then make the final selection. Selected teachers participate in an intensive orientation and are trained extensively prior to the field season. Working with their researchers before the field season, teachers also acquire any needed equipment training, build their science knowledge, and get to know the team they will be working with. After the field season, teachers and researchers have sustained their relationships through co-presenting at scientific meetings and to schools and community groups, participating in data workshops, jointly creating classroom lesson plans, and writing proposals for future work together.

Working with a team of archaeologists and undergraduate students in Finland, PolarTREC Teacher Michael Wing clears vegetation at the Hiidenkangas Site.

Working with a team of archaeologists and undergraduate students in Finland, PolarTREC Teacher Michael Wing clears vegetation at the Hiidenkangas Site.

Apply Now!

PolarTREC is currently accepting applications from researchers for the fourth year of teacher research experiences. Researchers are invited to submit an application to host a PolarTREC teacher in the 2010 Arctic and/or the 2010/2011 Antarctic field seasons. More information and application forms are available at: http://www.polartrec.com.

Funding is pending for PolarTREC during the 2010 Arctic field season and the 2010-2011 Antarctic field season. ARCUS will keep researcher applicants informed of our funding status. If funding is secured, final matches should be made in December 2009 or January 2010.  

For More Information:

A one-hour informational webinar for researchers interested in hosting a PolarTREC teacher on their polar research project will be held on 18 August 2009 at 10:00 am ADT (8:00 am HST, 11:00 am PDT, 12:00 am MDT, 1:00 pm CDT, 2:00 pm EDT). Please register for the event at: http://www.polartrec.com/join/informational-webinar/form by 17 August 2009.

Questions? Please contact info@polartrec.com or call 907-474-1600.


Breaking the Ice

August 12, 2009
By Marcy Davis
The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Louis S. St-Laurent (front) and the US Coast Guard vessel Healy (back). Photo: Natural Resources Canada

The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Louis S. St-Laurent (front) and the US Coast Guard vessel Healy (back). Photo: Natural Resources Canada

Ice-breaking ships from Canada and the United States last week began a cruise to probe the Arctic Ocean in the continuation of a multi-year mission to survey—and possibly extend—each country’s maritime boundaries. The ships departed from Barrow, Alaska, and from Kugluktuk, Nunavut (northern Canada), and are collecting data to build highly detailed three-dimensional maps of the sea floor that may be used to revise maritime boundaries.

The shaded area on this map illustrates where the U.S. is considering collecting and analyzing data and does not represent the official U.S. Government position on where it has extended continental shelf. This map is without prejudice to boundary depictions and future negotiations. Credit: continentalshelf.gov

The shaded area on this map illustrates where the U.S. is considering collecting and analyzing data. It does not represent the official U.S. Government position on where it has extended continental shelf--or any other official position. It is for informational purposes only. Credit: continentalshelf.gov

Dr. Larry Mayer of University of New Hampshire, who is also the co-director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, is the chief scientist aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy. His team will map the seafloor using a sophisticated instrument called a multibeam sonar. From the hull of the ship, the sonar emits over one hundred narrowly focused beams of sound to create a swath that travels outward from the ship. Receivers ‘listen’ for the echo of the sound waves as they bounce off the seafloor and reflect back to the ship. Then computers calculate the depth to the seafloor and create a map of the sea floor topography.

The US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy cuts through one of the least known areas of the world--the Arctic. Source: NOAA

The US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy cuts through one of the least known areas of the world--the Arctic. Source: NOAA

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St. Laurent will collect seismic data. Dr. David Mosher of the Geologic Survey of Canada will be the Canadian chief scientist.

The work is part of the Extended Continental Shelf Project, a joint effort to probe the Chukchi Borderland, an underwater promontory which extends north of Barrow, Alaska, into the Artic Ocean to near 80°N. The expedition aims to map the farthest reaches of the North American continent and determine the edge of the continental shelf, information that will be used as the countries ready their claims to extend their maritime boundaries past the current 200 nautical miles offshore mark, as allowed by the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea. It is here that the U.S. stands to gain the most territory along with whatever natural resources it holds.

A country may use either constraint line to define the outer limits of its continental shelf: either 350 nautical miles seaward of the baseline, or 100 nautical miles seaward of the 2,500-meter depth contour (isobath).

A country may use either constraint line to define the outer limits of its continental shelf: either 350 nautical miles seaward of the baseline, or 100 nautical miles seaward of the 2,500-meter depth contour (isobath).

Of particular interest to the U.S. claim is the 2,500 meter isobath, the depth upon which many of the mathematical limits and formulae defined in the treaty rely. Mayer’s team also looks for a feature called ‘the foot of the slope,’ a major change in the shape of the sea floor which, according to the treaty, may mark the limit of the U.S. extended continental shelf.  He and his colleagues have mapped more than a million square kilometers of seafloor since 2003.

An aerial view of the Chukchi Borderland from the north, with tracks from 2003, 2004 and 2007 mapping expeditions.

An aerial view of the Chukchi Borderland from the north, with tracks from 2003, 2004 and 2007 mapping expeditions.

Many countries, including the U.S., will gain territory, although data analysis could take years. Once the United States senate officially accedes to the treaty, the U.S. will have ten years in which to turn over their data and formal claim to the U.N. Meanwhile, the Law of the Sea treaty protects the sea floor and underlying resources under stringent environmental laws.

Armchair sailors can monitor the cruise via several online sources, though transmission limitations in the Arctic Ocean may impact the number/frequency/size of these efforts.


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