Polar Bear Project

July 31, 2009

By Emily Stone

This 220 lb, one-year-old cub is still with its mother. Photo: John Whiteman

This 220 lb, one-year-old cub is still with its mother. Photo: John Whiteman

You’ve probably seen a photo or video of a lumbering polar bear, seemingly forlorn, stuck on a small piece of ice in what looks like an endless stretch of sea. The animals have become the symbol for what’s at risk if the arctic sea ice continues to retreat each summer. But for all their emotional punch, very little is known about how the bears are coping with the dramatic changes in their habitat.

A group of researchers from the University of Wyoming is looking for some answers among the polar bears on the North Slope of Alaska. These bears are forced to decide between staying on land during the summer or following the ice edge north, past their normal feeding grounds to an area of deep ocean that may not hold much food. The researchers want to know what the polar bears are eating and how much they’re exerting themselves if they stay on land versus head north.

The project’s main question is: “Are they able to eat a lot during the summer, and if they’re not eating a lot, how well are they able to fast,” explains John Whiteman, a Ph.D. student on the project run by co-principal investigators Hank Harlow and Merav Ben-David.

Dr. Henry Harlow, Dr. Merav Ben-David, and John Whiteman (left to right) with an adult male polar bear who has been sedated for measurements. They’re sitting in front of a temporary windbreak (to make measurements easier) on sea ice off the northern coast of Alaska in October 2008. Photo: John Whiteman

Dr. Henry Harlow, Dr. Merav Ben-David, and John Whiteman (left to right) with an adult male polar bear who has been sedated for measurements. They’re sitting in front of a temporary windbreak (to make measurements easier) on sea ice off the northern coast of Alaska in October 2008. Photo: John Whiteman

The team is in the second year of the two-year project, which is based out of Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. They’re using a combination of blood, muscle, fat and breath samples, which reveal what and how often the animals are eating, along with GPS tracking collars and internal body temperature and activity monitors that the bears wear during the summers. Together the information will show how the bears on land are faring versus those that head north.

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Fly the Friendly Skies

July 30, 2009
Legendary 109th pilot Jim Grupp (Ret) at Alert Bay, Canada, March 2006. Photo: Ed Stockard

Legendary 109th pilot Jim Grupp (Ret) at Alert Bay, Canada, March 2006. Photo: Ed Stockard

We got to thinking about our colleagues in the New York Air National Guard 109th Airlift Wing the other day.  We heard about the delight with which two Greenlandic high school students, participating in an education program en route to Summit Station, experienced take-off and landing in the plane’s cockpit, having been invited up by the pilot for a rare view of their ice-topped homeland.

The 109th is a special unit. Their primary mission is to provide airlift to the US National Science Foundation’s research programs at both poles:  they move civilians (scientists and those who manage or support the research program) and their gear to and from and all over the ice in Greenland and Antarctica.

Through the 109th, civilians experience a fly culture unlike a typical commercial airline. For one thing, the “seats” are made of red netting hooked to the inside walls of the plane. No first class here–everyone sits in cargo class.

For one thing, all the seats are middle seats—and they’re made of red netting. No nonsense. Have a seat.

All the seats are middle seats. Have a seat. Photo: Henning Thing

The ANG doesn’t serve snacks, and forget the drink cart. But sometimes, en route to Greenland from their base in Scotia, New York, they will take you out for ice cream: the airport staff at Canadian Forces Base at Goose Bay, Newfoundland (the refueling stop), give free ice cream bars to all comers. And while there’s no in-flight movie, the view out the windows can be spectacular, especially if a reconnaissance means the crew goes in low.

There's no in-flight movie, but the view out the porthole windows can be stunning. Photo: Ed Stockard

Approaching east Greenland. Photo: Ed Stockard

You can drape yourself over the cargo pallets (as is the fellow, left center, below) or stand in the aisles. As long as the air is smooth and the loadmaster doesn’t mind.

If they lose your luggage, you’re likely to know it since cargo flies in the belly of the plane with the people.  (But the 109th doesn’t lose your luggage.) Photo: Henning Thing

If they lose your luggage, you’re likely to know it before you land since cargo flies in the belly of the plane with the people. But the 109th doesn’t lose your luggage. Photo: Henning Thing

Like flight attendants on commercial airlines, loadmasters are in charge of what happens behind the cockpit. But they won’t bring you an eye mask or fluff your pillow; they’re busy with other matters:

It was a beautiful day for the loadmaster--really, for all involved--to see this D-8 snugged into the hold, ready to fly to a deep field camp. Photo: Ed Stockard

A loadmaster's dream. This D-6 snuggles in the hold, ready to fly to a deep field camp. Photo: Ed Stockard

Sometimes the 109th drops something–but only on purpose:

. . . on purpose of course. Here, the 109th delivers via air drop. Photo: Ed Stockard

Here, a crew practices air drop procedures at Raven Camp, their Greenland training facility. Photo: Ed Stockard

And then there are the skis, required for snow and ice field landings. When fully retracted, the skis sit up close to the body of the plane. When deployed, they fit down over the wheels, almost like enormous spats.  And those spats make the “ski-birds” workhorses at the poles, where there are few paved runways available.

You land in Kangerlussuaq on wheels, but on the ice, you land on skis and glide to a stop. Photo: Henning Thing

Coming in for a landing. . .

. . . and touchdown!

. . . and touchdown! Photos: Henning Thing

The Guard doesn’t put up much of a curtain between the air operations and the passengers; there’s no Wizard of Oz here, so you never forget that what you’re doing is flying in a big metal bird. But somehow, that’s comforting.  Friendly skis.  Friendly skies.

Congratulations to Lt Col Mark Doll and the entire 109th Airlift Wing on the successful testing of an LC-130 fitted with eight-bladed propellers earlier this week at Summit Station! More on those developments in a future post.


Gearing Up (and Slip-Sliding Away)

July 29, 2009
L-R: Robert Anderson, Irina Overeem, and Cameron Wobus (all U Colorado) prepare to go into the field in Alaska.

L-R: Robert Anderson, Irina Overeem, and Cameron Wobus (all U Colorado) prepare to go into the field in Alaska.

Parts of Alaska’s coastline are crumbling into the sea, and the research team pictured above wants to understand why. The earth scientists from U Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences are studying Drew Point, along Alaska’s northern coastline, to better explain what physical processes most impact coastal stability–warmer temperatures or increased wave action due to reduced shore-fast sea-ice, or other factors?

After gearing up at the CPS offices in Fairbanks, the team flew up to Lonely, and from there shuttled into Drew Point on the Beaufort Sea coast by helicopter. They are now camping at Drew Point for several days, using instruments in the water to monitor temperature and wave dynamics; on land, time-lapse photography and soil temperature data add to their information trove.  When they return to Colorado in early August, the scientists will analyze their data and that from other sources (satellite imagery, off-shore buoy data, etc.) to better understand the erosion process.

Some villages in Alaska have been heavily impacted by coastal erosion; the village of Kivalina is a good example.  The work carried out by Anderson, Wobus and Overeem may help planners predict where future coastal erosion is likely to occur, what particular climatic conditions promote erosion, and what processes either accelerate or decelerate rates of shoreline change.

Andy Revkin wrote about this project last fall—and posted a short video showing coastal erosion–in his New York Times blog, Dot Earth.


Science Education Tour ’09

July 27, 2009
Flags for the United States, Greenland, and Denmark fly at Summit Station for Science Education Week. Photo: Angela Coyle

Flags for the United States, Greenland, and Denmark fly at Summit Station for the 2009 Science Education Tour. Photo: Angela Coyle

Like any good educational experience for young people, the 2009 Greenland, Denmark, United States Joint Science Education Tour provided ample play time—in this case, Frisbee games and rounds of golf on the frozen summit of the Greenland ice sheet. The whirlwind tour for a group of Greenlandic, Danish, and American students and teachers highlighted basic research and the effects of climate change on the island’s land, ice, plants and animals (including human ones).

After spending a day orienting in Kangerlussuaq, the group of about 15 flew to Summit Station for a three-day tour of the research outpost at the apex of the ice sheet. Accommodations in the Arctic Ovens of tent city fulfilled a goal for several participants who wanted to sleep atop the two-mile thick ice sheet, though relatively warm temperatures precluded the full experience.

"Room" with a view: Bo Gregersen of the US Embassy in Copenhagen monitors the ice cap from his tent. Photos: Henning Thing unless otherwise noted

"Room" with a view: Bo Gregersen of the US Embassy in Copenhagen monitors the ice cap from his tent. Photos: Henning Thing (Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation) unless otherwise noted.

In addition to attending presentations given by NSF’s Renee Crain and various Summit scientists and staff and enjoying Summit’s legendary hospitality (including the seemingly bottomless jar of homemade cookies), the group toured Summit’s facilities and science experiments:

While part of the group collected surface snow samples, donning Tyvek suits to reduce contamination of the snow samples which are analyzed for dust and chemical pollution. . .

While part of the group collected surface snow samples, donning Tyvek suits to reduce contamination of the snow samples which are analyzed for dust and other pollution transported from far away . . .

 

. . . CPS technical staffer Steve Munsell explained snow pit science to another part of the group, which then collected samples for snow-density measurements.

. . . CPS science technical staffer Steve Munsell explained snow pit science to another part of the group, which then collected samples for snow-density measurements.

Here, students examine the University of Colorado all-sky camera (Koni Steffen, CIRES, PI). Among other uses, information gleaned from the instrument is useful to scientists working to understand the effect of cloud cover on the solar budget.

Here, students examine the University of Colorado all-sky camera (Koni Steffen, CIRES, PI). Among other uses, information gleaned from the instrument is useful to scientists working to understand the effect of cloud cover on the solar budget.

To learn about ice-core science, the group examined bits of discarded ice core to see the bubbles that contain tiny packets of air from days gone by; they also floated bits of core in orange juice to experience the pop and fizz of the compressed air being released from the melting ice.

To learn about ice-core science, the group examined bits of discarded ice core to see the bubbles that contain tiny packets of air from days gone by; they also floated bits of core in orange juice to experience the pop and fizz of the compressed air being released from the melting ice.

Tiny bubbles in this ice shard.

Tiny bubbles sparkle in this ice shard.

Greenland had its own lessons to impart. The three-day visit became a four-day visit due to poor local weather. After assembling early in the morning, the team watched for several hours as the flight was delayed under unsettled skies, and then experienced the ultimate trial by fire (or ice fog) when the Air National Guard’s skied LC-130 plane circled over Summit in hopes of a landing opportunity before boomeranging to Kangerlussuaq without picking up the passengers. Instead of flying, the group relaxed with board games, golf, Frisbee and “house-mouse” duties.

In fact, waiting may not be the hardest part.

In fact, waiting may not be the hardest part.

Jennifer Thompson, a teacher from Juneau, Alaska, was the American group leader. She recorded her experiences in a journal for the ARCUS project, Polar TREC, funded by the NSF. Visit the Polar TREC site to read Jennifer’s blog here.

Danish ecologist and IPY expert Henning Thing escorted the group. After a 40-year career, what Professor Thing doesn’t know about the Arctic probably isn’t worth knowing. Henning’s extensive knowledge of Greenland’s history, culture, and natural phenomena enriched the experience for all. His high-school-aged son participated as well.

 

The Magnificent Henning Thing. Photo: Robbie Score
Henning Thing. Photo: Robbie Score
Danish students (L-R) Trine Madsen, Davis Thing, and Sam Hansen return to Kangerlussuaq after an eventful four days at Summit.

Danish students (L-R) Trine Madsen, Davis Thing, and Sam Hansen snooze in their net seats aboard the Air National Guard's plane on the return to Kangerlussuaq.

The 2009 Greenland, Denmark, United States Joint Science Education Tour was an activity of the Joint Committee. The Joint Committee was established in 2004 to broaden and deepen cooperation among the United States, the Kingdom of Denmark, and Greenland, a self-governing territory of Denmark. Since its launch the Joint Committee has established an impressive track record of accomplishments that spans a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including culture, education, science, environmental research, technical assistance, and commercial affairs. The Joint Committee meets annually (most recently in May, 2009, in Copenhagen, Denmark) to assess its ongoing work and evaluate new project proposals. The Science Education Tour of 2009 was sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen, and the New York Air National Guard.


Polaris: Rising stars of the Arctic

July 24, 2009
Seeing stars. Polaris Project students from the inaugural 2008 class. All photos from The Polaris Project Web site unless otherwise noted.

Polaris Project students from the inaugural 2008 class. All photos from The Polaris Project Web site unless otherwise noted.

The Polaris Project Web site is a lively spot this time of year, as a group of American and Russian undergraduate students, escorted by faculty from their universities, conduct field work in the Kolyma River Basin in Russia’s remote and lovely far northeast–and then share their adventures via a project blog. The Polaris Project aims to draw budding scientists (the rising stars) to arctic research. Its centerpiece is the Russian High Arctic field course now engaging 10 undergraduates in an odyssey focused on studying the area while living (and sometimes traveling) aboard a barge afloat in the Kolyma River.

The live-aboard barge.

The live-aboard barge.

The students have devised eight different research projects this year, each studying some aspect of carbon cycling in the ecosystem of the Kolyma River Basin. The mosaic of subjects includes the area’s lakes, rivers, permafrost, microbes, and more. The team works in new labs at the Northeast Science Station, a small and important Siberian research facility directed by the legendary Russian scientist, Sergey Zimov.

Three students collect lake water samples to study macroinvertibrate diversity.

Three students collect lake water samples to study macroinvertibrate diversity.

In addition to research conducted around the station, the group has taken side trips down the river, including a multi-day trip to Duvannyi Yar, where mammoth bones and other Pleistocene-area remnants adorn the landscape, which is underlain by thawing permafrost. Thanks to the mammoth and other large animals that roamed the ancient lanscape, the permafrost harbors massive stores of organic matter. Nearby, a group of scientists led by Zimov have created Pleistocene Park, an experiment attempting to recreate and study the grassland ecosystem that disappeared 10,000 years ago, Zimov suspects, due less to climate warming than to human overhunting.
On the return to Cherskiy and the Northeast Science Station, faculty member Sudeep Chandra analyzes water samples while photographer Chris Linder sorts myriad photographs (enjoy them on the Polaris site!).

On the return to Cherskiy and the Northeast Science Station, principal investigator Sudeep Chandra (standing) analyzes water samples while photographer Chris Linder sorts myriad photographs (enjoy them on the Polaris site!).

The National Science Foundation-funded Polaris Project is the brain child of Max Holmes of Woods Hole, whose work on river water transport and chemistry in the High Arctic a few years ago forged a very fruitful collaboration with Russian students and colleagues (called PARTNERS and then Student Partners), and showed Holmes has a knack for engaging young people in research.

While his Polaris rising stars work in Russia, Holmes remains at Woods Hole, monitoring his team’s progress remotely. The reason: protostar Sophie Jane Holmes, one month old today. Congratulations, Max!

PolarisSophieJane


UP

July 22, 2009

Postcard from Barrow: Nalukataq

Barrow 101

Photos: Tracy Sheely unless otherwise noted

Barrow turned out (and up) a few weeks ago to celebrate the spring whale harvest wherein two crews brought in four whales total. The traditional Iñupiaq festival, called Nalukataq, is a thanksgiving for the harvest, so central to a traditional Inuit subsistence community’s way of life. During the day-long fete the community honors the whalers who bring in the bounty, feast on caribou and goose soup and whale delicacies of all kinds, and have – you know – a whale of a good time. In addition, each family receives its share of frozen whale meat (called quaq) and whale blubber and skin (muktuk) from the spring harvest.

This photo, from Fairbanks Open Radio, documents Barrow’s June Nalukataq. The two whaling crews who brought in the whales fly their flags, center, and the community gives thanks for the harvest. Later, everyone enjoys the blanket toss and dancing in the gym. Photo: David Koester

This photo, from Fairbanks Open Radio, documents Barrow’s June Nalukataq. The two whaling crews who brought in the whales fly their flags, center left, and the community gives thanks for the harvest. Later, everyone enjoys the blanket toss and dancing in the gym. Photo: David Koester

A highlight of the Nalukataq is the blanket toss. Community members gather around a seal-skin trampoline, and toss all willing high into the air. Traditionally, the whaling captains go first, and they throw candy and other treats to watching children.  Good times indeed.

The community blanket toss. Photos: Tracy Sheely unless otherwise noted

The community blanket toss.

Up!

Up!


Under the Rainbow

July 17, 2009

Through Ed Stockard’s viewfinder

rainbow herc Jun 20 09 2157

“Taken this morning with clearing skies to the east and darkening skies to the west,” Ed Stockard writes about his picture on 22 June.  The C-130 shown here, along with several others flown by the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, is the workhorse of the National Science Foundation’s polar research programs.