Solar Flares

February 9, 2010

Through Ed Stockard’s View Finder

The aurora borealis viewed through Ed's fisheye lens.

Ed wrote on Monday with the good news that a big sunspot erupted over the weekend, sending solar radiation toward Earth. Sunspots fire the aurora, which has been extremely active, making Ed extremely happy.

The aurora rises over town, as seen from the Kangerlussuaq International Science Support ("KISS") building. Photo: Ed Stockard

From  BIG SUNSPOT: The sudden emergence of big sunspot 1045 over the weekend has caused a sharp uptick in solar activity.  The active region has produced three M-class and almost a dozen C-class solar flares since it appeared on Saturday.  The strongest blast, an M6-class eruption on Feb. 7th, may have hurled a coronal mass ejection toward Earth. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras in the nights ahead as a result of this activity. Also, ham radio operators are picking up strong solar radio bursts using shortwave receivers.  Sample sounds and images may be found at

Another view of the aurora. Photo: Ed Stockard


Understanding Arctic Evolution

February 9, 2010

Shelby Anderson, University of Washington Ph.D. candidate in archaeology, seeks to understand why Arctic cultures evolved into complex societies. Photo: Adam Freeburg

In the past 2,000 years, the people living in the Arctic evolved from simple hunting and gathering traditions to complex, hierarchical societies. They organized to hunt whales, developed villages with complicated social structures, made alliances with other groups and had times of peace and war. And they did this living in one of the world’s most inhospitable environments. Archaeologists have documented those societal changes, but none have yet answered the question: Why?  

Or, in other words, what prompted that social evolution? 

A Dissertation Project 

University of Washington Ph.D. candidate in archaeology Shelby Anderson hopes to develop a good answer. For about three years, Anderson has been studying the evolution of arctic cultures into complex social, economic, and political organizations using an approach that hasn’t yet been applied in the far north. She’s studying pottery

“We have historic records about how people were living in the Arctic in the 18th century, and they had amazing technology, artwork and impressive social networks and structures,” said Anderson. ” We have a faint record, through both archaeology and oral histories, of what life was like long before that, but we don’t really know why the rapid social and technological changes evident in the archaeological record over the last 2,000 or so years took place. I want to know how and why that happened.”  

Walking in their footsteps: field camp at Krusenstern, AK. Photo: Shelby Anderson

Existing records and data show that the populations in the region peaked roughly 1,000 years ago. Populations concentrated along the coast, and then, about 500 years ago, people began dispersing. Less is known about where they went and how their cultures evolved, Anderson says.

Looking For Cultural Evolution Clues: Pottery Lessons

Pottery fragments like these will help Anderson better understand Arctic cultures. Photo: Shelby Anderson

 Like many archaeologists who have teased out complex mysteries about native tribes in America’s southwestern region, Anderson is looking to pottery to provide clues and evidence of growing cultural sophistication. By analyzing pottery shards and “sourcing” them to specific regions, she aims to understand when trade between certain groups started, to trace the trade routes, and to understand which groups controlled access to the land that held the clay.

Scattered pieces of excavated pottery provide important clues to Anderson's research. Photo: Shelby Anderson

“I’m hoping to use pottery as a proxy for understanding if and how groups controlled access to raw material resources, which is a hallmark of more complex social and political structures, and also to understand the movement or distribution of pots and pottery styles, which is evidence of trade, mobility and group interactions.” 

Specifically, Anderson is studying archived and newly acquired pottery collections from Alaska’s Cape Krusenstern, the northern and central Seward Peninsula, including Cape Espenberg, the shores of Kotzebue Sound, and the Noatak and Kobuk River valleys. Working with the University of Missouri’s Archaeometry Laboratory, she is analyzing the chemical composition of pottery shards to hone in on where in the region the clay that made them came from. She will also analyze the minerals used to temper the pots to source these materials. 

Looking at Geography 

A major component of Anderson’s research involves better understanding settlement patterns. Currently, more data exists on coastal populations. But as the people moved inland, the record of their settlements is sparse. Anderson will conduct precision mapping and dating of archaeological features around this region, using these data to better understand regional settlement and population change. 

Painting the Big Picture  

Anderson’s research—now in its final year of fieldwork—will help paint a better picture of the complex, multi-faceted societies that evolved on both sides of the Bering Strait, she said. In the past 2,000 years, the different groups in the region formed strong regional identities that led to marked differences in styles and subsistence and eventually led to the expansion of Thule whale hunters eastward across the Canadian Arctic. 

A Different Perspective on Archaeology 

The relationships, interaction, and evolution of these ethnic groups remain among the most unresolved issues in the archaeology of the region, said Anderson. Often, archaeology focuses on what a population does and looks at cultural products, she said. By contrast, her research looks at why the populations evolved as they did. 

“It’s always fascinating to have long-term data on human behavior,” said Anderson. “My research will be relevant to others studying in the Arctic, as I try to answer bigger anthropological questions about why social change took place.” 

Anderson’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation and conducted in partnership with the National Park Service. 

— Rachel Walker

Ready, Set

February 8, 2010

Through Ed Stockard’s View Finder

Dawn breaks over Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. On February 2, sunrise came at approximately 9:15 a.m. All photos: Ed Stockard

Phil Schmill—forget the Punxsutawney rodent. A better prediction of spring’s pending arrival is the appearance of PFS staffers in Kangerlussuaq for pre-season work. Mark Begnaud and Ed Stockard have been up in Greenland for a couple of weeks now, repairing tents, shipping items to the east coast that will be needed early in the season, and preparing the small generators, cook kits and survival bags for issue to researchers heading into the field in a few months.

New Kangerlussuaq operations manager, the transcendent Kathy Young, is in town as well. A steady hand at Summit Station’s helm for the better part of a decade, Kathy assumes leadership of our effort in Kangerlussuq this summer. Sparky and Ed are showing her the operation. The trio is also meeting with contacts in town to arrange freezer space, car rentals and so on.

"We can just about see the reflection of our beautiful blue truck in the ice," Ed notes.

During their first week, the team witnessed several cycles of freezing rain followed by thawing conditions, which were then followed by colder temperatures. Wet streets, vehicles, buildings–in fact everything in the small community–seemed covered in a fine layer of glass.

Planes landing at the Kanger airport could've used skates on 31 January.

Our favorite camera-shy PFS staffer tosses sand in the parking lot of the Kangerlussuaq International Science Support ("KISS") building.

Kathy, Mark and Ed are also helping with the transition now ongoing at Summit Station. A team of five fresh staff, along with new Summit Station science project manager Katrine Gorham and others, flew in to Summit on 5 February. As we write, they’re going through turnover with Karl Newyear and the phase II team, which is now inches from a clean get-away.

Meanwhile, On The Other Side of The World……

February 4, 2010

We interrupt our view of the Arctic to bring you this news from the British Antarctic Survey

One of the Halley VI modules with aurora in the background. Contractors are currently assembling the new Halley VI station in Antarctica. Photo: Richard Burt

Founded in 1956, Antarctica’s Halley Research Station achieved notoriety in 1985 when scientists there first discovered that the ozone layer, which provides critical protection from ultraviolet radiation, had been decreasing from 1975-1985. (Two years later, NOAA’s Susan Solomon and a team of scientists working at McMurdo Station in Antarctica were the first to assert that chemicals from degrading chlorofluorocarbons were the cause of the damage.)  Today, the British-operated Halley remains an important scientific research station for atmospheric sciences, geology, and glaciology.

But to logisticians like us, among the most interesting ongoing projects at Halley is the construction of Halley VI, a new station that will consist of eight modules connected together to form a long, train-like structure and will all be mobile (more on that later). Like those in Antarctica, our field stations in the Arctic experience extremely harsh weather, and the ability to easily lift and move structures is much appreciated. As snow gathers around the buildings’ legs, we spend a considerable amount of time lifting the structures and keeping the snow from overtaking them. Consequently, we’re very interested in the building of Halley VI.

This double height module will house the living room, dining room, kitchen, and gym. All photos: Martin Bell, Halley VI Deputy project manager, Logistics

Seven of the modules will contain sleeping, support, energy-generation, and science facilities. The eighth module will host a living area, dining room, gym, and kitchen and will be double height. Providing year-round living and research quarters to up to 70 people in the summer and about 16 in the winter, the new buildings are straight out of a science fiction movie.

The station's aerodynamic modules are long and thin to minimize snow accumulation. Every module is also relocatable as the legs are mounted on large skis and can be towed by bulldozers over many kilometers.

The modules have arrived in Antarctica where they are being assembled and will later be moved to the site.

Halley VI aims to minimize the station’s environmental footprint by incorporating the following design measures:

• Bio-reactors to treat sewage

• Installation of vacuum toilets and water-saving taps and showers

• Two-stage incinerators for clean burning of certain types of waste

• Solar-thermal and photovoltaic cell systems to supplement energy supply during the austral summer, when power usage is at its peak

• Reduced annual maintenance, made feasible in part with computer-controlled hydraulic rams to jack up the buildings without significant labor.

• Relocation of the melt tank to the surface so it can be filled mechanically by bulldozer.

— Rachel Walker


February 2, 2010

Those who live at Greenland’s Summit Station spend months without the sun in the winter, so it comes as no surprise that the first sunrise following the winter solstice is much anticipated. This year the Naval Observatory predicted the sun would crest the horizon on January 28, and Karl Newyear, station manager, was there to document it.

January 28, 2010: Almost the first sunrise: hints of the sun pushed through the clouds, but Newyear only got a peek.

January 29, 2010: First actual sunrise. No need for sunscreen, but the crew at Summit got a full frontal from the sun.

January 29, 2010: Self Portrait. Karl Newyear captures the bright light and the mandatory big sunglasses required with the sun's welcome arrival.

Polar Bear Encounters on Baffin Island

February 1, 2010

On the hunt for clues to past climate, he found polar bears—and they almost found him.

Before the threat of polar bears sent them into cabins, graduate students Kurt Refsnider and Chance Anderson camped out on Baffin Island in tents during summer field work. All photos: Kurt Refsnider

Research Adventures

When University of Colorado PhD student Kurt Refsnider headed north last summer to collect samples for Gifford Miller’s NSF-funded paleoclimate study, he knew what to expect. He’d already spent parts of two summers exploring the remote, wind-swept reaches of Baffin Island in Canada’s High Arctic, searching for evidence of ancient glacial movement.

He knew that a researcher’s best-laid plans were subject to out-of-nowhere storms or shuffling helicopter schedules.  So the first few weeks of the trip he made in 2009 along with graduate student Chance Anderson proceeded largely as expected (if not exactly as planned). Outfitted with tent-camping gear and their sampling equipment, they were transported to the field by helicopter.

“We flew into Pond Inlet on the northern end of Baffin Island,” Refsnider recalled in a recent email.  “We then were moved into the interior of the island by helicopter and spent several days in a particular area before being moved again to a new site.  Bad weather, which kept the helicopter from reaching us during the last two weeks, forced us to stay days longer than planned at two camps.”

Looking for ancient climate clues at the top of the world.

When the weather cleared, the team moved south by helicopter to the Qivitu region. As planned, locals from the community of Qiqiktarjuak helped with logistics.

“We hired two guides to take us by motorized canoe to the Qivitu Peninsula, and we brought one ATV with us to get around once on the peninsula,” Refsnider wrote.  When they reached their study sites, “We set up a camp there, including a trip-wire alarm system due to the presence of bears in the area.”

It beats walking. Getting a ride from a local in a motorized canoe.

Retracing Ancient Ice Sheet Movement for Clues to Past Climate

Miller’s team is analyzing glacial deposits (rock and sediment samples) for information about how ice sheets formed in ancient times, waxing and waning in response to climate change. A few glacial deposits in the area go back about two million years, a rare commodity in the Arctic. Back in their labs, scientists use a variety of high-tech measurements to extract information about the evolution of the ice sheet.  The information should help them better understand long-term patterns in glacial erosion, test a key hypothesis for the cause of a major shift in global climate cycles that occurred around a million years ago, and lead to improvements in ice sheet models.

In addition to these goals, the team was collecting samples of moss and lichen from beneath the edges of rapidly-disappearing ice caps on the interior of Baffin Island.  These ice caps formed in the past few thousand years in response to climatic cooling.   Due to the cold arctic climate, the ice was frozen to the landscape, leaving the old moss and lichen intact.  Radiocarbon dating of this organic material provides a record of precisely when these ice caps formed, allowing Miller’s team to evaluate both potential causes for and the rapidity of this cooling.

Wild Kingdom

Daily polar bear sightings like the one here drove the researchers into hard-walled cabins at night.

The researchers spent a few nights camping, but daily sightings of polar bears—four or five sightings a day, in fact–convinced them to retreat to plan B: to use small cabins that dot the area owned by locals who use them during hunting trips.

The researchers broke camp and drove the ATV to the cabin, a rudimentary structure with boarded-up windows that nevertheless felt like a safer option than the tent camp.  That’s ironic given what came next.

“The first night there, at one or two in the morning we were awakened by a crash on the wall, which was followed by probably five minutes of clawing, scraping, and pounding on the far end of the weak little structure,” Refsnider wrote.  “We stomped and yelled, trying to scare the bear away, but we must have smelled pretty dang good.  The thought of shooting at the bear through the wall crossed my mind, but then there would be a hole for the bear’s claws to tear at, so I just waited, hoping the interior wall didn’t fail.  Eventually the bear gave up, left the mud room, dug briefly around the back of the cabin, and then apparently wandered off.”

The damage done: a polar bear-destroyed mudroom.

The next day, the team flagged down a passing motor canoe and returned to the safety of Qiqiktarjuak to regroup.

“A few days later,” Refsnider continued, “We spent one night at a guide’s cabin 50 km to the south.  As we approached it up the fiord in the guide’s boat, he noticed the front door had been smashed in.  While no one had been there, a bear had broken down the front door, torn up everything inside the mud room, and then left, again without getting into the main part of the cabin.  Our guide, who had been doing this for 50-plus years, was visibly shaken by this.”

Close Encounters of the Unusual Kind

Though polar bear sightings are common in the area, these close encounters with aggressive bears are not. Refsnider’s advisor, PI Gifford Miller, has spent many seasons working on Baffin Island in the company of polar bears, but none of his stories compare to the events of 2009. The reaction of the community to these events speaks volumes, as well:

“The residents in Qikiqtarjuak were amazed by what was happening.  The sea ice had melted/blown out of the area six-plus weeks earlier than normal, so the bears started coming back onto the land far earlier than normal,” Refsnider explained.  “That means they are much hungrier in late August than normal.  The day after we left, the town put two armed guards on patrol 24 hours a day because of the high number of bears in the area.  This had never been done before.”

The bear encounter wasn’t the only unusual experience the researchers had last summer. They also witnessed dramatic thunderstorms, which “are becoming increasingly common on Baffin Island,” Refsnider said. ”We had five days in a row early in the field season with convective thunderstorms blowing up over the central part of the island, most days with cloud-to-ground lightning!  Inuit are surprised by this, and 30 years ago they heard thunder so rarely that some believed that there was one thunder that slowly circled the globe.”

Back to Baffin

The team will return this summer to Baffin Island to finish the sampling, but with increased precautions to limit their exposure to polar bears.  They will base in Qikiqtarjuak, flying between the village and their sampling sites via helicopter, and returning at the end of the day to the safety of the small community. The helicopter will stay with them at the sampling sites. The research team will be accompanied by local guides who stand watch for bear as the team works.

Refsnider says he’s recently heard from his contacts in the village. In an unprecedented turn of events, the sea ice drifted away in December. This means that it is likely the polar bears will find little sea ice on which to stage their hunt for food again this spring and summer—which may increase the likelihood that they will again approach human settlements to find food.

“We’ll be much better prepared to deal with the potential bear risk with several additional armed guides, a helicopter, and more secure place to spend the nights, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still a bit nervous,” Refsnider admitted.  — Kip Rithner