Arctic Stories: New Multi-Media Web site

January 21, 2010

Not your typical office. A research building at Barrow, AK. Photo courtesy Arctic Stories

We’re pleased to welcome Arctic Stories, the brainchild of Purdue University atmospheric chemist Paul Shepson, to the online effort to educate and inform people about arctic research and life. (In 2009, we supported Shepson and others working at Barrow, Alaska, on an international study called OASIS. Shepson headed an NSF-funded study of halogen chemistry.)

With children’s book author Peter Lourie, Shepson has built a multi-faceted Web site with NSF funding to present information on the science, wildlife, climate, and people of the Arctic.

The site features video interviews with natives and researchers like polar bear researcher Steven C. Amstrup of the USGS. It also showcases compelling photographs, and links to science institutions. In short, it’s another fantastic resource for following the ongoing work in the Arctic.

This is helpful as the public strives to understand the myriad messages about climate change, research, and more. With news stories reporting that the Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the planet, that sea ice is melting, and that species are losing habitat and nourishment, sites like Arctic Ice and ours aim to inform readers about the efforts being made to understand the science behind the phenomena.

The science is complex, designed to measure and help us understand changes in the atmosphere, land, plants and animals, human societies and water in the Arctic. To advance these goals, scientists conduct fieldwork in some of the most extreme environments on Earth–and their experiences are often as compelling as their data.

We encourage readers to check out Arctic Ice as they follow their curiosity about work in the far north.


January 4, 2010
By Marcy Davis

Adriane Colburn's "Who’s on Top? Arctic Ice: 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2003, 2007 and East/West Lines, 2008." Paper, Aluminum, wood, gouache, watercolor, latex paint, string, ink and graphite. For more views and the artist's notes on this installation, click on the picture. All photos courtesy Adriane Colburn

Adriane Colburn works all the time. By day she’s a technician at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center. By night, she’s a renegade sculptor, pushing the boundaries of her favorite medium – paper. Colburn has long been inspired by the human impulse to visualize the world through cartography, by the act of communicating data and information through maps in order to better understand environment and processes. Maps led her to merge creative pursuits with science.

“My artistic motivation is that my subject must be intellectually challenging – the result of research. Science and politics and art are all related,” says Colburn, a Vermont native who has lived in San Francisco since 1990.

While surfing the Web one day, Colburn happened upon the home page for the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping (CCOM) Joint Hydrographic Center where she read about the Law of the Sea Mapping Program, an intensive, multiyear partnership between UNH, NOAA, the NSF and others, aimed at mapping the seafloor to support U.S. claims to the extended continental shelf. The arctic seafloor maps immediately caught Colburn’s attention.

“I already had a strong interest in the Arctic and climate change. I did a project using sea ice extent maps, but they weren’t exactly what I was looking for. When I came across the CCOM Law of the Sea bathymetry maps, I became interested in the ways mapping the sea floor is pivotal in the Arctic — the role of these maps in geopolitics, natural resource exploration, and unexplored frontier,” Colburn explains. “The maps are simple and uncomplicated in their own right, but also rich and complicated in their links to highly charged topics.”

"For the Deep, Phase I," 2008, Inkjet prints, aluminum and paper, 12'x14'

After reading about a 2007 arctic cruise led by Larry Mayer (UNH) and Andy Armstrong (NOAA), Colburn cold-called CCOM to find out more. The call led to a visit and the visit led to her participation in a September, 2008, arctic cruise aboard the USCGC Healy. While on board, Colburn worked as a watchstander, monitoring computers used for sonar data collection during an eight-hour shift.

Watchstanders monitor a fleet of computers taking data on the sea floor.

“The thing I was really interested in was collecting the data – the interruptions and inaccuracies. The flaws in the process are fascinating. As a non-scientist I always assumed that data collection was inherently accurate, but I became aware of the subjectivity, of the personal decisions that go into it, and how the arctic seascape determines what you can do,” she says.

The rest of Colburn’s time she dedicated to photography, gathering audio and video footage, journaling, and talking with at-sea colleagues, an eclectic mix of scientists, graduate students, technicians, Coast Guardsmen (and women), a lawyer, and a member of the U.S. State Department. Colburn felt that she was “having this really rare experience most people never get to have and that the science was really interesting. I felt like I had this responsibility to share it rather than be narcissistic.”

Yo, Adriane! The artist having some fun aboard the Healy.

Back home in San Francisco, Colburn spent six months working up pieces for an exhibition at the Kala Art Institute entitled For the Deep, which showcased her arctic experience through a series of large, colorful installation pieces made of cut paper – arctic bathymetry maps. Round photos of the arctic landscape reminiscent of portholes dot the work. Colburn encouraged viewers to interact with her sculptures by looking into telescope-like vessels, rewarding them with video clips of the open ocean and of the Healy breaking ice.

"For the Deep, Phase II." The telescope-like viewer (up and to the right of middle) shows videos of the Healy breaking ice.

“What I tend to do in my artwork is decontextualize. I present the data without the scientific context. It is an abstraction. I thought a lot about how people understand places and about what comes back to the population from a far-off exploration,” says Colburn. “We try to understand places remotely so I intentionally forced distance between the person and the place. But mapping is also very interactive in our digital world. I wanted to include that element as well without having my work be totally immersive.”

Reactions to Colburn’s work are what she calls “multi-tiered”: what people get out of her art is what they bring to it. And whether that is something technical, scientific, or purely aesthetic doesn’t matter to her. She admits that her own sense of beauty has changed dramatically as a result of experiencing life at sea. She says “the Arctic has a specific light. It’s like being on another planet. You can’t really know that from pictures and words. It’s a transient landscape – one in which you can get a foothold because the ice is solid. But it’s also constantly shifting and changing and very dynamic.”

Colburn still works with scientists. She’s moved her attention to warmer climes but still focuses on climate change, measuring carbon in the Amazon with researchers at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. Colburn also had the opportunity to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. And she says she’s “trying to get back to the Arctic at least one more time,” if you happen to know anyone who’s looking to fill out a field team.

Adriane Colburn’s recent work is currently on display in an exhibition entitled Earth:  Art of a Changing World, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, December 3, 2009, to January 31, 2010.

Rapid Coastal Erosion Correlated to Diminishing Sea Ice

December 16, 2009

Retreating sea ice leaves the Alaskan coast vulnerable to the full force of the ocean. Photo: Benjamin Jones, USGS

Rapid erosion of the northern coastline of Alaska midway between Point Barrow and Prudhoe Bay is accelerating at a steady rate of 30 to 45 feet a year, according to CPS-supported scientists presenting a study at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting this week in San Francisco. As the coast erodes, frozen blocks of silt and peat that contain 50 to 80 percent ice topple from bluffs into the Beaufort Sea during the summer.

The acceleration is caused by a combination of large waves pounding the shoreline and warm seawater melting the base of the bluffs, said CU-Boulder Associate Professor Robert Anderson, a co-author on the study. Once the blocks fall they melt within days and sweep silt material out to sea.

Anderson, along with collaborators Cameron Wobus of Stratus Consulting and Irina Overeem of CU’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) have studied the coastline for the past two summers with Office of Naval Research support. Equipped with two meteorology stations, a weather station, time-lapse cameras, detailed GPS and wave sensors outfitted with temperature loggers, they documented the summer ocean/shore dynamic.

Triple Whammy

Declining sea ice, warming sea water, and increased waves create a “triple whammy” that expedites erosion. For the majority of the year, the Beaufort Sea is covered with sea ice that disconnects from the coast during the summer. These ice-free summer conditions are lasting for longer periods of time, allowing warmer ocean water to lap the coast and weaken the frozen ground. And the longer that sea ice is not connected to the coastline, the further the distance grows between the ice and the shore.  This open-ocean distance between the sea ice and the shore, known as “fetch,” increases both the energy of waves crashing into the coast and the height to which warm seawater can come into contact with the frozen bluffs, said Anderson.

The shoreline bluffs are made up of contiguous, polygon-shaped blocks, primarily made of permafrost and measuring roughly 70 to 100 feet across. Ice “wedges” (created by seeping summer surface water that annually freezes and thaws) are driven deep into the cracks between individual blocks each year. The blocks closest to the sea are undermined as warm seawater melts their base, and eventually split apart from neighboring blocks and topple during stormy conditions, said Anderson.

Impacts of Erosion

As the coastline submits to the ocean, old whaling stations, military and oil related infrastructure and entire towns threaten to fall into the sea. In addition, the loss of sea ice alters ocean systems and diminishes habitat for creatures like the polar bear.

According to a 2009 CU-Boulder study, Arctic sea ice during the annual September minimum is now declining at a rate of 11.2 percent per decade. This year, only 19 percent of the ice cover was more than two years old — the least ever recorded in the satellite record and far below the 1981-2000 summer average of 48 percent.

Polar Careers: Bjorn Johns, UNAVCO’s Polar Services Manager

December 1, 2009

Bjorn Johns, Polar Services Manager at UNAVCO, has always loved the Arctic. Pictured here backpacking in Svalbard, Norway. All photos courtesy Bjorn Johns

At Work

When Bjorn Johns, 45, joined the Boulder-based UNAVCO in 1993, the adventurous explorer did not anticipate he’d found his professional calling. To be sure, the freshly-minted engineer had recently graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the position at the non-profit organization, which supports scientific research around the globe using high-precision GPS technology, promised to send him to exotic locales to set up remote measuring stations. But the fieldwork was “logistically challenging, and not necessarily intellectually challenging,” says Johns, who then held the position of field engineer.

Bjorn Johns surveys the McCall Glacier.

But a year after starting with UNAVCO, he landed the opportunity of a lifetime. UNAVCO was awarded a subcontract in Antarctica and selected three employees to spend the months of November 1994 – February 1995 on the ice. It was a dream assignment for the son of a Norwegian mother who had spent many formative years in his early childhood in the Scandinavian town of Nesna, just south of the Arctic Circle.

“That made the connection for me that there are potential professional opportunities that could combine my engineering with my passion,” says Johns.

Prior to that, Johns said he expected his career to consist of “working in reasonably sterile cubeland doing exciting engineering work.”

Career Before the Poles

And for a while, he proved himself right. After graduating from U.C. Davis with mechanical and aeronautical engineering undergraduate degrees and spending a year as a ski bum in Truckee, Calif., Johns began working as a civilian for the U.S. Navy in Alameda. His routine quickly evolved to support a weekend warrior mountain habit; Johns spent Friday nights racing to the Sierra from the San Francisco Bay area, and then fighting traffic at the weekend’s conclusion in order to show up at work on time by Monday.

After three years, he decided something needed to change, applied to graduate school and chose to attend Boulder. Despite Boulder’s prevalence of scientists and institutes that focus on polar regions, Johns wasn’t yet thinking he could pursue a career that would take him to remote ice- and snow-covered landscapes where the wildlife likely outnumbers the people.

Then he got the opportunity to work on the southernmost continent. In Antarctica, Johns met Jocelyn Turnbull (the two would marry in 2001), and he sowed the seeds for his ultimate dream job at UNAVCO: creating and managing a polar component.

Love on the ice: Jocelyn Turnbull and Bjorn Johns.

“At this point, GPS was new and had widespread application for science,” says Johns. “I saw a need for [focused support from UNAVCO] for polar research and precision GPS.”


Johns talked his boss into appointing him head of the UNAVCO Polar Group and began growing the team, which provides GPS equipment and technical support for high-precision geodetic measurement needs in polar research. In 13 years, the group has grown to six dedicated employees and supports roughly 50 projects split evenly between the Arctic and the Antarctic. During the International Polar Year, the team developed a new generation of power and communications systems optimized for easy deployment and reliable, multi-year operation in severe polar environments.

Available as kits to researchers, these systems endure years of harsh weather without requiring regular maintenance, and they provide continuous data recording. The systems weigh 1,000 pounds and use wind and solar power to charge batteries. The science data collected is retrieved via the Iridium satellite system. The system’s efficient design and ability to operate remotely can help scientists collect critical data while minimizing flights (and saving money spent on costly logistics).

The installed UNAVCO power kit only requires maintenance every two years.

Prior to the development of these systems, scientists were responsible for creating their own solutions to operate GPS equipment at remote places in extreme temperatures. Developing these polar kits provided one of the the intellectual challenges that Johns originally sought as he launched his career.

Polar Fascination

Being half Norwegian (his other “half” is Californian), Johns experienced the Arctic at an early age. He describes Nesna as a “small, safe town.”

“In the summer, a bunch of eight-year olds would roam the street until it got around midnight and their parents would finally come looking for them,” he says.

In Nesna, Johns developed an interest in the natural world. He and his friends would explore the nearby mountains, and in the summer, he would take out a boat and explore the water.However, it was his grandfather, Kolbjorn Spilhaug, who inspired him with polar fascination. An officer in the Norwegian army in World War II, Spilhaug fled Norway after the German invasion.

After regrouping with other officers in England, he was deployed to Iceland and Jan Mayen, a strategic island with a critical weather research station. Spilhaug’s squadron trained American GIs in arctic warfare, and developed a tight camaraderie.Following the war, those friends often visited Spilhaug, and their friendship piqued Johns’s curiosity. In addition, his grandfather kept a trove of Arctic memorabilia, including a knife made from a German reconnaissance plane that crashed on Jan Mayen. Pictures of sled dogs in Greenland and aviation books from the period inspired his imagination. When Johns was 18, his mother passed on to him a memoir written by his grandfather recounting his days in the Arctic. The writing brought the Arctic to life for the young man.

Family Life

In the years since joining UNAVCO and growing the Polar Team, Johns has continued to feed his travel bug. He’s visited remote sites at both poles, and continued to pursue his love of the outdoors. From his home base in Boulder, he skis, bicycles, and rock climbs, and Turnbull, a New Zealand-native, shares in his passion.The two recently became parents and their infant son, Cameron, already has a passport and tickets to Chile (Christmas), California, and New Zealand. His car seat fits in the ski sled, and during an early season blizzard in Colorado’s Front Range, Cameron (indirectly) made his first tracks.

Lucky kid! Bjorn's son Cameron skis before he can walk.

“We have been pretty determined from the start to get Cameron out so the outdoors are just a part of his life,” says Johns. “I want him to know how it feels before he is even conscious of it going on.”Still he concedes that the upcoming travels are as much for Johns and Turnbull as they are for their son.”These trips are all about training us,” he says.

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.

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:

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:

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.

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.