To Inuit, Sea Ice Means “Freedom”

May 13, 2010


At the edge of the sea ice, a Barrow resident awaits the return of a seal-skin whaling boat. Photo: Faustine Mercer

Here’s a really interesting story on Shari Gearheard’s NSF-funded people and sea-ice study. Gearheard, a glaciologist from U Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, combined scientific sea-ice studies with the traditional knowledge of Inuit collaboraters who’ve spent their lives on or near the ice.  The aim: to gain a better understanding of how sea ice is changing in the Arctic–and how community lifeways around the Arctic may be changing in response.  

Gearheard and her collaborators speak extensively in the piece, and what they have to say about the changes they’ve seen in sea-ice conditions is compelling.   

“‘I’m a scientist so when I look at sea ice I see what its properties are. How dense it is. But I remember sitting with the hunters when we were all in Qaanaaq. They looked at the sea ice and the first thing they said they saw was ‘freedom’.  

‘(Sea ice) meant they could hunt for food. It meant they could travel to see relatives on the other side of the water, that they hadn’t seen all year.  

‘That was a very powerful thing for me as a person, not just as a scientist.'”–Shari Gearheard  

* * *

“‘When I was a boy, the ice used to hover around Barrow all year,’ 51-year-old Leavitt said. ‘Now when the ice takes off it doesn’t want to come back. So our hunting is very limited.'”–Joe Leavitt, Barrow resident and whaling captain  

* * *

“‘We used to live as nomads in those days,” Sanguya continued. “After Christmas, when there was enough snow, we’d go out on the sea ice and make igloos.  

‘In those days I didn’t have any math or measurements … or anything like that. But I remember looking down through seal breathing holes and the ice was so thick, they looked like they were tapering away.  

‘Today you don’t see that very much. You’ll probably see 4 feet or 5 feet (down) and that’s it.'”–Joelie Sanguya, Elder and hunter, Clyde River, Nunavut

Hunters in Qaanaaq, Greenland traditionally travel over the sea ice on dog-powered sledges like these. Photo: Hans Jensen


In the Media

February 18, 2010
Waking the Dead

Reconstruction of the prehistoric man Inuk. Drawing: Nuka Godfredtsen

Scientists from the University of Copenhagen have recreated the genome of a 4000-year-old Greenlandic man from genetic material found in tufts of his hair. They are the first to reconstruct the genome of an extinct human being.  

The innovative technique can be applied to museum materials and ancient remains found in nature and may help scientists reconstruct human traits from extinct cultures where only limited remains have been recovered. Scientists also may use the technique to explain ancient human expansions and migration; it also may improve understanding of heredity and the disease risk passed down from our ancestors. The study is published in the upcoming issue of Nature

P-p-p-poker Flat, P-p-p-poker Flat 

Launch season got underway at Poker Flat Research Range near Fairbanks, Alaska, this week, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported on Tuesday. “The 2010 launch season began when a two-stage Terrier Orion rocket carrying 16 vials of trimethyl alumimum [sic] was fired into the upper atmosphere at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. Twelve of the vials were released, causing colorful, glowing streaks in the atmospheric winds about 70 miles above northern Alaska.” 

CPS team member, SRI's Todd Valentic, took this picture of a rocket launch at Poker Flat in 2007. With NSF funding, SRI developed a next-generation radar system at the site, which can be used to collect information from the rocket soundings. For more on SRI's cutting edge radars, click on the picture.

Scientists at Poker Flat, Toolik Field Station, and Fort Yukon collected ground-based information from the tracers streaking the sky after the rocket fired its vials. 

The rocket range, owned by the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute, allows scientists to study the middle and upper atmosphere, especially the aurora. Dartmouth’s James LaBelle leads the rocket-borne experiments. 

Ned Rozell wrote about the Poker Flat launches a while back. Read his piece to understand what it takes—and why scientists love the rockets.

Polarpower in Solar

Tracy Dahl’s white paper on photovoltaic power options in cold climes has been published in the new journal Solar. Tracy originally published the piece on the CPS sustainable power technology Web site, Congratulations, Tracy!

Global Darkening 

We really enjoyed Jon Stewart’s send-up of the flap over last week’s snowstorms by climate-change deniers.  

On a related note, see this New York Times opinion piece by Thomas Friedman.

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.

Northwest Passage: The Making of a Documentary

November 29, 2009

On June 17, 2009, Emmy award-winning filmmaker Sprague Theobald, 58, left Rhode Island on a 57-foot Nordhavn powerboat with a crew of four to document a maritime expedition through the Arctic’s storied Northwest Passage. Once impenetrable, the ice-covered seafaring route became fully navigable for the first time in 2007 when the sea ice dramatically retreated. In 2008, the passage was also clear, and in 2009, Theobald embarked to make a film showcasing the stark wilderness. Able sailors and divers, the crew had never before braved the Arctic. They encountered significantly more ice than expected, but five months, many polar bears and one perilous ice trap later, they emerged safely in Seattle on November 5, 2009, with 250 hours of high-definition footage. This winter, Theobald will distill his material into a full-length documentary. Theobald sat down with us and reflected on his journey.

The Northwest Passage. Sprague Theobald's trip originated in Rhode Island and ended in Seattle five months later.

Polar Field Services: When did you first get the idea for this project?

Sprague Theobald: Years and years and years ago. I was very inquisitive as a kid and when I learned about the Northwest Passage in school, the first thing they said was that man can’t go through it. I hate the word “can’t.” Since then the passage has intrigued me, in part because I knew as I was growing up that if no one was up there going through it, no one had yet left their footprints. 

No footprints here. Theobald and crew make tracks in the Northwest Passage. Photo: Northwest Passage Film

What was your intention/mission when you set out from Rhode Island?

Apart from simply documenting this great expedition, I wanted to show daily shipboard life of a family. But once we got to Greenland and saw the ice and got away from humanity, I saw that nature is so much bigger than any story we could tell from the boat.

What interaction did you have with native communities?

I was hoping to show the life in the communities we went to, but it was very hard to depict daily life. I was also thinking about doing more on the environment and climate change specifically, but then I thought the pictures spoke for themselves.

Would it have enhanced your experience to discuss climate change more and interview more experts?

Well, we interviewed two elders, hunters and two young geologists. Their anecdotal information differed. The elders both said the winters are getting longer and the ice is getting thicker, and the geologists said the ice was changing, seeing more run off. I didn’t want to make a climate change documentary. I wanted to show the pristine place in its rawness.

We do have footage talking about the potential impacts of oil and gas, and prospecting for diamonds and gold and nickel underground.

Were you already a fan of the Arctic or polar places?

Other than a scouting trip in 2008, I had never been there before. But the passage had such a legacy of expeditions trying and, if they made it back, saying it’s hell. My sense of adventure goes deep, and when someone says, “you can’t go there,” I think, “Why not?” 

The view from the boat—for five months. Photo: Northwest Passage Film

What were your first impressions as you reached the Arctic by boat?

It was much different than I expected. I knew it would be isolated and desolate, but it was like the backside of the moon. There was no plant life; we went two months without seeing another boat or another person, and every time anyone went ashore onto the ice, two of us had to go together and we had to have guns.

Describe the environment.

The midnight sun was ethereal with a bluish cast to it. Human faces don’t look pink and healthy—they look blue and gaunt. It is really powerful. The wildlife was stunning.

Describe a typical day.

You wake up four different times and are always busy. You stand watch, are briefed as to what is going on, check the engine room, download the ice charts, weather charts, keep your eyes open for anything—a rogue piece of ice or whales getting ready to jump

What was typical progress and how much fuel did you use?

A good day would be 200 miles and we’d travel between 7.5 and 8 knots. The tank holds 2,200 gallons of fuel and we used a little less than 8,000 gallons, total. We got fuel in Greenland, and topped off the tank in Nome and in Sitka, and that lasted us to Seattle.

What were some of the more interesting shots you filmed?

It was all really stunning. And the underwater footage is incredible. Everyone has seen life above the ice. Seeing the hull of the boat coming through the ice is amazing.

You were stuck on the ice for several days. What happened?

That was horrific. Our options dwindled very slowly and inexorably. We had been anchored off of a small island downloading the ice charts, and saw a lead open in the ice. The next chart came down, and the lead was even bigger, so we went for it. We were halfway in it, when we saw a white wall coming toward us. The wind doesn’t drive the ice, the currents do, and the currents had changed.

On the first day we were trapped, in 18 hours we moved 17 miles. The next day we made two miles in five hours. I went to bed thinking the next thing I was going to hear was the crunch of the ice decimating the boat. But four hours later I woke up, and we were seven miles off the coast, had a small lead, and we pushed and pushed and began to work our way out of it. 

Icebergs show up on the radar. Theobald and crew were trapped in the ice when changing currents closed leads (openings in the ice) that previously looked open. Photo: Northwest Passage Film

What were the potential consequences of being trapped?

We couldn’t move. It was the first time in my life I had ever been without an option. We felt hopeless. We were trapped, caught, not moving. In the worst-case scenario, we would have had to abandon the ship and make our way to the closest civilization over ice.

Did you film during this crisis?

With great precaution we went out onto the ice and got some magnificent footage of the boat trapped. We also dove under the boat and locked in some great shots.

What was the most dangerous aspect of being trapped?

The ice felt like an avalanche in very slow motion, the compasses were all deviating because we were so far north, so we had to rely on GPS to navigate. We dropped anchor on the ice floe, and so we would move with the ice, but the current changed yet again and at one point, instead of being a mile and a half off shore, we were a quarter mile off shore. We were either going to wreck on the rocks or on the ice.

How did you get out of the situation?

Luck. The current changed again, and then we saw a small opening and we went for it as aggressively as we could. When we were finally liberated, there weren’t whoops of joy or loud yahoos. Everyone was so depleted.

You said you have an interest and eagerness to support or inspire the educational/scientific communities with your footage and experiences. What are some ways you envision doing that?

The goal for any documentary is for someone to sit there at the end and say, “I never knew that.” I want to open their eyes a little bit, and if I can develop partnerships with any scientists or educational outlets to use some of my footage to accomplish that, then that would be good.

When will we see the documentary?

It will take about three months to log all the footage, and by the beginning of the summer we’ll have a good rough cut. A lot of people have expressed an interest in seeing the footage, so right now I am working on creating a good five-minute teaser.

Much of your crew was related to you.

Yep, it didn’t start off as a family trip, but my crew included my stepdaughter, Dominique Tanton, 28, and stepson, Chaunce Tanton, 32, and their half brother and my son Sefton Theobald, 22.

This expedition pulled the family back together in a way that was totally unexpected.

When did you decide to make this expedition a reality?

In 2007. I was out to dinner with friends in New York and was asked if there was a trip I hadn’t yet done as a filmmaker, and the words “Northwest Passage” flew out of my mouth and were there on the table. And it was realistic, particularly with the ice opening up that summer. I had a boat, I had crew people in mind, and—this was before the economy fell apart—I had potential sponsors lined up to underwrite it.

Who were your sponsors?

Nordhavn, the boat manufacturer (and I owned a Nordhavn) signed on right away. But last September (2008) the economy began to crumble and they and my other sponsors had to pull out. I completely understood. They didn’t have the money.

How did you pay for the expedition, and what was your budget?

I used the proceeds from the sale of my home several years earlier. It was completely self-funded and cost me about $300,000.

What are your final thoughts on the expedition?

It was an astounding trip. I hope that whatever happens in the future with the Northwest Passage, we all use our brains about it. It truly is one of the last wild adventures.

In the Media

November 19, 2009

Documentary Filmmaker Completes Northwest Passage Trip


The M/V Bagan cruises past icebergs as she makes her way through The Storied Northwest Passage. Documentarian Sprague Theobald and Hole in the Wall Productions will bring us stories from their 5-month cruise. Photo: © HITW Productions;

Filmmaker Sprague Theobald completed a trip through the Northwest Passage, arriving in Ketchikan, AK, Oct. 27 on a 57-foot Nordhavn power boat, reports the Fairbanks Daily News Miner. Theobald and his crew, which included was his son, Sefton Theobald; master diver Greg Deascentis; and cameraman Ulli Bonnekamp, among others, departed Newport, R. I., on June 16. During the journey, the team was hit by an ice floe that trapped their boat in the ice for days. “It was worth the risk, but I would not do it again,” Theobold told Yachting Magazine. “We have yet to talk publicly about the more terrifying moments of the trip.” During the voyage, he interviewed Inuit elders, other sailors attempting the passage, politicians, and conservationists as he collected material for a full-length documentary, Braving the Northwest Passage, forthcoming. Learn more about the adventure at his blog.

Emmy-winning filmmaker Sprague Theobald eyes sea ice from the bow of the Began. Photo: © HITW Productions ( To visit the Web site, click on the picture.

Arctic Commercial Fishing Limits To Go Into Effect Dec. 3

The Associated Press reports that strict commercial fishing limits in the Arctic will go into effect Dec. 3, following a push from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop a plan to regulate commercial fishing in the Arctic in the wake of melting sea ice. The restrictions prohibit industrial fishing in nearly 200,000 square miles of U.S. waters in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.


Much Arctic Warming Linked To Sea Ice, Cloud Cover Changes

Icebergs in Columbia Bay, Alaska, are representative of ice bodies impacted by Arctic warming. Photo: University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

A study published in the Nov., 2009, issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters asserts that much of the dramatic change documented in the Arctic over the past 20 years correlates with changes in sea ice concentration and cloud cover. Lead author Yinghui Liu (Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin) writes that sea ice loss in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the fall account for significant surface warming. Specifically, the researchers analyze the influence of trends in sea ice concentration and cloud cover on surface temperature in the Arctic from 1982 to 2004. They find that sea ice concentration and cloud cover play a large role in observed temperature trends. For instance, their analysis shows that surface warming associated with sea ice accounts for more than 0.9 degrees Celsius (1.62 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade of the observed 1.1 degrees Celsius (about 2 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade warming trend in autumn. In addition, in winter, cloud cover changes explain 0.91 degrees Celsius (1.64 degrees Fahrenheit) of the 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.16 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade surface temperature cooling, and in spring, 0.55 degrees Celsius (0.99 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade of the total 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degree Fahrenheit) per decade warming is attributable to cloud cover. The authors note that their model provides insight into the causes of recent temperature trends and could be extended to study the influences of other parameters such as sea ice thickness.


Study Links Climate Change to California Drought

U.S. News & World Report publishes a story that the centuries-long droughts experienced by the state of California over the past 20,000 years coincided with thawing Arctic Ice Caps. The research, published online in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters  by UC Davis doctoral student Jessica Oster and geology professor Isabel Montanez, present evidence from analysis of stalagmites from Moaning Cavern and Black Chasm in the central Sierra Nevada. The authors compared climate records from Greenland with the climate records from the stalagmites. At the end of the last ice age about 15,000 years ago, California became much drier. When Arctic records indicate a cooling period about 13,000 years ago, the data show California experienced wetter weather. The scientists don’t offer an explanation for the relationship between Arctic temperatures and California’s precipitation. But the article says that climate models developed by others suggest that “When Arctic sea ice disappears, the jet stream—high-altitude winds with a profound influence on climate—shifts north, moving precipitation away from California.”

And Finally…

The Copenhagen Climate Conference is less than a month away (December 6 – 18).

In the Media

October 27, 2009

A group in Anchorage, Alaska, participates in the Climate Action day last weekend. Carl Johnson Photography, courtesy

Last Saturday (October 24) was the International Day of Climate Action. Over 180 countries participated in more than 5000 activities around the globe to raise awareness of advances in climate science and to stimulate action regarding climate change. Organizers hope grassroots movements like this will encourage world leaders to develop a new climate treaty when they meet in Copenhagen this December. The day was organized by


Greenland's Disko Bay, recipient of the speeded-up outflow of some of Greenland's fastest-moving glaciers. Click on the picture to find out what '350' refers to.

The Interior Department’s proposal last week to designate some 200,000 square miles of northern coastal Alaska and US territorial waters for polar bears met with criticism from both sides. Alaskan agencies indicated they would challenge the proposal, seeing it as an obstacle to the state’s oil and gas interests; conservation agencies, on the other hand, said it did not go far enough to protect polar bear habitat, which is shrinking due to melting sea ice.

Meanwhile, Andy Revkin reports in The New York Times that the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that Pacific walruses, suffering as a result of habitat loss, should be considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Walruses use sea ice as a “floating nursery,” Revkin says, while they hunt for clams on the coastal seafloor; shrinking ice has meant that increasing numbers of walrus come ashore. Recently, walrus stampedes have killed scores of these animals.

On his Dot Earth blog, Andy Revkin includes a dispatch from David Rothenberg, who is sailing on a Dutch schooner with other artists on The Arctic Circle cruise. They wish to explore the “nexus where art intersects science, architecture, and activism,” according to The Arctic Circle project’s Web site. Rothenberg’s description of a few of his colleague’s projects suggest they DO experience the Arctic differently than do average tourists, as Rothenberg asserts (toast, anyone?). The writing calls up bold images, such as this description of bears feasting on a whale carcass: ”Their bloody faces smile as they chew on rancid whale meat.”

The Weather Channel Features NEEM and ANG 109th

October 9, 2009

Watch Saturday/Sunday 7 -10am EDT

Robbie Score in front of the NEEM dome. Photo: Ed. Stockard

Robbie Score in front of the NEEM dome. Photo: Ed Stockard

Those of us in the U.S. wishing to visit the U Copenhagen-led NEEM drilling camp (or to fly with the Air National Guard 109th Airlift Wing) on the Greenland ice sheet should tune in to the Weather Channel this Saturday and Sunday (October 10 and 11) between 7am and 11am EDT. A crew from StormCenter (Dan Cohen, Steven Holloway, Rick Patterson and Heidi Cullen from Climate Central) visited Greenland last July and produced some stories about NEEM and the ANG that air this weekend.

Whet your appetite with video clips posted on the StormCenter Web site; they do a great job of putting you on the ice sheet, in the core rooms, in the cockpit with the Guard flight crew. They also make it clear that for everyone doing the work, it’s more than a job. NEEM field coordinator JP Steffensen (U Copenhagen) refers to his 29 years of research in Greenland as a “marriage for life” while ANG Lt. Col George Alston says the mission is “a great way to contribute to the nation.” And the woman with the biggest NEEM title of all, Chief Scientist Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, she can’t suppress a grin when she admits she just “wants to work with the cores.”

The ANG provides the airlift muscle to the drilling camp, and the footage inside the cockpit looks great. “We shot some amazing footage,” agrees Dave Jones, head of StormCenter, “and we will continue to tell the stories that need to be told.” Jones has particularly kind words for the ANG, writing, “I can’t tell you how proud I am that the 109th exists! Thank you for all you do to advance our understanding of science and global climate change.”