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.

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Polar Careers: Tracy Dahl, Polar Field Services’ Renewable Energy Specialist

January 12, 2010

Self portrait: Tracy Dahl documents a rare sunny day on the Alaskan tundra. All photos courtesy Tracy Dahl.

Like many who work at the poles, Polar Field Services’  (PFS) Tracy Dahl has taken a circuitous path to arrive at his current position. As PFS’s technical specialist in renewable energy, Dahl has circled the globe, consulted myriad experts and books, designed and built renewable energy contraptions in his work shop and then installed them in the world’s harshest outdoor laboratories.

The Fossil Fuel Dilemma

Throughout his career, he’s been driven by a passion to help ease human reliance on fossil fuels, which he blames for creating a major disconnect between humans and the environment. But rather than bemoan the status quo (a fossil fuel economy), Dahl strives to change it—one photo voltaic array at a time.

“Renewable energy is about manipulating the environment, or at least learning how to harvest it,” says Dahl. “It’s about learning how to adapt to the environment and use what the world has to offer in a benign way, rather than imposing a resource-intensive system upon it.”

Dahl spends much of the field season in Alaska and Greenland installing generators that run off of wind and sun in remote study plots. These systems allow scientists to  run long-term mechanical equipment without contributing to pollution. This keeps their sites clean and, given the longevity of the systems, cuts down on the number of trips scientists need to make to their plots. This reduces emissions and saves money.

Home Life

At home, Dahl strives to live a low-impact life. He grows his own food at his off-the-grid abode in southern Colorado’s mountains at 8,200 feet, works from a home office, rarely drives and powers his life with energy from the sun.

“I checked my carbon footprint online, and my house was nothing, driving was minimal,” says Dahl. “But when I do commute, I go a long way.”

He says he’s never felt compelled to conform to social norms and has been happier pursuing his own interests. These include collecting rainwater to irrigate high-alpine gardens, building the straw-bale home he shares with his wife, Amy, or camping on the ice or tundra.

"Why I Work." Dahl says of his wife Amy (here with family dog, Lars): "Not only is Amy far more photogenic than I, she is also a former PFS employee and polar explorer. She's wisely decided to hang up her mukluks to concentrate on developing our homestead."

Life Choices

His passion for finding renewable energy solutions has led the wanderlust traveller on an adventurous path with stints as a motorcycle mechanic and jobs in remote field camps in Antarctica and the Arctic. As he’s carved out a niche, he’s also learned essential survival skills like how to stay warm and well fed in temperatures that plunge below zero degrees. Forgoing the comforts of fossil fuels does not mean suffering, says Dahl.

“Independence is important to me,” says Dahl. “I have always felt like I should be able to take care of myself. I like that I can go into a polar environment and not just survive but live comfortably.”

Heading South

Dahl got his start at the South Pole in 1994 when he was hired as a snowmobile mechanic at a research station in Antarctica. Although he had only ridden a snowmobile once previously, his experience as a motorcycle mechanic convinced the hiring manager Dahl could do the job. After several seasons, Dahl worked his way up to running the Mechanical Equipment Center until he was offered a job as the first antarctic renewable energy specialist in the 1999/2000 season. It was a dream assignment.

Abundant Resources

“The first year I went to Antarctica, I got off the plane, and there was a brilliant sun in the sky reflecting off the brilliant snow,” says Dahl. “The wind was howling, and I thought, ‘why aren’t there solar panels and wind turbines everywhere? What is wrong with this picture?'”

Back then, polar researchers only had a choice of what size engine generator they wanted for their field sites. Dahl found it incongruous to use expensive fossil fuel (in some places the cost of hauling in fuel translates into roughly $25 per gallon) that had to be stored and polluted the environment.

“It just didn’t make sense, and the more I saw it, the more it drove me crazy,” he says.

Arctic Bound

After a year doing renewable energy in Antarctica, Dahl decided to freelance and join his former colleagues at Polar Field Services. For the next three seasons he and Amy did stints with the company, and Dahl decided to join PFS full time in 2003.

The first year of contracting with PFS was the most challenging. It began with Dahl and Amy running the two-person Raven Camp in Greenland during the summer and then spending the winter at Summit—for a total of 13 months on the ice. Summit was “like a mission to Mars,” says Dahl.

“You are completely out there on your own,” he says. “You are completely dependent on mechanical life support. If the generators go down you better be good at fixing them.”

Cabin Fever

At Summit, the couple holed up for the winter with several others, braving the dark and cold while they kept the station functional. The irony, he noted, was being trapped indoors with his wife and three others for nine months, when all of them had equally self-reliant personalities.

“Polar programs tend to attract people who are outdoorsy, rugged individualists. Then you get gigs like that where you are stuck inside with others all winter,” says Dahl. “It is psychologically challenging to say the least.”

New Technologies

Still, he appreciated the experience enough to sign on, and today Dahl’s job entails designing, building, and installing power systems that won’t pollute the pristine environment they’re built for.

Dahl built and installed this solar and wind-powered power station at Imnavait Creek.

But don’t expect to hear him bragging about his accomplishments, even though system designs have been published in trade journals.

“The field of polar renewable energy is very, very small,” says Dahl. “Sure I have had a modest influence, but it is less because of any engineering brilliance and more so because I write. I document what I do. I have written a lot more words on the subject than most of my peers.”

(Learn more about polar renewable energy technology at www.polarpower.org.)

In The Beginning

Dahl’s interesting career path is all the more unusual considering he was an English major who graduated from college 12 years after matriculating. Rather than study renewable energy in school (“30 years ago there weren’t schools that specialized in this; everyone was self-taught”), Dahl studied literature while working as a motorcycle mechanic to pay his bills. However, his fascination with renewable energy had begun long before he went to college.

“I was interested since I first heard about it as a little kid,” says Dahl. “Solar panels that produce electricity without moving parts? How cool is that? I guess I started off nerdy.”

Then his interest evolved.

“I wanted to live out in the middle of nowhere and renewable energy was an obvious application for that. I had a keen interest and background in renewables before I stepped foot in Antarctica.”

Challenges for Polar Renewables

Dahl's field camp in nice weather, Alaska, 2007.

Adopting renewable technology came slowly and required the support of researchers and the National Science Foundation, which today funds significant renewable energy development projects.

Renewable energy has become more widespread and attitudes toward it have become measurably more accepting, says Dahl. Yet the technology is not without problems. At both poles, a seasonal dichotomy provides a fantastic solar resource in the summer and no solar resource in the winter.

“That’s a problem to overcome,” says Dahl. “So you need a back up. Wind is an option. Hydroelectric is problematic because the water freezes in the winter.” Often the best solution is a hybrid approach utilizing renewable energy as the primary power source with an engine generator or other “on-demand” power source for the times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Cost  Benefit Analysis

And initial infrastructure costs can sometimes seem prohibitive. Yet when compared to regular fuel costs, renewables are more cost-effective in the long-run, says Dahl.

“Renewable energy offers an operational cost stability you can’t get with fossil fuel with its fluctuating prices,” he says. “Extractive energy sources, be they coal, natural gas or petroleum, can be owned and the supply controlled. That is perhaps the main impediment to large-scale renewable energy development. The powers that be are reluctant to give up such a great business position, regardless of the now clearly identified cost to the environment. Nobody owns the wind, nobody owns the sun, and so your energy source is free. You just have to pay for the infrastructure required to harvest this environmental energy.”

You also have to train technicians to maintain the sometimes quite complex hybrid systems that are bruised and battered by the elements during extreme, long winters.

“There are obstacles in the way, sure, but they can be overcome,” says Dahl.

Creature Comforts

Along the way, Dahl is determined to enjoy himself. That means preparing for long trips in the field so he is comfortable, warm, and dry. Dahl sums up his job requirements as: 33% technical expertise, 33% writing, and 33% field savvy.

“You better have everything pretty well planned out because when you get dropped off by the bush plane, you’ve got what you’ve got,” says Dahl. “I’ve made enough mistakes now that I know how to do it right. That’s how you learn. Make enough mistakes and have enough miserable camping experiences where you know how not to repeat those.”

Dahl's work takes him to beautiful places, like this spot in Alaska.

As for why this lifestyle so appeals to him, Dahl turns more philosophical.

“Why would someone want to go backpacking and then climb a 14,000 foot mountain?” he asks. “For most people that would be hard to understand but for me that’s where I am supposed to be.”

It’s not always easy, he says.

“There are times I am out in the field and am being sucked dry by mosquitoes or sitting out a blizzard and it’s terrible,” says Dahl. “But by and large, I am a person who is far more comfortable in the wilderness than I am in the city. So you find something that resonates and works for you, and so, why not?  Due to the communications revolution, functionally it makes no difference whether I’m sitting in a cubicle in Denver or working from my solar-powered mountaintop home in southern Colorado (“PFS-South,” Dahl jokes). Given the choice, I’m going for the mountain top.”  —Rachel Walker


When the ground collapses like a soufflé: Studying the effect of thermokarst on the Arctic

December 28, 2009

By Emily Stone 

This is the thermokarst failure on a stream leading into the Toolik River on the day Breck Bowden and Michael Gooseff discovered it in 2003. (Courtesy of Michael Gooseff)

Scientists Breck Bowden and Michael Gooseff were flying in a helicopter near Toolik Field Station in 2003, scouting for good field sites for river research when they spotted something peculiar. 

Unlike the crystal clear Kuparuk River nearby, the Toolik River was a muddy brown, an unusual site in the Arctic where tundra streams don’t pick up much sediment because the ground is usually frozen. The men had the helicopter fly upstream to investigate. After 40 kilometers they saw the culprit: a small stream leading into the river had a huge, narrow crater on its shore that was dumping sediment into the river. 

“It was a severe gash on what was otherwise a nondescript hillside,” said Gooseff, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pennsylvania State University. 

The feature is what’s known as a thermokarst failure. Thermokarst occurs when ice in the usually solid permafrost melts and the land gives way like a soufflé. When this happens on flat ground, the melted water pools into a thermokarst lake. When it happens on a slope, as was the case along the Toolik, the water rushes downhill and usually into a nearby body of water and the ground slumps after it, causing what’s called a thermokarst failure. 

The helicopter landed by the gash. Bowden, a professor of watershed science and planning at the University of Vermont who is over six feet tall, was engulfed in it when he stood at the bottom. He guesses that it had formed within a few days of their arrival. 

Standing there, he remembers looking around at all the other tiny streams that led into the region’s big rivers and thinking, “It wouldn’t take many of these on the landscape to have a fairly big impact.” 

Bowden is now leading a project that includes Gooseff and 15 other principal investigators to discover what exactly these thermokarst features are doing to the landscape and river networks, and how they form in the first place. They’ve already established that there are many more of them than there were 25 years ago, the likely result of rising temperatures in the Arctic. As more thermokarst failures develop, researchers want to know how the additional nutrients dumped into rivers will affect aquatic ecosystems, how they’ll impact the plant communities that grow back after a thermokarst landslide, and how they’ll change the amount of carbon dioxide and methane being released into the atmosphere — all crucial questions in the study of climate change. 

Breck Bowden explores the thermokarst failure on a stream leading into the Toolik River on the day he and Michael Gooseff discovered it in 2003. (Courtesy of Michael Gooseff)

Downstream of the same thermokarst feature as it looked this summer when the group of researchers began their multi-disciplinary study of the phenomenon. Photo: Emily Stone

The group, which includes another couple dozen graduate students and technicians, is in the first year of a four-year, $5-million grant from the NSF’s Arctic System Science Program. They spent their first field season at Toolik this past summer picking their research sites and setting up equipment to monitor the changes happening in and near the thermokarst failures. 

Previous research by Bowden, Gooseff and some of the other collaborators established that, at least in the area around the field station, there are many more thermokarst failures than there were in the early 1980s. The group did an aerial survey of 600 square kilometers around the station and compared their observations to an aerial survey that was done in the same area around 1980. They found 34 thermokarst, two-thirds of which were new. This data doesn’t necessarily correspond to the rest of the Arctic since different soil conditions, slope and climate affect thermokarst formation, but it does suggest that the features are growing in at least one large swath of Alaska. 

The concern is that these features can have an outsized impact on the environment. 

Bowden is interested in the nutrients that are usually held frozen in permafrost — what he describes as “brown concrete” — that are released into rivers when that permafrost melts. The addition of ammonium, nitrate and phosphate means that aquatic microbes and plants have much more to eat and can flourish in areas where their populations were previously limited by a lack of food. This can dramatically alter a river’s ecosystem. 

He has set up water monitoring stations on rivers above and below thermokarst failures to compare the sediment and nutrients in the water before and after the thermokarst soil reaches it. Earlier research showed that the Toolik River thermokarst failure delivered more sediment to the river than was dumped into the Kuparuk River over the course of 18 years from a 132-square-kilometer section of watershed. 

Other researchers in the group are looking at how plants react to thermokarst failures. “We have a suspicion that what they evolve into is a shrubby community,” Bowden said, instead of the low tundra grasses that dominate the region. 

This is important because shrubs hold on to more sunlight than grasses, which warms the soil below. This can in turn release more stored carbon out of the warming soil. Additionally, warmer soil releases more nutrients for microbes to use as fuel. Microbes then release more methane into the atmosphere, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. Scientists in the thermokarst group are measuring this CO2 and methane release. 

Other researchers are looking at remote sensing and computer modeling, as well as interviewing Native Alaskan communities nearby to learn about their memories of where thermokarst have occurred in the past. 

Gooseff is taking a step back to try to figure out what causes the thermokarst failures in the first place. He has placed water and temperature sensors at various depths in and near several thermokarst features, as well as instruments above ground that measure rain, snow, sun and wind. His post doc, Dr. Sarah Godsey, set up cameras to take pictures of the thermokarsts every hour. Their goal is to be able to correlate the weather and soil data with physical changes in the permafrost and landscape. 

Bowden notes that thermokarst are not a new occurrence. Scientists have been aware of them for years, and engineers have long studied them in the context of building roads, homes and pipelines. 

“It is a natural phenomenon, but it appears to be one that is accelerating,” he said.

Emily Stone is a freelance writer from Chicago, Illinois. She spent a week at Toolik Field Station in 2009 as an MBL journalism fellow.


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.


Greenland’s Summit Camp in the Winter

November 23, 2009

Summit Camp science technician Katie Koster hauls 130-lb. fuel tanks in preparation for winter in Greenland. Koster is one of five people (four Polar Field Services, one NOAA) holding down the fort at Summit Camp. Photo: Andy Clarke

The biggest challenge to spending a winter at Greenland’s Summit Station isn’t the isolation, the dark, or even the cold. Rather the largest difficulty with living at and operating the station through the Winter Solstice and beyond is willing one’s fingers and brain to fire on all cylinders working outside in temperatures that range between -25ºC and -70ºC.

Life In The Far North

Check out the 2007 POLAR-PALOOZA video above with PFS’ Kathy Young for a good overview of life at Summit Camp during the summer. Although it was shot two years ago (before CH2M HILL purchased VECO), daily life remains remarkably similar.  Remove most of the people, the sunlight and knock the temperatures into the negative 20s and below, and you can imagine Summit in the winter.

This season’s five-person crew arrived Nov. 4 to operate Summit Station through the winter months, taking over for the five-person crew that tended the station after it closed for the season in late August. On Nov. 14, the team observed the last official sunrise/sunset until January 29, 2010.  They inhabit winterized buildings, share meal and housekeeping duties, and have about 300 movies to watch during downtime.

Game and movie room at Summit Camp's Big House. Photo: Karl Newyear

Clearly the team is there for much more than downtime. As manager Karl Newyear notes, they come for the self-reliance and the sense of adventure. “It’s intriguing to me that humans can adapt to places as inhospitable to life as the top of the icecap,” he says.  But mostly they come because they’ve been hired to maintain the infrastructure needed to support almost 30 year-round science experiments housed at the station.

Meet The Crew

Mindng the Summit. The crew from left to right: Glenn Grant, Shane Brazzel, Karl Newyear (front), Katie Koster, Mark Melcon (aka Commander).

Fortunately, members of the experienced winter crew are well-suited to extreme temperatures. This rugged and hearty team brings collective polar experience to the job. Camp Manager Newyear spent 10 years as a marine projects coordinator in Antarctica. A logistics specialist with a Ph.D. in oceanography, Newyear lives in Parker, CO., when he’s not on ice.

"Business casual" means something different in Greenland. Karl Newyear in front of Summit Camp's Green House.

Mechanic Shane Brazzel comes to Greenland from Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, where he was a heavy equipment mechanic and on the construction crew. The dirt-bike-loving Californian works nine hours a day, seven days a week checking the generators, monitoring mechanical systems, operating and maintaining station vehicles (snowmobiles, Cat 933 track-loader, and Cat D-6 tractor), and making water by dumping buckets of snow into the melter.

Mark Melcon (aka Commander) is a polar legend with about 20 deployments to Antarctica, eight to Greenland, and one to Alaska. After spending last summer on the Summit construction crew, he’s back for the winter and maintaining his own personal brutal work schedule: rise at 4 a.m., begin working around 7:30 and average about nine hours a day.

Glenn Grant, science technician, is in Greenland for the first time after spending more than a decade in Antarctica. Since 1995, he has worked at Antarctic research stations at Palmer, McMurdo, and the South Pole, on both south polar research ships (Nathanel B. Palmer, Laurence M. Gould), and logged six winter seasons. When not in a polar region, he maintains residence in Port Townsend, WA, and works on other science projects, including some at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO, the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center, in the Bahamas, and aboard the NOAA research vessel RAINIER.

Glenn launches a weather balloon, one of the many responsibilities of the winter crew at Summit. Photo: Karl Newyear

Rounding out the team is NOAA science technician Katie Koster, who also spent her early fall working at Summit, thus adding an element of continuity and familiarity between the Phase I crew (which has scattered around the globe) and the current crew. Katie, a meteorologist, has observed weather at New Hampshire’s Mount Washington as well as at the South Pole (and she’s also a seasoned Summiteer, having worked the 2008 summer and phase I winter as well). An accomplished cyclist and runner, Katie also has been an ice hockey referee.

General Lifestyle

All in a day's work: Katie and Glenn head off to monitor science experiments for absent researchers. Photo: Karl Newyear

All adventurers, the self-selective staff in the far north say spending the winter in Greenland gives them the unique experiences of living in clean air without light pollution, having unrivaled views of the stars and aurora borealis.

With Internet access and routine communication with Polar Field Service staff  as well as colleagues in Kangerlussuaq, they aren’t entirely isolated. And despite the cold, they spend much of their time outside doing physical work. Those seeking an extra adrenaline rush can use one of the three spinning cycles, the rowing machine, free weights, or the rock-climbing practice board, and staffers have been known to strap cross-country skis (or snow kites) on.

Wind-affected snow surrounds Summit Camp in the winter. Photo: Bill McCormick

About Summit Camp

Located at the peak of the Greenland ice cap at 72°34’44.10″N 38°27’34.56″W. Summit is a scientific research station sponsored by the National Science Foundation, operated by CH2M Hill Polar Services (CPS) with research guidance from the Summit Science Coordination Office.


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; http://northwestpassagefilm.com

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 (http://northwestpassagefilm.com). 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).


Changing Climate, Changing Patterns: An Occasional Series On The Impacts Of Warming Temperatures

October 12, 2009
 
Brant geese
A Pacific brant family on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska. Photo: Jeff Wasley, courtesy U.S. Geological Survey
A Pacific brant family on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska. Photo: Jeff Wasley, courtesy U.S. Geological Survey

Warming Temperatures Affect Geese Migration

 As Alaska’s climate has warmed over the last four decades, Pacific brant geese have drastically changed their winter migration, according to a recent study in the journal Arctic. Whereas 90 percent of the population recently wintered in Mexico, today about 30 percent of the population —roughly 40,000 birds—are spending their winters in Alaska, according to the U.S. Geological Survey-led study.

“This increase in wintering numbers of brant in Alaska coincides with a general warming of temperatures in the North Pacific and Bering Sea,” said David Ward, the lead author of the study and a USGS researcher at the Alaska Science Center. “This suggests that environmental conditions have changed for one of the northernmost-wintering populations of geese.”

The study found that the migration shift appears related to the changes in availability and abundance of eelgrass, the primary food in the non-breeding season. Release of the study garnered widespread news reports of the impacts a warming climate has on species migration. In Mother Jones, Julia Witty notes that warming temperatures have well-documented effects on the abundance and distribution of many marine species, including walleye Pollock, Pacific cod, northern fur seals, and thick billed murres.

A Polar Field Services Series: Changing Climate, Changing Patterns

The field notes team plans to report a series of stories and interviews with scientists on the real-time impacts climate change has on native populations—both human and animal. The recent article by Ward et al. details the changing patterns in brant outside of the breeding season. To learn more about how climate change is altering the birds during the summer breeding season, we asked Jim Sedinger, professor at the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science at the University of Nevada, about his long-term research on breeding strategies of Pacific brant in Alaska, funded by the NSF.

Interview With Jim Sedinger

Polar Field Services (PFS): What makes brant geese an interesting species to study for ornithologists, ecologists, and climate scientists?

Jim Sedinger: The colonial nesting nature of brant makes it possible to study demography (survival, reproductive effort, recruitment into the breeding population, etc.), which is difficult for many other species.  Brant behavior in winter also allows following individuals in winter and spring.  Brant come out of the water following high tide each day to preen and acquire grit.  Investigators can read their uniquely engraved plastic leg bands during these periods.  In some years during the 1990s David Ward’s crews read > 14,000 bands in Mexico during winter.  Individual brant are also observed in large numbers in Humboldt Bay (Jeff Black and students) and the Strait of Georgia (Environment Canada).

Brant on the Pacific coast are dependent on eelgrass in bays and estuaries extending from Alaska to Baja, so they are excellent indicators of environmental conditions along the coast.

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