Transmission Location: At sea, 70 miles SW of Southwest Cape, St Lawrence Island
Lat/Long: 63.16.2N/173.43.7W. Time: 0900 Temperature: ?5.1 dgF, Wind: 7 mph from NW
Wind Chill: ?22 dgF. Clear skies. Sunrise: 9:47 AM, Sunset: 9:39 PM. Ice: compact sea ice/w leads and lakes. Note: Walrus en route to first station.
The Healy left the Gulf of Alaska on March 12, entering Unimak Pass at 2:00 AM. This major navigational route passes between the Aleutian Islands of Unimak and Akun, the gateway between the North Pacific and Bering Sea. Emerging from the pass before dawn, the ship’s navigator set a course that would bring the Healy just east of St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs by 7:30 PM.
: NORTHERN FULMAR FOLLOWING THE HEALY ENROUTE TO THE PRIBILOFS. Photo credit: Andrew Trites, Univ. of British Columbia
Although not the most direct route to the first sampling station, the latest satellite imagery showed it to be the most ice-free route. What the ship would lose by taking a longer route, it would more than gain back in speed. In open water the ship makes a good 15 knots, or a little over 17 miles per hour. Breaking ice is a slower more costly endeavor. Ice conditions determine speed, which can drop to as little as two or three knots per hour. Even though the ship’s ice-breaking ability is impressive it can be stopped by a pressure ridge, a jumbled layer of wind-stacked ice. If need be, the Healy can back up, power forward and ram the ice. A passage may open with the first ram, or require a second, third or fourth try. In some cases, the ship might even have to find a way around such places. Powering through ice of any thickness requires a lot of expensive fuel, in an area where there are almost no re-fueling options. If you want to get to the ice research stations quickly, it is quicker and more efficient to go around the ice whenever possible.
In fact, we made good time and by Friday noon we are 50 miles due west of the uninhabited St. Matthew and Hall Islands. These islands are part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, a wilderness home to the rare McKay’s Bunting. We are spotting pancake ice, telling us we are getting close to our destination. This early stage of ice formation occurs when ocean swells and waves break-up newly formed sheet ice into pancake shaped pieces. As they chaff against each other the edges become rounded, giving them a pancake shape. (For additional sea ice formation details, click this link for the NOAA Observers Guide to Ice). Walruses, one of the most ice-dependent marine mammals, are being spotted regularly loafing on the larger pieces of ice, breaching near the ice edge, and poping their heads up through air holes to satisfy their curiosity as we sail by.
: PANCAKE ICE FORMING OFF ST. MATTHEW ISLAND Photo credit: Andrew Trites, Univ. of British Columbia
It is 7:30 PM and the Healy has arrived on its first data collection station off St. Lawrence Island. A year of planning and coordination by the Chief Scientist is over. Anticipation turns into implementation, theory into practice. In many ways, Chief Scientists Lee Cooper and Jackie Grebmeier’s greatest challenges are just beginning.
Coming next: In the Bering Sea, the shortest distance between two sampling points is not a straight line. And, if you listen carefully, you may hear a bowhead whale.
Scientists of the Day: Lee Cooper and Jackie Grebmeier
The Co-Chief Scientists over-seeing the cruise of the Healy work together to ensure the success of this large, complex expedition. Lee Cooper and Jackie Grebmeier not only bring to their jobs their combined scientific expertise but a pleasant and flexible management style honed in part by their marriage. They mesh their knowledge and experience to develop innovative solutions to thorny problems and demanding schedules. The Healy’s main science lab is often a hectic place with multiple activities going on at once. One, or both, of them are there almost all the time, ready, when needed, to coordinate the work flow and resolve problems.
: IN THE LAB--JACKIE GREBMEIER & LEE COOPER, PARTNERS IN SCIENCE, PARTNERS IN MARRIAGE. Photo Credit: Tom Litwin
“My job as Chief Scientist is sometimes like herding cats,” says Lee Cooper. “Scientists are a bright and independent lot and integrating the science staff with the Coast Guard’s command structure is an important task. Someone has to make the decisions and prioritize so that the scientists can conduct their projects in an orderly fashion.” Cooper seems at ease in the co-leadership role. Born in Washington, D.C., he grew up in Malibu, California, where he fell in love with the sea, which sparked an intense desire to learn more about it. His path to knowledge required sacrifice and plenty of effort. “I worked my way through school with a variety of jobs. I sorted packages for UPS. Drove a city bus in Seattle, two shifts a day, one at night and another through downtown at rush hour,” he said. “Whatever I needed to do to get through school.” While pursuing his education, Lee met his wife-to-be, Jackie Grebmeier, at a marine lab in northern California. Three years ago, their daughter, Ruth, 14, spent one month on the Healy helping to sort and preserve sea creatures dredged from the bottom. Even scientists need breaks, and since Cooper speaks Spanish, his family’s Christmas vacations lead to South America or Mexico.
Lee, 53, is a research professor at the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, a part of its Center for Environmental Science. Just up the coast from his boyhood home in Malibu, he earned his Bachelors in biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, followed by a Masters in botany at the University of Washington, and a Ph.D. in oceanography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. While Cooper’s leadership role involves him in the entire project, his own work looks at the chemistry and productivity of the water column in response to the changes in Bering Sea ice cover, the early thaw the critical issue impacting the ecosystem. For those interested in pursuing a career in science, Cooper said this: “There’s always room for good people. You don’t have to be brilliant to be a good scientist, but you must be fully committed, and have a strong work ethic.”
Jackie Grebmeier loves working at night. “I’ve worked nights my whole life,” she explains, “and find it very productive, without the usual daytime distractions.” Maybe this penchant explains how she has accomplished so much in her life—first as student, then graduate student, researcher, wife, mother, and administrator. For Jackie, a native Californian, her junior year at a Palo Alto high school was a major turning point. “I had a young, dynamic, female biology teacher who got me excited about marine science,” she explains. Her early interest in science was influenced by Rachel Carson’s The Final Storm, and hiking in Yosemite Valley. “In high school I read all the stuff, did all the things typical to California in the 1970’s but science was my passion. Now, on flights, I read espionage novels,” she laughs, “spy thrillers to get me away from my work and science.”
Jackie, 53, is also a research scientist at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. While studying for her Bachelors in invertebrate zoology she met her future research partner and husband, Lee Cooper, at the University of California, Davis’s marine lab at Bodega Bay. Powered by uncommon energy, she went on for a Masters in biology from Stanford University, a second Masters in marine science at the University of Washington, and was awarded a PhD in oceanography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Currently she is an ex-officio member of the National Academy of Science’s Polar Research Board and the International Arctic Science Committee. Aboard the Healy, she is studying life on the sea bottom and the changes wrought by early ice melt. Some female scientists view Grebmeier as a ground-breaking role model, rising to leadership positions in a science largely dominated by men. “Never listen to anybody who says no,” she tells female science students. “As my father used to say, you can do whatever you want to do. Also, you should love what you are doing, because there are highs and lows in everything. Don’t get discouraged, just find a different way. Push the envelope but don’t take things personally. Stick to your principles and don’t be talked out of what you believe in.”
Focus on Research: Lee Cooper and Jackie Grebmeier
A sense of urgency drives Bering Sea research. The arctic is warming, causing the ice to thaw earlier in the spring, and arrive later in the fall. Annual rhythms that once were stable and predictable, are now variable and uncertain. This sea is shallow—100 to 180 feet—and flat. The underlying continental shelf is one of the flattest and smoothest places on earth. Over centuries a layer of marine sediment filled in the features present when this was dry land, part of the Bering Land Bridge. The bottom teams with life and the shallow water allows diving animals to access their prey.
ROSETTE WATER COLUMN SAMPLER (CTD) BEING DEPLOYED. CTD MEASURES SALT CONTENT, TEMPERATURE AND WATER DEPTH WHILE BEING LOWERED TO SEA BOTTOM Photo Credit: Tom Litwin
In winter, masses of single-cell plants, called algae, live on the underside of the pack ice. With spring melt, these tiny plants float free and are nourished by rising water that carries vital nutrients up from the depths. The returning sun, and warming water, triggers a vast “bloom” on the edge of the retreating ice. This bloom of what scientists call phytoplankton, along with a community of small animals, called zooplankton, form the basic food supply on which all oceanic creatures ultimately depend.
The timing of this bloom, and its effect on the entire food web, is part of an intricate balance. A scientific understanding of the changes brought by early melt is vital to both the wildlife and the humans who depend on this rich ecosystem.
Lee Cooper’s work measures the physical characteristics of the water from the surface to the bottom. “We are trying to understand the Bering Sea ecosystem, beginning with the climate’s influence on sea ice, currents and water properties,” Lee said, “and its impact on the nutrients and productivity of the phytoplankton and zooplankton. If we don’t follow the primary production, we don’t know what is happening throughout the system.” Cooper’s team lowers an instrument over the side of the Healy that collects water samples at fixed depths. Besides recording the depth of each sample, the CTD, as the unit is called, records the conductivity of the water which, when adjusted for temperature, measures salinity. The samples are tested for chlorophyll content and other constituents. Also, while underway, water flowing through a pipe on the ship is sampled, recording changes in seawater characteristics along the ship’s path. “We must know what happens in spring,” Lee explained, “a season which now shows a statistical decrease in sea ice.”
ON STATION, AFT DECK SAMPLING (JACKIE GREBMEIER, upper, LEE COOPER, lower) Photo Credit: Tom Litwin
Jackie Grebmeier’s team of graduate students and technicians is studying the effects of the early ice melt on bottom-dwelling creatures. Before climate change, most of the organic carbon produced by the spring bloom reached the bottom and feed the large number of animals living there. With an early thaw, however, the bloom floats near the surface longer with much of it consumed there and less sinking to the bottom. Using two different devices, a small dredge and a corer, Jackie’s team collects both mud and animals from the bottom. Since studies began 20 years ago some species have declined. “Bivalves are the main food for eiders and walrus,” Jackie explained, “we now see a decline in clams corresponding with a decline in eiders. If this system changes, the losers will be ducks, walrus, gray whales, bearded seals, and other bottom feeders.”
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Wednesday, 18 March 2009 17:50
Into the Bering Sea, Into the IceWritten by Tom Litwin: On Thin Ice
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