Transmission Location: At sea, 46 miles SW of Sikniq Cape (sample station SEC2), St Lawrence Island.
Lat/Long: 62deg 12 min N/170 deg 16 min W (grid 62.2). Time: 0925. Temperature: ?1.5 dgF, Wind: 19.5 mph from NW. Wind Chill: ?19 dgF. Clear skies. Sunrise: 9:41 AM, Sunset: 9:39 PM. Ice: very close pack, new ice ~3ft. thick, big floes. Ship’s log by Tom Litwin, scientist profiles by Tom Walker.
USCGC HEALY’S ICEBREAKING BOW, BOSON MATE JIM MERTEN Photo Credit: Tom Litwin
I’m standing in the Forward Machine Room where I can put my palm on the inboard side of the Healy’s stem, the most forward part of the bow. If I could walk forward another few feet through the ship’s hull I would be standing on the ice. It is difficult finding the words to describe the variety of intense, rapidly changing sounds that fill this echoing steel-clad room as the ship is breaking ice. At the least it is a cacophony of thunderous crashes, booms, and crushing sounds filling every inch of the space. A shrill screech erupts instantly after a crash—a chunk of ice weighing tons presses and slides along the ship’s hull like finger nails on a blackboard. It’s the BOOM! CRASH! BANG! of superhero comic books. Just two rooms back are the galley and mess where we eat. Conversation with the person just next to you abruptly stops. The noise is so loud you can see their lips move, but not hear the words. Imagine having a conversation next to an industrial size washing machine filled with rocks.
Climbing up the ship’s ladder one deck to the foc’c’le, I’m craning over the gunwale, looking down to the ice from the most forward spot on the ship. As the Healy presses forward I can see the spot where the stem’s steel meets the ice. Large and small floes of ice, some as thick as four feet, split and break, cracks streak out like lightning bolts but in the next instant, the ice refuses to yield. The ship reverses and looks for another opening.
These are immense forces at play. The Healy carries 1,221,000 gallons of fuel to power four diesel engines that can generate 30,000 horsepower. Then there are the floes of ice that can reach five feet thick and stretch up to six miles across. They are both titans, one of human ingenuity, the other of nature’s grandeur. Then I look up and out. In the midst of all the science and technology, and brute forces of nature, there is a wilderness with a more subtle side.
Photo Credit: Tom Litwin
As far as I can see to the horizon in any direction, over 300 square miles, there is ice, snow, and ribbons of water between them. The light they reflect, shapes they form, change minute to minute as the low Arctic sun moves across the sky casting long fingers of shadow. Ripples and ridges created by the wind, like sand dunes, form endless patterns in the snow.
Snow Shadows 0053jpg. Photo Credit: Tom Litwin
There is no question that the cold and isolation of the Bering Sea make this a dangerous place. To romanticize that away would be a serious mistake. Yet at the very same time its vastness and stark beauty speaks to us in a very different, basic way. The two together define this wilderness.
SNOW SHADOWS Photo Credit: Tom Litwin
Scientist of the Day: Karen Frey, Arctic System Scientist
“In the fourth grade, our teacher brought in a geologist to talk us,” Karen Frey, 33, recalls, “and I was enthralled by his presentation. From that moment on I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be a scientist.” Although she loved math and science, especially calculus, music and sports became life long pursuits. “I started playing piano at age three, and in fourth grade picked up the violin,” she says. “I played in the symphony in high school and at Cornell. While I am not quite sure how it works, there is a mental connection between science and music.” Karen also describes herself as “kind of a jock” and plays softball, tennis, ultimate Frisbee, and Division I volleyball at Cornell. “If nothing else,” she says, “these varied activities have taught me to manage my time. I am working harder now than I have ever worked in my life but I love it. I have my dream job.”
SCOTT HILLER AND DR. KAREN FREY MONITOR WATER COLUMN SAMPLES Photo Credit: Tom Litwin
Karen Frey is a member of the faculty in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University, in Worcester Massachusetts. She earned both her Masters’ and Doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles, but rather than wear the label of either geographer, or hydrologist, she prefers “Arctic Systems Scientist.” Aboard the Healy, Frey used real-time satellite imagery to track ice in the Bering Sea, monitoring the timing of the spring thaw. “The timing of the melt is crucial,” she says, “for it triggers a plant bloom upon which the entire Bering Sea food web is built. Early melt impacts the entirety of this biologically-rich environment.” She offers this advice to budding scientists: “Get involved in real research. Nothing can inspire you more than hands-on work. It’s one thing to learn through books, but it’s entirely amazing to learn through personal experience.”
Focus on Snow and Ice Science.
MARCH SUNRISE ON THE BERING SEA Photo Credit: Tom Walker
Albedo is an important concept in climatology. When sunlight falls on an object, some of it is reflected and some of it is absorbed. The albedo (derived from Latin for white, or whiteness) is a measure of how much light, and heat, a surface reflects, determined primarily by the color and texture of the surface. Ice and snow-covered surfaces reflect nearly all the light and heat back into the atmosphere. Dark surfaces, such as forests and open water, are less reflective and more absorbent of light and heat.
The classic example of albedo effect is the snow-temperature feedback loop. If a snow-covered area warms and the snow melts, the albedo decreases, more sunlight is absorbed, and the temperature tends to increase. Because dark surfaces exert a warming effect, a patch of dark, thawed ground, for example, holds the heat and helps thaw the surrounding snow. Thus the thaw results from both a shift in season but also from the albedo effect.
Ice absorbs only 15% of the sun’s energy and reflects 85%. In comparison, open water absorbs 93% of the sun’s energy, reflecting only 7%. “In the Bering Sea we are replacing the lightest thing on the planet, ice, with the darkest thing on the plant, open water,” Karen Frye explains, “and the albedo effect accelerates warming in the arctic.”
FREY USES SATELLITE IMAGES TO ESTIMATE SNOW AND ICE COVER. ST. LAWRENCE ISLAND IS AT TOP OF IMAGE, ST. MATTHEW AT BOTTOM Satellite: Defense Meteorological Space Program Photo Credit: Steve Roberts, NCAR
Karen, and her colleagues, can measure the sea ice, and spring algae blooms, from space. The Earth’s surface albedo is regularly estimated by satellite sensors. Frey needs to take snow and ice measurements to validate the satellite imagery. “The change in sea ice cover is the most dramatic of all the climatic changes that are going on now,’ Karen said. “half of all global photosynthesis occurs in the ocean. Pulses of algae and phytoplankton blooms are really dependent on ice. Timing is everything and I am interested in the variability of sea ice and how it impacts spring bloom.”
KAREN FREY (left) GATHERS SNOW SAMPLES TO MEAURE WATER CONTENT Photo Credit: Tom Litwin
“Even a thin layer of snow can block,” she explained, “more even than a thick layer of ice. I take measurements of the snow depth, as well as samples of it to determine water volume and content and the possible impact on algae growth.”
“Humans have a very personal stake in events in the arctic,” Frey councils. “We see a clear linkage between warming and cataclysmic events like hurricanes, typhoons, and coastal flooding. There will be obvious impacts on fishing and food production for subsistence hunters, but also for people living in places far-removed from the arctic because of alterations in the global weather patterns.”
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Sunday, 22 March 2009 17:49
More Than Frozen WaterWritten by Tom Litwin: On Thin Ice
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