Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mr. Toad's wild ride

The inevitable happened. Field days 2, 3, and 4 came and went without much time in between for a post. So, here is a recap as best as I can remember.

Sunrise on the way to Sukok lake, 27 October.

Second field day was out to Sukok lake with our full field team of six people on 4 snow machines, plus our guide and 2 sleds. The lake is about 20 miles away, but with a max speed of about 20 mph and very bumpy topography, the trip took about an hour and a half. It was quite a challenging ride for my second day driving a snow machine. I learned to trust the beast a bit more and the value of punching the accelerator. Once in awhile, the skis would follow a track despite my attempts at steering, giving the distinct feeling of Mr. Toad's wild ride. Finally, we reached the edge of the lake, and I thought the challenge had passed. The boss rode out towards our coordinates and stopped about 20 feet shy of a large, open, methane seep that was not iced over. The rest of the group joined him and only once we were sampling did we discover that the seep was not in a single location, but extended in a line across the sub-basin, with very thin, loosely aggregated ice cover. Just a few feet away, the ice was back to 25 cm depth, but we had to be very careful. The next site was in the center of the lake, and we managed to cross over the thin ice without incident.

Thicker ice adjacent to an open methane seep, Sukok lake.

Sampling at the center site was a bit more challenging, with mud that suctioned core tubes and a sampling hole that was hiding under the tent, laying in wait to trick me. Yes, I stepped into the sampling hole. The lake depth is only about 2 meters, and luckily I only went in up to my knee or thigh, depending on who is telling the story. Felt very much like post holing, but I was lucky not to have broken a leg. The rest of the week my boss was very kind to constantly point out all open holes in the vicinity. (For the record, it was impossible to get away with anything this week!) It truly takes talent to step in the only hole in the ice for a mile in every direction. A dry pair of socks on one foot, the replacement of frozen Carhartt overalls with dry Carhartt coveralls, and several foot warmers later, we were on our way to face the challenging ride home again. Managed to stay relatively warm thanks to a "dancing" break with the boss on the way back and boots firmly hooked into the snow machine near the exhaust. No frostbite!

The next day, we discovered the Thai restaurant in Barrow. Sonny affirmed that the best Thai food I've ever had has been in Alaska. This stuff was amazing, especially the soup and the green curry. We even ate there again last night because we enjoyed it so much.

The third field day at a lake north of Walakpa bay was far less eventful than the second day out, although the snow machine ride was nearly as rough. Only one site made for a shorter day and I was able to process everything before dinner. However, issues with a chilling water bath and needing to get more water for an experiment back in the lower 48 necessitated a fourth day out, this time with a much smaller team.

Last sampling site of the trip, center of Sukok lake, 30 October.

If you want to travel fast, pack 1 sled to be pulled by your experienced guide and hop on the back of a snow machine driven by an even more experienced Antarctic ecologist. Just be sure to hold on tight. The trip back out to Sukok yesterday was still nearly an hour and a half, but was far faster than Wednesday. The wind and worsening weather made for a rough day, but our field tent managed to hang in there one more time and give some much needed shelter while sampling. The ice screws disappeared shortly after I stepped in the hole on Wednesday and we lost another pole on Friday, but it still functioned. The real excitement came when we were back at the seep site and had to warn a couple of caribou hunters about the thin ice just a few feet away. One of them backed up so fast, he ran right over the sled he was pulling!

After we got back and took care of business, we headed into town. Caught the local band warming up at the roller rink before the big Halloween party, but the scientists just couldn't cut it. After one of our own hopped up on stage to join the band with his harmonica, we headed home "early" around 11 pm and I passed out shortly after. I am certainly glad to have a week or so for a break before heading back out into the field, on the other side of the world. Two days for inventory, packing, and ending experiments. It's warmer in McMurdo than Barrow today, a trend I hope will continue!

Happy halloween!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

First fall field day

Yesterday was our first sampling trip of the week. Waking up to pitch black skies is a bit difficult when you've become accustomed to field work in arctic springs and summers when there is nearly or a full 24 hours of daylight. Took us a little bit of time in the morning to get our gear in order, as it usually does the first time out. Guess who finally got to drive a snow machine (i.e. snow mobile)? If you guessed the person who had a cast for a broken wrist last trip, you would be correct. I definitely understand why people insisted on driving last trip and why most of them nearly lost me off the back several times. There is much more control when driving (and when not wearing a cast!) and the ability to hook your feet under the front makes it far more secure. I think I need to pay back a certain astrophysicist for several bumpy rides on our trip out tomorrow.

First lake yesterday was Ikroavik. One of our baseline lakes, sampling proceeded without many issues, albeit slower than I would have liked. Luckily we took the time to pop up the ice fishing tent, which cut down the wind considerably and eased taking samples. Our guide shared some of his lunch with us, which included maktaaq, dried caribou, and whale meat. He claimed that all three together is like the McDonald's of Barrow, but I stuck to the maktaaq along with the rest of the lunch we brought. For those of you who missed my description of tasting maktaaq last April, it's blubber and skin from a bowhead whale. It's very oily, with a nutty flavor vaguely reminiscent of seaweed. Soy sauce and wasabi are popular additions. The Inupiat have an annual quota that allows them to continue their traditions of whale hunting which is very much a part of the culture here. Basically, it's impractical to ship in all food from external sources, and whaling (and hunting) is an integral local food source. Our last trip in April was an exciting time here in town in part due to everyone getting ready for the beginning of whaling season.

After lunch, we finished sampling and despite having taken far too long, we moved on to the next lake, Emaiksoun. It was nearby and we did a relatively quick sampling, but the sun set while we were still working. Every day is about 4 minutes shorter than the one before, mercifully with an extended dusk. Driving the snow machines back to the station was still quite a challenge, with drizzle freezing on the windshield, requiring either driving blind, standing up, or craning one's neck out to the side to follow the trail. All things considered, it actually wasn't a bad day. The weather wasn't horrible, we accomplished what we set out to do, and I was able to meet my boss's challenge of the number of push-ups to match our ages (yes, mine were girly...). Wasn't sure the wrist would comply, but it held! Just don't ask me to do it again today, hauling gear and driving the snow machine made me reach for the pain relievers last night and again this morning.

No rest for the wicked though, we were all up early again today for a lab day of processing samples (and recovering). Tonight our NASA team members are arriving and we will head to our farthest site tomorrow. At least we'll be able to see some sun again, I blinked and missed it while working inside today.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Back in Barrow

We made a short visit to Fairbanks on our way up to Barrow this time. It was a little odd to finally see it with snow, but it was reassuring that really so little had changed in three years (at least on the west side of town). Wish I had taken more pictures, but we didn't do much besides visit people on campus, go to Beaver Sports, and run other errands. On campus, I was asked to share some of my work via presentation and had a really good meeting afterward with folks working on similar questions. We were also invited to a very international potluck last night where we met more great people and ate lots of amazing food. Turns out that Alaskan winter ale tastes even better in October than it does in May. Lesson of the evening was that Fairbanks definitely has a way of getting under your skin, and I'm sure my many friends who have moved there can attest to that.

Arrival in Barrow this morning was a bit of a shock. Windy! It was also about the level of daylight we had at about 2 am towards the end of our last trip here in April. Definitely an adjustment, but at least the air temperature is a bit warmer at the moment. We promptly set about getting settled in a new (to us) hut. We bemoaned the absence of some of our previous field members, so Paula and I set about documenting it for them.

Unfortunately, our first subject was lunch. Yes, that is indeed burnt toast. And burnt toast is really only very good if you are referring to a bed and breakfast in Ann Arbor. At least we have nice views.

This evening, we were joined by two more team members and decided that Pepe's was the easiest option for dinner. Pepe's North of the Border is a Barrow institution, they even have complimentary certificates for crossing the Arctic Circle. The restaurant's owner brought Johnny Carson a giant walrus "bone" on the Tonight Show in the mid-80s, so I guess there's that as well.

Speaking of famous people, there is another film crew coinciding with our field work again. When we were here in April, On the Ice was filming and we were able to watch some dancers perform for it. This time, there's a Drew Barrymore film about the whales that were stuck in the ice about 20 years ago. Apparently they want to film outside of the hut we stayed in last time, which is how we ended up in our new digs. Between this and the movies made in SE Michigan a few years ago, I'm beginning to feel like I never left California. Well, besides the wind chill. Honestly, I'd be more excited if I get to see the northern lights again.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

T-minus way too soon.

Tomorrow the grand bi-polar adventure begins. As a send off, a friend sent me this link to Ghosts of Antarctic Stations. The story of Scott has always depressed me, I suppose I'm more of a Shackleton gal, in it more for the adventure than the destination. Or, I may just be a product of my generation.

In any case, let the adventure begin! First stop, Fairbanks via Seattle.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Getting ready

The next grand adventure is about to get underway. I'm currently in the middle of last minute preparations for a field trip not only to Alaska, but also to Taylor Valley in Antarctica!

To get you up to speed, my current research project is focused on the lakes near Barrow, Alaska. Our team is one component of a larger NASA Astrobiology Institute project focused on Icy Worlds. Which means, we get to study icy habitats (like frozen lakes) and figure out how to detect life on extraterrestrial icy worlds like Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter. We previously ventured out in April, at the end of winter when there was lots of ice on the lakes.

This time, we're heading up at the end of October right when things are beginning to freeze so that we can examine the differences in ice, water, and sediment characteristics and microbiology.

Three days after I return from Alaska, I am headed to Christchurch, New Zealand- the intermediate stop on the way to McMurdo Station. I'll be down there for almost 3 months, helping out a team of researchers who have been performing research on lakes in the Dry Valleys. I'll also be able to run some experiments of my own focused on comparing bacteria from opposite ends of the earth.

In the mean time, I've stumbled across a tempting Space Craft Contest over at No time for me to participate, but I can't wait to see what people submit.