Ice-capades and Alaska Baking with Methane?
This will be a picture day to more than make up for the last couple of text-rich entries.Cara has helped me solve the picture problem and the laptop has not been playing up so far.
Hiking across permafrost tundra and frozen lakes, bear tracks, drilling through ice, setting “umbrella traps” (caught any good brollies recently?), digging boots out of deep snow, sometimes with leg still attached…
We’re now in Healy, on the borders of the Denali National Park. We’ve left the freezing temperatures of the Arctic, but are still in snow and ice country.
We spent an incredible day in the (ice)-field with Katey Walter and her assistant Laura, scientists from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. They’re studying methane emissions from melting permafrost lakes and their contribution to climate change.
Methane is a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than co2. Climate change models need to be adjusted to include it. As global temperatures increase, ponds and lakes are formed as the permafrost thaws. There’s been a considerable increase in methane measured seasonally in high northern latitudes, and Katey is looking into the background. How is it formed, to what extent, how much is released under what conditions and what does it all mean for the future climate?
We drove to 8-Mile lake, the dirt track rough but mostly cleared of snow. We were on the lookout for moose and bears, but they kept a low profile.We did find bear tracks on the ice, though.
Transported power drills and other equipment for collecting samples. The idea is to collect plant matter from under the ice and on the tundra to check in the lab, and to collect some methane being emitted from the lake.
One hazard moving around from ice to tundra is losing your boot in snow up to your thighs if you land on a deep soft bit (happened frequently). Sometimes somebody has to dig it out.
The lake is still frozen solid, although the top layer gets mushy or fluid in the sun, so we were wading through water at times. Strange feeling, have to rely on Katey’s word that the ice will hold us all with no problems.
Set up equipment on tarpaulin on ice and have a picnic lunch.
One team of CC ambassadors helped Katey drill into the ice to get plant samples for analysis. The other went with Laura onto the (melting) permafrost to collect samples of dead leaves for analysis (all to find out how fast and under what conditions their decay produces methane).
The students (well they’re not really students, but they do belong to a “College”) worked really hard and without whinging, out on the ice a whole day in strong sunshine. I’m impressed by their knowledge of climate issues, the questions they ask, and how well they soak up the knowledge and can present it. I’ve been interviewing them intermittently (to be heard on Living Planet in the weeks to come).
Laura found a methane “hotspot” in a little “puddle-pond”.
She put an umbrella trap over it, a plastic umbrella/funnel with plastic bottles attached, which collects the gas.
Then she found a second hole which required a boat to access. Art hiked back to base camp, brought and inflated the dingy and they put out a 2nd trap.
Katey and Laura are great, amazingly dedicated and very patient with visiting journalists and “trainee” scientists.
Marc Cornelissen, our expedition leader is a bundle of energy, enthusiasm and he’s completely unflappable. He can magic up lithium batteries which last longer in the cold, fix laptops, cameras, ice-drills, rescue lost equipment stuck in the ice and provide extra socks and even boots after those little “icecapades”.And he just keeps going non-stop.
You can actually light the methane we collected from the lake. Scientists are working on trying to capture it to use it for fuel. Katey says that would be really good for the environment and the climate.
DateMay 5, 2008 | 5:47 pm
TagsAlaska, Arctic, Climate, Climate Change College, Denali, ice, lakes, melting, methane, science, snow, USA, wildlife, Youth
Climate Witnesses: The Cooper Island Guillemots
George Divoky is a man with a mission. For three months every summer for more than 30 years, he’s been keeping an eye on a breeding colony of guillemots on remote and normally uninhabited (at least by humans) Cooper Island, north-east of Barrow. He counts them and weighs them when they come in to nest, as attentive as any parent bird. But they’re dependent on sea ice for the feed that’s underneath, and the population is declining, because of the changes in sea ice patterns (I described in earlier entry). They’re forced to eat sub-standard food, as polar cod numbers are dwindling. He’s noted puffins, a sub-Arctic species not normally at home in this region, moving in. But chicks on Cooper are welcome prey for marauding polar bears, also struggling for food with the warming trend causing a decline in sea ice. The bears have even had a go at George’s tiny cabin, and all the plastic bottles inside it. Seems they like hot chilli sauce, not so keen on shampoo. He wanted to fly over with a search and rescue flight plane today, to check if the cabin’s been disturbed, but it was too windy.
Check out the guillemots on Cooper Island
You can listen in to an excerpt from the interview I did with George on this blog soon and the full version in Living Planet in the weeks to come.
George is an inspiring and charismatic speaker. He made quite an impression on all of us. You can also have a listen to Cara, one of our climate ambassadors, giving me her reactions to George’s talk on our windy trek back through the snow, once I get the audio version uploaded (details below). Cara’s a very lively climate ambassador and asks a lot of questions I would otherwise ask myself. If she changes her mind about the eco-renovation project, she could be a reporter at DW.
Other than that, the CC students have been busy with their usual daily chores, listening, questioning, blogging, filming, interviewing climate witnesses and being interviewed. This is attracting a lot of media interest, but they’re also very professional themselves when it comes to documenting the climate change info they’re gathering, and passing it on.
Erika put in an appearance in her pink fluffy worm outfit, very fetching. (She’s the one with the compost project). Jakob offered some tips with my laptop problem. He’s a real tech expert. I’ve been having a(nother?) bad technology day, with the laptop crashing. So excuse me if this entry is a bit thin on the pictures, I’ll make up for it later. A loss of data was averted by Dorin, a super-friendly IT expert from BASC. He fled from the old Roumania when he was 17 and has ended up in Barrow. (There is a strong multicultural element here, at the top end of the world. Our Eskimo friend Alice told me today she also has some Portuguese blood in her). People are very welcoming and helpful here. Basc has looked after us very well. Thanks to Alice, Dorin, Basc chief Glenn and all the folk we met in Barrow.
There was beautiful sun today (you could see the little ice crystals glittering in the air), so there was a lot of outdoor filming. Pieter, the CC cameraman from the Netherlands, deserves a medal, he was outside with the camera for hours.
This afternoon we watched the met man launch the weather balloon in Barrow, contributing to world data on weather and climate. And on the way home, our driver Michael Donovan (yesterday’s bear guide) let us have a photo stop on the “beach” – well the frozen over Chukchi Sea. An unbelievable landscape, “waves” of snow stretching as far as the eye could see.
I’m writing this on the plane to Fairfax. There’s an amazing view of snow-covered Arctic Alaska, the peaks tinged pink and gold in the nighttime sun. It looks deceptively beautiful. We’ve experienced the harsh realities of life in a pola region. The snow cover is diminishing as we move south. We’re a couple of hours late, so it’ll be nearly midnight by the time we get in. And we’re off to Healy at the crack of dawn. Climate ambassadors have a punishing schedule, and this accompanying reporter has to keep up with the pace. Life can be tough when you’re travelling with celebrities.
DateMay 4, 2008 | 8:47 am
TagsAlaska, Arctic, Biodiversity, birds, Climate, Climate Change College, ice, Living Planet, snow, USA, wildlife, Youth
Coastal Erosion Threatens Indigenous Heritage Sites
“When we go out today,we have to stay together. And if the bear guides say back to the skidoos, you get back NOW.This is polar bear country.” Anne Jensen is an archaeologist of the charismatic – and extremely hardy sort. To conduct excavations in the Arctic, you’d have to be. She had held us all entranced in the disused theatre now used as a storeroom by BASC, telling us all about the history of the region and her efforts to preserve old indigenous grave sites and remove remains for reburial before coastal erosion washes them into the water. We’d heard from Chris yesterday how the retreat of the sea ice leaves the coastline more vulnerable to storms and pressure from wild ocean waves.Today Anne took us on an excursion to Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the USA,to visit one of the sites. We weren’t going to be able to see much. The locals told me this was the worst kind of day for a trip out.
Our expedition leader Marc Cornelissen rounded up his charges before we settled onto the snow machines and sledges.”Has everybody got FULL Arctic gear? I don’t want to hear anybody has forgotten a pack, their gloves or anything else. This will be a long ride, the strong wind in our faces on the way out and you need to make sure you don’t get cold”.
It was an amazing trip, a tiny taste of the life of an Arctic explorer. Sitting on the flat wooden sledge,the wind and the exhaust from the skidoo blew the snow into our faces and everywhere else.At times I couldn’t tell where the sky ended and the snow began. And when we reached the point where the two seas meet – all we could see was snow-covered ice, all around.
In spite of the wind and snow, I managed to record Anne Jensen’s introduction to the location. Available below, for your listening pleasure.Click onto the link:
DateMay 3, 2008 | 6:33 am
TagsAlaska, archaeology, Arctic, Climate, Climate Change College, ice, indigenous, Inupiat, polar bears, snow, USA, Youth
A Hardy Species: Arctic Scientists
Now I know what it feels like to be a scientist in the Arctic, out on the sea ice in a biting wind. As German sea-ice researcher Chris Petrich, puts it, “it’s really cool”.
If you’re like him, a northern type, who doesn’t like getting too hot – perfect. From the observer’s point of view – you really need to have a calling to work outside in these conditions. To quote one of the students: “I’d go mental if I had to do this in these temperatures all the time”.
Chris was undoubtedly the hero of the day. He works at Fairbanks Uni and comes up to Barrow at least once a month to monitor the development of the sea ice and the snow covering it. Current climate change models have various problem areas – one of them is the “albedo effect”. Snow reflects heat back up away from the earth. Melting snow leaves darkish puddles, which absorb the heat, thus exacerbating the warming further. But it’s a complex phenomenon to calculate. And there’s a need for more data.
Today, the climate ambassadors were detailed to help Chris with his measurements, drilling holes into the snow (with hand drills, great for keeping warm) and measuring the depth. “Full Arctic gear” was required, “take what you think you need and add an extra layer” was Chris’ advice. I was comfortable with five, almost full-face balaclava and the parka hood. Once my sunglasses had frozen over, I knew why they provided us with snow goggles.
We headed off at one, with Erika, one of the CC students who studied in the US, driving us in the BASC (Barrow Arctic Science Centre) van to the “end of the road“. (They’re a versatile bunch.)The trouble was, it was hard to tell whether the road had ended or not, since it’s all covered in snow anyway. Then we changed into the preferred mode of transport out across the snowy desert that is the frozen Arctic: snow machines, or skidoos, towing long wooden sledges, two on the “doo”, the rest sitting as flat as possible on the sledge. We had 3 armed eskimo “bear guides” with us, keeping watch throughout, as polar bears are common here. Chris has encountered them several times – close encounters fortunately of the brief and “mostly harmless” kind. At the moment, my guide tells me, they’re more likely to be further out, finishing off the carcasses of two recently “harvested” bowhead whales.
Chris was happy to be able to measure on a windy day to compare with yesterday, when the weather was calmer. So at least one person was happy about the wind-chill factor. The measurements took around four hours. The “trainee scientists” worked hard and successfully handed in their measurements. “Spread the word about climate change and the importance of polar research” were Chris’s parting words. That’s our mission Chris, and thanks for an exciting and informative day on the ice.
Great website with animated charts of sea ice – and the daily measurements
And another one on combining Inupiaq and western ice science:Barrow Ice Trails
Simon sent in a question about the insulation of houses, which I’d just like to touch on before I close.
Iglu is an eskimo word for dwelling, not necessarily the ice-house we tend to think of. Traditionally, people built to keep the cold out. I’ve talked to one of our bear guides and he tells me they have thick walls and thick roof insulation – but still need a lot of heat in the winter.
DateMay 2, 2008 | 8:19 am
TagsAlaska, Arctic, Barrow, BASC, Climate, Climate Change College, ice, polar bears, science, sea ice, snow, USA, Youth
Meeting the Inupiat (the Tale of the Whale)
We left our overnight stop in Anchorage at 4am after two and a half hours of sleep, bound for Barrow, 330 miles above the Arctic Circle, northernmost point in the USA and home to the ancient Inupiaq culture.
The Inupiaq name is Ukpiagvik, which means “place to hunt the snowy owls”. The locals themselves say this is probably one of the harshest locations in the Arctic.
All about Barrow
The plane to Barrow stops at Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, “the oil place”. I was sandwiched between two oil-workers, the one in dungares and baseball cap, the other in his parka and woolly hat – all the way to Prudhoe Bay. We had to get de-iced in between, there was some snow in the air – and of course plenty on the ground. Outside the air was prickling with ice crystals – inside the cabin, with steadily rising excitement in our small group of Europeans. Airfields with snow-ploughs and tiny terminal buildings. A taste of travel in Arctic Alaska. There is no road to Barrow. The air connection is the lifeline.
We were met by Alice, coordinator at BASC, the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, which is hosting us and providing our accommodation. She’s a real character and one of the most welcoming and hospitable people I’ve ever come across. In her informal, chatty way, as she drives us from the airport, she is teaching us a lot about her Eskimo heritage – and the role it still plays in everyday life in Barrow.
The Barrow Arctic Science Consortium
This is whale-hunting country – difficult for a lot of us, concerned as we are to “save the whales”. One of the Eskimos joked “is this the Greenpeace lot”? Of course we understand the difference between subsistence whaling as part of the indigenous culture and commercial whaling. And we’ve learned a lot about the Inupiat culture today and just how central the “harvesting” of a limited quota of bowhead whales is to it. Still, I found it hard to stomach all the details of the hunt – let alone the result. And that was definitely the dish of the day. In the Heritage Centre, we learned all about it. Then, at short notice, Alice told us we were invited to a feast.
When the “whaling captain”’s family has finished preparing and cooking up the whale meat, blubber and innards, the whole village is invited to come and eat and take away bags for the family. All generations were collected in the “Captain”’s kitchen. It’s clearly a very special – and very social – occasion. We didn’t want to intrude for too long, but had some interesting conversations in the house and outside, besides some of the bloody remains of the whale. From Jenny, a tough lady, to Kayan, a modern young man complete with ear stud, the people I talked to all had tales to tell of climate change.
The sea freezing later in the year than before, thinner ice, changes in the species of wildlife in the region. Everybody is concerned. This is clearly an issue here. But when it comes to awareness of the need to reduce emissions, the price of petrol is clearly a higher incentive than worry about global warming. In this icy, harsh climate, in an area as remote as you can find, heating and fuel are not a luxury. “Alternative energy man? Sure, give me a solar-powered snow-machine and I’ll use it” – Kayan laughs and heads off for some whalemeat.
DateMay 1, 2008 | 6:34 pm
TagsAlaska, Arctic, Barrow, BASC, Climate, Climate Change College, ice, Inupiat, Oil, snow, USA, whales, Youth