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Mission accomplished – data worrying. The Arctic ocean acidification project

I have just heard that the experiment I reported on from Svalbard has been concluded. A press release from Greenpeace quotes Professor Ulf Riebesell from the IFM-GEOMAR Kiel Uni ocean acidification project as saying the experiment was a success.

(I took this pic of Prof. Riebesell watching the deployment of the mesocosms last month, see earlier posts).

That doesn’t mean the news is good:
“Not only do we now have the most comprehensive data set ever on the impacts of ocean acidification in Arctic waters, we have also learned from this experiment that ocean acidification in these waters has a definite impact on the base of the food web, which can have implications for the entire ecosystem.” says Prof. Ulf.
“If we keep emitting CO2 at the current rate, marine organisms will experience changes in ocean acidity beyond anything they have experienced in the last 20 million years of their evolutionary history.”
Worrying times indeed.


July 13, 2010 | 10:53 am



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The “bear” facts – on Longyearbjen

I left Ny Alesund having seen most of the mesocosms deployed and everything running well.
The local Arctic fox – who apparently lives under the 1912 houses which have become the Dutch Arctic station – appeared to see me off.

I found Longyearbjen in a state of great excitement because a polar bear had drifted in on the sea ice a few days ago. I was hoping he’d come back, but so far he hasn’t. It was a big attraction, because although they are said to be all around, understandably they don’t come into town that often. The authorities were happy as long as he snoozed on his iceberg, but when he started to move around, they zapped him with a tranquillizer dart and moved him off to a “safer” location.That left the ice floes clear for the Eiders.

Longyearbjen is called after American John M. Longyear, who established the first mine here in 1906. The mining history of the settlement is in evidence everywhere, old coal shafts and the pylons which carried the rope line used to transport the coal to the port.

Coal is still mined here today. It’s controversial, Greenpeace staged a protest here last year, which has made them quite unpopular with the locals, worried about their jobs. That’s presumably one reason why up in Ny Alesund, somebody threw a seal’s head onto the deck of the Esperanza. The local newsletter ‘icepeople’, self-styled as “the world’s northernmost alternative newspaper” reported on the return of the environmentalists saying “This time Greenpeace is promising – it seems – to be good”, i.e. because they are supporting scientific research rather than protesting. The newsletter people are clearly still wary, though.
There is a test project running here for carbon capture and storage. I went to the site of the borehole with the director, Gunnar Sand.

They are testing whether the underground storage site would be safe to store 90% of emissions from the local coal-fired power plant. He says they could be up and running by 2015. But he also stresses the need for much more intensive testing, as safety is paramount. He says Longyearbjen is ideal for a pilot plant, as they have a small community with a closed system. He thinks the world will be dependent on coal for the next fifty years at least, given especially the developments in China. More later on DW radio and the website.

There’s supposed to be a population of 2000 here. I don’t know where they all are, it makes a rather empty impression most of the time. Most people I’ve met have been incomers, who tend to come for a short time, fall in love with it and stay as long as they can. Margrete Nilsdater Skaktavl Keyser is one.

Margrete came here for a short course and went on to do a full degree here. The student residences at the far end of the town show the two main attractions that seem to bring students to the uni here : snow mobiles in winter and nature all around, all year round, with plenty of potential for field work on all aspects of Arctic sciences:

Margrete came here as a student for a short course and stayed on for a longer degree, writing on polar bears. You need a job to stay here, so she takes whatever she finds and goes home to the Norwegian mainland in between.In the season, she guides people on snowmobile trips. At the moment she’s working with the Svalbard authorities compiling a data base on encounters between humans and polar bears, trying to work out guidelines for avoiding “incidents”. I’ve been keeping that in mind walking around here. You can’t leave the town area safely without a rifle, flares etc. People have been killed around here, although it’s a good few years ago.
Glaciology Professor Doug Benn, a fellow Scot who taught in my old university St. Andrews, invited me to join him and two junior colleagues for a look at the local glaciers yesterday. He’s also an active researcher into a glacial area of the Himalayas. More on that next time.
As you can see, no hikes outside town without the rifle. Doug is the one in charge of the party’s safety here:


June 3, 2010 | 8:56 am




All systems go for the world’s biggest ocean acidification test

Today was a big day all round, and it started grey and snowy, with feelings of tense anticipation. For the scientists, it’s the next step towards the work they’ve put so much effort into over the last up to four years. If the mesocosms can be put in place successfully, they can lower the sacks and close them up to start the world’s biggest experiment on ocean acidification. If not, they’re in a bad way.
For the Greenpeace team, it’s time to put the giant testtubes they’ve carefully brought up to the Arctic from Kiel in Germany into the water, the fruition of their work with the scientist team. It’s a premiere all round. Not only is it a new and large-scale experiment, it’s a premiere in terms of Greenpeace and an official science body working together. As Martin Kaiser, Greenpeace climate campaigner from Germany and Professor Ulf Riebesell explained to me, the memorandum of understanding stipulates clearly who does what. The scientists are independent, doing their own work, grateful to Greenpeace for providing the boat without which none of this could have happened. Greenpeace is responsible for the logistics and helping because they want the data on the effects of ocean acidification on Arctic ocean ecosystems and organisms to be collected. Everybody stresses there are no foregone conclusions. Lab tests have indicated calcifying organisms are likely to suffer badly, but only this bigger experiment will give an indication of how whole systems react.
Let me give you the rest of the day in pictures.

The crew on the Esperanza were up bright and breezy and ready to start loading the mesocosms from the quay onto the boat at 8. Well you can’t say crack of dawn, since it’s light all night.
The scientists were down to keep an eye on operations

and IFM Geomar engineer Detlef Hoffmann, who seems to me to have been spending his life going up and down in the lift fixing up the mesocosms was back in place.

One by one, the first 3 mesocosms were lifted onto the Esperanza.

Professor Ulf, who’s coordinated the experiment, and Klaus, who designed the mesocosms, watch anxiously from the deck of the Esperanza.

At the deployment site, number one goes over, steady as she goes…

In the scientists\’s boat, Prof. Jean Pierre, the EPOCA coordinator,keeps an anxious eye.

The IFM technical experts in the dinghy do the necessary to affix the equipment.

Having “suited up” and gone into one of the Greenpeace dinghy, I’m able to follow the next “mesocosm overboard” operation from the water, looking up to the Esperanza.

The Greenpeace communications team are busy documenting this slightly different “campaign”.

Down she goes…

Well met, IFM Geomar.

Ulf has got on his survival gear and come down to check it out for himself.

And Greenpeace climate campaigner Martin Kaiser, on board the Esperanza, can be happy with the results so far.


June 1, 2010 | 7:52 pm




Sunday morning in Ny Alesund

We didn’t get the usual 7.30 morning wake up knock on the door this morning, a Sunday treat.
Still, when I looked out onto the pier, Professor Jean-Pierre Gattuso, the coordinator of the whole EPOCA project, was out there in a shower of sleet preparing test samples.

When I looked up the fjord to the huge glaciers, there was some floating ice to be seen in the distance. The mesocosms will be placed at the other,more sheltered end, but the one thing that could cause a problem, the scientists have told me, is if the wind changes and blows the icebergs down this way. The frames for the mesocosms are very stable, but the ice could damage the plastic sacks.I\’m told there will be some kind of barrier put round to protect them, still this is the main factor causing a little apprehension as the actual deployment comes closer. The team would like to start the experiment as soon as possible, but logistics have pushed the deployment back a little, probably to start tomorrow.

The world\’s most northerly post office (open once a week I believe!) looks picturesque even in a shower of sleet.
Meanwhile, the sun has been putting in the odd appearance, although it still keeps snowing or sleeeting, which gives a lovely light to the place. I think so anyway. The place is very quiet so far, probably a mixture of Sunday and the weather. Seems a shame to me not to be out and about.
Our resident Svalbard reindeer seems to think the same. Here he’s heading across the snow:

And as the summer comes in, he’s finding more and more tasty greenery:


May 30, 2010 | 10:21 am



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In the interests of science…

Ny Alesund is a very unique kind of place. On the one hand, at 79° north, it’s a really remote location. At the same time, thanks to all the scientific interest, the small village is very well equipped to provide accommodation for a small group of privileged scientists who get permission to work here for some time during “their” research season. It’s a radio-silent area to avoid disturbing sensitive measuring equipment. Imagine a place with no mobile phones!
In winter, there are only a maximum of 30 people here, including the logistics staff. I’ve just been talking to Marcus Schumacher, who was the station leader until recently and is now the coordinator of the EPOCA research project on ocean acidification. He says there’s a great community feeling, just a few people in the long, winter months. Then, in March and April the glaciologists come in, when the snow is firm enough to get to the glaciers on snowmobiles. They’ve gone now, and the others are coming in, biologists, geologists, etc.
The village is a collection of different coloured buildings, occupied by a very international set of people. The Norwegians, obviously, have a station.

The French and Germans have a combined AWIPEV station.The Chinese have a station, so do the Koreans. 4 Indian scientists have just arrived at their station.

I dropped in there this morning and had a coffee chat with some of the team. More about their work at a later stage when I’ve interviewed them on their work. I was also made welcome by the head of the Norwegian station, who is actually German. (Science is very international). Again more later on the interesting things I discussed with him. The problem with being here is there are so many interesting things going on it’s hard to decide what to write when and to make sure you don’t miss anything while you’re writing – especially since it never gets dark and there’s no clear end to the “working day” for anybody. The sun has come out today for the first time since I’ve been here, so the urge to get out and take photos while the light is good is very strong.

At the moment there’s a special buzz about the place, with the team of scientists and technicians just arrived for the EPOCA ocean acidification project. At the same time, the Greenpeace ship came in with the mesocosms and loads of other equipment supplies for the project. Marcus is coordinating all this – must be quite a challenge. All of a sudden, this small, exclusive research station has trebled its population or something like that. It also means more people sharing the laboratory space and other equipment. Sandra Heinrich, a German PhD student who’s working here on macroalgae in the fjord showed me round the marine lab today.

This is her 4th time here, and she says it’s an ideal place to work. She really feels the difference since the arrival of all the extra people.
Another interesting thing is the cooperation between science and Greenpeace. This cooperation between the ngo best known for its spectacular protests and campaigns and an established scientific research organisation is a premiere. There was a lot of discussion beforehand on whether it was a good idea. The project was having problems finding a suitable boat, because they need the equipment to be up here for 5 weeks. Greenpeace stepped in with an offer to transport the mesocosms on the Esperanza, as they were planning an Arctic expedition anyway. It all seems to be working very well, in spite of some sensitivities. I know some of the scientists are wary of being associated with a campaign group, because they don’t want to compromise their scientific neutrality or be seen to be taking sides. At the same time the issue of ocean acidification is one that’s based on chemistry and facts, so not a controversial topic like climate change.
The Greenpeace team are doing a great job, very professional and keen to facilitate the scientific research in every way possible.

Climate campaigner on the Esperanza Martin Kaiser.

Oceans campaigner Frida Bengtsson, one of my cabin-mates on the ship.
Another interesting relationship has been between some of the Norwegian seamen whose boat has been brought in to assist with some of the work. Given the country’s policy on whaling, it’s not surprising that the occasional tension has been felt. So far though, scientists, whale and seal hunters and the Greenpeace team are working well together in the interests of science and, I’m convinced, for the good of the planet.

View from my porthole.


May 29, 2010 | 7:40 pm



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