September 27, 2015

Back on the map

It’s been weeks since I’ve written a post, and I thought it’d be nice to write this one once we got internet back so I don’t have to limit the quality or quantity of photos included. Speaking of which, I just updated the photos from my last post, View from the top, to have higher resolution, so be sure to revisit those.

Map in the galley that only goes as far north as 84°N. Our first station located south of 84°N on our southward journey was on September 19th, so I guess I’m a week late with this post, although, we did just get back on the internet map at 77.5°N (our current location).
About three weeks ago on September 5th, we arrived at 90°N, and to be honest, I was a little disappointed. I had imagined that there would be expansive sheets of sea ice, covered in thick layers of snow with a giant candy cane marking the geographic North Pole, and Santa waiting to greet us with mugs of hot cocoa. Surprisingly, when the GPS hit 90°N, we were presented with pools of open water (covered in thin ice) and Santa was nowhere to be found.

Reaching the geographic North Pole on September 5th. Photo taken at 8:09 AM, only one minute before photo featured in View from the top.
After two days of sampling and thinking about where Santa might be, we realized that he likely drifted away from the geographic pole with the snow-covered ice. Sure enough, once we finished sampling, we navigated to the largest ice floe near the pole and found Santa waiting for us there, like we had hoped. Looking back, I realize that sea ice—whether at the North Pole or further south—is constantly in motion due to the influence of the wind and surface currents (like the Transpolar Drift — see About the Arctic Ocean), possibly explaining why we found less ice at the pole than we had expected.

Santa and me at the North Pole on September 7th, shortly after finishing my mug of hot cocoa. Photo taken by Katlin Bowman.
Following our visit with Santa, we began our southward journey along 150°W. After reaching the 85°N Super Station over the Alpha Ridge (see About the Arctic Ocean and map below), it became very clear to us that we had previously made the right decision by taking A turn in the left direction and doing the planned cruise track backwards. Much of our southward journey consisted of backing and ramming our way through thick ice floes (what the Healy was designed for), while our northward journey was a smooth ride that bought us some extra time to sample, however, provided less ice for ice sampling stations. Since we went through so much thick ice on our way south, we occupied four ice stations to total six for the cruise, while we had intended to occupy a grand total of ten. A lot of factors contributed to our total of only six ice stations, but it is clear that our number of ice stations was limited simply by there being less ice in the Arctic than there used to be. To learn more about the 2015’s fourth lowest ice extent on record, check out Arctic News.

Ice station at the North Pole. Ana can be seen dressed all in white where she and her team collected trace-element-clean ice cores and seawater.
In addition to the thick ice we went through on our way south, we also experienced a number of bitter cold, whiteout snow days. These whiteout days coincided with the mid-point, or “hump day” of the cruise, providing little escape from the monotony of our sampling and analysis schedule. Rather than keeping a calendar and counting down these monotonous days, in the carbon van, we’ve been keeping a station map and counting down the stations. Lately, it’s been pretty exciting every time we leave a station, because not only do we get to add an “X” to the map, but we also get to take a step back and look in awe at the wonderful work we are accomplishing out here.

The Healy cutting a crack through the ice ahead, extending to (or near) the horizon during one of our whiteout days. Photo taken at 3:08 AM on September 9th.
Photo of the station map we have taped up in the carbon van. We are currently at Full Station 14, which is the northernmost white triangle that has not been X’d out yet.
Over the last couple weeks, the seascapes have changed from white on white to having some variety as we gradually made our way through thinner and thinner ice, and into some better weather. We’ve finally made it back to open water, and more importantly (for you and this posting), we’ve finally made it back to our internet connection.

The Healy nearing open water. Towards the horizon, a dark streak can be seen, which is a sign of open water or an open lead. This feature can also be seen reflected off the overlying clouds. The carbon van door is open as I say goodbye to Ryan before heading to the conference room towards the end of my shift. Photo taken at 7:53 AM on September 25th.
Thanks for following — it’s great to be back.
—AA

September 15, 2015

View from the top

On the morning of September 5th, the USCGC Healy and the U.S. GEOTRACES Arctic Expedition reached 90°N, making this the fourth visit to the North Pole for the Coast Guard, and the first visit for many of us on board.

Small party on the bow after reaching 90°N.
Nearly everyone on board was awake for our arrival to the pole. Some of us went to watch the GPS hit 90°N in the computer labs, while others went to the bow to be the first to reach the highest latitude. After celebrating our arrival, we put a rosette in the water and began sampling the northernmost water masses on the planet (see About the Arctic Ocean).

A beautiful North Pole view before going bed.
We were about to begin heading south, but we decided to stay a minute longer to meet up briefly with our German colleagues. Once we finished our water column sampling on the 6th, we moved to where the ice was thick enough to get out on and sample from (photo from previous/first ice station), and also to take a brief “ice liberty” and formally celebrate our North Pole arrival by taking a proper group photo.

Group photo taken by Cory (far right) on the 7th. Fen is in front to the left of Greg (in yellow), I am two to the right of Greg, to the left of Jim (bright yellow on navy) and Ryan is in red under the “U.”
Setting up a station for sampling water directly under the ice using pumps. Coast Guard always has people on polar bear watch (right) while we are out on the ice (even though spotting a bear at the pole is unlikely).
We were about to begin heading south, but we decided to stay a minute longer to meet up briefly with our German colleagues.

The German icebreak Polarstern (German GEOTRACES Arctic Expedition) approaching the Healy at the North Pole.
It has been an exciting long weekend for us! I hope you have a great short week down south!

—AA

P.S. — I just posted the first Q&A under Ask a Question, so be sure to check that out!