Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Into the jaws of the Bering Sea.

We are heading south towards Bering Strait and the Bering Sea beyond.  As we go, we are moving through young ice, with smallish pancakes ahead of the ship.  The ice lamps illuminate the pancakes.  The ship rumbles as she plows through the loose pancakes, with a constant crunching. This ice is relatively thin. Gone is the screeching as the ship pushed through thick, hard ice.  Gone is the backing and ramming as we try to get through an especially hard ridge.  Now we are going to face the Bering Sea, the sea of “Deadliest Catch” lore.  One huge, low pressure system after another has been rolling through the Bering for the last month.  We cannot hope to escape completely.  Working will be hard, much harder, there.

All of the locations at which we have sampled in the Chukchi Sea.  Despite the ice, the cold, and the wind we conducted nearly all of our planned sampling activities and reached all of our planned sampling locations.
We had a little taste of the conditions to come today as we worked across at transect that was placed near Point Lay, AK (southernmost transect on map).  Winds reached 40-50 knots.  There was loose ice on the surface of the ocean.  As we deployed gear, we had to take care to not catch the wires on the pieces of ice floating, or rather flying, past.  We had to pull the CTD back in on one cast without sampling because the ice was too crazy, swirling and rushing past the ship.  The wind was blowing at least 40 then, straight at the deck where we were deploying the CTD.  Streams of water were coming off the surface of the ocean.  Just walking was difficult, never mind using the ice pole in a futile effort to stave off the ice floes.  We repositioned the ship in an area with a bit less ice, and re-deployed the CTD for a successful cast.

The wind record from today.  Note the 50 knot winds.  The time is in Greenwich Mean time that is 9 hours later than our time.  So 20:00 was about 11:00 this morning, when we were trying to conduct the CTD cast I described above.

Now our work in the Chukchi is done and we move on to sample the Bering Sea.   The sun rose today, treating us to a brilliant display over the newly forming ice.  In many places, we see pancake ice adjacent to open areas where “sea smoke” is rising, water evaporating from the surface of the ocean.  

Our next plan is to sample across the eastern side of Bering Strait.  The US-Russian border runs down the middle of Bering Strait, right between two islands:  Little Diomede on the eastern/US side and Big Diomede on the western/Russian side.  We cannot cross over the border to the Russian side to sample so we will be working only on the eastern side of this important “gateway” to the Arctic Ocean.  Our ice analyst says that there is ice even to the south of the Strait so we are looking forward to another couple of days of sea ice before we face the open ocean, and waves and swell, of the Bering Sea.

Phil washes down the ring net inside the “aft hanger” on Healy.  The hanger is an enclosed, heated space with a big “garage” door.  Because hoses with sea water would freeze rapidly on deck, we bring the nets inside to wash them down. 

Me, dressed to sample. Looks just like me, doesn’t it?

Shannon, Bob, and Kristina bringing the Bongo nets in to the aft hanger after a successful tow.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Into the southern Chukchi Sea

We are moving further south.  As we go, the ice is filling the Chukchi Sea, filling that sea with us still in it.  A few days ago, there was sea ice only in the northern part and along the coast.  Now, as we go south, the ice extends almost all the way across the Sea and down through to the Bering Strait.  It is remarkable, being here while the ice is forming.  The ship moves easily through this new ice, only bumping a little as she easily knocks aside the newly formed pancakes.
A close up of pancake sea ice.  The big floe in the middle of the picture is probably 10-15 feet across.
So far we have completed work near Barrow, near Point Lay, and we are now going south to work in the southern Chukchi Sea.  Tonight we are moving south along the border between Russia and the United States.  Russia is on our right, the US is on our left.  Our days have fallen into routine, with each day following similar patterns but with new and interesting discoveries in our data and in our nets.  To date we have sampled at 78 locations, doing a CTD cast at each, a VPR cast at most, and a bongo net haul at about half.  Soon we will move into the Bering Sea.  We are fortunate that the ice has been advancing so quickly, since the northern portion of the Bering Sea is ice-covered and will dampen the waves.  

Map showing the locations in the Chukchi Sea where we have samples so far. 
Usually the ship also follows a weekly schedule but this long weekend they have been relaxing a bit.  There have been special events in the evening. Last night was casino night, with poker, roulette, and the like played on the mess deck.  Tonight was bingo night and a movie in the helicopter hanger.  Tomorrow (Sunday) is the end of the long weekend and a return to the regular schedule starts on Monday.  Although we scientists have not stopped working, the ship feels relaxed and we do get a sense of the holiday weekend (not to mention the near constant football on the television!).

With our movement south has come moderate weather. Now we think it is warm outside, when the temperature is only 6 degrees Fahrenheit!  In comparison with the temperatures of just a week ago, this is positively balmy!  Our stations are also located in much shallower water so that the time we spend on deck putting the instruments and nets in and out is much reduced (because the shallower water means that it takes less time to sample over the entire water column).
Bob and Shannon attaching the bongo net to the end of the wire before doing a bongo net tow.  The bongo net has two different nets mounted on a frame that resembles a bongo net.  We use this to determine the numbers and types of zooplankton. 
Shannon (left), Bob (middle), and Kristina (right) deploy the bongos over new ice this afternoon near the Russian border.  The weights attached to the bottom of the nets let us lower the net system vertically through the water with the mouths of the nets facing upwards and not fishing. Then, when we haul the nets up, the nets fish and collect plankton only on the upcast.
Because we will be further south, it looks as though the sun will actually rise above the horizon tomorrow!  A rather short winter of no sun for us, particularly in comparison with the people who live in Barrow on the northern coast of Alaska where the sun will not rise again until the third week in January.  It will be almost strange to see the sun again but most welcome.  
Joel works at his computer in the blue light of his "SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)"  lamp.  Since we have no sunlight, this lamp may provide some exposure to the light we are missing.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving on Healy

Many people have asked what we would be doing for Thanksgiving.  Well, having a sumptuous feast of course!   The cooks on Healy outdid themselves, preparing a fantastic meal for us all to enjoy.  After an afternoon of quiet, football, and catching up on things we enjoyed a wonderful meal and are now on our way to our next sampling location.  Many thanks to all who worked to put on this holiday meal!

Steve, Chantelle, and Chad at dinner. My meal is at the front right.

Crew enjoying the Thanksgiving meal. 

Captain Bev Havlik shows off the dinner..

Dressed up to do the dishes.

Phil tucks into his dinner, including both ham AND turkey.  What a feast!

Apple and pumpkin pie in the “pie safe”.

Sam and Krista after a satisfying meal. 

SNFS Zack Young holds up one of the eight turkeys that he cooked for dinner.
Thanksgiving sky over sea ice.  Soon we will be in open water.

Sample, sample, sample.....

There is a sense of anticipation in the air. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and we will be observing it, even though we are at sea in the Arctic. As luck would have it, we have a couple of long transits between stations to accomplish tonight and tomorrow so everyone will have a chance to relax a little and catch up on samples, record keeping, and data analysis, and watch football.

We just finished sampling along the “DBO line”. This is a line of stations located in the Chukchi Sea just to the south of Barrow, AK. An international group of scientists has been sampling across this line of stations when in the region with an oceanographic ship. The Healy has already sampled across the DBO line twice this year. Other ships and projects, including some of my work near Barrow, also have sampled the line. Together, by sharing the data, the scientific community gets an understanding of temporal changes in this sea through the summer and fall seasons. The November 22-23 sampling of the DBO line is the latest such sampling in any year and the only sampling to occur during early winter. We are eager to compare what we found with the data from the earlier sampling.

A map showing where we have sampled so far.  All of these stations have been covered with sea ice when we sampled them.
Sampling has been easy in the relative calm of the sea ice. Here the wind does not create large waves and swell because the rigid cap of sea ice extending over the ocean surface prevents this. As we start to move further south, we will leave the protection of the sea ice and enter open water that can be a much rougher place to work. We expect to leave the ice sometime tomorrow or Friday.
Donna (left), Celia (middle), and Bob (right) picking krill out of a fresh sample collected with a plankton net.  The krill are large enough to be seen without a microscope and can be scooped up out of the sample with a spoon. These krill will be used in a feeding experiment to see how much and what type of prey (phytoplankton, microzooplankton) they are eating.

Flat Stanley the Polar Bear oversees the sampling for nutrients.  Each bottle will be filled with seawater collected by the Niskin bottles on the rosette at a particular depth.

David Leech filters water from a syringe into the nutrient sample bottles while Flat Stanley Bear oversees the work.  The electric caulking gun is used to push the syringe
Things are going well! We’re collecting interesting and exciting data and samples with relative ease, particularly considering the conditions. Everyone is working hard to make sure that this cruise succeeds.

The view from the bridge in the middle of the day.    The ice is cracked because Healy is moving forward.  
Yesterday we had a “visit” from land, a helicopter from the North Slope Borough Search and Rescue in Barrow came to pick up a crewmember who needed to get off of the ship.      
A bit of silliness in front of the "Board of Lies".  (Photo by the Boarrd of Lies Cam)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thump, Shudder, Screech

We are in the thick of winter now.  We have reached our furthest northern point, at 72 27.18 N, over the slope-basin in about 2000 m of water.  As we moved north, the ice became thicker and more resilient.  Sometimes moving is easy, sometimes we claw our way forward onto the ice, then shudder to a stop before backing down to get some space and make another run forward.    We gain speed and momentum with a great roaring of the engines and vibrating of the stern. I watch mesmerized as we move forward over the ice.  It is dark and the ice is only illuminated by the ice lights on the bow and the spotlights projecting forward.  The air is so cold that the snow is squeaky so as we move forward, with screeching noises caterwauling from under the ship.  At night when I lay in bed sometimes I think that I hear people talking, but it is only the sounds of the ice compressing under the ship and screeching past the hull.  When we back out of the ice, after grinding to a halt, the ship is often so silent while sliding through the water that I think we may not be moving.  There is something exhilarating about feeling the ship back, pause, and then pick up speed, moving forward faster and faster to crush into the ice, pushing pushing pushing until slowing and stopping. 

The view from the bridge at the end of what passes for “day”, showing the ice lights.
It has become very cold, with air temperatures below 0 F. Right now the air temperature is -14F but with even a gentle wind the wind chill is -34F.   To go out, we bundle up so much that usually no skin is even showing around the goggles, face masks, and balaklavas.  Humans become difficult to recognize, with only telltale signs such as a particular hat identifying the person.  The hands require special attention, needing occasionally to be agile and manipulate things yet also being most susceptible to the cold. Most of us have resorted to several pairs of gloves and mittens for a foray to the deck, with the pair to wear while setting up the equipment and then the pair to wear while watching the equipment in the water.  We take special care to keep the CTD warm while launching.  If it is too cold, ice will form in the tubing, sensors, and pumps once in seawater, blocking the flow of water and measurements.  We don’t even try to wash the plankton nets on deck; we just drag them into the aft hanger where there is heat and salt water and wash them down there.   The deck is covered with snow, crunchy, dry snow.  Each station is an adventure in making a hole through which to sample and then to keep the ice floes from drifting in and encroaching on the wire holding the instrument or net.  Long poles are used to push the ice floes away or, if necessary, the ship can provide a flush of water to clear the hole.

Pushing ice to maintain a hole.  The vertical line is the wire from which the CTD is hanging.

Shannon and Krista bundled up on the deck during a CTD cast.  Shannon is a Marine Science Technician in the CG and works with the science party.

Until recently, we had been traversing new or first year ice, ice that was formed this year and that is not very thick yet. But once we were reaching for our furthest north  stations, we ran into multi-year ice, ice that was formed in previous winters and that is much harder and thicker than this year’s ice.  This ice was brought from the Canadian Arctic to where we are working and is providing an adventure in icebreaking.  We expect to get out of the multiyear ice and back into this year’s ice shortly, perhaps even tomorrow.

Broken multiyear ice looking forward along the side of Healy.  The light is from the ice lights on the bow.

Despite the cold and ice, we have been collecting excellent data at all of our locations.  We have seen the plankton community transition from one typical of the shelf to one typical of the basin, with different species and plankton types found in each region.  And so we press on, through the Arctic night and cold, to see what lies under the ice.  

A map showing the locations where we have sampled in green.  Note the furthest north position. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Arctic Night

Today the sun did not rise.  We have come so far north that we have reached a latitude where the sun did not come above the horizon on this winter day, where night lasted for 24 hours.  We were treated instead to a few hours of incredible pink sky that turned the ice blue and rose.  The colors are magical.

Our not quite sunrise.
We presently are working a grueling set of stations spaced 10 km (or about 5 nautical miles) apart.  At each station we sample using the CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth) and associated sensors that are mounted on a rosette bearing 12 large Niskin bottles.  With the sensors we measure temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, fluorescence (a measure of the plant pigment in the water), and light transmission (the amount of light that gets through the water indicates the amount of particles).  With the Niskins, we collect seawater at selected depths to measure nutrient, oxygen, and chlorophyll concentration, organic carbon, and phytoplankton composition and abundance.  We also sample at each station using a Video Plankton Recorder, which records images of the plankton and particles in the water column.  At every other station we do tows with plankton nets to collect zooplankton.  We also sort plankton collected from the nets to select copepods and krill for experiments such as determining grazing.

Marine Science Technician (MST) Shannon Curtaz brings up the CTD as the sun tries to peek above the horizon.
Sam Laney peeks out between two Niskin bottles while sampling seawater (Photo by Krista Longnecker)
The pace is pretty fast along the line.  No sooner do we get the instruments back on board and the data backed up than it is almost time to do another station.  We are transiting only at five knots, to buy time for the processing of data and samples.  It is exhausting. After 12 hours of hurrying from lab to deck, of struggling into and then out of mustang suits (floatation suits that resemble a snow suit), pulling on heavy boots and socks, encasing hands in warm gloves, and fixing the hard hat on top of a face mask and warm hat, we can hardly wait to finish our watch and get some rest.  Although it is exhausting, I wouldn’t be anywhere else!

Ice and snow in the light of the near dawn.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Into the Ice

We are now, finally, in ice.  The ship is shuddering along, not breaking ice but rather pushing floes of pancake ice aside.  When occasionally we break into a lead of open water, the ship glides unfettered, seemingly not moving because there is no irregular bumping and jostling by the ice floes, no shaking and vibrating.  This is not ice breaking, with its crashing and banging but rather we are moving through an ice field rather as a human walking through a tall field of corn, pushing aside the stalks easily but still not walking a straight, smooth path.  It is a relief to finally be in the ice, where the seas are dampened.  We are heading to a station near the Alaskan town of Wainwright where we will start sampling along a line that extends from the nearshore 58 miles to the NW.

Moving through pancake ice. Note the ice all over the bow and foredeck of the ship; this is from freezing spray as we moved north through the Bering and Chukchi.  The crew has been busy breaking it up and shoveling it overboard.
Yesterday we saw our first ice, just a smattering of small pancakes that nonetheless evoked amazement and wonder in even those of us who have seen it many times before. We were in the ice long enough to collect a few chunks for Krista to melt down to collect the organic carbon.  We’ve been working northwards through the Chukchi Sea to this first transect line but on the way we paused to deploy a mooring for some colleagues.  The deployment went well, with the mooring placed only 12 yards from the intended position.   Now we begin a marathon of stations, stopping every 6-7 miles along the track to sample.

View of the ice from the ship at the end of our three-hour day (the sun was up for only 3 hours and did not rise far above the horizon).
We’ve been collecting plankton regularly in the net tows.  Each tow brings a sense of anticipation and a great curiosity – what will we find here?  We have found many krill, or euphausiids, that are important prey for bowhead whales in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas particularly near Barrow. We also have found Calanus copepods, in particular a very large abundance of males.  Male Calanus are rarely seen so it is quite strange to see so many!  At the last station, we caught some larval crabs that were busily trying to eat the krill in the sample.  Yesterday further to the south we caught a number of fish, much to Joel’s delight.  Many of the copepods and krill are picked out, photographed, and saved for later analysis of their carbon and nitrogen content to see how much fat they have stored for the winter, their RNA/DNA content to see how active they are (are they entering diapause/hibernating?), and their genetics.

Bob picks krill out of a plankton sample using a spoon.
Celia picking copepods using a microscope in the lab.
One of the copepods we have collected this trip.  Photo by Celia Gelfman.
A krill, or euphausiid, collected this trip.  Photo by Celia Gelfman.

The real work of the cruise begins, now that we have beaten, bounced, pitched, and clawed our way through the storms of the Bering Sea up to the northern Chukchi.   We are coming up to our first station on the line shortly (30 minutes).  The air temperature is 17 F and the sea temperature is -1.75 C, just above the freezing point of seawater (-1.8C).  Ice is forming around us.

Small bits of ice on the surface of waves in the afternoon sun.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Through the Strait

This morning at around 1030 local time we passed through Bering Strait and into the Chukchi Sea.  As we go, the air becomes colder, the water becomes colder, the sea is gray, and the winds are howling at 30 knots from the NE.  We are heading into the teeth of early winter.  The ship is pitching, with each crashing descent sending seawater cascading across the foredeck. Sometimes the spray is so high that it reaches the windows of the bridge, making a “woosh” sound as it lashes across the front of the house of the ship.  I can hear the spray in my room, as I lie in my bunk at night.  During the day, we don’t hear the spray in the lab but we can feel the impact as the ship crashes down after pitching across a wave and then shakes a few times.  It is not unpleasant, but it will be wearing.
A wave breaking over the bow this afternoon.

Late last night we conducted a station to the south of Bering Strait.  The wind was howling and blowing snow sideways.  The station went very well though and we caught a treasure trove of plankton in our net.  Large amphipods swimming madly through the jars like shooting stars.  Krill darting back and forth.  And copepods.  It was a great tow, with so many copepods and krill. The plankton group all fell to, sorting and photographing animals into the night until finally quitting at 2 or 3 AM.

The CTD being deployed off the side of the ship during the blowing snow last night (Photo by Sam Laney)
Krista filtering her first sample, collected last night from our CTD cast south of Bering Strait.

Kristina photographing a Calanus copepod.  

The weather has not been treating us well.  It is usually too rough to sample.  And we have had to move more slowly in order to keep the spray off the foredeck as much as possible.  No great surprise this, after all, we are venturing into the Arctic in winter.  We are looking forward to when we reach the ice.  However, we must be patient.  We will get there in good time.

BM1 Skinner and SN Jones at the grill on the helo deck.
In the meantime, we have been amusing ourselves with a variety of pastimes.  Yesterday the deck force cooked dinner.  Rather than a conventional dinner in the mess, we had a cookout in the helicopter hanger with burgers, sausage, and Portobellos grilled on a huge grill on the flight deck.  Several of us completed a jigsaw puzzle of Mt. Rushmore.  And in between working on papers, photographing our favorite plankton, and practicing sampling oxygens we read books, talk, and watch football on TV (yes, we have football). 

Tomorrow morning we hope to conduct another plankton tow, if the winds and waves permit.  We are getting closer to the ice where the seas should be calmer.  In the meantime the air temperature outside is 18 Deg. F.  Truly, we have come to winter.