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Finally – Some true Turkish Delight! Discovery of some tasty oaks

The Broadleaf Papers - Sun, 06/17/2012 - 10:53

After a few days of mild frustration, the sampling of potentially old umbrella pine lifted our spirits and put us in a good frame of mind to conduct our last day of research in the temperate rainforest region of northeastern Turkey. We headed out of Borçka and met with a forest officer in charge of forests in the Murgul Mountains. He seemed pleased with our research goals and supplied an extra jeep and a forest ranger to assist with our work. As often happens in fieldwork, highs like the discovery of great trees or the donation of free assistants get intermixed with unforeseen issues. On our last day of fieldwork in Turkey, we experienced all of that.

View from the Murgul Mountains, Turkey (N. Pederson)

We headed up into the Murgul Mountains in a two-rig caravan. We stopped at a few places to take in the view and study slope forests. It was turning out to be a lovely day. During this slow journey on a narrow, mountain road, it became clear that even the steep slopes had been harvested. After about 30 minutes of driving up the mountain, we met up with loggers cutting oak logs on the side of the road. We stopped and talked with the loggers for a few minutes and inspected their bounty. The oaks were not big, but as regular readers of this blog might understand, size doesn’t equal age. The smallish oaks looked to have at least 150 rings. The loggers gave us a sample, we shook hands, and continued up the mountain.

Logger in the Murgul Mountains, Turkey. (N. Pederson)

As we continued to see evidence of recent logging over the next 10-20 minutes up the road on steeper slopes, it became apparent that we would have to travel deep into the forest to find old trees. Alas, the heavy snowfall of Winter 2011-2012 soon stopped our vehicles’ progress: the road was still clogged with nearly a meter of snow. Thus, it was time to do one thing that humans do quite well: hoof it.

Dario resigned to hoofing it along the snow-clogged mountain road. (N. Pederson)

As we walked up the road, Nesibe’s cell phone rang (side note: why can people in Bhutan or Turkey get cell reception in deep forest in rural regions, but we cannot get it in places within 30 miles of NYC, like on the Lamont campus? Can you hear me now?). High-level forestry officials called to say that the core samples collected on this trip could not leave the country….ugh…This was almost deadening news. We had overcome many obstacles on this trip, but this one was serious. We had previously made plans to split the samples between the two labs for analysis, and we really wanted to bring some samples back to our lab.

See, the joys of research do not end in the field. The process of tree-ring analysis for me is almost Pavlovian: at every step of the game discoveries can be made that make me drool. First, we head into a wild area and soak in the gorgeous scenery – ding! Next, we hike into the forest seeking old trees – ding! Once found, we begin coring old-looking trees. When the first cores reveal many rings – ding, ding! I am notoriously bad at estimating the number of cores on a sample in the field. It seems I consistently underestimate age by 50-100 years. Knowing this, why do I not automatically adjust my estimate? One, it keeps us looking for older trees. Two, I’d rather be wrong on the lower side so that when the first samples are sanded so that we can clearly see the rings, there is much thrill in the lab – ding, ding, ding!! Don’t get me started about how wonderful it is to see beautiful rings pass under my eyes as rings are measured – seeing the highs and lows of tree life over the centuries is truly joyous. Yes, I enjoy this process very much. In fact, I stash a mop outside my office on high Pavolvian days.

"Mmmm...where's my mop?" (image: N. Pederson)

The most frustrating aspect of the denial to export samples is that we had anticipated the bureaucracy of getting governmental permissions: we started the permit process approximately 4-5 months before our trip. And, poor Nesibe had to shoulder the necessary mountain of paperwork. It was only two weeks before we left the US that we thought we had permission to export samples (BTW, this is not a knock on Turkish governmental efficiency. Permission to sample in the US or import samples into the US can often require at least 4-6 weeks, just like shipping times of yore). Anyhow, we paused and pondered this heavy news. Nesibe said her lab could analyze the additional samples and we proceeded forth.

We continued on foot and spied some potentially interesting trees.

A potentially interesting tree (N. Pederson)

We scrambled up a beech-leaf slickened slope and cored two Oriental beech trees. Like previous samples on this trip, they turned out to be fast growing/not very old. We continued deeper into the forest and realized many of the older-looking trees along the road ‘hid’ that the forest was recovering from a significant amount of logging decades ago. Soon after entering the second-growth portion of the forest, however, I spied an omen.

Woodpecker foraging hole. (N. Pederson)

In the eastern US, the pileated woodpecker makes large foraging holes similar to that above. Pileated woodpeckers tend to be associated with mature woods. When I’m in an old forest, I often hear the call of this old friend. So, it was this sign that lifted my spirit. I suspect the species that made this hole is the black woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in Europe. We continued along the edge of the slope when one of us spotted an oak.

Not only were we thrilled to find another potentially old species, this tree had some of the charismatic megaflora chacteristics of being fairly old for its size. The first core indicated decent age (decent age for a dendrochronologist is roughly 200 years). We then found an oak that had recently fallen and cored it. It too had decent age.

A fallen and potentially old oak. (N. Pederson)

We continued along this slope coring nearly ten oaks before the local distribution of decently-aged oaks ran out (they were clustered with spruce on and near south-facing rock outcrops). We headed back to our rig for lunch – it was now about 4 pm. While gathering food, we noticed similar topography and forest downslope. Dario and I begged off our fine lunch to explore this area. We were thrilled we did. This is where the forest became mighty tasty.

Not more than a soccer field from our rig did we find stunted, aged oaks. We had found our Turkish Delight – truly old trees growing along a cliffline. Forget nourishment. These sessile oaks provided all we would need.


Some scenes of Murgul Mountain forests in northeastern Turkey.

Claw marks on an Oriental Beech. (N. Pederson)

We were in a truly wild forest. No, Dario didn’t go wild and claw that beech tree. The marks were likely made by a brown bear.

Oriental beech forest (N. Pederson)

The best identifier of beech the world round? “Emir (John, Wei, etc.) loves Tayla (Sue, Xue, etc.) 1978″.

Lower elevation mixed broadleaf forest (N. Pederson)

Murgul Mountain Spring (N. Pederson)

Seriously tasty sessile oak (N. Pederson)

Tilia Tea (N. Pederson)

Tea derived from Tilia (basswood).

Women Making Waves

Future El Niño - Mon, 06/11/2012 - 10:55

By Allison Jacobel

In the seafaring lore of yore at least two statements have traditionally been held as fact: the more rum the more merry the mates and any and all women are bad luck. While the origin of the first statement is fairly obvious, the second may require a bit of explanation. In the times of ancient mariners it was held that not only were women incapable of doing physical work aboard a ship but also that they were a distraction to the men onboard.  Together these two factors were thought to produce a dangerous inattention to the sea which could anger the forces of nature and cause fearful storms and gales.


Samantha Bova (Brown University) prepares to deploy and XBT over the side of the R/V Langseth. XBTs are used to measure the temperature and salinity of the ocean.


The female geoscientists aboard the Langseth.

Jean Lynch-Stieglitz in a teaching moment in front of the main lab console.

Christina King, Ashley Maloney, Allison Jacobel and Kate Wejnert getting ready to sample the CTD.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately depending on how you feel about the first statement), we here on the Marcus G. Langseth are bucking the shackles of yore in the most dramatic of fashions.  On this cruise not only do we have women aboard but all ten of the graduate students and our post-doc are female[1]!

Aboard the Langseth are:

Sam Bova – Brown U., Ann Dunlea – Boston U., Heather Ford- U. of California, Jen Hertzberg- Texas A&M, Allison Jacobel – Columbia U., Christina King – U. of Rhode Island. Ashley Maloney – U. of Washington, Julia Shackford- Texas A&M, Kate Wejnert– Georgia Tech, Ruifeng Xie – Texas A&M.

While over the past 20 years, women have increasingly demonstrated their ability to compete in many sectors of the workforce, a slower trend has been observed in the geosciences than in any other STEM discipline except engineering. In 2004, 42% of the BA and BS degrees awarded in the geosciences were to women and only 34% of the PhDs awarded in the geosciences were to women[2].  Most troubling is that of full professors in US geosciences departments only 8% are women[2].

It will likely take more than one generation to overcome these trends, but many of us aboard the Langseth are optimistic.  While the driving forces and support networks behind the women on board are unique, several commonalities can be found.

I think most in the field would agree when I say we’re a well-awarded group and here I think credit is due to both government programs and private foundations for recognizing the need and opportunity to support young women in science.  While some might point to the demographics on board as a reason that the emphasis on supporting women in science is no longer needed, I think the scarcity of female professors in tenured positions at most universities is a clear argument that this emphasis should continue.

We also owe thanks to the pioneering female scientists who were instrumental in deconstructing many of the biases against women in science and who paved the way for our generation’s steps forward. For example we are fortunate enough to be led in our scientific mission by Jean Lynch-Stieglitz, one of our two chief scientists.  Jean was the first female professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and holds amongst many accomplishments the 2000 receipt of a NSF CAREER Award in recognition of her role as an outstanding leader in both education and research.  Jean is currently a professor at Georgia Tech and last but certainly not least, mother of two.

Finally, I think some credit is due to the male scientists on board (and those PI’s back on land) who helped to bring us each aboard and who recognized our skills, drive and potential among a field of qualified candidates.  These men are neither intimidated by, nor resentful towards, the smart women aboard and have invested their time and academic resources into helping us all to become better scientists.

While the prevalence and acceptance of women in the geosciences is growing, we are also aware of the professional gaps left to be bridged, both in our own field and others.  I don’t take the opportunities I’ve been given for granted and believe I speak for the other women aboard when I say we hope to encourage other young women to pursue their interests in the sciences and other traditionally male-dominated fields. Through participation in professional societies, activities involving disadvantaged girls in schools, summer programs and more, we hope to make waves not only in the seas of the South Pacific but also in in the communities we call home.

For more information about women in the geosciences check out the NSF/AWG sponsored workshop proceeding “Where are the Women Geoscience Professors?”

Allison Jacobel is a graduate student at Columbia University who studies the past circulation of the ocean and atmosphere using the chemistry of deep ocean sediments.

[1] I should not neglect to mention that we are fortunate to have one male undergraduate on board, Victor Castro, who is a much-appreciated member of the scientific party.

[2] Holmes, M.A., O’Connell, S., Frey, C. & Ongley, L. Gender imbalance in US geoscience academia. Nature Geoscience 1, 148–148 (2008).

The Art of Flying

Arctic Thaw: Measuring Change - Wed, 05/30/2012 - 14:50

Flying. It is something we are almost all familiar with, and yet I expect few of us have really sat back to appreciate the actual science of it. For the past 10 weeks we have been flying, not just a day or two a week but five or six days a week depending on the crew numbers and the weather options. We have worked out of two different locations in Greenland, both of which are on the western edge of this expansive island in the north.

View from the hill down on Thule Airbase. The hangars are the large buildings on the left. The control tower is visible between the hangars. The flat ice to the far right is the sea ice of North Star Bay.

For the past three weeks, we’ve been in Thule, Greenland. This US Air Force base has the northernmost paved runway in the region, offering service to points north (Yes, there are points north! ……. but those have gravel runways). The infrastructure here is good, complete with individual hotel rooms, as compared with the shared dormitory style rooms in Kangerlussuaq. Perhaps the most important part is that we get fresh vegetables with meals in the cafeteria. The lack of fresh vegetables for most of Greenland is remarkable as there really is no agriculture except a small amount of musk ox and reindeer (caribou) ranching. The Greenland diet is heavily slanted toward protein – fish and the meat of musk ox and reindeer.

The P3 is a workhorse of the Operation IceBridge field season. One thing that I’ve noticed, and had previously not appreciated, is that the blades of the propellers rotate. OK, before you say, “I knew that!” or, “No duh!” Take a look at the following photos. In the first photo in the hangar, the blades face the camera. The flat part is rotated towards the viewer. If you look closely, you can even see the point at which they are mounted.

Airplane propeller blades in the hanger.

Now, compare these with pictures taken from inside the plane. These are rotated to allow the propeller to push more air past the wing and increase speed – 90 degrees from the above picture.

Devon Ice Cap Mission over northern Canada. Notice how the propeller blade is rotated 90 degrees to the previous photo.

Cape Alexander flight with a calving glacier in the background. Again, the blades of the propeller have rotated on the black metal fairing.

This next video shows what you would observe of the propeller if you were inside the plane — just the gray windmilling of the propellers accompanied by a very loud buzz and whirr.  This will also give you a view of how we move through the vast snow covered landscape.  All of the missions are timed with respect to a ground speed of 250 knots for our instrument function (that’s 250 nautical miles per hour or about 288 miles per hour).

Click here to view the embedded video.

Part of the maintenance of the plane is a preflight inspection by the crew prior to any of the science crew or pilots arriving at the plane. This starts about 2 ½ hours before take off. Basic functions, such as checking the lights, seeing if the tail moves, etc. are all done prior to take off. When we do the night shift for firewatch, the shift ends as the crew arrives, so we are able to see the start of the inspection.
Additionally, the crew does an evening inspection of everything. Because the P3 is a workhorse of the NASA airborne science fleet, they keep the plane flying. The result is that parts wear out from time-to-time. The ground crew needs a little down time, and they get it during flight. Generally, they rotate off shifts with at least two always at the watch. Those who aren’t on watch take some down time — playing computer games or getting a few zzz’s in.

Crew down time in the plane.

The last few days have been a bit of an overdose on Thule Air Base, however. The flight crew found something in a post flight inspection. A bushing delaminated in the propeller.

Here is the engine on the far left side of the plane. Notice that the black fairing is removed. It is also a great photo for seeing that the blades are rotated relative to the neighboring propeller.

A view inside the engine of the P3. In the hangar, depending on the maintenance schedule, the doors commonly are left open.

With the bushing gone the first thought was to fly the P3 back to the Wallops Island, VA test flight facility using three engines. Once there, with the parts, tools, and ground support, they could fix the plane. After considering the number of completed flights it was decided to close the season. The P3 stayed in Thule with the parts expected to arrive on Monday during the regular resupply of the base from the US. Monday came and went with no parts. The C130 air transport plane from McGuire AFB was full and could not take the 600lbs of parts and tools. Option B was for the parts to arrive today on the rotator. The rotator is a DC-8 plane that is about a 2/3 supply shipment and about 1/3 passengers for any staff changes for any position at the base.

Luckily, the parts and tools arrived. The crew went straight to work. As I wrote this, the crew took off and landed with the P3 on an FCF: functional check flight. This is a test to make sure that everything works. Good times! I’m waiting for the report on what they found……..

Transitions: Climate, Fire, and Forests in Mongolia

The silence you may have heard since our last post was the sound of microscope lights flickering, measuring stages gliding, brains grinding, numbers crunching, and poi dogs pondering. We wrapped up all planned field work last summer for our research grant on climate, fire, and forest history in Mongolia. We have transitioned from the field-intensive portion of the grant to the data and publication phase of the scientific process. We have presented research in various meetings and settings and have earnestly begun to put our findings to our peers to begin the publication process. We are also transitioning to a new vein of research in Mongolia that gets to the title of this blog. It has been a long time coming.

First, Dr. Amy Hessl was inspired by the forest in transition on Solongotyin Davaa. This is the famous forest where global warming was first reported in Mongolia. High elevation forests are rare to burn. So, the thought that a landscape with wood that has been on the forest floor for more than 100o years became an important part of Amy’s summary on “Pathways for climate change effects on fire: Models, data, and uncertainties“.

The 2010, post-fire landscape of Solongotyin Davaa from Figure 1 in Hessl’s “Pathways for climate change effects on fire: Models, data, and uncertainties”

Next, Amy led a slew of us in a publication summarizing our initial findings of fire history from the northern edge of the Gobi Steppe to Mongolia’s border with Russia near Sükhbaatar City. With the glaring exception on Bogd Uul, this paper, “Reconstructing fire history in central Mongolia from tree-rings“, gives a quick glimpse into the fairly persistent fire regime across central Mongolia over the last 280-450 years.

Four centuries of fire history in central Mongolia: initial results

NPR recently finished a series of reports on the environmental and cultural transitions currently happening in Mongolia as a result of climate change and the massive mining boom underway. The post that caught our attention was the one on “Mongolia’s Dilemma: Who Gets The Water?” Water has been a focus or the Mongolian-American Tree-Ring Project (MATRIP) since the beginning (see MATRIP’s major publications on this subject here, here (get the streamflow data here), here, here). So, we are happy to announce that this rich vein of research has continued with the fire history research grant by first filling an important gap in the MATRIP network and then having several manuscripts on this subject in revision or review.

One paper that we are quite excited about is an analysis of drought variability across Mongolia’s ‘Breadbasket’. We were taken aback in throughout the last three field seasons by the large-scale revitalization of Mongolia’s agricultural sector. It was surprising to see center-pivot irrigation and large tracts of fields in northern Mongolia. This cultural change is intended to transition Mongolia towards agricultural independence for its growing population. Our analysis highlights important differences in drought variation for the eastern and western portions of the breadbasket region. Stay tuned!

Finally, we are headed back to Mongolia this summer to begin pilot work on new research currently funded by the Lamont Climate Center, The National Geographic Society, and West Virginia University. As hinted in our last post, we will begin field work to determine if there was a warmer and wetter climate during the rise of Chinggis Khaan’s Mongol Empire.

Really –  stay tuned!

Categories: TRL

The ‘Glory’ in Clouds and Other Amazing Sights!

Arctic Thaw: Measuring Change - Thu, 05/24/2012 - 15:04

If you look carefully at the picture below you will see a small shadow of our plane completely encircled in a rainbow. This optical phenomenon, called a “glory,” can develop when the plane flies directly between the sun and a cloud below. Flying over the ice sheet in the far northeast of Greenland we saw this “glory,” the result of refracted water in the clouds appearing like a rainbow-colored halo when the observer is directly between the sun and cloud of refracting water droplets. Because our ATM laser and the DMS cameras rely on there being no clouds beneath us as they collect data, we don’t often see “glories.” The light cloud cover seen here doesn’t bother the instruments much – we can still see through it – so we get data and “glory” – a win-win situation.

The optical phenomenon called a "glory" can develop when the plane flies directly between the sun and a cloud below.

The rocks peeking up through the misty cloud layer show evidence of fluvial drainage, where running water has cut through the rock. We have seen lots of evidence of running water in the north, both here and in the large, long drainage channels that ran over the surface of Humboldt Glacier in the northwest. Beneath these channels the geology in this northeast section of Greenland shows a more complicated relationship than we have seen elsewhere. Here we see alternating bands of lighter and darker brown in the rock face, unlike the more regular rock bedding we have seen in other regions.

Icebridge flew the Humboldt glacier for the first time this season. Humboldt, a very wide but slow-moving and slow-changing glacier, lies just to the west of Petermann Glacier at the very northern edge of Greenland. Most of the ice flow in Humboldt glacier is concentrated on its eastern margin, but the very wide calving front is very impressive.

Surface meltwater channels on Humboldt Glacier – this is just inland of the calving front – you can make out icebergs in the sea ice in front of the glacier at the top of the frame.

The eastern margin of Humboldt Glacier: Again you can see the icebergs out to sea. The scalloped edge marks the eastern boundary between rock and ice, and the rocks here are the same metasediments (sedimentary rocks that have experienced some metamorphism) that we see exposed in the cliffs on the margins of Petermann Glacier, which we have flown for the last two years, but didn’t get to this year.

Humboldt Glacier: You can see the very slightly dipping strata exposed in the side of this channel carved into the rock just off the side of Humboldt.

NW fjords
The northwest fjords flight was designed for the gravity team to survey just offshore, measuring the gravity signal of the sea bed to determine the geometry of the fjords. This information will assist modelers in investigating why the loss of ice mass in the area is increasing, and how ocean current might be involved.

Kong Oscar Glacier with all the ice and icebergs that have broken off floating in front. This broken ice debris in front of a glacier is called mélange.

We flew another mission in this area along the NW glaciers, flying up and down the axis of a dozen glaciers in this area to look at the bed structure with radar and changes in elevation over time using the ATM laser.

I got interested in the erosive power of the glaciers looking at sediment deposits coming off the valley walls. Sediment piles up at the bottom of cliffs

Sediment that piles up at the mouth of valleys has a delta-like appearance.

Glacial "trim line" shows where the glacier has been in the past.

Ellesmere Island
For the Ellesmere Island flight, I sat in the cockpit and we had a bit of everything. Ellesmere Island is the northernmost island in the Canadian Arctic, lying just west of Greenland in the Territory of Nunavut (Inuit for “our land”). The island is known as the home of the furthest north permanently inhabited place on Earth, Alert.

Beautiful clouds seen as we transited over Ellesmere Island.

I enjoyed this glacier because it appears to be sticking its tongue out as the ice has retreated up the valley wall over time.

And then exposed rock showing the variability of rock type in the area.

I was glad to have been on this flight, because it turned out to be our last one of the season (there were 43 data flights in total this year). Routine maintenance on the plane when we got back turned up a part that needed to be replaced, and the logistics of that are taking time. So we are waiting in Thule for the part to get here (there are only a couple of flights a week that it can come on). Once everything is operational again, we will be heading home. We’ve packed our cargo, backed up all the data, and now we are catching up on blogs and reports and all the desk work that wasn’t done on the plane. The current plan is to fly home on Friday – contingent on the part arriving on Thursday and everything going perfectly from there. In the meantime, I can look out the window and see fox and hare tracks in the snow.

Under Arctic Ice: Watch the Video

Click here to view the embedded video.

This video depicts the activities of the LDEO Switchyard field team, which deploys annually and uses ski-equipped aircraft to reach a series of sample sites between the North Pole and Ellesmere Island in Canada.

After landing, a hole is drilled through the ice, and the sampling system is lowered through the hole to a depth of about 700 meters. The sampling system (the thin hole rosette) which was designed and built at the Lamont-Doherty Instrument Lab, allows the LDEO field team to examine the water as the assembly descends and to collect water samples for later analysis when interesting properties are observed. This work is supported by the US National Science Foundation.

This video was shot by Switchyard team member Dan Greenspan, who is a researcher at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. Check out his blog, and his recent entry: “Traveling to the North Pole, Part 10: Eclipse, with Wolves.”

The End of the Line

Sea Ice Blooms in the Far North - Tue, 05/22/2012 - 10:27
A juvenile Bald Eagle that greeted us at the dock in Dutch Harbor (B. Stauffer)The R/V Oscar Dyson pulled into Dutch Harbor, Alaska on May 9 after a hectic few final days! We are now starting to sift through the hundreds of samples and a hard-drive worth of data we shipped back, unpacking our eleven boxes of gear, and re-packing perhaps even more for an upcoming cruise off the coast of Brazil. Thanks to everyone who helped make our cruise aboard the R/V Oscar Dyson such a success!

That thousandth cut

Tree Stories - Tue, 05/22/2012 - 08:13

PALISADES, NEW YORK — My hands floated above my head, rotating in all directions, swaying weakly like reeds rustling in a gentle breeze. At least that was the image I held in my head, clouded as it was by the anesthesia. Between my hands I saw Orawan at the foot of the bed, staring at me with great relief in her face.

“Hey baby, how are you?” I asked almost a little too cheerfully, as I dropped my arms to the bed. ”Come here, give me a hug.” I was seriously groggy, and it was difficult to stay awake. I have memories of an alarm going off next to my head and a nurse urging me to breathe, happening more than once. I am not sure if that really happened or if it was imagined, but my memories from those few hours are hazy.

“Hey, go easy there.” Orawan chided as she took my hand. ”Try not to move too much.” I could sense the massive relief she was feeling, after waiting nearly 4 hours to see me after I left her standing in the hallway as they wheeled me into the theater.

The surgery was a success, or so I was informed. At least I could still move my arms, and I didn’t see a respirator anywhere in sight. I quickly checked for a colostomy bag and was relieved not to find one. I was still dopey enough that I couldn’t feel any pain yet (that would come in time), and the intense pain I had lived with for the past five weeks appeared to be gone, as the bits of ruptured disk had been removed from my spine, relieving the pressure on my C7 nerve head.

So, what happened? The week before I returned from Asia, on March 12, I awoke with a burning agony running down my left arm that would not desist. I didn’t know the extent of my injury until I had gotten home to New York and had an MRI, after a week of unrelenting pain in my left arm and under my scapula. It was a very uncomfortable flight across the Pacific back to New York, made tolerable only because of a class upgrade and lots and lots of drugs.

The MRI showed that I had clearly ruptured the disk between my C6 and C7 vertebrae, and surgery was pretty much the only option. Though I don’t remember it, I had told Dr. Quest that I loved him, emphasizing that it was not in any manner that should elicit his alarm, but love just the same. He took care of me as promised, and now that it was over I felt a massive sense of relief. Now, six weeks after surgery I am mostly recovered, with only minor pains and numbness as reminders of those terrible 5 weeks.

So what has this to do with climate change? Well it is the reason for my absence from this blog, since I couldn’t sit at my desk for more than 20 minutes at a time, and the reason for me barely accomplishing any work for more than a month. And now that I am recovering, I face a mountain of work the likes of which I have never seen, but never have I been so thankful for being able to work.

It had surely been a run of bad luck since my last entry, starting with the infection in my scalp from hitting that doorjamb in Chiang Mai, an infection that was not even cured when I developed a terrible bronchitis from the smoke and haze of Chiang Mai’s annual February foul air festival (a phenomenon that is related to climate change). After my return from Yunnan I went to Taipei for a week of lectures and meetings, and Taipei’s far cleaner air began healing my lungs, but I was still with a very deep cough that would often wrench me from sleep. I then went to Vietnam for a week for the opening of the International Center for Tropical Highlands Ecosystems Research, with even cleaner air in Dalat, and that just about finished off the bronchitis. But scarcely two days back in Chiang Mai, back in the horrible air, and I began to cough once again. It was then, on Monday the 12th of March that I awoke in such pain. The doctors believe that it may have been the pressure from coughing that served as the final straw in rupturing my disk, but in truth the injury was probably the result of a lifetime of accumulated injuries and strains, football, hockey, basketball, coring trees and carrying a backpack. It could have been any and all of those things.

So, I am back now, ready to catch up on a few entries I have wanted to write. I apologize to Lori for the long delay and I hope she can forgive me, and welcome me back. The way I see it things can only go up from here, now that Dr. Quest delivered that thousandth cut.

Final Days in Alert

Time is flying, bringing us to our final days in Alert. We were able to recover samples from 12 stations, which is a great success and the second most successful year on record. Thanks to everyone who made it happen: Dale, Richard and Dan who went out every possible day to collect samples; Al and Jim for their support in Alert and of course our friendly Canadian colleagues..

The next two days are filled with packing and arranging the equipment and samples for their long journey home to New York. We plan to fly out of Alert on May 22 to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland but don’t know yet when the Air National Guard will pick us for the flight to New York. We hope to be home by May 25.

Locations of the 12 stations where we collected samples this season.

Lucky 13 Gets Us 250,000 Years of Sediment

Future El Niño - Sat, 05/19/2012 - 21:41

Beautiful white sediment inside the core barrel.

mud tatto

A mother’s day tattoo celebrates the good cores we are getting.

sediment cores

Rick Murray (Boston University), Victor Castro (University of California, Santa Cruz) and Samantha Bova (Brown University) discuss what the sediment’s color tells us about ocean chemistry

We have been steaming and searching for locations on the seafloor where the sediments are accumulating undisturbed. We tried without luck to take cores at several promising locations, however the cores came up less than perfect.  It turns out that much of the undersea portion of the Line Islands has ocean currents that remove and erode sediment. This erosion shows up in the sediment cores as sandy layers where the very small grains of sediment have been swept away. So, we kept up our vigil in the main lab area, closely monitoring the seafloor for small pockets of sediment that looked promising. Some pockets are only a few tenths of a mile across while others are a mile or two. Many that look beautiful from a distance turn out to be ugly on closer inspection.

On our 13th core attempt of the cruise, we got lucky. The corer came back full of the beautiful, white mud. The 20-foot core contains over 250,000 years of sediment and spans the last three glacial cycles in earth’s history. During each of these cycles the earth cooled and large ice sheets expanded over North America and elsewhere. In our core, these cycles are indicated by color changes from greenish brown to white and back.

After lucky 13, we began to hone our strategy and are finding more locations with good sediments. We now have lucky 15, 17, and many more; we now have over 30 cores and counting. Not all of them are perfect, but we are getting better at finding good sediments and faster at coring them.

sediment analysis with multi-sensor track

Ann Dunlea (Boston University) uses a multi-sensor track to analyze a sediment core aboard the R/V Langseth.

sniffing sediment for hydrogen sulfide gas

Mitch Lyle (Texas A&M University) sniffs a new sediment core for whiffs of hydrogen sulfide gas. Decomposition of dead algae in the sediments helps produce the gas.

tropical sunset

A beautiful tropical sunset provides an excuse to relax.

A Walk against Cancer

Alert hosted the first northernmost cancer-fighting fundraising event “Relay for Life,” an event sponsored by the Canadian Cancer Society to celebrate cancer survivors, remember loved ones lost to cancer and fight back against all cancers.

Lights to honor loved ones.

The 12-hour-walk was organized by Kristy Doyle, who lost her grandfather to cancer in 2010. Participants raised a whopping $7,580 and collectively walked 900 kilometers. I admit that I feel proud for doing my small part by walking 8 kilometers.

More than 900 kilometers walked in 12-hours

A Rare Treat – The Green Flash

Future El Niño - Tue, 05/15/2012 - 15:00

By Lee Dortzbach,

light dispersion through a prism

Refraction through a prism separates light into different colors. The atmosphere has the same effect, separating the sun’s image into the ROYGBIV colors (red, orange, yellow, blue, green, indigo, violet). The sun’s green image is visible during the sunset when the brighter orange and yellow images fall below the horizon. Image courtesy of D-Kuru/Wikimedia Commons licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Austria.


Enlarged view showing the green at the edge of the sun’s disc. Photo by Tatiana Moreno, a protected species observer on our cruise.

I work as the Chief Mate aboard the Research Vessel Marcus G. Langseth for this cruise and stand the 4 to 8 watch.  Every morning as I get the ship where the scientists need to be, I watch for the sun to rise.  Every evening I watch for it to set.  There are some days when clouds are around and make for some great sunsets.  Other days we cannot see the sun through all the clouds.

Sunday night after successfully recovering a gravity core about 42 miles north of the equator, conditions were right for a rare treat – the green flash.  There were clear skies around the Sun, good visibility and a clear horizon.  When I first heard about the green flash, I thought it was something that was noticeable and quick.  Over the last decade, I have seen that it is not a sky-covering flash (as depicted in the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), but a short lived change of the sun’s light as it sets.

It happens because of refraction of light through the Earth’s atmosphere.  The white light of the sun is broken into different wavelengths of visible light we recognize as different colors.  The red and orange cover most of the sky, the yellow of the sun gets more orange-like as the sun sets and the blue and violet get scattered too much for us to see.

So what about the green?  It too is scattered most of the time until the tip of the Sun is barely visible above the horizon.  The Sun’s yellow light is refracted more and so the ‘yellow’ sun sets below the horizon before the ‘green’ sun.  The sliver of green becomes visible to our eyes only when the bright yellow light is fading during the sunset.  It starts from the bottom up in a horizontal band that grows a little taller as the sun sets.  On a few occasions I have seen a sliver of blue/violet light below the green (a challenge against a blue ocean and a greater treat).  In the latitude of the United States, it lasts about 0.7 seconds.  Sometimes it can last up to 4 seconds.  Ours lasted between 1 and 2 seconds.  Definitely a flash compared to the core we just recovered!

For more information and other pictures of green flashes, click here.

Lee Dortzbach graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy with a B.S. in Marine Transportation in 2000. He has been around the world on several different ships over the last decade, including two oceanographic research vessels. He lives in landlocked Utah.


Beginning of Sunday’s green flash. Photo by Tatiana Moreno.


More green visible as the sun sets. Photo by Tatiana Moreno.

What’s a tree like you doing in a place like this? Or West meets East

The Broadleaf Papers - Tue, 05/15/2012 - 06:13

By Dr. Dario Martin-Benito

In the northeastern part of Turkey, the highest Pontic Mountains meet the Black Sea. Here altitude drops from more than 3900m to sea level in a less than 30 miles. Both the orographic effect of mountains and the lake effect (well, better sea effect) cause very high precipitation, allowing for rich and productive temperate forest to grow. Snow accumulations of several meters are not rare even at mid elevations as we could observe in a trip a couple of weeks ago. Despite the warm weather we experienced, some roads were still blocked from last winter’s snow, so access to many places was still not possible.

Valley near Artvin, Turkey. (D. Martin-Benito)

This temperate rainforest is very rich in tree species, including mainly broadleaved species (oaks, beech, maples), but also many conifers such as fir, spruce and pines. Coming from Western Europe, where forests have been logged, managed or mismanaged for hundreds of years, a forest with more than six or seven dominant tree species is a biodiversity hotspot to me. For those used to the forests in the American east or the tropics these forests might seem species-depauperate. But they shouldn’t.

Turkey lies at the crossroads between Asia and Europe. The enchanting city of Istanbul, with its amazing culture and long history as a bridge uniting the East and the West, symbolizes this better than any other place. Actually, Istanbul is the only big city in the world that lies on the border of two different continents. The diversity of the Turkish forests also reflects many species migrations over hundreds of thousands of years and might have served as a glacial refuge for many plant species during the last glacial maximum around 16,000 to 60,000 years ago. This way Turkish flora has evolved to be one of the richest floras in Europe or Asia by having components from both continents.

The wet northeastern Turkey also offers some very interesting flora surprises, like the unique umbrella pine (Pinus pinea) growing on a steep slope near the city of Artvin. Umbrella pine receives its common name because, well, it looks a bit like an umbrella: Its crown grows round when the tree matures and it is almost completely free of lower branches. The fact that it is also called Italian Stone pine (it was a main character in Vittorio de Sica’s film “Villa Borghese,” known in English as “It happened in the Park”) gives an idea of its distribution range. We can find it all along the Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula on the western side comprises more than 75% of its distribution area. But the Artvin forest is very far from the Mediterranean coast and more than 1000 km away from the closest umbrella pine forest.

Artvin umbrella pine forest. (N. Pederson)

The same processes that create high precipitation near the Black Sea coast are responsible for a rain shadow effect further south, as high mountains block precipitation, creating much drier conditions in some valley bottoms. In a matter of less than 32 kilometers precipitation drops from more than 2000mm per year to less than 700mm. That’s like going from Scotland to Rome in less than half an hour’s drive.

Along its broad distribution range, umbrella pine grows together with many different species of the Mediterranean flora, like evergreen oaks, colorful rockroses, or scented herbs like rosemary or oregano. But in this relict forest at 600m of elevation, on the banks of the Çoruh River near the Kaçkas Mountains, umbrella pine has some non-habitual neighbors like Scots pine, hornbeams or hazel, more common in the wetter and colder climates that abound in the surrounding forest as we climbed in great elevation not far from here. The view of these forests reminded me of some deep valleys in Northern Spain, where a similar combination of lake effect and rain shadow creates Mediterranean vegetation dominated by the evergreen holm and cork oaks on southeast facing slopes, while north-facing slopes are covered by beech and deciduous oaks.

Valley view of the Artvin umbrella pine forest landscape. Other vegetation types can be seen surrounding this forest (dark green trees in the center right). (D. Martin-Benito)

Humans have favored umbrella pine for thousands of years for its delicious seeds, which are eaten in many different forms but mainly used for some of the best pastries. Still today, pine nuts are the most valuable product of these pine forests in countries like Spain and Portugal, where they are commercially harvested. So these trees were extensively planted within and outside their natural distribution range probably as early as Roman times. In general, people have been great natural vectors of many tree species, mainly agricultural crops or related trees. Take for example the English Elm, which turned out to be, again, a very Roman clone. The history of the Old World complicates the attribution of whether some of its forests are natural or not. Northeastern Turkey has a centuries-long history as a frontier land, first between the Byzantines and the Turks and later between the Ottoman and the Russian empires. The Artvin Province changed hands several time as late as the early 20th century. Long before that, the southern Black Sea coast was explored by Greek and Phoenician sailors, and Arrian wrote his Periplus Ponti Euxini, a sort of maritime guide describing these coasts. Even in Greek mythology, Jason is thought to have visited the area with the Argonauts in his quest for Colchis (present day Georgia).

Umbrella pine cone - source of the great umbrella pine nut. (N. Pederson)

Despite the long history of human settlement and land use in these regions, probably some of the few old growth temperate forests left are found here, like the Camili Biosphere reserve. But still, little is known about the ecology and dynamics of these forests. We hope that our research in this area will allow us to add some very interesting new perspectives on the ecology and history of both the broadleaved temperate rain forest and this relict pine stand.

Nesibe and Neil begin exploring the Artvin umbrella pine forest. (D. Martin-Benito)

Blog post author Dario Martin-Benito standing proudly in front of a potentially old umbrella pine in Artvin Province. (N. Pederson)


Note: The origin of this stand is unknown. Some say it is a natural stand while others think it was planted by Russians in the late-1800s. Our coring of these trees might or might not solve this question.

Umbrella pine - young and old[ish. (N. Pederson)

A Visit to Crystal Mountain

The weather has improved considerably and we were able to fly out today to collect more samples. Yesterday, some of us went to explore Crystal Mountain, a 900-foot peak about five miles from Alert that offers an excellent view of the surrounding landscape.

Crystal Mountain at the left.

Ronny Friedrich on Crystal Mountain.

Alert is a Canadian military station located in the far north region of Qikiqtaaluk, Nunavut, Canada–the self-proclaimed “northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world.” There is no doubt that Alert is unique, with its 10-months of snow cover, extremely harsh winters with temperatures as low as -40 degrees C (-40 F) and average summer temperatures hardly above freezing. Alert is named after the HMS Alert, a British ship that spent the winter of 1875-1876 about 10 kilometers east of present-day Alert while exploring the arctic. The HMS Alert was the first ship to get that far north. Alert was settled as a weather station in the early 1950s and at the height of the Cold War became a military base due to its proximity to what was then the Soviet Union.

View toward Alert and the Arctic Ocean. Alert is the darker spots to the left.

Alert is a fascinating place that has seen more than its share of downed airplanes and where the hardships that earlier inhabitants endured are still apparent. Nowadays, life is easier and does not evoke the romantic images of arctic exploration of the past. Sure, the Internet moves at a snail’s pace and telephone-use is restricted to 30 minutes per day, but the food is excellent, and we are warm and dry.

Tree-Ring Science in a Log Yard?

The Broadleaf Papers - Fri, 05/11/2012 - 22:31

The cool, snowy weather really put a crimp in our plans. Dario, Tuncay, Cengis, and others spent two days trying to find potential sampling locations before Nesibe and I arrived. Even though it had been well above freezing during the day and above freezing at night, the snow had only retreated so far in the mountain roads. So, much of the areas we had access to were areas that loggers have had access to: lower elevations and (likely) productive forests. After two days of driving, Field Crue One didn’t find much.

The valley we hit the day before was the best of what they had seen. While it looked like it had some potential as we drove through it, once we spent a few hours in it taking test samples, it was clear the prodigious rainfall in the region produced large trees in no time (no time for a dendrochronologist = 80-150 years). We had two days left to make something out of this trip. I was keeping it to myself, but I wasn’t feeling too hopeful.

Luckily, we had Nesibe on our team!

Our team, Tuncay Guner (left), Dario Martin, led by Nesibe Kose (right). (N. Pederson)

Nesibe is a young and rising scientist. Her short career has been filled with a range of experiences that normally might take a decade or two. Most impressively, she is pretty much self-taught in tree rings. Her excellent mentor, Ünal Akkemik, is a very good botanist/forest ecologist who has done some very good work in dendrochronology. Nearly a decade earlier he conducted some work with Gordon Jacoby and Rosanne D’Arrigo of our lab. But, much in the field has changed over the last 15 years. There are more scientists and methodologies have become quite complex. Today you would be hard-pressed to get a single chronology published in mid-level journals unless it was more than 2000 years in length or showed something completely in the field. To get into the upper-level journals today, you likely need many records –30? 80? 100? 400? spread over a large geographic area so that you can discern differences in regional-scale climate or ecology, for example.

So, for young scientists, the mastery of skills (ecological, geochemical, geographical, etc., on top of statistics, plant physiology, some wood anatomy) needed today might seem daunting for many of the scientists from 30-40 years ago (not saying earlier science was bad or weak. Just the opposite: earlier work was so outstanding that the stakes have been raised). Nesibe has taken this challenge on by reading and digesting perhaps the most complex book in our field. It is truly impressive. Her determination to learn and will to succeed was on display when facing the snow barrier.

She said, “I have an idea. Tomorrow morning we’ll go to the depot.”

What initially ensued was a discussion of the North American forestry terms and English. We determined a depot was a log yard. This led to the realization that when you break down some English words, they are comically simple. Log yard for the place to put logs before they are sold. Other similar terms – woodstove, stovepipe, waterpipe, etc. It was a fun conversation, the kind you can have when you have hours to kill in a jeep.

Anyhow, Nesibe had been to the log yard previously and made a collection of Oriental beech dating back 400 years. Nesibe explained to us that the records kept at the log yard could be used to tell which valleys or locations the logs came from, what elevation they grew at, etc. Her resourcefulness was in full display. Away to the log yard we went.

A log yard in Artvin Province. (N. Pederson)

Perhaps it was the heavy snow, but there was only about 25-33% of the normal amount of logs in the depot. But, the logs in the yard were an indication of what can be found in the forest. Logs of spruce, fir, and beach were 1-1.5 meters in diameter. Logs of chestnut and oak were 0.5-0.75 meters in diameter.

Spruce and fir logs. For perspective, Dario is >2 m tall. (N. Pederson)

It was hard to sense the age of these trees. It didn’t seem outrageous that many were 150-300 years old. The potential of conducting tree-ring science in the depots of the Artvin Province were also on display.

Closeup of an oak log. (N. Pederson)

There was still a challenge. How do we take samples from multiple logs and not cause pseudoreplication in our collection? (Psuedoreplication is where replicates, in our case logs, are not independent, as in, they are not from different trees, which is ideal for our work). We didn’t want to take 3-4 samples from the same tree and think they were different trees. Thus, our combined skills in science of tree-ring analysis came into play. We studied each log, not only looking at its shape, wounds, sapwood, etc, but identifying patterns of ring width to match multiple logs to the same tree. We cannot claim we were 100% correct. That will take lab analysis.

I have to be honest: conducting science in a log yard with no shade was tough. Not only did it turn out to be the hottest day of our visit to northeastern Turkey, once we got over the fascination of the larger logs, it was somewhat boring. When you are in the forest and seeking the oldest trees in rugged terrain is a challenge that keeps one’s body and mind engaged and focused. Conducting science in the hot, sunny log yard lulled me into a stupor. It might have made us a little silly with boredom, even.

Logs of Oriental beech as backdrop for the 'gangstas' of the Borçka Depot. (N. Pederson)

After the log yard we headed towards our second destination of the day. We were hot, thirsty, hungry, a little cranky, and with a substitute driver that didn’t seemed thrilled to be driving us to where we needed to go (drivers can make or break these trips, sometimes). It didn’t feel hopeful. With hindsight, I can tell you that afternoon turned out to be one of the most important discoveries of this trip.

See those dark-green scruffy trees in the center of the picture (just to the right and above the clearing), that was our afternoon destination - the umbrella pine forest just outside of Artvin. (N. Pederson)

Ice cores…finally

Today I got another chance to go out with team CASIMBO to drill ice-cores. The weather was beautiful with no wind, a few clouds, bright sunshine and a balmy temperature of about 5 degrees F.

The smooth snow and ice in the foreground is the Arctic Ocean "beach" while the rubble in the back is actual sea ice.

When I first saw sea ice near Alert a few years ago, I was very surprised. It wasn’t anything like I had imagined. One might expect sea ice to be like lake ice: smooth and flat. But Arctic Ocean ice is in constant motion, driven by winds and ocean currents. Big chunks of ice break-up, smash into each other and create ice that looks more like a rubble field.

Trying to find a way through the ice field to the sampling location.

As we drove over the icy rubble on our snowmobile, we searched for a route to our sampling location, about 3 to 4 miles away from Alert (45 minutes by snowmobile). Taking an ice-core is relatively simple. One of the pictures shows Ben using the corer. It is basically a plastic pipe with cutting knives at the end that drills into the ice while keeping the ice-core trapped inside. After 3 feet of ice is cored, the corer is lifted out of the hole and the ice core is packed into containers for further processing in Alert.

Ben drilling an ice-core

The ice above was about six feet thick but generally, thickness varies. There is thin ice that has just formed on open water between ice floes, first year ice, or ice that has formed this winter, several-feet thick and ice that has formed over several years that can be more than 20 feet thick.

Drilling Ancient Mud from Seafloor No Easy Task

Future El Niño - Wed, 05/09/2012 - 22:01
A sediment core is secured along the ship’s rail for sampling.

A sediment core is secured along the ship’s rail for sampling.

Watching winch tension as a core is pulled out of the seafloor.

Scientists monitor how hard the cable is pulling as a sediment core is pulled out of the seafloor. Too much pull will stretch the cable and could cause it to break, leaving the sediment corer on the bottom of the ocean.

Yesterday we left our first study region with new samples from the seafloor and a healthy respect for the ocean currents that can erode sediment deep in the ocean.  The samples will be useful for our research but we had to work for them.  The seafloor we surveyed was heavily eroded and we had to look carefully before finding sites that were promising enough to sample.  Even then we ran into difficulties getting the sediments back to the ship.

We spent several days surveying the seafloor using instruments on the ship to identify possible sites for sampling.  We looked for flat areas where we could see layers of sediment below the seafloor.  These layers show up in the echoes from sound pulses in a type of measurement called seismic reflection (see previous blog post).  Unfortunately much of the region we surveyed has deep gullies with no sediment layers.  Ocean currents have scoured these regions leaving no sediment for us to core.  We finally located several small areas that had a hint of sediments and one big pile of sediment we thought would be our best chance for samples.

We use a sediment corer to take samples of the seafloor.  The corer is a long tube with heavy weights on top that push the tube down into the seafloor.  When the tube is pulled out it removes a long cylinder of sediment that we bring back to the surface.  The corer is lowered on a steel cable at about 1.5 miles per hour and takes more than an hour to reach the seafloor.  At 150 feet above the seafloor, a mechanical trigger releases the corer from the cable and 5,000 pounds of steel rocket towards the bottom.  The weight and speed push the corer up to 30 feet into the sediments.  Then we have to pull the corer back out.  Sometimes this is easy but if the sediments stick to the corer it can take almost 20,000 pounds of pull to free the tube and slide it out.

Section of sediment core

A section of sediment core showing changes from clay sediments at the bottom to sandy sediment on top.

Sorting foraminifera shells

Foraminifera shells a few millimeters across can be sorted with a fine-tipped paintbrush. The different species of foraminifera can be used to determine the age of the sediments.

The other important step in coring is to keep the sediments inside the tube on their two-mile trip back to the surface.  This seems obvious but we ran into troubles with the very first core we took.  Usually a ring of metal fingers in the bottom of the core (called a core catcher) keeps the sediment inside the tube.  However, the sediment we were coring contained a lot of sand-sized shells that was washing out of the tube leaving us with no sediment by the time the corer reached the surface.  To prevent this, we added a sock of fabric around the core catcher to keep the sand from washing out.  Bingo!  The fabric kept the sand in the corer and we started recovering sediments to study.

When the sediment corer arrives at the ocean surface it is laid horizontally along the ship’s rail where we take a sample of the sediment in the core catcher to determine the age of the bottom of the core.  This age is determined by looking for a striking, pink colored shell made by a type of plankton called foraminifera. This pink foraminifera was abundant in the Pacific Ocean until 120,000 years ago, so if we find pink shells we know the sediments are at least 120,000 years old.  We will do more detailed analyses later but this age gives us our first peek at how much time it took for the sediments to accumulate.

Next, we cut the core into smaller sections that are easier to handle and the core is split open so we can see how the sediment looks.  We study its color, texture and composition before storing it in a refrigerated container aboard the ship.  At the end of the cruise we will send the container to the Deep-Sea Core Repository at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory where the sediments will be preserved for researchers around the world to study.

We are now steaming south to the equator to start a new survey to find the right locations to drill more sediment cores.

Sock inside the core catcher

Katherine Wejnert from The Georgia Institute of Technology samples the sock inside the core catcher.

Cutting a sediment core into sections.

Steve Hovan (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) and Allison Jacobel (Columbia University) cut a sediment core into sections.

Preparing to take notes on the sediment composition.

Christine King (University of Rhode Island) prepares to take notes about a new sediment core.

Microscopic examination of sediments

Jennifer Hertzberg (Texas A & M University) determines how old the sediments are by looking for a pink-shelled species of foraminifera that lived in the Pacific Ocean 120,000 years ago.

Our Best Flight Yet

Arctic Thaw: Measuring Change - Wed, 05/09/2012 - 16:07

Southwest Glaciers Flight plan. Tasermuit Fjord is at the southern tip of Greenland, and the town of Narsarsuaq far up the fjord.

Evidence of the retreat of glaciers since the last glacial maximum (check), flying over sites of ancient Inuit, Norse and present day settlements (check), and a personal recollection of my own past in this location (check) – yes after reviewing the list ‘Southwest Glaciers 01′ was definitely the best flight – well at least until the next one!

In 1997 I got to spend a summer in Southwest Greenland, with the organization British Schools Exploring Society (BSES). They bring students at the end of high school/start of university to remote areas to spend six weeks on a combination of adventure and science – a great way to kick start a young adult into both a career path and self-discovery. I spent my time in Tasermuit fjord, a 70 km long stretch of water reaching inland from Greenland’s southwestern tip to the ice cap, and bounded by steep ridges the tallest standing over 2000 meters high. I learned about archeology and botany and developed a taste for field science that led fairly directly to my studying geology at university. Fifteens years later that study has brought me back around to Tasermuit fjord, this time having swapped my backpack and Zodiac inflatable boat for a rather large gravimeter and the P3 aeroplane. Tasermuit fjord looks exactly the same. I imagine I do too.

Site of the 'British Schools Exploring Society' 1997 Greenland basecamp on the shores of Tasermuit fjord. (K. Tinto)

The SW Glaciers mission brought me past the site of my 1997 basecamp….and also right past the mouth of the spectacular valley I spent several rainy days walking through. The valley is called Klosterdalen, and the mountain on the right hand is Ketil – a name associated, I am sure, with the Ketilidian orogeny that deformed these rocks in the Paleozoic some 2000–1750 Ma. Norse history would tell us that Ketil was one of Eric the Red’s men, and this was where he chose to settle. While Ketil himself postdated the orogenic event, in one of life’s ironies it appears all those million years later Ketil was responsible for the name given the orogeny and the resulting mountain. Of course the local Greenlandic have their own name for the mountain, Uiluit Qaqa, or “Oyster Mountain”, perhaps for the banks of mussel that become visible at low tide.

The valley of Klosterdalen with Ketil mountain rising to its height of 2010 m in on the right side of the image. (K. Tinto)

These pictures put a human scale on Greenland for me, because I know intimately how it feels to walk through the valleys. It is also a part of Greenland with a very clear human history, with physical evidence of both Inuit and Viking settlements in this region, including the ruins of a Norse settlement at the head of Klosterdalen.

Just around the corner (in our plane anyway – it took about a week to travel by fishing boats when I was here the first time) was the town of Narsarsuaq – an airport town, the site of an old US base and also very close to Erik the Red’s dwelling, the first Norse settlement in Greenland.

So we had some human history, and some personal history, but then we got some glacial history too, showing the retreat of the Greenland glacier from the last glacial maximum. Greenland glaciers offer some classic images of the processes we find described in textbooks.

The U-shaped valley filled with a fjord shows the classical shape of a valley carved by a glacier. (K. Tinto)

The terminal moraines in this picture (the mounds of sediment in front of the ice) show points where the glacier has paused in its retreat, sediments picked up in the moving ice during its advance are piled up at its terminus. (K. Tinto)

A hanging valley, where ice has poured from a smaller tributary into the main glacier when the ice was higher. (K. Tinto)

The dark lines of sediment within this glacier are medial moraines – when small glaciers converge – debris from their sides (lateral moraines) converge, and are carried along within the larger glacier. (K. Tinto)

The contrast in rock colour on this photo shows a 'trim line' marking how high the ice was (and was depositing debris on its sides) in the past. (K. Tinto)

So all in all it was a great flight. Evidence of the retreat of glaciers since the last glacial maximum, flying over sites of ancient Inuit, Norse and present day settlements, and some personal recollections. I would be grounded for the next week by night shifts, but these too were not without some fine sights.

Snow on the P3 during night watch of the gravimeter - you can just pick out the indicator light flickering in the window showing that the gravimeter is staying warm. (K. Tinto)

Clearing snow off the P3 wings in the morning before taking flight. (K. Tinto)

Our last sunrise in Kangerlussuaq – we won’t be seeing another of these, since now we have moved up to Thule and the sun won’t set again until we return to Wallops at the end of the season. (K. Tinto)


The weather became increasingly cloudy yesterday with low visibility and snow. That means no flying. The forecast for the next 24 hours doesn’t look promising either. As usual in the Arctic it’s better not to forecast — everything might change within hours.

Getting ready to get ice-cores together with colleagues from University of Alberta.

In addition to the standard suite of samples that we usually take, this year we will take ice-core samples to see how the melting sea ice below is affecting the ice. Our colleagues from the team CASIMBO, at the University of Alberta, have shared pictures of their ice-cores with us.

An ice-core under polarized light showing snow cover on top and ice crystals forming below.

To get a feeling for the amount of work necessary to drill an ice-core, I tried to join CASIMBO out on the ice via snowmobile, but due to the bad weather we had to return to the base. The wind and snow was picking up, and clouds prevented us from judging the condition of snow-covered surface we were driving on. (There are no roads here!) The risk of getting lost was far too great. I wore several layers of clothing, including three pairs of heavy socks, but was still shivering in the cold.

Not much to see in bad weather. Total white-out.

Sampling Water at the North Pole

The 2012 field season started out better than we could hope for. The weather has been great for flying and sampling water below the thick sea ice that covers much of the Arctic Ocean. Good weather means no low clouds or fog to prevent our pilots from seeing where they are going. Unlike regular airplanes that can land and take off in most weather, our planes don’t have the fancy technical instruments such as radar that can peer through cloudy skies. We were able to recover water samples from three stations, including one at the North Pole–a big success since the North Pole is crucial to understanding global ocean currents. The North Pole station is the farthest from Alert, requiring four to five hours of flying to get there, including a stop to refuel on the way and sometimes on the way back. To refuel, we land on the ice where we have have prepared a make-shift gas station several days earlier. The station consists of several drums of fuel and a beacon that allows us to find it on a constantly shifting landscape of ice; the sea ice moves several hundred meters each day. Unlike the South Pole, the North Pole is surrounded by water and so the landscape here looks very uniform. It’s hard to know that you’ve arrived some place special. To collect our water samples, we drill through up to eight feet of ice and lower a special sampling device into the hole that will measure the water’s temperature, salinity (conductivity) and dissolved oxygen as it descends. Today we are not allowed to fly and so we will spend the day resting and preparing our equipment for the days ahead.
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