Wednesday, December 21, 2011

nature at the back door

The monster-from-a-horror-flick stage 
of a lady bug's life
In my office, I've arranged it so that from my desk I look out into the backyard. My husband and I have removed most of the lawn and whats left contains more clover than grass – which the neighbour's bees love when it's blooming. Raised garden beds now dominate the space. In the spring, I'll plant them with veggies. Right now, they contain remnants of last summer's garden – kale, parsnips and turnips ready for harvest. Plus, one bed is currently home to our crazy chickens (crazy because as soon as one catches sight of me, they all come running). We also have berry bushes and herbs waiting for spring.

Now that there is a variety of landscape, nature has moved in (we don't apply any nasty chemicals in our yard). I've observed the full cycle of a ladybug's life from it's monster-from-a-horror-flick larvae stage to its glossy-red-poka-dotted adult stage. Jumping spiders and bee flies visit, neither of them stay still long enough for me to get a good photo. A hummingbird has taken up residence in the holly behind the fence. A Bewick's wren raised a family in a pile of cedar branches which we almost carted off to the dump (we noticed the birds just in time). I'm looking forward to the day I see a garter snake move in to help with the slugs. Someday, frogs would be nice too.

Producing tasty fruit and veggies is my goal for the backyard, but, it's nice to see creatures finding a home in my yard. Even in winter, lots of creatures are making use of the yard.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

You are what you eat – the colour version

A flamingo from a local butterfly garden
Every kid knows that a flamingo is pink because of what it eats. They filter water through their beak to catch brine shrimp and algae. The beta carotene in their food is converted to the pink pigments in their feathers, without this pigment source the bird would be white. Unfortunately, flamingos aren't found on my Pacific island except in captivity. But, we do have critters using the same pigment trick.

Recently, I met up with the local Natural History Society (I'm a member) for a beach seine at night because that was when the best low tide was this time of year. Based on the wind storms recently, we were lucky the wind had dropped off and it wasn't raining. The surf was manageable with the net for people wearing hip-waders and dry-suits – so not me as I don't own either. Two people took the net out into the surf. The first seine was over sand resulting in hardly any fish. So, the net was taken out and hauled in a second time over eelgrass. All sorts of interesting intertidal creatures were pulled up.

Everyone gathered around to check out the fishes, crabs and shrimps. The fish catch included: walleye pollock, English sole, stary flounder, sharpnose sculpin, sailfin sculpin, sandlance, roselip sculpin, tubesnout, high cockscomb, a type surf perch, Pacific spiny lumpsucker (the cutest fish ever) and a penpoint gunnel. Each type was put into a clear ziplock bag along with plenty of water and passed around. By holding the bags up to my headlamp, I got a good look at each critter.

The penpoint gunnel intrigued me because it was neon green – a tropical water colour in our temperate zone. A picture can be found here, the fish looks like an eel, but isn't. This guy hangs around in eelgrass or sea lettuce beds waiting to ambush little crustaceans and mollusks. The bright green colour of the one we found would allow it to blend in almost perfectly (they also come in other colours to match other seaweeds). Like the flamingo, the penpoint gunnel gets it's colour through what it eats. The green comes from the sea lettuce.

Few of the fish and invertebrates were held on to for a local museum's tide pool, the rest were released. As we packed up our gear, another beach seine group arrived. In the darkness, all we could see of them was dark shapes and headlamps – it was like looking at ourselves a couple hours in the past.
As a tangent, my trips to the beach seem to coincide with when my rubber boots are muddy. Once again they are clean.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Swamp Water

Home for many microbes
On a whim, I did an internet search on 'swamp water'. What came up included alcoholic drink concoctions and a 1941 movie based on an earlier book which looked like more of a drama than the potential horror promised in the title. No search result came up for swamp water as the random mixing of soda pops (which always came out brown for me because of the necessity of root beer). When I was a kid, I looked forward to any opportunity to mix pops and called it 'swamp water'. I did an informal survey of friends, and I'm not the only one who made swamp water, in fact, a few friends admitted they still do it, especially with slurpees. It even turns out some kids today are still making swamp water.

Speaking of kids and swamp water, I ran a group activity for kids last week on microbes (specifically the oceanic variety, although discussions didn't go that way). I borrowed a microscope and brought in water wrung out of my aquarium's filter, otherwise known as my in-house swamp water. The whole activity reminded me of when I was kid and my science-teacher father brought home a microscope from work for me to use. All the little critters out of my aquarium's filter became visible to me.

We haven't always known about microbes. Anton van Leeuwenhoek (I have no idea how to pronounce his name) discovered these tiny life forms everywhere in 1675. For his discovery, he used a microscope of his own design – one of the earliest microscopes. By definition microbes are simply creatures you need a microscope to see, and they typically form the base of an ecosystem. According to Wikipedia, many blame the failure of Biosphere II on an improper balance of microbes. Microbes are incredibly useful: they are required for brewing, wine making, baking, pickling and fermentation; they play a role in decomposition of organic matter; and they aid our own digestion by synthesizing vitamins and fermenting complex carbohydrates into digestible form. Microbes aren't all beneficial, in fact, many infectious diseases can be attributed to them.

My favourite of the aquarium-filter microbes are amoeba, partly because I can identify them and partly because they lack a definable shape. They are moving blobs that use their blobiness to envelope their prey. Amoeba were discovered by August von Rosenhof (another name I can't pronounce) in 1757, a surprisingly long time after the discovery of microbes especially considering how ubiquitous they are (in every aquarium I've ever had amoebas have flourished).

With the exception of amoeba, I can't identify specific microbes. They are hugely diverse: there are ones that swim like snakes, ones shaped like tiny ovals zooming around, and ones formed as large blobs that change shape as they move – plus many more. And this is just in my aquarium (which was originally seeded from local pond water). What would I find in my soil? Under the oak leaves in the park nearby? In a tidal pool? How about in my kitchen sink's drain? I'm always amazed by the diversity of critters right under our noses (or even in our noses). We live in a wild place.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Down on the beach

Breaking waves on a sandy beach
I took a group of students down to a local beach last week – it turned out to be the only day that week that poured rain (I often have that kind of luck). As the students were doing their work, I walked up and down the beach to check on them. Since I was dressed for the rain I didn't mind the weather, in fact I found it pleasant to be away from my computer for a few hours. In addition to my rain jacket, I wore my rubber boots so I could walk through the shallowest waves and feel their strength tugging at my ankles. Okay, the real reason I wore my rubber boots was because they were dirty and I hoped the wave action would clean them.

Most of the beach was cobble, that is, composed of golfball to baseball sized smooth stones. With each step shifting rocks allowed my foot to sink in a bit, it almost felt like I was wading. Off shore, breaking waves (less than 1 metre) formed perfect curls along their tops before crashing down. Beneath the crashing waves, rocks tumbled with the moving water adding their own sound to that of the waves. Constant wave action was moving the rocky beach, in fact, all beaches exist in a constant state of change. At different time of year a beach may look completely different. In summer, gentle waves bring more sand on shore while in the winter, larger waves can remove the sand entirely.

Beaches are made from loose sediments like rock and sand or even ground up hardened lava (Hawaii has beaches like this) that are deposited. A sheltered place in between headlands is ideal as the headlands will take the brunt of wave energy. Beach sediments can originate from a far off river or from right close by. The cliffs overlooking the beach I was on provided all the sediments needed for the beach to form.

As a tangent – my rubber boots are now nice and clean.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

No zombies here

Do zombies eat popcorn with their fingers? No, they prefer to eat fingers separately.

This post has nothing to do with zombies, I just heard this joke the other day and found it bizarrely funny. I guess there is no accounting for my taste in humor. Instead of zombies, I’m going to write about lee waves as they are cool (in my mind) and I gave a talk about them recently. Lee waves can be found everywhere if you know what you are looking for. They lurk in your sink, form over mountains and even beneath the ocean’s surface (I wouldn’t be surprised if they can be found out in space too).

Topography, like mountains or under-sea ridges, affects the flow that passes over it. Fluid (air or water) in the lower layers is pushed up the windward or upstream side where it squeezes in with the upper layers causing the flow to speed up. On the lee side, flow slows down again and a disturbance to the flow is formed. This 'disturbance' is often a wave that travels in the opposite direction of the flow. When the speed of the flow and this wave are the same, the wave is stationary and called a lee-wave. (ever notice a bump in the water right below a weir? It’s a non-linear form of a lee wave called a hydraulic jump).

Lee waves were discovered by glider pilots in the 1930s. If a glider catches a lee wave in the right place, the unpowered aircraft can gain significant altitude. All these early papers are in German, so I don’t know what these early pilots had to say about lee waves, my guess is that they found it pretty exciting. As a teenager, I regularly flew in gliders – which typically included a full day of pushing the glider around on the ground and about 7 minutes of actual flight time. I loved it. We flew out of a field on the prairies in Alberta, too far from the Rockies to gain altitude through a lee-wave.

A soon as lee waves were discovered, scientists started looking at why and how they form. The theory requires looking at the Navier-Stokes equations – a mighty difficult task which only recently became doable with computers. As an alternative, lab experiments were conducted. These experiments (and there was lots of them) offered a straightforward way to look at the factors influencing lee wave formation – combinations of the obstacle height and width, and the fluid velocity and density. Once this parameter space was full, it could be used to predict real world phenomenon.

Ocean lee waves are common and in shallow waters and beneath them a significant amount of turbulence is created. Oceanographers can look at them in detail using current meters (I don’t think there is an equivalent measurement instrument for the atmosphere yet). Because of the augmented flows and turbulence, the sea floor under a lee wave makes great habitat for critters – especially stationary filter feeders, as a buffet of tasty treats is whooshed by.

Filter feeders are often also builders, such as coral reefs, glass sponge reefs or even mussel beds. Sometimes the structures they build can intensify the turbulent flows they moved there to take advantage of. They can add to the roughness of the bottom (thus creating more drag) or even make the slope steeper. A steeper slope will result in a steeper lee wave, steeper lee waves may even break (remember the hydraulic jump?) creating even more turbulence. More turbulence means more food can be churned through the water giving the filter feeders more to eat.

As a tangent: this is post number 100.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ageing maple leaves

a maple leaf in the sun
Yesterday, in the parking lot at work, a maple leaf rested on the pavement. The golden-hued morning light caught the leaf highlighting the red-tending-to-maroon tones. The leaf sharply contrasted the cold grey of the pavement, its vividness catching my eye. What if I picked up the leaf and saved it? Could archeologists in the far future figure out when the leaf fell from the tree?

Currently, we can estimate how old plant-based objects are using radiocarbon dating - often just called carbon dating. In 1949, Willard Libby and his team accurately estimated the age of the wood in an ancient Egyptian barge – a barge with a recorded age. This process works through knowing the ratio of carbon-12 (the ordinary stuff) to carbon-14 (a radioactive isotope) in the atmosphere.

Carbon-14 isn't particularly stable and decays quickly. It has a half-life of about 5,730 years - only a moment of time compared to the approximately 4.5 billion year half-life of uranium-238 (which is roughly the age of Earth). Continuously formed in the atmosphere by cosmic rays, carbon-14 reacts with oxygen becoming carbon dioxide. Plants take up some of this carbon dioxide along with carbon dioxide formed from the more abundant carbon-12. When the plant dies, no more carbon dioxide is taken in and the existing carbon-14 begins to decay.

If we assume the carbon-12 to carbon-14 ratio was the same when the plant died to now, using the decay rate of carbon-14 will give us the item's age (back to about 60,000 years). But, we know this ratio has fluctuated over time. To compensate, the age results are calibrated to something known like written records or tree rings. The biggest change to the carbon-12 to carbon-14 ratio has occurred in modern times through nuclear testing. Carbon-14 levels in the atmosphere were boosted around 1950 and peaked in the 1960's (at which time, testing bans were agreed to).

So, could a future archeologist figure out the are of my leaf using carbon dating? Probably not accurately because we've messed with the carbon-12 to carbon-14 ratio in our atmosphere. It would be more accurate for that archeologist to look at the date of this article.

As a tangent: At the end of the day when I returned to my car, the leaf was still there. Without the sunlight shining on it, the leaf looked brown and uninteresting.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Polar Bear Hair

Polar Bear photographed by Iva Peklova
Bears scare me, in fact, they scare me more than anything else. As a child, I would lay awake in my second story bedroom fearing that a bear would crash through my window at any moment. Even then, I was well aware the black bears in the area preferred to forage for berries and grubs over breaking into a child's bedroom but, I still feared them.

If I camp in the woods, any twig breaking or rustling sound will immediately start me thinking of bears. I've seen plenty of wild bears (black bears, grizzlies and polar bears) and I've never had a bad experience – mostly the bears acted terrified of me (perhaps as cubs they feared people would break into the dens). I'm forced to conclude that my life-long bear fear is irrational – at least I no longer fear bears will break into my urban second story bedroom.

In the temperate climate I live in, I don't see a bear every time I step in the forest. In fact, I rarely see them. However, every time I've been to the arctic, I've seen polar bears. I've seen more polar bears in the wild than any other type of bear. The arctic is huge and there are not a lot of polar bears, so I find it somewhat strange that I see them most often.

When I was shopping for my dad's birthday present (he ties flies for fishing), I was drawn to a swatch of polar bear hair. I wanted to touch it, so I bought the package and took it home. Polar bears aren't truly white, instead they are more of a cream colour. In a southern zoo setting they can even acquire a tint of green from algae growth.

If you look closely at a polar bear's hair, it is hollow and transparent. At some point an urban myth was promulgated that the hairs were acted like natural fibre optic cables, channelling the light, especially UV down to the bear's black skin. It doesn't quite work that way, instead light just passes through the hair to heat the skin. In this case, the simple answer is the right one.

As a tangent, the polar bear hair felt wiry rather than soft like I expected.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sunny paradoxes – part 2

A hazy sun
Since the solar system's beginning, the sun has increased its energy output by about 25 percent. What has that meant for earth? From ancient rocks, we can tell that a younger earth had surface liquid which can be taken to mean that earth has remained roughly the same temperature as we still have liquid water. If the sun was cooler back then, why wasn't the earth cooler? This is known as the 'faint young sun paradox'. A number of mechanisms may have been responsible for keeping a relatively constant surface temperature. Probably a combination of things are involved, but no one knows for sure. Here are some possibilities:

The Earth was warmer despite less incoming solar energy because of a larger greenhouse effect. For this to work, the greenhouse effect responsible would have tapered off as the sun grew brighter. The greenhouse effect is caused by an atmosphere rich in 'stuff' that prevents radiation from escaping. Two of the better culprits are water vapour and carbon dioxide (methane is a good at this too, as is nitrous oxide i.e., laughing gas). Assuming carbon dioxide played a big role, where would extra carbon dioxide come from? Way back, a more geologically active earth spewed more carbon dioxide from volcanoes. This excess carbon dioxide eventually was sunk into places like our oceans thereby reducing this greenhouse gas over time (only in the last 200 years have people begun spewing out our own contribution of this gas). So, when the sun was cooler the extra carbon dioxide created a greenhouse effect that has decreased at a similar rate as the sun heating up. Other processes probably put more of the other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere long ago and removed them slowly over time as well.

A recent thought based on big assumptions is that the early atmosphere also had more nitrogen. Nitrogen all on its own isn't a greenhouse gas on Earth (on Saturn's moon Titan, some funky stuff happens to the nitrogen, so there it acts a greenhouse gas), however extra nitrogen bounces around and hits the greenhouse gases which gives the greenhouse gases extra energy and makes them unstable or wobbly. This molecular wobble spreads out absorption lines (the range where a particular molecule absorbs energy) resulting in a wider band to absorb the radiation – thus more radiation is absorbed. On the flip side, extra nitrogen could also increase Rayleigh scattering, thus reflecting more of the incoming radiation away. So knowing which process dominated would be important.

As for why early earth wasn't colder with a cooler sun, we have good some ideas, but we really don't know for sure.

Walker, C.G., P.B. Hays and J.F. Kasting, 1981: A negative feedback mechanism for the long-term stabilization of Earth's surface temperature. Journal of Geophysical Research, 86, 9776-9782

Goldblatt, C., M.W. Claire, T.M. Lenton, A.J. Matthews, A.J. Watson and K.J. Zahnle, 2009: Nitrogen-enhanced greenhouse warming on early Earth. Nature Geoscience, 2, 891-896.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sunny paradoxes – part 1

A sunset over Cumberland Sound
The sun continuously shines on Earth, but how much sunlight reaches us varies through the year. Since the Earth's orbit is elliptical, we are closest to the sun around 3 January and farthest around 4 July. Every illustration of the elliptical orbit of Earth that I've seen shows a hugely skewed orbit, which could lead one to think Earth would have its hottest global temperature in January.

However, the elipticalness of our orbit doesn't have much of an impact. From Wikipedia: Earth's farthest point is 152,098,232 km and the closest 147,098,290 km – a difference of 4,999,942 km, which is a small fraction of the orbit's radius (yeah, it's still a huge number, but everything in space is huge). Another way to look at this is to consider the eccentricity of Earth's orbit. Eccentricity is a measure of how circular an orbit is, zero is a perfect circle and one isn't a closed orbit (like a slingshot). Earth's eccentricity is about 0.02 – really close to a circle.

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, we are closest to the sun in the middle of winter – not the hottest time of year. Instead, it's the Earth's tilt that creates the seasons – we are tipped 23.5 degrees from the plane of Earth's orbit. When the pole closest to us is tipped away from the sun, we get winter. At the pole itself there is complete darkness (good for vampires).

The tilt of the Earth's rotation plays a greater role in our temperatures than the elipticalness of Earth's orbit. Either way, we still get a free trip of 150 million kilometres each year.

Friday, September 9, 2011

This ill-fated Arctic expedition had my name on it, but it had nothing to do with me

Recently, I read Fridtjof Nansen's Farthest North, a book about his sea voyage/scramble over the ice towards the North Pole that lasted from 1893 to 1896. Everyone got home safely in the end; an anomaly for Arctic trips at the time. Nansen designed his ship specifically to freeze into the ice. Based on a theory that the ice would drift taking the ship with it. The evidence he used to come up with this idea came from the disastrous, 1879-1881, Jeannette Arctic Expedition.

The Jeannette was a privately owned wooden steamship, originally the HMS Pandora (isn't re-naming a ship an invitation for bad luck?), that set sail from San Fransisco in 1879 and was commanded by Lieutenant DeLong of the US Navy. Sailing through Bering Strait and into the Arctic, the ship was frozen into the ice. Its ultimate destination was the North Pole – the belief at that time was that open water existed past the ice. In the summer of 1881, the ship was crushed by ice and the crew was forced to abandon it in three small boats. One boat was lost long before they reached the Siberian coast. The other two boats made it the coast, but were separated.

One boat's crew of eleven, including the Chief Engineer George Melville, were found by locals and saved. In the other boat was thirteen people, including Lieutenant DeLong. His last journal entry was dated 30 October 1881 and it is assumed he died shortly thereafter. Melville put together a search party for the others and by 1882, some of the bodies were discovered and sent back to the United States.

The Jeannette was crushed by ice in the area north of Siberia (77 degrees 15' north, 154 degrees 59' east). Three years later bits of paperwork and clothing from the ship were found on the southwest coast of Greenland – on the opposite side of the Arctic. This discovery led to the theory that these items had drifted right over the North Pole in the ice – the theory that inspired Nansen's voyage. There is more info on the voyage here  

The photo is a picture of a picture which I took in the museum in Iqaluit - there was no caption about what ship it is. Photos of the Jeannette can be found here.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Final update

one of the ship's constant arctic fulmar companions
Friday, 19 August 2011, I had the afternoon to explore one of the fjords opening into Cumberland Sound for a CTD cast. This one had the largest river in the area, so, I thought it might be interesting. It was part of the un-charted areas, so we went in slowly with the ship until there was about 7 m of water. Then, three of us loaded into the zodiac with the CTD and 400 m of line (I thought it could get much deeper further in, plus I didn't want to cut the line). The fjord hid behind a chain of islands (the largest was Kekertelung Island), so we still had a long way to go. At the fjord mouth, a sand bar blocked our way – it got so shallow the boat motor was hitting the ground. I never saw sand anywhere in the area, it was just rocks right down and into the water, even the echo sounder on the ship returned a hard signal, indicating there were rocks below the surface. I can only guess that the sand came from the river. We had to turn around so, I picked a near by bay for the cast. The water turned out to be over 80 m deep with a thick fresh water layer on top. When we got back on the ship, we headed back into Pangurtung to refuel.

Sunday, 21 August 2011 – Kevin and I were shown how to take samples of jellyfish and preserve them for future study. We dropped a zooplankton net (a fine round net slightly larger than an umbrella) down to the bottom and hauled it back up. Once back on board, everything inside was washed down into a collecting bucket which happened to be black. We caught some jelly fish – little ones about the size and shape of a thimble. Against the dark of the bucket, they flashed blue, purple and green.

Monday, 22 August 2011 – We were stuck in Pangurtung another day for reasons outside my control. I was offered the opportunity to go ashore, so I took it (I can only hang around so long on such a small ship without getting bored). The ship's captain wanted to find buckets he could use to empty the bilges and our best option was to check out the dump. Everything in Pangurtung is in walking distance, so we set out on foot (plus I needed the exercise). The dump was full of what looked like still usable stuff – a barbie doll still with a full head of hair, a pair of children's rubber boots with no sign of wear and so on. There were buckets, but no lids, so we left empty handed.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011 – We left anchor to retrieve my mooring. Unfortunately, the wind had picked up and there was significant swell in the sound. Some waves were greater than 5 m. Once near the mooring we started with a CTD cast (to check the moored instruments against), then we took some water samples. It was too rough to attempt to catch jelly fish. By this point, a scientist and a crew member had succumbed to sea sickness and I wasn't feeling so good myself. Water was now washing across the back deck on each large wave and everything lashed down was beginning to shift in scary ways. Using the ship's sonar, the mooring float 30 m below the surface was located and as soon as we got close, we let the acoustic release go. Soon, the orange float popped up and we grabbed it and started pulling the mooring on board. As soon as it was secure, we all went inside and the ship headed for a sheltered cove (Brown Harbour) to wait out the storm a anchor. That night winds reached 54 knots.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011 – In the morning I downloaded the instruments from the mooring, reset them, then built a new mooring to stay out for the winter. By the early afternoon, the wind had dropped, so we ventured back into the sound to deploy the mooring. This time, we set it up so we just needed to flake out the mooring behind us and cut a single line to release the anchor. We only needed to slow down, not stop. As soon as it was deployed, we headed back to Pangurtung for a crew change.

Friday, 26 August 2011 – I finally got a day to do CTD casts in one location (I'd been asking to do this since I arrived on board). The casts took about 12 minutes each and I did one on the hour for 12 hours. I'm hoping this will give me a good idea of how the water changes over a tidal cycle.

Saturday, 27 August 2011 – my second to last day fishing. A private yacht had ventured into the sound so its rich owners could tour around. As we were the only other ship around, the two captains started talking, which resulted in an invite for the yacht owners to come watch us fish and maybe see greenland sharks. At the most awkward point in the fishing, the yacht owners including their two young daughters showed up to watch. Not one of them was wearing a life jacket – it was kinda scary watching the little kids climb out of their zodiac and onto the ship without one (we always wore life jackets on deck). It felt kinda like we were in a zoo as the rich folks photographed us working. The kids quickly started to feel seasick as the ship was drifting. Fortunately, we caught a shark so they could take a look and then head home to their fancy yacht.

Sunday, 28 August 2011. After a final round of fishing, we returned to Pangurtung. I spent the night at the lodge and headed home the next morning.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Update 5 – Zombies

bones at Kekerton
Tuesday, August 9, 2011, instead of just looking at Kekerton Island through binoculars, we took the zodiac ashore. Wind swept, the island the station sits on is mostly formed of white granite covered with black lichen. Everywhere the rock is exposed, it sparkled. Once it was thought this area was rich in gold – I see how that assumption was formed by just looking at the rocks. A few patches of tundra thrived in the otherwise barren landscape. Tundra is squishy underfoot and, this time of year, green dotted with flowers and mushrooms ranging in colour from copper to red. A yellow butterfly flitted between blades of grass and flowers then darted out of sight when I tried to get its photograph.

The old whaling station has morphed into a park complete with plaques describing what to see, which isn't much anymore. Three rusting metal cauldrons, each huge in size, lined the designated path. I imagined whalers used them for rendering the whale blubber, but, I don't really know and I didn't bother reading the sign. Most of the buildings are completely gone – recycled by the Inuit into who knows what (at least everything got re-used). Graves still remain. The unfortunate people who died on Kekerton Island were 'buried' in wooden boxes and old barrels with rocks stacked on top. With time and perhaps polar bear intervention, most of the boxes have been cracked open. One box in particular was rendered completely open and clearly held two complete human skeletons. I wonder who they were? Being a whaler was clearly not an easy job.

Mr Noodle bowl garbage
Bones were scattered most everywhere I looked. I assume most belonged to animals, including a massive bowhead whale lower jaw bone and a smaller skull likely from a walrus. A few shards of pottery poked out of the rocks along with rusted links of chain. An old anchor rested on one of the rocks near the water as though someone put it there with the intention of retrieving it – even today it looked ready to be used. A friendly blue modern cabin and outhouse both with yellow trim sit at one end of the park. The cabin is small and cozy, it would be comfortable to stay in – way larger than my cabin on the ship. Unfortunately, others (not us) left garbage behind. In between the rocks empty pop cans and a Mr. Noodle bowl made of eternally-lasting styrofoam remained as a reminder of careless visitors.

That night we anchored again near Kekerton Island resulting in endless zombie jokes. We must have been tired because we actually found them funny.

polar eelpout
Saturday, August 13, 2011 – The weather has been calm and is forcasted to stay this way. Days blur together now as there isn't much variety to our tasks. Each day starts with pulling up the fishing line and processing the fish, a task that typically takes until early afternoon or longer. Then, I get in a CTD cast or two. In the evening the fishing line with just under 600 hooks is re-baited with squid from New Jersey and set out for recovery the next morning. We've had a couple successful fishing days, on Iva's last day we caught 75 turbot for her (her thesis revolves around turbot), which was the biggest turbot catch so far. The only fish caught that wasn't a turbot, skate or shark was a polar eelpout and only one took our bait. Head dwarfed the eelpout's gray stripped body and it was small compared to everything else we've caught. Since it was a new fish, I took pictures, then, we released it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011 – Still fishing. Today started with our first fire/abandon ship drill. As a scientist, my tasks include getting my life-jacket out of my bunk and grabbing an immersion suit. Then, I go to the bridge to wait for direction. The bridge is my muster station, which always becomes mustard station in my mind. For this morning's drill, Kevin (the only other scientist currently on board) and I were in the lounge when the alarm went off. This immediately raised the question of if we should go down to our cabin, as it is a deck below where we were, to get a life-jacket or, just grab an immersions suit (which are stored in the lounge) and go to the bridge. We decided not to get the life-jackets, which turned out to be the wrong choice. Shortly after the first drill concluded as second one was called – this time we showed up with life-jacket's in hand.

Now that going home is getting closer and closer, my mind is wandering to the things I'd like to do when I get home – a long hot bath tops my list.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Update 4 - bad weather and more fishing

arctic skate
For three days (28-30 July 2011), Cumberland Sound endured gale force winds. We hid at anchor in Pangurtung Fjord, and even there the winds reached over 30 knots. At one point, the ship started dragging the anchor (the type of thing that only happens in the middle of the night – I was asleep and missed it).

Shifting our plans slightly to get some work done, we deployed an acoustic range test in Pangurtung Fjord in the afternoon of 29 July 2011. Strong wind and tides made the deployment difficult as the ship struggled to get on top of each position accurately. Acoustic tags of different types were dropped into the water at known locations and moorings with receivers were positioned at specific distances away. The aim is to determine how well the receivers can hear the tags over a year. How sound propagates through the water depends on density which can be determined from a CTD cast. I did a cast over the range test and discovered the water in Pangurtung Fjord creates a very different profile (fresher and warmer near the surface) than Cumberland Sound water.

On 31 July 2011, winds died down enough to venture into the Sound. Before we left, two new scientists came on board and Aaron went home. Now we have one more scientist than bunks, so someone is sleeping on the floor of the lab on a pile of lifejackets – and it's not me. First we put out another shark fishing line then 24 moorings were deployed, most with receivers on them plus another group for a range test. I even squeezed in three CTD casts and downloaded all the data. I'm still seeing a temperature minimum around 100m. By the evening the sound was calm, so we drifted for the night.

We started 1 Aug 2011 by hauling up the shark line. Only three sharks took the bait and one escaped before we could get our hands on it. Two remained, one male and one female, both large animals in good shape. Nigel and Iva tagged both and released them. For the second one, in an effort to get a line around the shark, Nigel's nose rubbed the wrong way on the shark's skin, leaving him with bloody nose rubbed raw.

I finally got to build my first oceanographic mooring. It was deployed as soon as we were done with the sharks. The mooring went out in 270m of water, the mooring itself was 240m long with conductivity and temperature sensors spaced every 40m. Also, attached at the top was a dissolved carbon dioxide sensor for someone else's project (the sensor came in a wooden crate held together with star shaped screws – with me I have a screwdriver for almost any type of screw out there, except that). I've never worked with a carbon dioxide sensor before, so I checked the manual on how to deploy it. According to the manual, the sensor was ready to go and I could check that by waving a magnet over a red dot on the instrument's side, waiting 40 seconds, then looking for drips of liquid coming out a tiny tube. I saw the drops, so I'm assuming the instrument is ready to go. This mooring will be recovered at the end of August, the data downloaded, then re-deployed for the winter.

The second of August was another sunny, calm day. First thing in the morning we pulled up a long line of hooks we deployed the night before – I think there was 300 hooks total, each baited with squid. Right of the bat we had a shark and eventually we caught two more and each of them were tagged. We also caught our first arctic skate. When a skate comes out of the water, it curls up instinctively. When I saw this the first time, it looked exactly like the creature that fixed itself to the face of one of the crew members in Alien. In the end, we caught many skate and only two turbot – the first turbot was too small to tag, so only one turbot got tagged.

On our way to the next site, I was able detour for a CTD cast between two islands. As we did the cast, one of the crew members told me there was an old whaling station on one of the islands (Kekerton) along with a cemetery. I couldn't see any structures on the island from the ship, however, the whaling station was marked on the chart. It would have been nice to anchor near by and take a look around.

A sailing vessel with two masts passed us, along with two tug boats hauling barges. I was told the tugs were dropping off their loads at a mine up the sound – apparently, they are mining for diamonds. One of the tug boats was named 'Molly', a fact I learned listening them call on the radio (I never heard the name of the other tug or the sail boat).

The third and fourth of August blurred together as we spent the days fishing with a few CTD casts in between. It was one of the crew member's birthday so, Iva and I conducted a chemistry experiment by baking a cake based on what we could find on board – a number of substitutions were made, luckily resulting a tasty coffee cake. It's very difficult to covertly bake a cake on a small ship, no matter where one goes on board you have to pass through the galley. We managed because the captain put the birthday boy on bridge watch while we were mixing everything together. Later as the cake baked, we were all on deck working with the fishing lines. Another scientist pulled the cake from the oven and stashed it in our cabin (making for a nice smelling cabin). Iva planned in advance and had birthday candles on hand and we lit them without setting fire alarms off.

Swell came in and the winds picked up forcing us back into Pangurtung Fjord for the night of 4 August 2011. A crew swap will occur and we'll be changing focus next week – the shark wrestling phase of this expedition is done.

Working out the kinks

Since the ship is brand new (Iva and I were the first scientists when we got on in Frobisher Bay), there are kinks that need working out. The biggest one, in my mind, is the lack of random spare parts. Regularly, oceanographic equipment ends up jury-rigged together with wire, shackles, duct tape, tie wraps, hose clamps, etc. Most of the older research vessels have built up a collection of parts for this purpose, I find it odd not to have a stockpile to rely on. I travel with some of the parts I might need but, it's hard to prepare for everything that might break or what might need to be connected together. As scientists come and work on this ship and leave stuff behind, I'm sure in time this ship will build a lovely collection of spare items.

In the realm of other problematic things, my CTD has a dissolved oxygen sensor strapped to it (with a hose clamp and a tie wrap – no duct tape yet). This sensor requires water flow past a delicate membrane. The CTD has a pump for the conductivity sensor, so we've altered the tubing allowing water to also pass the oxygen sensor. However, the intake for the oxygen sensor is much smaller in diameter than the pump tubing. To make it compatible, tubing with an inner diameter workable with the oxygen sensor and an outer diameter that fits tightly inside the pump tubing has been cut into a couple short lengths to work as adapters. I brought more of this tubing in case I need to make more 'adapters' – right now, I expect I'll need it.

My other complaint is the medicine cabinet in my cabin. Three mirrored doors are held shut by magnets – an arrangement that works fine in a house. Unfortunately, the motion of the ship ripped the magnets free, leaving the doors to noisily flap about – whapwhap whapwhap whapwhap … We've now taped the doors shut (duct tape use #209) but, we still need to access the shelves inside and the stickiness of the tape doesn't last. The doors always come unstuck at 2 am, waking me up with their 'whapwhap whapwhap whapwhap' until I can't take it anymore and have to get up and fix them with more tape.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Arctic Update 3 – Sharks!

The Amunsden sent over a mechanic to fix the hydraulics – so no deploying the CTD by hand (we did seriously consider it). Our day of trawling with the icebreaker resulted in no fish. I don't know if that means their experiment failed or not. The scientists on board invited us over for dinner, then slept through the meal – so no boat came for us. Eventually, we got hungry and cooked up our own dinner. We were three scientists working together to cook instant rice and we failed. I didn't realize it is possible to screw up instant rice! We screwed up scallops too.

26 July 11, we went back to pull up the line of hooks we set out two days earlier (we didn't intend to leave the line in the water so long, but, we couldn't pull it up without hydraulics). Most the hooks were gone, we assumed fish took the bait, then shark took the fish. We caught a female greenland shark that was 3.5m – big, however, the largest of these sharks reach 7m (or more, according to Pat, a fisherman from Newfoundland who is one of the crew).

These aren't scary sharks, in fact they are the slowest swimming fish out there. They range from here, Baffin Island, to off the coast of Norway and quite a distance south, off the coast of Georgia at over 2000m in depth. We don't know if they go further, in fact, there is a lot we don't know about these sharks. Greenland sharks aren't as sleek as tropical ones. Their skin is blotchy gray – smooth in one direction and rough the other way (true of all sharks). Their fins are quite rounded. They have a thick layer to protect them from the cold It's not fat – something else like a collagen layer, whale sharks also have this. Most of them have a parasite hanging off their eyes rendering them essentially blind. Since, they hang out so deep, being blind is probably not a hindrance.

In the morning of 27 July 11, we brought up another shark line, this time there was 13 sharks. Four had been munched on and were dead, as we brought them up to the surface to cut them free, northern fulmars (a sea bird with a head like a pigeon's) darted in for whatever scraps they could get. The ship was soon surrounded by these birds as they squabbled for the best spot. It took all day to tag the nine healthy sharks, all of them 2.5m and bigger. As soon as the fishing lines were in, I got my fourth CTD cast done.

Late last night we arrived back in Pangurtung to refuel. The wind is expected to pickup, so, we may not be able to get back to work for a few days.

Arctic Update 2

looking from Pangurtung towards Cumberland Sound
The Pangurtung fjord is stunning – steep rock slopes with a few stunted flowers and grasses as the only ground cover. Boulders the size of houses look like they've been tossed around by long gone glaciers. Definitely a harsh landscape but, less alien that the endless sea ice in the Beaufort Sea. Arctic poppies and cotton bloom alongside a stunted form of fireweed. A few bursts of yellow from dandelions dot the landscape. On the beach, sparse patches of kelp indicate the high tide line. Small snails and little shrimp appear to be the only life in tide pools littered with tiny clam shells.

Pangurtung is larger than I expected, but still a very small town. It's situated part way along the fjord on a patch of rocky ground between the water and a hill. The town consists of a large group of houses built up off the ground surrounding a runway. Dirt and mud roads link everything together in town, but the roads don't lead to any other communities. In the store, pop costs over $4.00 a can.

On our first evening in Pangurtung (22 July 2011) we set out in a small boat to recover the closest moorings. In place since last summer, these moorings held receivers designed to pick up acoustic tag signals from passing fish and thermistors to measure water temperature – potentially a lot of good data. At out first stop, a gust of wind whisked one of the laminated sheets of acoustic release codes into the air. Fluttering, always just out of reach, the sheet settled onto the water and slowly sank. The sheet floated beneath the surface tantalizing close but, just out of reach of the boat hook. Codes for one acoustic release were lost.

An acoustic release holds on to an anchor (or whatever else you want it to hold on to) until it hears a specific code. When the code is right, the acoustic release lets go allowing a mooring, less the anchor (anchors typically get left behind), to rise to the surface. Because of the lost codes, one mooring stayed on the bottom, so we'll have to go back for it later. The rest of the moorings we recovered.

There is no dock in Pangurtung, so the ship has to remain at anchor. Small boats run back and forth from shore – a pain when moving a lot of heavy gear and we have a lot of gear. The next morning (22 July 2011), we went aboard the ship to organize our gear. Deck and storage space is limited on this vessel, more so than any other ship I've worked on, so, organizing everything turned into a nightmare. All extra gear was offloaded and stored on shore, we just didn't have room to keep anything extra (which means more time will be lost re-loading gear later).

We pulled up the anchor at 4 am on 23 July 2011. I was in my bunk but, not asleep as anchor chains make a lot of noise going in or out. Our destination was the mouth of Cumberland Sound. We built and deployed 12 moorings, each holding a receiver to listen for fish tags (we haven't tagged any fish yet this year). Mooring components were put together on deck with shackles, knots, tie wraps and black electrical tape. A 200lb anchor is attached to a short length of chain, then an acoustic release, followed by a length of rope attached to a float. The float keeps the line off the bottom and provides buoyancy to bring the mooring back to the surface when the anchor is released. Water depths ranged between 900-1200m.

My first CTD cast was done in about 950m of water. There isn't a winch on board that will work with my instrument, so we used 1200m of line and a capstan. This is much more work than the right kind of winch and resulted in a huge pile of line at the end (we've figured out how to deal with all the line now). I doubt I'll get in as many casts as I originally hoped.

24 July 2011, more moorings were deployed and a 1000m+ CTD cast. Then the capstan hydraulics sprung a leak. To fix it we need a single gasket, based on where we are, there is no way to know how long until a gasket will arrive (one is ordered). I downloaded both CTD casts and the data looks good – both show a temperature minimum around 100m before warming up again (slightly). After downloading my data, we stowed all our gear as we are meeting the CGGS Amundsen (an icebreaker that is also a research ship). The plan is to spend 24hrs of trawling for arctic cod back out the mouth of Cumberland Sound. It might get rough.

Later, I'll attempt CTD casts by hand lowering the instrument – not an ideal solution, I really need that gasket!

CGGS Amundsen
25 July 2011, on route to meet the icebreaker, we spotted out first polar bear of the trip on an iceberg. He was curious about us at first but, as we got closer, he jumped into the water and swam away. At this point in my life, I've seen more polar bears in the wild that any other type of bear. The work with the Amundsen doesn't involve me. We've asked them if they have a spare gasket that will work to fix our capstan.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Getting to Pangurtung

A flight that was supposed to take an hour, Iqaluit to Pangurtung, was canceled due to cross winds in Pangurtung. Our re-booked flight was late in the day on Tuesday, two days later. While wandering around town, we noticed a blue hulled ship at anchor in the harbour – so we inquired about it. It was the M/V Nuliajuk, the ship we were to meet in Pangurtung. We canceled our flights (we actually got reimbursed) and boarded the ship.

M/V Nuliajuk is a brand new research vessel – so new, Iva and I had to unwrap our sheets from their original packaging before making our bunks. The ship bounces like a cork, which is good for stability but, bad for seasickness and, it has an integrated 150kHz ADCP (current meter) – which is good news for me.

Sailing from Iqaluit to Pangurtung took just over two days, with the only rough patch being Davis Strait. Icebergs were everywhere – one even had what looked like a flock of penguins on it (wrong pole for them). Through binoculars, the birds looked like some other sort of seabird with penguin-like colouration. Later I saw them flying (confirming they weren't penguins). Once we entered Cumberland Sound we saw belugas and what was likely bowhead whales. We were following a path along one coast of the sound, and I couldn't see the other side. Cumberland Sound is huge, it looked huge on the map, but, seeing its full extent made its size no longer an abstract concept to me.

The equipment I shipped made it. Tomorrow we load up the ship and head out to start our sampling.

The top photo is an iceberg in Frobisher Bay, the bottom photo is of Pangurtung

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Arctic Project

I guess I should explain what I’ll be doing up north. I’ll be working as part of a diverse group of scientists on a small research ship where I'll be the only physical oceanographer. We’re heading out to Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island, Nunavut.

Cumberland Sound is large and very remote. It’s located in a part of the Arctic I’ve never been too but, I hear the surroundings are picturesque. At the surface, the sound is about 250 km long by 80 km wide and littered with little islands. Multiple fjords open into the sound, including Pangnirtung Fjord, which is home to the only human settlement in the area (Pangnirtung) were I’ll be flying into.

Due to the remote location, little physical oceanography has been done in the area (if you know of some work that has been done, please tell me as I’m still looking). This lack of information means we know little about how the water moves beneath the surface and the influence of the bottom topography. Physical water properties, such as mixing, influence the availability of nutrients which in turn affects local fish, bird and mammal habitats. To understand a bit about the critters that live there, we need to take a look at the conditions they thrive in.

A number of processes influence the physical properties of the water in the sound, including tides, fresh water inputs and wind (there are likely other things going on as well). There is a tide gauge in the sound, so I know to expect big tides. Fresh water enters the sound from rivers and/or glaciers – and, as a twist on what happens in more southern locations, the fresh water may be colder than the salty water below. Because, the sound is open to the North Atlantic, it could also be windy. The fact that ice covers Cumberland Sound in the winter may also be important – or at least make winter-time winds unimportant.

The sound’s geometry also plays a roll and I’m having a tough time finding good charts of the area – the one I have looks like it was compiled from sparse lead line and sinker measurements. The bottom of the sound appears pockmarked with deep basins extending past a kilometer in depth. Shallow sills separate the deep areas. Greenland halibut and skate are caught in the deep basins – they must like something about the conditions there. In other locations, deep basins behind shallow sills often lack enough oxygen for life to thrive (with the exception of some specialist bacteria). So at Cumberland Sound, if the fish are using up the oxygen in these deep basins it must be replaced somehow (it’s too deep for plants – light simply doesn’t penetrate into the ocean that far). There may be an unknown deep water renewal process occurring or some completely different explanation.

To get data, I’ve shipped two instruments to use off the ship. One is a CTD profiler, where CTD stands for conductivity (from which salinity is calculated), temperature and depth. My profiler is also fitted with a dissolved oxygen sensor. This instrument is lowered down through the water column where it takes measurements as it goes. When the instrument is back on board, I can download the data to my laptop. My second instrument is a current meter which can measure how fast the water is moving and in what direction based on the doppler shift on a sound chirp bouncing off stuff in the water. This instrument provides a real-time view of the currents every meter down to 100 m (I’m hoping the ship will have a current meter that goes even deeper).

For a longer view, we’ll install a number of instrumented moorings that will stay in place (hopefully) until next summer.

My work isn’t the only science that will be going on. A group of biologist will also be on board to implant tracking devices into various species of fish (maybe even sharks). We’re also planning on doing range testing on the tracking devices. Later, another group of biologists will arrive to further investigate the lives of fish. As always in my line of work, what actually gets done depends heavily on the weather.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Packing for the Arctic

I leave soon (Saturday) for a six week expedition to the Arctic – Cumberland Sound to be exact. I'll be living and working on a small research vessel. My work has taken me to the Arctic before, so I'm trying to figure out what to pack based on what I wished I brought in the past. The summer-time weather in Cumberland Sounds is like winter where I live. Generally, I have all I need for winter with a few exceptions.

With ample time to pack, I might be obsessing about what to bring. In my army days, I often got such short notice that I was going somewhere, I'd end up packing my dirty laundry – fortunately, those days are well past. Now, there is time to ponder exactly how many pairs of socks I'll need.

No landmasses block Cumberland Sound from the North Atlantic, which could result in windy conditions. Long johns are a must. I'm going to look for a wool pair as I was recently told they are toasty warm and don't smell like the polypropylene variety.

Water-proof gloves are critical. My work involves dunking fancy electronics into salt water. The water will be close to freezing (some of it may actually be frozen). When the instrument comes back on deck, I'll have to handle it, hence the need for good gloves.

Vitamins are already in my duffel bag – food has to suck on a ship in the Arctic right? Actually, food on ships tends to be fantastic but, it's possible I could be facing six weeks of TV dinners. So, the vitamins will be my insurance policy (I don't want to risk scurvy). I'll pack a small first aid kit as I'm that kind of paranoid but, generally I'm not accident prone and I'm sure the ship will have first aid supplies. For entertainment, a friend is loaning me an e-reader to try out – if I get enough spare time to use it.

If there is access to an internet connection (and I've been told there will be) I'll post updates on what we are doing here.

I took the polar bear picture a few years ago in the Hudson's Bay. He was annoyed with me as he looks.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ready for take off

The barn swallows from last year returned to nest on the light fixture beside our front door. The light is in our carport, so perhaps they should be called carport swallows instead. Last year they raised three chicks. This year five chicks are crammed into the little nest - ever since they hatched we've been afraid one would fall out. Now, they're ready to fledge any day. It's been fun to watch them grow up but, we'll be changing the light fixture to discourage them coming back next year as they make a mess.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Like a chip of red glass

Safely stashed inside a tiny box stuffed with tissue was what looked to me as an insignificant chip of red glass. Pretty in a way, it's the colour of diluted blood, a light red (not pink). My mom kept the box hidden with her silver cutlery for most of my childhood, only taking it out rarely to show me. Turns out, what looked like a chip of glass was a ruby destined to be mine (for any would be robbers out there, my ruby is flawed and synthetic – its only value is sentimental). Years later the ruby was set in a pendant to commemorate my graduation. It now looks like a proper piece of jewelry and I wear it whenever I can (which, based on my lifestyle, is very infrequently). My ruby has been on my mind lately, as I just got married and had hoped to wear for my wedding. Unfortunately, the pendant didn't work with my dress.

The ruby came into my family in the 1930's. My great-grandfather was a doctor at the time and the ruby was likely given to him as payment. When the ruby came into my grandmother's hands, she decided the fairest way to pass it on was to give it to me as I was only one in the family born in the month where rubies are the birth stone

Rubies are made of the red form corundum, all other corundum colours are called sapphires. Corundum is the crystal form of aluminum oxide, which is clear in its pure form, traces of other components add the colour. For rubies, a tiny bit of chromium makes it red. Rubies have been treasured throughout time and since natural rubies are rare, red garnets and spinels have been passed off as them.

Synthetic gems are essentially the same as natural gems with identical chemical components and optical properties. The difference lies in the location of manufacture, the lab verses the earth. The first synthetic rubies were grown at the end of the 19th century by August Verneuil. By the 1910's synthetic rubies started to be available commercially.

I wonder, if my ruby, which was owned by some unknown person before it came into my great-grandfathers hands during the depression, was one of the early synthetic ones. Unfortunately, there is no way to know.

The cheap and common method of ruby making was to melt aluminum oxide in a special flame to create synthetic corundum. Over time the refinements in the ruby making process resulted in bigger and better crystals. By the 1960's, ruby crystals could be grown of a quality to produce the first laser. On May 16th, 1960 Theodore Maiman operated a laser for the first time. By 1969, a ruby laser was bounced off the moon (using a retro-reflector placed there by Apollo astronauts) to determine how far away it is.

Ruby lasers have been replaced with other types (there are no rubies in your CD player) but, synthetic rubies are widely available in jewelry.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Looking for shiny things

I found a copy of Jewels; a Secret History by Victoria Finlay in a used book shop earlier this week and couldn't resist starting reading it right away (I'm about half-way through now and am enjoying it). My own efforts to find shiny stones have been confined to two afternoons many years apart. Once, as a teenager, I collected amethyst from a hillside near Thunder Bay, Ontario – the purple laced rock provided a unique back drop for my aquarium that competed with my fish for prettiness. Many years later, I went looking for opals in Northern B.C. In between, I made one gold panning attempt where I did find gold but, I was in a gold rush themed park (I think it was a set up for tourists like me).

On the mid-summer day I went opal hunting a hot sun dominated the sky. I set out with my mom and friend, Tracy, on a well worn path through the woods. Opals were said to be common at the end – an old river bed in the forest. Although it was a beautiful summer day, as far as we could tell, our group was the only one in the area. Hiking through the forest was nice – the dirt path wasn't too steep and the trees filtered the sunlight keeping the mid-day heat at bay. I don't quite remember, but, I think we reached the end of the path about an hour after starting.

Instead of a the rocky river bed we expected, a deep gravel-lined ravine extended as far as we could see in both directions before forest swallowed it up. It was a long way to the bottom where shrubs and trees hid whatever was down there. A rocky creek could have been beneath the foliage but, there was no safe way to get down to it. The ravine walls sloped with an optimum steepness where the golf to football sized rocks stayed put until one tried to step on them. A single footfall would start a gravel avalanche that threatened to take a person down the slope with it.

We clambered onto the slope careful to keep our footing while stones ricocheted down the slope, their sound echoing in the ravine. The rocks were all a uniform gray, but, on closer inspection some had milky white globules embedded in them. These smooth globules ranged in size from a gain of rice to a marble and every one was a oval in shape. Were these opals? If so, where was the fractionated interplay of colours radiating from within? In the end, we determined they were low quality opals – no doubt if this area had gem quality opals we wouldn't have been the only ones there.

Each of us slipped a few chunks of opal embedded rocks into our packs, got off the perilous slope and started the trek back to the car. Even though I'm fascinated by opals, the rocks I brought back that day have long ago vanished.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

sunrise or sunset?

In the first rays of morning light the world feels so fresh and new – I love how the lighting makes everything look. I don't even mind getting up early to enjoy the sunrise – provided I went to bed early the night before. What about when the sun never really sets? I'm thinking of the arctic in summer time (only because I live closer to the northern pole than the southern one). A few years ago, I was on an icebreaker in the Beaufort Sea for a few weeks in July. Since I was taking sediment samples based on a predefined sampling regime, I ended up taking my samples at all times of the day and night – due to factors beyond our control the trip turned into a bit of a sleep deprivation exercise. One station happened at 2 am. As I stood on deck waiting for us to start, the sun was as low in the horizon as it would go and my internal clock couldn't decide if it was sunset or sunrise, so I took a picture.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Few insects vie in popular fame with the glow-worm, that curious little animal which, to celebrate the little joys of life, kindles a beacon at its tail-end. Who does not know it, at least by name? Who has not seen it roam amid the grass, like a spark fallen from the moon at its full?

- from The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre, an anthology of Jean-Henri Fabre's works translated from French by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.

Glow-worms, also called fireflies or lightening bugs (I prefer to call them fireflies), don't live where I do, so I've never seen one. My only encounters have been in fictional accounts, but I can understand how they capture people's imagination – I'd be captivated if glowing beetles 'like a spark fallen from the moon at its full' were flying around my backyard. I suspect I'd watch them for hours, and back when I was a kid, I would have loved to catch them. According to the Smithsonian Institution's Animal; the Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife, 2000 species of fireflies exist world-wide, ranging in size from 0.5 to 3 cm. And it's no surprise that they're typically nocturnal; what would be the point of glowing if no one could see?

Their light serves different purposes through a firefly's life. As larvae, they flash to warn predators of the larvae's toxicity. As adults, each species emits their own unique set of flashes to attract mates. Males typically can fly around to find their mate, while the flightless females stay in one place and flash. A female firefly's flashing can be the downfall of a male, since some females mimic other firefly species' flashes to earn themselves a quick meal.

A firefly's light falls into the 510 – 670 nm range, corresponding to yellow, green or pale-red and contains no infrared or ultraviolet wavelengths. They produce their light purely through a chemical reaction that triggers a light-emitting pigment to flash within specialized cells in the firefly's abdomen.

Firefly populations are decreasing. Loss of habitat makes life harder for fireflies, and light pollution may be interfering with their signals. In fact, light pollution causes all sorts of havoc for critters. For fireflies finding a mate becomes more difficult, because how can they home in on a series of flashes from a potential mate while lights are flashing all around them? For other animals excess light confuses their sense of navigation, like puffins in Iceland disorientated by city lights. Children rescue the puffins and release them – which strikes me as a bit odd since puffin is considered a delicacy there. Light pollution is such an issue (probably more because it make the stars hard to see than what it does to critters) that there is an 'International Dark-Sky Association' and places designated 'dark-sky preserves'. I wonder what all the excess artificial light is doing to us?

Lots more info about fireflies can be found here.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Water on the road?

Desert travel stories take a dramatic turn for the worse when the hero rushes towards what appears to be an oasis. When she arrives, despair sets in as the inviting waters vanish, revealing more hot, dry sand. I've never seen a desert mirage, but on hot days, I've seen what appears to be shimmering pools of water on the road – only to drive closer to find the road is dry.

Mirages aren't a hallucination of dehydrated desert travelers, instead they arise from atmospheric optics. Remember how light bends when it passes from one medium to another? The refracted light is bent if the mediums are of different densities – mirages occur when light passes through many layers of air with different densities.

On a hot, sunny day, sunlight heats up the ground. This heat radiates, heating a layer of air right next to the ground. The next layer up also heats up – but not as much. The result is a gradient of heat with hottest air next to the ground and cooler air further away. Since the density of air depends on its temperature, hotter air is less dense than cooler air. So, in our sunny day example, the least dense air is closest to the ground (an unstable situation only persisting as long as the ground is being heated up). Which means the refractiveness of the air is less at the bottom than the top, so the light bends towards the cooler air.

Sunlight entering this temperature gradient at a shallow angle to the horizon is bent slightly differently by the different density layers. At first, it successively bends into shallower angles because each layer was less dense. At some point, the angle becomes so shallow light reflects, turning upwards, but still at a shallow angle. As this light travels back through the now progressively denser layers it's bent the opposite direction and the angle to the horizon would increase. Eventually, an observer's eye is reached – the poor hero in the desert or me driving my car.

So, a mirage is simply light refracted and reflected from the sky. Since sky reflections on the ground are typically indicative of water, our brains interpret what we see as a body of water.

I've described a static scenario, but in the real world hot, less-dense air rises, heating of the the ground is uneven and turbulence will form – all acting to make the mirage shimmer.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What's next?

So, I passed my masters of science defense last week and I'm relieved the stress of that oral exam is over. Now, that song from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical (yes, I have the CD) 'where do we go from here?' is stuck in my head. My long term plan is sorted out, I have a great PhD project to start right away. I'm thinking more in the short term. My masters thesis has been sucking up all my creativity for months. I guess that's good at one level. But, on the flip side, my creativity well has dried up leaving me feeling irritated. Usually, I'm constantly looking random stuff up as even more random thoughts fly through my head - right now that side of me has stopped. My mind is blank except for thesis stuff. Writing in the journal I've kept for over two decades is currently a chore.

I've read a lot about creativity over the years and I know I'll relax, my curiosity will return and I'll go back to how I was. Right now I'm just a bit burned out. The world around me is still fascinating and I'll continue indulging my curiosity in time (probably not long from now). As I look around my office, I see a stack of books waiting to be read including: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (I've already read it once), The Planets by Dava Sobel (I enjoyed her other book Galileo's Daughter) and The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. Some time ago, I downloaded all the Royal Society papers from its start to about 1900. I've only read a few, and want to read more as I find it fun to read about experiments conducted back then and what we thought we knew. It makes me wonder if a century from now, people will be looking back at the science of today and think it's quaint what we thought we understood.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A sappy story

Last weekend we took a jar of used turpentine to our recycling center to be disposed of. The jar's lid wasn't on perfectly, the jar tipped as I drove around a curve, and a tiny splash of turpentine spilled, filling the car with a sent reminiscent of a pile of fir branches. The smell took me back to when I was a kid exploring the forest. Fir trees are sappy – a fact I learned early while climbing them. The fir trunk has sap blisters that burst under my hands when I grabbed the branches. The sap left sticky residue on my hands, so climbing a fir tree quickly became a inferior choice compared to the maples and alders. But, something about the sap intrigued me, so I would collect it by lancing the blisters with my pocket knife and capturing the drips in a large clam shell. When I had enough, I would light the sap to see the black smoke (probably not the smartest of ideas).

The smell of turpentine started me wondering if it's made from fir sap. It didn't take much digging to learn that what I'm calling sap is actually resin, a hydrocarbon secreted by predominantly coniferous trees and a few other plants (both the biblical frankincense and myrrh are resins). Resin is also known as pitch and it has some neat properties. It behaves as a solid normally, but if a force is imposed on it long enough the deformation will increase indefinitely, just like a liquid. Cool, but how does it become turpentine?

Resin is converted to turpentine by distillation, a process where the parts of a liquid are separated using heat – for example if you want to make a fortified wine like brandy, you would need to heat the wine and collect the alcohol as it evaporated away. Generally, turpentine is made from pine trees, but it's also a byproduct from reducing coniferous trees to pulp.

Turpentine is commonly used as a solvent; we use it for cleaning brushes coated in oil paints. It could also be used to thin out oil paints.

As a tangent, I pulled out an old country skills handbook to see what they suggested one could do with turpentine. Apparently, it was used as an ingredient in mosquito repellent along with some other nasty stuff – I was relieved to see that this concoction was to be used by saturating cloth with it and placing it by the door instead of putting in on your skin.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why is glass transparent?

Sitting at my desk, I can look out onto my backyard through sliding glass doors. So why can I see my backyard at all? That is, why is glass transparent? We take the clearness of glass (and plastics) for granted, but this property is incredibly important. Seeing the birds in my backyard may not be critical, however, seeing oncoming traffic when I'm driving my car is. Allowing light into my home through windows saves the energy required to illuminate my home so I wouldn't walk into things. Think of the deli case at your local supermarket – the glass allows you to see the goodies inside, but protects them from the other customer's germs.

I wrote about the history of glass here, however, the fact that glass is clear likely kept us using it for so long. For example, my house would be a lot more secure from break-ins if I replaced all the glass windows with steel plates. Two physical properties play a role in making something transparent, the object itself and its sub-atomic makeup.

Transparency to visible light is common in the stuff around us -- For example, air and water. In fact, many gases and liquids are transparent because their structure isn't rigid, leaving plenty of room for light to pass through. However, solids don't tend to be transparent because they have a tighter, more orderly structure, making it harder for light to pass through. Glass (and clear plastics) are made by heating their components, mostly silica sand, into liquid form and then allowing it to cool. As a result, glass is rigid like a solid with a random structure like a liquid making it possible for light to pass through.

Light acts both as a wave and a particle. If we consider light as a particle, which is called a photon and contains a certain amount of energy, it can interact with the electrons in the matter around us. When a photon encounters an electron the following may occur:

1.The electron absorbs the photon's energy and vibrates a little faster – that is, the photon's energy has been converted to heat.

2.Again the electron absorbs the photon, but this time it stores the energy and re-emits it later, a phenomenon called luminescence. Think of an analog wrist watch (remember the ones with a two arms and a circle of numbers?). Often the numbers were painted with a substance that would absorb light and glow, allowing you to see the time in the dark.

3.The electron can absorb the photon then re-emit it back in the direction it came from. This is reflection and is why you can see your image in a mirror.

4.Finally, the electron may not be able to absorb the photon at all, so the photon just passes by.

These electron/photon interactions can all occur within a single substance, or some combination of them. If only case 4 occurs, that is the electron's within an object can't absorb a photon in the visible light spectrum, that object will appear transparent. Glass has this property, which is why it makes great windows.

As a tangent, glass absorbs much of the UV spectrum which is why you can't get a tan behind glass.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Working on my final thesis draft has me thinking about time-scales. From our point-of-view time is linear, marching at a constant rate from past to future (unless you are stuck in an extremely dull lecture or on an overcrowded bus crammed beside someone with bad BO – then time seems to slow down to a snail's pace). So, when the conditions are right for something to happen, how long until it does? This isn't so easy to figure out, however, it's relatively easy to figure out the minimum time when that 'something' can happen. For example, my favorite, and apparently everyone else's favorite, coffee goes massively on sale once in a while. When I see the sale in the flier, the conditions are right for cheap coffee. However, I'm at home and the coffee is a short walk away. So, even though the conditions are right, the minimum time I can actually get the coffee is about 15 min later (I've learned this cheap coffee sells out quickly, so I need to go right away). So the coffee time-scale is about 15 min – which is the minimum amount of time until I have the coffee.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Remember the jar experiment?

I've been a bit delinquent about jar experiment updates. I started with a sealed jar full of water from my fish tank here. It has been sitting on my desk ever since. A long time passed until anything grew. Now there appears to be two types of algae, a forest green scum on the sides (which can be seen in the picture) and something thick and black along the bottom. I must admit, I don't feel inspired to open the jar as I fear what it might smell like.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

April Showers

It's another 'April Showers' type day today – rain has been coming down all day with no signs of stopping. Worms are making their way onto the roads and side walks to the delight of the robins (who don't need to get up early to get a worm around here). I like worms, they represent healthy soil to me. Since I'm someone who is trying to grow tasty food in my back yard (step 1: grow vegetables, step 2: save planet), healthy soil is a good thing. I agree with what Charles Darwin said about worms:

“It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organized creatures.”

When I lived in various apartments, I tried indoor worm composters (always of my own construction). Generally, my worms did well but, so did fruit flies. I tried at least three times, each time abandoning the idea because of the fruit fly swarms that emerged. Maybe there was some trick I needed to know about, but now that I have outside space for a proper compost, I'm not going to worry about it.

There are all sorts of different types of worms but, the common earthworm or Lumbricus terrestis is the one I see in my garden. These guys usually hang out in burrows close to the surface and recycle organic debris. Leaves, grass clippings, even carrot peels can all be turned into great soil by worms. Their bodies are divided into linked, somewhat independent segments. Each segment is pressurized with fluid to give the worm shape and has muscles that can act independently to allow it to move. The mouth is at one end and along the whole body is the gut and waste is pushed out the other end. This waste (that is, poo) is what makes good soil.