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.