Friday, August 31, 2012

Frustrated with technology

He looks just as frustrated
Recently, I’ve experienced another version of the ‘technology trap’. Warning: rant ahead.

I flirt with three different operating systems - Mac, Windows and Ubuntu (linux based).  I wish I had the skill to customize my own operating system, but I don’t and I don’t have the time (or will) to gain them. Mostly I use my Mac, however there is always something I need another operating system to do. My older laptop is a Ubuntu/Windows dual boot machine which I use regularly.

I now have data from up north (Ice cleared enough for the ship to get into Cumberland Sound). The data is in a hex format that needs to be converted by the instrument’s software into a format I can look at. This software only runs on Windows - no problem, as I have a Windows machine. I started up the old laptop (which is only about 3 years old), ran some updates and the machine hung up. I let it sit for a few hours and nothing happened, so I turned it off and back on. All I get is 7 beeps - it doesn’t even go far enough for me to use a boot CD. After some hunting around on the internet, I found out that 7 beeps on my make of laptop means that the motherboard is toast. Based on the age of the machine it isn’t worth fixing - essentially, my laptop is now garbage.

Along the same vein, I got a call from my cell phone provider. My cell phone contract is up and they want me to sign up again. To entice me I was offered a new phone. My current phone works just fine, so why do I need a new phone? The woman, who was trying to sign me up, just didn’t get that I didn’t want to throw out perfectly good technology. She went on to suggest I could keep the old phone, while using the new one. That just sounds like adding clutter to my life and ultimately creates more technology garbage. Phones are easy to come by, when my old phone dies I’ll get a new one.

The short life span of technology is perhaps good for the manufacturers of this technology - but it is terrible for the planet. Like it or not, my occupation and lifestyle requires me to use these gadgets - I can’t think of a way around it as I live in this society and times (if I was using Victorian era gadgets, I could adapt gadgets to my needs and fix them as required). Still, I get frustrated whenever my technology dies a few years after I got them and I won’t be replacing things until they die.

Note: the picture came from here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

There's a hole in the middle

Where will these guys go?
Here is my slightly depressing view of what's happening in the Arctic which mainstream news seems to be ignoring (this is just my opinion).

Two stories recently came out about Prime Minister Harper's plans for the Arctic - both of which I find disturbing. The first is the announcement of a new Arctic research station with priority on resource development. This announcement came as news of another Arctic research station, one that focuses on climate science and is much cheaper to run, is closing due to canceled funds.

The second is the announcement of a new national park, Naats'ihch'oh National Park Reserve, NWT. This park's northern boundary is deeply indented to allow for mining exploration. Is this new park for wildlife? Or was the park established so roads can be built for mining exploration and development? Talk about a subsidy to the mining industry if roads are built on someone else's budget. The result is a mostly-protected watershed (86% according to Parks Canada's website) - which doesn't sound protected at all. An industrial accident could easily contaminate the whole watershed.

I can't help but think our government views resource development as the only important thing the Arctic offers. Right now, we have an opportunity to learn from our past environmental mistakes and protect a large contiguous wild space. This is a rare opportunity in human history. Here are my two good reasons to care about the Arctic that are relevant to those of us who live further south and there are plenty of other good reasons.

All our oceans are connected. The Arctic Ocean acts as a bridge between the Pacific and Atlantic - waters from the Pacific flow through the Arctic Ocean and exit into the Atlantic, plus some Atlantic water circulates through. While water is in the Arctic Ocean the cold modifies it, cooling it down and making it salty by brine rejection from sea ice. The result is denser water. This cold, dense water sinks when it reaches the Atlantic, making the Atlantic one of the two places deep ocean water is formed (Antarctica is the other place). Warm return currents, like the Gulf Stream, replace this sinking water, while keeping Northern Europe warm.

Let's say we heat up the Arctic Ocean to the point where all the sea ice melts (this summer is already on its way to the history books as a minimum for pack ice). This melted water may still be cold, however it will be fresh. Since fresh water is less dense than salty water, it may just float on the surface spreading out across the Atlantic. The surrounding land masses (Europe and North America) would experience a cooler climate. This is an extremely simplified view of the result of warming the Arctic.

Second, although plenty of wildlife survives in the Arctic, the food web there is relatively simple compared to southern ecosystems. At each level in the food web there may only be one or two species. This simplicity means that if we drive a single species to extinction (for example, by building a mine or a highway over a traditional migration path, or a chemical spill, or siltation destroying fish spawning habitat) the food web could collapse.

Already, a changes in top predators (if we ignore that humans are the true top predator) is occurring - polar bears are giving way to killer whales. Shrinking ice will only make life harder for the polar bears since they will have to migrate farther from pack ice to shore each year. This is particularly tough on cubs which lack their parent's endurance. All life in the Arctic will be forced to adapt to a reduction or loss of pack ice - or go extinct.

For those who don't care if there are any animals in the Arctic, plenty of animals migrate to the Arctic each year for rich summer feeding grounds - if these feeding grounds are changed, who knows what the impact will be. Imagine the Arctic with luxuriant vegetation in summer - Snow Geese likely will benefit and their population will swell. That may have an impact on grain farms in the south - even today geese raid fields to get extra energy for their migration. But hey, why worry - the mining and oil industry is making money.

Why don’t we just stop resource development in fragile places - or at least take a good look at what the impacts will be instead of just putting our heads into the sand? Just because a resource is present, it doesn't necessarily need to be pulled out of the ground for short term gain (money). Instead of looking to extract more resources like fossil fuels, we should look at ways to reduce our reliance on them. Ultimately, keeping a place wild is a good enough reason to protect our Arctic. We cannot develop mines and industry adjacent to every wild "park" and expect life to thrive.

Note: the picture came from here.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

a different expedition to Cumberland Sound

Vats for rending whale fat off Cumberland Sound
On 3 August 1879, the schooner Florence set sail for Cumberland Sound on what was called the Howgate Polar Expedition. Ironically, Captain Howgate was supposed to join the ship once it reached the Arctic, but never did. The naturalist Ludwig Kumlien, only a few weeks out of university, was on board.

Ludwig Kumlien behaved as a naturalist from an early age. As a child he raised wild birds, collected frogs and captured fish during time spent in nature. According to his wife, “his phenomenal eye-sight allowed nothing to escape his observation and drawing was as natural to him as writing”. In addition he was trained by his father, Thure Kumlien, a prominent naturalist in his day. A trip to the Arctic turned into a great way to start his career as a naturalist.

The primary objective of the Howgate expedition, in Captain Howgate’s words, was: “to collect material, skins, skin clothing, dogs, sledges, and Eskimo, for the use of a future colony on the shores of Lady Franklin Bay.” Scientific work was the second objective and whaling was third.

Unfortunately for the science, the crew’s pay came from whaling profits making whaling the top priority for the crew (I know of modern day expeditions where similar things have happened when fishing vessels have been chartered). As a result, the scientists on board were unable to regularly get use of the ship’s boats as they were kept ready for whaling. Kumlien described how his work went like this: "nearly all the scientific labors were prosecuted under very discouraging conditions" - I can't help but wonder if he was holding back.

Kumlien published a book on the natural history of the area titled Contributions to the Natural History of Arctic America in addition to bringing as many specimens home as he could fit on the ship (it was a small ship). I’ve read through his book and although its focus is on plants and animals of Cumberland Sound, it does provide me a few tidbits to add into my own work.

It appears that the spring conditions in 1878 held a lot in common with this summer. According to Kumlien: “the spring of 1878 was stormy and backward, and the prevalence of southerly gales kept the ice closely packed about us till the fore part of July.”

Kumlien’s observation that “icebergs are also sometimes found in this fjord that, from their positions, seem to have come from the northward and not from the south” might mean that there is a current flowing through Cumberland Sound that originates from the north. I hope to be able to capture this in my own measurements.

The Florence arrived home on 30 October 1878, 15 months after leaving. Surprisingly for the time, all on board made it home alive and well. The next group of scientists to work in Cumberland Sound arrived in 1952.

Another account of this expedition can be found here.

Kumlien, L. 1879. Bulletin of the United States National Museum, No. 15: Contributions to the Natural History of Arctic America made in connection with the Howgate Polar Expedition, 1877-78. Washington Government Printing Office. 179 pages.

Taylor, H.J. 1937. Ludwig Kumlien. The Wilson Bulletin. 49 No 2, 85-90

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My difficulty with poems

My favorite artwork by William Blake
I’m going to go on a big tangent here... I generally don’t like poetry (does that reduce my sophisticatedness?). I have friends who love poetry. One has gone on to get an advance degree in poetry of a specific era, another can recite long poems while simultaneously hanging out of a cherry tree plucking the fruit. I’m not like them; if I’m reading something and find the author added in a poem for some reason, I skip it. A book of poems I wouldn’t even open.

This is my only poetry exception (you can skip it if you like):

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

These are the first four lines from ‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake and I love them. Years ago, I saw Sting claim he came up with these lines for one of his songs on an Oprah interview. William Blake wrote this in 1803 - years before Sting (I’m still baffled Oprah didn’t call him on it, I would have but maybe that’s why I’m not on TV). There is much more to the poem, it seemingly goes on forever - the rest can be found here. I must admit I’ve not read the whole thing.

Also, if a story I’m reading breaks out into a few lines of song (like Lord of the Rings does) I skip that too. However, I like some song lyrics, which is kinda like poetry - except without the expectations I built up about poetry from high school English. I used to top my high school physics classes without difficulty, but for high school English I had to put in tones of work just to get by.

Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird has summed up the view high school English gave me of poetry: “Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul.” It sounds lovely in concept, but high school English had tests where I needed to come up with the right interpretation, rather than my interpretation.

Reading poetry became hard work as I felt I needed to look for deep meanings under every snowflake - accepting a snowflake as being just a snowflake (as they are wonderful) just wasn’t allowed.

Ironically, I currently live in a neighborhood where all the streets are named after poets.

The artwork image came from wikipedia

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What will change?

I’ve been thinking about how my life will change with the addition of a child (she’ll be here in roughly 3 months). The baby part is flat out scary. I expect that for a while my life will center around sleep deprivation and bodily fluids. But, after that, how will my life be different? The real answer is that I simply don’t know - but I can ponder the idea.

I don’t live a wild and crazy life, so there are no wild parties for me to give up (I never enjoyed them anyway). I don’t base jump off high-rises or go spelunking in unexplored caves. I’m not in the army anymore - there are no more late night calls where I have to pack my dirty laundry and head off somewhere potentially life-threatening. Overall, the danger in my life is minimal.

Once I’m past most of the sleep deprivation (does the sleep deprivation ever really end?), I'll continue my focus on science. In fact, since I’m super lucky to have a supportive supervisor and committee - being a grad student offers me a lot of flexibility for the next few years.

I usually spend about a month a year in the field, sometimes a lot more and sometimes less. For this summer’s field work someone went in my place (at 7 months pregnant no one thought I should go) and I don’t know if I’ll manage field work next summer. One of the things I like about the science I do is the field work so I hope to resume field work sometime in the future. However, I am thinking of putting a three week cap on the length of individual trips.

When I was a kid I drew and created things. I tended a sub-plot in my mom’s garden where I grew zinnias and beans plus, I kept chickens. I spent endless hours exploring my forest and local beaches including watching the critters there. I read voraciously about adventures and nature. I even wrote stories and kept notebooks full of observations and ideas. I still do all of these things and all of them can be done with a child.

I suspect that my life is about to fundamentally change, but in a lot of ways stay the same.

Image is from here.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Some icy bits

A different menace to shipping
I’ve been sitting at my desk with the view of the beautiful summer day on my island in the Pacific thinking about sea ice. The ice in Cumberland Sound is still delaying science work there. On top of real life ice woes, I’ve been reading about sea ice.

Sea ice is surprisingly complex. After a morning’s reading I’ve had to look up three terms I hadn’t run across before: lamella, nilas and breccia. But, if I take a step back, ice in the Arctic can be broken into four categories:

1 - Polar Ice Cap - this makes up about 70% of ice found in the Arctic Ocean. This ice stays year round, however it isn’t static. New ice is being included into the cap while older ice is carried away. Overall, the cap is rotating in a disjointed fashion clockwise.

2 - Pack Ice - Wind blew this type of ice into my path when I was up in the Beaufort Sea a few years ago. There was pack ice as far as I could see in every direction at a time when clear sea was expected. This ice is made up of floes, which are separate chunks of ice. About 25% of the Arctic Ocean is covered in pack ice.

3 - Fast Ice - No, it isn’t moving anywhere, in fact, it’s land fast. The ice extends to the bottom where it attaches. This ice type is seasonal, thickening to 1-2 m in winter while disappearing entirely in summer. As an aside, funky things can happen when pack ice and fast ice meet.

4 - Ice Bergs - These are mostly found in the North Atlantic and come from chunks of glaciers on Greenland and Elsemere Islands breaking (or calving) away. They then drift south becoming a menace to shipping.

Image is from here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What isn’t happening...

Last summer, I was oceanographic (CTD) sampling in Cumberland Sound by 23 July. This year work was scheduled to start 18 July. As I’m over 6 months pregnant, an undergraduate student was hired to do the field work in my place. He helped me in a lab class last fall, so I know he's a good, reliable worker. This trip is his first field work of this kind (other scientists will be there to help him out). No matter how things work out, it's a good opportunity for him to see a part of the world that not many people get to see.

It turns out that Cumberland Sound is almost completely covered in ice. For comparison, this time last year all we saw were a few icebergs. At the moment, the ship can’t even get into the sound - so the ship is going somewhere else to do some mapping until conditions change.

It’s amazing how different conditions are just a year later, I’ll have to look for some satellite photos to compare. I’ve prioritized my sampling plan, so hopefully the most important stations still get sampled. All I can do now is wait and see. Unfortunately, my student is stuck sitting in Pangnirtung with the other scientists waiting...

At this point no-one knows when sampling will begin.