Saturday, November 23, 2013

Electric blue icing

A glacier dripping down the cliff in Scott Inlet
Some time ago I promised I would write about the icebergs and glaciers I saw this fall along the Baffin Island coast and in Scott Inlet.

In every gap between cliff faces in Scott Inlet, tongues of glaciers dripped in slow motion like icing on a cake of grey cliff. These weren't glaciers that could be accessed by fancy-big-wheeled buses like Columbia Glacier or even easily reached to trek across like these folks did. I wouldn't want to try to get up to the main part of the glaciers as even without the dripping ice, the cliff-gaps would have required us to use ropes to successfully scramble up.

Glaciers flow under their own weight, a direction that is obviously down hill. I have no idea how long it took, but a few of the glacier tongues had made it to the ocean calving bergy bits into the water. The icebergs in the inlet were tiny compared to the big icebergs moving south along the coast of Baffin Island.

Along the coast, the iceberg that sank the titanic once passed more than a century ago. Even knowing before I arrived that I would be heading into iceberg waters, I was surprised at how many there were. Some looked large enough to dwarf an aircraft carrier (as a tangent: there was a proposal in World War II to make aircraft carriers out of ice). Some that had grounded could easily be mistaken for an island. Many had wave-rounded forms reminiscent of modern sculpture, or ancient weathered architecture.

An iceberg glowing blue
What fascinated me about the glaciers and icebergs was their colour. Even under the grey skies parts glowed electric blue – almost like they were generating their own light deep within. Glaciers and icebergs don't actually glow, but under the right light it looks that way.

Snow looks white because of all the reflective edges from the layers of snowflakes. Once the snow is compressed into glacier, the edges merge and air is pushed out. However, any ice can look blue in time. Like the reflective snowflake edges, air bubbles scatter all the wavelength of light making young ice look white. Older ice looks bluer because air bubbles and other impurities have been pushed out.

Like water, ice absorbs the longer wavelengths of light as it passes through. That is, the red end of the spectrum is absorbed first, which is why a short distance underwater the seascape is dominated by blues and greens. Ice has the same effect on light, it filters colours as light passes through leaving blues. And it appears to glow because those blues have passed the whole way through – so the ice looks bluest from the inside.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Recipe for Maaqtak

An iceberg the size of an aircraft carrier
This is the final installment of this years field work in Scott Inlet (here are links to the first, second, third and forth).

A small boat from the community of Clyde River was supposed to come to Scott Inlet with our replacements (three of us were scheduled to leave), then ferry us to town. The small boat could do the trip in about 3 hours verses 12 hours for the Nuliajuk. Another bonus in my mind was that small boats don't make me sea sick. It was a good plan in theory, then we got the weather forecast. Four metre waves were predicted.

At 7 pm we got in touch with the small boat driver (who also happened to be the mayor of Clyde River) to confirm it was too rough to make the trip in his boat. My flight was scheduled to leave at 9 am the following morning. The decision was to take the ship south – a night time sprint down the coast through bumpy seas while dodging ice bergs.

Before we hit the forecasted 4 metre seas, I climbed into my bunk – a sea sickness avoidance plan that worked wonderfully. Although, the sea wasn't as bumpy as predicted, I still was forced to spend the night wedging myself into my bunk to prevent being tossed out of it. Sleeping was impossible. When I got up at 6 am Clyde River was just coming into view.

Groggy from lack of sleep, my field gear randomly shoved into my duffle bag, my steel-toed rubber boots handed off to an incoming scientist who's luggage went astray, I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare.

While sitting in a moulded yellow plastic chair, one of perhaps a dozen in the airport, a rather large man in a green plaid shirt sat beside me. I couldn't help but stare at his absurd moustache, he had shaved it in the middle exposing his philtrum. I didn't work up the nerve to ask why he made the effort to shave like that. I would assume we were about the same age and I wasn't wearing my wedding ring (I don't even take it to the field). My colleague was in the washroom, so who knows what this mountain man's intentions were but, he wanted to talk so much I didn't get a word in. I'll call him airport-guy.

Airport-guy shared his knowledge of the finer parts of the local cuisine. He told me all about maaqtak.

Earlier in the trip, when we had dropped off supplies to the hunters, they had shared some of their catch. Two cuts of caribou, a meaty scapula and a chunk of leg, plus a patch of narwal skin with blubber. I tried raw caribou and found it much milder than I expected (I had expected it to be gamy like venison), I'd happily have it again. One of the inuit crew members explained to me that the caribou was more like a snack, as it didn't have enough fat content to keep you warm. The real food was the maaqtak, that is narwal or beluga skin with blubber. She gave me a small piece to try. Her advice was to chew it slowly, so I did. An hour later I was still chewing and the skin had developed the flavour of old gum.

According to Airport-guy, maaqtak is sorted into different grades depending on if you intend to eat it raw (like I did) or cook it. He was very precise on how to go about cooking it. First cut it into small pieces and boil for 12 minutes before fishing it out. The result tastes like escargot and is equally good with garlic butter. He went on to suggest a side dish – a brown seaweed available in the north. Boiled for a few minutes in a broth and it turns bright green and tastes like wilted lettuce.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Scott Inlet - trawling and long lines

One of the glaciers
This is the forth installment on my field work in Scott Inlet, Baffin Island. Previous installments can be found here, here and here.

17 Sept 2013 – the ship spent the night just outside Scott Inlet starting out out at anchor, but wind and swell caused it to endlessly rub against the anchor chain. The mate, who was on watch, decided to start up the engines, pull the anchor and motor around for the night. All the while, small chunks of ice butted against the hull right beside my bunk which left me with visions of the sinking Titanic. No sleep was to be had, leaving us all looking rough around the breakfast table in the morning.

Over the course of the day we completed 5 trawls – the first time the Nuliajuk had done a bottom trawl. With each trawl, the turn-around time with the equipment sped up as everyone figured out what they were doing. Each trawl was slightly deeper than the last as no one knew exactly how much cable the trawl net had (it turns out around 900m worth). The catch included: Greenland Halibut, Flounder, Arctic Cod, Polar Cod, Alligator Fish, Snail Fish, Northern Shrimp, Striped Shrimp, other assorted shrimp, 2 species of skate, Hookear Skulpin, Eel Pout, and assorted jellies, sponges and stars. I saw none of the animals as I stayed on the bridge taking notes on times, locations and depths while trying not to get sea-sick (I could have popped down to the lab – but didn't think my stomach could take it).

For the night, we retreated to anchor in Refuse Bay. It was nice not to have to dance around to get my socks off at the end of the day.

18 Sept 2013 – We took the day to circumnavigate Sillum Island, one of two islands that Scott Inlet branches around. The aim was for me to do CTD casts while the long-lines were being set up for sharks. The occasional depth sounding of the chart didn't even hint at how complex the bottom topography is, multiple deep pools of 700 m and more are separated by shallower sills. Bumps and dips break the flat of the deeper pockets. Mostly, the depth sound returned a hard signal meaning the bottom was probably rock, but occasionally, the signal would return spread out suggesting isolated muddy patches (or something else).

Against the electric blue of the glaciers, the fresh snow looked dirty. In gullies where glaciers reached the water, calved off chunks floated away. These bergy-bits often sported whimsical shapes reminiscent of ancient monsters or partly submerged houses.

I finished the day with 47 CTD casts over a wide area, downloaded and backed up to three places (I'm mildly paranoid about losing data).

Greenland Shark complete with copepod (shark is on its back)
19-20 Sept 2013 – Over the next two days we fished for Greenland Shark deep within Scott Inlet (it was delightfully calm in the sheltered Inlet, I could set a cup of coffee cup down and not have it instantly spill everywhere). We used a long-line bated with squid for the sharks. A long-line is exactly as it sounds, a several hundred metre long line with shorter lines attached every few metres ending in hooks. Anchors weight down both ends keeping it on the bottom, which in our case was around 600 m. Off of the anchors at both ends were buoyant ropes attached to floats so we could recover everything (both ends in case we encountered a snarl and had to cut the line – then we could start again at the other end). Both days, the whole mess of lines, anchors and hooks was left in the water for 24 hours.

While I was there (shark fishing continued after I left), we caught 14 live shark and several more that had been snacked on. Sizes ranged from 1.6 m (baby size) to over 3 m with a good mix of males and females. We didn't catch anything else, so why were the shark even there? And what were they eating? The sharks were measured, tagged and tissue and blood samples were taken. The question as to why we needed the centrifuge was answered since the blood was spun to separate out the plasma.

Most sharks had a copepod parasite (Ommatokoita elongata) attached to their corneas. Each parasite dangled a finger-length yellowish egg case from the shark's eye, no doubt impairing the shark's vision (but, they live so deep, vision is probably not critical for their survival).

We brought on board a couple of shark heads (the assumption was that other sharks had eaten the rest of them). I took the opportunity to get a close up look. The Greenland Shark doesn't have flashy teeth like a Great White Shark does. Instead, it has tiny teeth reminiscent of a saw blade or razor wire. These shark bite and twist, effectively removing chunks of its prey. Up close, the teeth looked deadly.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Scott Inlet - Getting to work

The bear looking annoyed with us
This is my third installment about this years field work. First is here, second is here.

A polar bear sleeping on a rock greeted us the first morning in Scott Inlet. The bear wasn't happy to see us as we rudely brought the ship in close to get a good look at him (a young male). The bear got up and moved further up the slope, casting disdainful glances our way. So far, I've seen a polar bear every time I've gone to the Arctic.

Steep faces on each side of the inlet bracket the narrow band of water of the inlet. The orange and black stained cliffs are high enough that base jumpers use the area – how they get up the cliffs in the first place baffles me, gaps to climb up were rare and filled with glaciers dripping in slow motion towards the sea. The inlet walls would fit the landscape in 'Game of Thrones' north of the wall, or exist in Middle Earth. Off one of the cliffs flows the most peculiar waterfall I've ever seen. It cascades off the top, then vanishes mid way down. Does the water freeze into snow? Where does the water come from? Below the water was just as shear - our depth sounder listed depths around 200 m and greater only a short distance form the cliffs.

Cliff face at Scott Island
The inlet appeared strangely devoid of life. A few Arctic Fulmars glided by, but never conglomerated around our ship even when we were offering up a free lunch (excess bait squid). Olive green jellyfish about the size of baseballs bobbed in the water. We knew narwhal were in the area, but never saw them – perhaps our depth sounder scared them off.

In 2012, three lines of receivers to listen for tagged fish, plus my two oceanographic moorings and some marine mammal listening devices were left in the water (to a total of 36). We came prepared to re-install these moorings plus add four additional receiver lines. As a result, the back deck of the ship was consumed with 200lb anchors weighing the aft end down. The first order of business was to deploy a batch of new receiver moorings before recovering any.

Instead of depth contours, the chart only listed a few depth soundings leaving most of the bottom topography to the imagination until mapping could be completed (the Nuliajuk is heavily involved in mapping when not doing our work). Depths for the mooring locations were needed to ensure we used the right type of float (non-compressible floats for the deeper moorings). As we checked depths, I did a line of CTD casts. Then we turned around and deployed a line of moorings. A process we repeated several times over several days.

Once the deck was cleared a bit we began recovering the previous year's moorings. Each mooring was fixed to its anchor with an acoustic release, essentially a hook with enough electronic brains to respond to a code sent from the surface and open the hook. Attached to the release is a length of rope holding the instruments ending in a float. From the ship, we call the release and have it uncouple – then the instruments are pulled to the surface by the float.

Several of us kept look out for the floats as they popped up. When a float was spotted, the zodiac zipped over and pulled in the mooring then transferred it over to the ship. Once the mooring was on board, we cleaned them up – an easy task as nothing much grew on the mooring lines and instruments. If we had put these instruments in temperate waters we'd be scrubbing matts of seaweeds and mussels off. Instead, there was a light growth of algae that wiped off with a towel.

One of my moorings - nothing fancy
One of my thermistors flooded. When I opened it up the batteries we so corroded I couldn't read any of the writing on them (batteries were removed carefully avoiding the battery acid). The rest of the instruments were fine. I downloaded each instrument, changed the batteries and re-programmed for a another year. I only briefly looked at the data to check if each instrument worked properly (I'll spend the next while looking at the data in more detail).

Kevin (another scientist) and I tackled the marine mammal recorders, instruments I had never worked with before that use large numbers of D cell batteries. By actually reading the instructions, we readied most of them for re-deployment. Unfortunately, one instrument needed a specialized wrench, which we didn't have. The wrench was to arrive with our replacements, so I assume it has been dealt with by now.

The mooring work was a success – all the moorings from 2012 were recovered and more moorings were put out.

Next up, some fishing...

Friday, September 27, 2013

Heading up the Baffin Island Coast

A view of Clyde River from the sea
The first step before heading to Scott Inlet was getting approval from the local HTA (hunting and trapping association) to tag fish, install moorings and collect data. Before leaving solid ground, the four of us (as there is only room for four scientists on the ship) waded through the fresh snow to the HTA office located in a red shack beside the community freezer.

The office was utilitarian, lit by florescent lights and a lone incandescent bulb. An uncomfortably low ceiling made me feel it was risky to stand up tall. Once white vinyl tiles covered the floor. In an economy of surfacing, the same tiles covered the chipped white painted conference table – edges held down with masking tape. Most of the table surface was consumed with a big map of the area. The walls were decorated with maps, a variety of posters including a graphic one on caribou diseases, and a wanted add for narwal tusks from someone in Vancouver who “will pay a good price.” Lined up along the walls were boxes of ammunition, rubber boots, ropes, and bolts of dull coloured fabric.

A few moments later, a group of men and one woman arrived. Introductions were made and we all sat around the conference table. We worked through a translator, an HTA member with good English, to explain our work. The group kept stern faces as we explained how the acoustic receivers work and our interest in the Greenland Halibut and Greenland Shark. The HTA members were very interested in if our instruments affect the marine mammals – an important food source for them. The agreed that knowing more about the local Greenland Halibut would help them in setting up a commercial fishery, a potential income source for the community.

However, they were baffled as to why we were interested in Greenland Shark. To them the shark were at best a nuisance. You can't eat Greenland Shark without serious preparation as the flesh is toxic and contains high amounts of urea. If you have time, these sharks can be fermented and rendered safe to eat, but this is not something the Inuit traditionally do. Nigel, our shark expert, made a compelling explanation as to why we should care about these shark. I've been working with Nigel for a few years, his shark work takes him from Africa to the Arctic and his passion for these animals rubs off on me, so even with cold feet I'm excited to see them. The Greenland Shark are the top predator on the bottom of the polar seas and are needed to keep the ecosystem in balance. The HTA members appeared to remain skeptical, but willing to humor us. Ironically, the HTA chair's last name translated to English means 'shark'.

The HTA granted their permission asked for a community wide meeting to show everyone what we had accomplished when we finished. While in Scott Inlet, a local community member was to accompany us to see what we were doing, which has happened in previous years. We were also asked to bring back some Greenland Halibut back for the community and to take supplies to a group of hunters stranded in Scott Inlet. After the meeting, we begged a ride (there is a taxi in town, but its availability is never certain) to get our gear down to the water's edge and then transferred to the Nuliajuk (the ship).

We couldn't leave until the next afternoon as gale force winds and 4 metre waves were pounding the Baffin Island coast. Once conditions improved, we pulled anchor and headed north. I looked around the ship, which consists of a bridge, small lab the size of an en-suite bathroom, a kitchen/eating area, two tiny cabins and a v-berth designed to sleep six with less floor space than my bathroom. This was the total inside space to be shared with 10 others. In the v-berth, I had the bottom bunk of three on the starboard side, it took a special sort of un-graceful yoga move to get in.

On the 12th of September, Jacob, the local observer, joined the ship, we loaded groceries and headed north. On our way out of Clyde Inlet, Jacob pointed out a passing cliff with three red streaks running down the face. He said that there was an old story about a man, a dog and a bear. All three fell off the edge of the cliff leaving the red streaks, but only the man and bear survived. Occasionally, sled tracks are found behind bear footprints, as though the bear now pulls the man's sled. I took pictures of the cliff, but the snow obscured the three red streaks.

As expected, it was rough out in Baffin Bay, the large swells tossing the ship about (and spilling vanilla in the galley, giving the ship a pleasant odor of fresh baking). The Nuliajuk is very bouncy and I tend to get sea-sick. To keep a horizon in view, I stayed up on the bridge – which also gave me a nice view of passing icebergs (I'll write a whole post about the icebergs later).

By midnight we arrived in Scott Inlet to start work in the morning. More to follow...

Monday, September 9, 2013

Getting closer; report from Clyde River

Iqaluit airport - it looks like a dissected pelican
case to me.

It was snowing when we landed in Iqaluit - just lightly, but it was snowing. Our layover was short and were expecting some critical equipment to be dropped off. Stress levels increased as our departure time approached without our equipment arriving. We were waiting for a centrifuge (not sure what we need that for) and the transmitter for the acoustic releases (absolutely critical for our work). At the last minute the equipment arrived, we handed it off to the airline and hopped on the plane.

As I walked through the gate a sticker was put on my boarding pass that said: "First Air regulations provide that no hotels, meals or transportation will be supplied if you are over or under carried from your destination" and we were told that weather in Clyde River looked bad and we were likely headed to Pond Inlet instead. A few hours into the flight we joked that it would be nice to see Pond Inlet, then the pilot came on and told us were would be landing in Clyde River in a few minutes.

It was snowing harder when we arrived, a snow that has arrived about a month earlier than expected. I hope it doesn't last. The clouds were low, so I couldn't see much of the surrounding area. The ground is strewn with massive boulders, no doubt dropped off long ago by a retreating glacier. The airport is a small building with a single common room. We stepped inside and watched our luggage be dumped on the ground in the muddy slush in the parking lot. Fortunately, I pack for that sort of thing. As we went outside to collect our gear, a stranger offered us a lift into town and we accepted.

The one hotel in town is closed for renovations, so we are staying at the Inuit Cultural Centre. When I was called to make a reservation I got the impression I was signing on to stay in a barrack style group accommodation with rows of bunk beds - I was totally wrong. I have a spiffy room to myself with a bathroom (I didn't expect the luxury of my own bathroom). The centre is only a few years old and absolutely lovely. We arrived a 4pm on a Sunday, and I didn't know there is no food available at the centre and the Northmart, the only store in town, is closed for the day. Fortunately, another guest took pity on us and gave us chicken noodle soup.

The windows in the common room over look the water (a bay I think). A fuel tanker is at anchor replenishing the town's fuel supply for the winter. Our research vessel isn't here yet - we hope it will arrive soon. We don't have permission yet for our work in Scott Inlet. Monday we meet with the local HTA (hunting and trapping association), the group that can authorize our work, hopefully, they grant us their approval and we can set sail for Scott Inlet.

As a tangent: Since I've been just waiting around looking out to the bay (the town is out of sight) I've spotted a Raven, a Lapland Longspur and an Iceland Gull.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Where I'm heading...

Might see some of these
I'm heading up north again in a few weeks – I won't believe I'm actually going until I get on the plane as delays are typical, even expected. Excess ice has already pushed our schedule back and it's impossible to predict what else might come up before I leave.

This year I'm conducting oceanographic sampling in Scott Inlet, a remote fjord on northern Baffin Island. Two moorings were installed on my behalf last summer (I couldn't go because I was 8 months pregnant at the time). If luck is with me, I'll get those moorings back, download the data, then put them back into the water for another year. Additionally, my plan is to take as many CTD casts as I can and help out with the other work that will be going on (fish tagging, acoustic moorings and maybe shark wrestling).

I fly into Clyde River, a small town I've never been to. All I know so far about the town is the only guest house is closed for renovations. After a night there, I'll be getting on a small research vessel. I've been on this ship before and learned that it gets quite bouncy in rough weather and I tend to get sea-sick (will pack gravel).

To get to Scott Inlet, we'll have to skirt the edge of Baffin Bay a place I've read a lot about. Baffin Bay is a large body of water bound by Greenland to the east, Baffin Island to the west, Ellesmere Island to the north and Davis Strait to the sound. Obviously, locals have known about this place for as long as they have lived there (since about 500 BC). Wikipedia says that John Davis was the first European there in 1585, but I wonder how far the Vikings got exploring the area as I recently saw a documentary about a potential norse trading post on southern Baffin Island (no idea if the show was presenting a fringe idea or not).

Even though Baffin Bay is choked with ice in winter, European whalers frequented the area early in the age where European powers sent sail boats exploring the Arctic. There's a large polyna (the North Water Polyna), much further north than I will go, that's highly productive and home to many marine mammals. Baffin Bay is one possible starting point for the North West Passage and many explorers passed through including Sir John Franklin. Interestingly, a B-52 crashed on the ice in 1968 with its nuclear payload.

A couple hundred km north of Clyde River is Scott Inlet, a narrow fjord filled with large islands which I know little about. This time of year the daily mean temperature is 0 degree Celsius, so it could be quite cold. I'll have to pull out my fuzzy gloves and wool long johns. I wonder if I'll see northern lights?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A take on how to think...

I've read every Sherlock Holmes story back when I was in high school. I read a lot then, as I still do now. Everyday on my way home from school on the city bus, I passed the library and its dedicated bus stop. Often, I would get off, lugging my backpack full of text books. I still have no idea what possessed me to lug all of them around all the time – no math or English or social studies emergencies ever came up (one always needs science text books). At the library, I always found a book or two or five to cram into my already straining backpack.

Recently, while browsing in the bookstore that is dangerously close to my house, I stumbled across Mastermind: how to think like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova. From the inside flap: “No fictional character is more renowned for his powers of thought and observation than Sherlock Holmes. But is his extraordinary intellect merely a gift of fiction or can we learn to cultivate these abilities ourselves, to improve our lives at work and home?” How could I resist?

Since I rarely read a single book at a time, I read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the same time. Both were equally interesting however, Mastermind was a much easier read and included tips on how to improve ones thinking.

Konnikova breaks down the scientific method (for that is what Sherlock Holmes uses), discussing how each piece can be applied to our thought processes. All the while interweaving scenes from the stories that demonstrate the point she is making.

She discusses the idea that the structure of your mind can be viewed as a 'brain attic' that can be organized and easy to find things or left as a crammed space containing everything without order. We get to choose. She also includes a warning about filling your mind with too much junk – I'm assuming she means the headlines from the tabloids I can't help reading in the checkout line that just stick in my mind.

“We can, however, learn to master many aspects of our attic's structure, throwing out junk that got in by mistake, prioritizing those things that we want to and pushing back those that we don't, learning how to take the contours of our unique attic into account so that they don't unduly influence us as they otherwise might.”

Csikszentmihalyi's view on your mind's contents is slightly different. He points out, the structure provided by memorizing things that captivate your interest can make you life richer. Memorizing medieval British kings and queens (the real-life 'game of thrones') or Shakespearean sonnets or details of the periodic table (or anything else that catches your interest) helps with thinking by providing an internal structure. Memorizing this way helps improve memory and gives fodder to think about if you end up in a sensory deprivation tank – just incase that ever comes up.

On the how thinking works theme, I listened to a podcast about thinking and memory last night (from here). According to them, the key is to constantly expose yourself to new ideas and concepts. Quality counts – sitting on the sofa vegging out in front of crapy TV doesn't count. Reading counts, as well as other active ideas like taking a course or learning an instrument. The new information creates potential connections with what you already know potentially generating ideas.

In a recent interview with Joss Whedon (one of my favourite movie and TV writers), where he discussed what he does to remain productive, he gave a range of tips including how he uses his down time to expose himself to tones of new information such as books, theatre, etc. - a process he called 'fill the tanks'. Whedon suggests “step outside your viewing zone, your reading zone. It's all fodder but if you only take from one thing, then it'll show.”

On the flip side of 'filling your tanks' a recent blog post suggested that depriving oneself of new information gained through reading, which is generally how I get new info, could be a good way to kick-start your creativity. This is a technique out of one of Julia Cameron's books. I would find this a form of torture, but I'm curious if it would work. If one is always out obtaining information, would a forced week of nothing new forge new connections (i.e. creativity) between the old information?

At the same time I read all about Holmes, I devoured books about James Bond (by both Ian Flemming and John Gardner) along with everything then published by Ken Follett (The Key to Rebecca was my favourite). Since, I read all these books a long time ago and often concurrently, the lines between what happened in what story has been blurred. I do remember enjoying them all so perhaps it's time to start re-reading all these tales.

Image is from here

Thursday, July 11, 2013


What lurks below
Possible reality for some of our mythical monsters? Sounds entertaining to me. Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan covers a pantheon of monsters, some I'd never heard of like a Rukh (an oversized bird), and those that fill my favourite movie genre (Zombies). Included are the overdone Vampire (I've never been a vampire fan) and Frankenstein's monster (the monster that keeps getting stuck with his creators name). Not quite as funny as Mary Roach, Kaplan's style still contained plenty of humour – how else could one approach this topic?

Some of his links seemed a bit tenuous, but entertaining non-the-less. For example, I didn't know toads were a component of Haitian potions to make zombies. Excretions from toads may have induced the berserker rages from Norse legend, leaving me picturing groups of Vikings standing around licking toads. We keep an assortment of toads in my home, making toad induced zombie-states and berserker-rages a second reason not to lick the toads*.

My favourite monsters turned out to be the sea-monsters. When I'm out at sea, I often wonder what lurks under the surface and I'm well aware the ocean is more powerful than any man made contraption that I might be standing in. To quote the book:

... on modern vessels there are often radios, life rafts that automatically pop open if the boats are struck by rogue waves, and emergency beacons that will alert rescue teams if the ship goes down, but even so, these essential bits of safety equipment do little to assuage a primal fear of vulnerability associated with the sea. For ancient mariners, the ocean was a powerful and dangerous force.

From the fear of the sea, ancient Greeks brought us Charybdis – a living whirlpool with a reputation of eating men alive and their ships too. She's a monster composed of water, without physical form, making her unique among the ancient monsters. I picture her as the maelstrom out of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, sucking whole ships in (except everyone would be wearing outfits out of the 1981 Clash of the Titans). Kaplan argues Charybdis' creation grew out of a fear of drowning and observations of tidal whirlpools – meaning that the ancient Greeks dabbled in oceanography, as any group that included mariners would. Perhaps Greek mariners observed the tidal whirlpools that form in the waters between Sicily and the boot of Italy.

Out of the Book of Job came the hulking Leviathan – a clearly male sea-monster. This monster has form unlike Charybdis, and he uses it for destruction. In the book, this monster's biblical description was dissected like a specimen in a lab. The monster's form could have originated from decaying carcases washed ashore, fossilized remains of sea going plesiosaurs, along with sailor's tales of huge creatures such as whales and sharks. Over time the Leviathan theme morphed into other sea-monsters such as Cetus (the sea-monster of Clash of the Titans), the Kraken, the giant squid of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and even the much more recent Jaws.

I realize this wasn't his point of the book, but I felt creatures solely from human imagination got left out. Can't we think of some pretty weird things from scratch? He also never mentioned half-animal half-human creatures other than the Minotaur – what about mermaids, centaurs, fauns, or Egyptian gods such as Anubis, Horus and Thorth? Why did we come up with so many half-and-half creatures? On that note, Kaplan did bring in some creatures of non-European origin, but his focus was mostly on the European ones.

*the first reason is because they wouldn't like it

Image is from here.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Sea Turtles in British Columbia

an old drawing of a Loggerhead Sea Turtle
In the waning tropical daylight, a uniformed park official sauntered over to me. “There are crocodiles in the water,” he told me. I was alone, studying the shallow, clear water of a slow-moving river near Tamarindo, Costa Rica which flowed between me and a nature reserve. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, I changed my search from tropical fish to crocodiles. After examining every hiding spot in the water without seeing even a little crocodile, I concluded I was safe. The crocodile warning was likely to scare me out of wading across the river to avoid the reserve’s entrance fee.

The nature reserve protected a stretch of Pacific-facing sandy beach for leatherback turtles to come ashore and lay their eggs. I happened to be in the exact area when sea turtles were coming ashore. That night, I joined a chaperoned sea turtle viewing expedition. After a short sunset boat ride (it wasn’t set up to be a difficult expedition), I relaxed on the sand watching the interplay between the moonlight and surf while Reserve staff patrolled the beach for turtles. Three hours after our arrival, a leatherback was spotted hauling herself out of the surf. We left her alone to choose her nest site.

That was the my first sea turtle encounter. On a tropical beach, turtles weren’t a surprise we expect turtles to be nesting there. The second time I encountered sea turtles was to pick up a dead Olive Ridley sea turtle that had paid the price for staying north too long.

In November 2011, an Olive Ridley sea turtle washed ashore on Wickaninnish Beach in the Pacific Rim National Park (ref and ref). Unfortunately, when a beachcomber spotted the turtle, she was in critical condition with a cracked shell. The Parks Canada folks whisked her off to the Vancouver Aquarium for care, but sadly she didn’t survive. A necropsy was performed to determine cause of death, tissues were taken and gut contents analyzed. After data were collected, the turtle was passed from the aquarium to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Her final destination was to be the Royal British Columbia Museum — this turtle is the first record of her species in British Columbia. In death, this turtle is destined to have an afterlife as the northernmost Olive Ridley specimen in the northeast Pacific.

Generally, our local waters are too cold for sea turtles and few wander this far north. McAlpine et al. (2004) describe sea turtles on our coast as “rare vagrants and uncommon seasonal residents.” However, they may be influenced by our warm summer temperatures (Stinson, 1984). Once here, they are free of predators. We have no record of anything eating a stray sea turtle.

Three species of sea turtles have been spotted in our waters: Green, Olive Ridley and Leatherbacks. As of 2004 (McAlpine et al.), there were 11 published reports of green turtles dating back to 1955, 14 published sightings for leatherback turtles dating back to 1932 and none for the Olive Ridley sea turtle. In a recent tracking study of ten Olive Ridley sea turtles, it was discovered they spent 90% of their time in waters with a sea surface temperature of 27 degrees Celsius (Polovina et al., 2004) — good luck finding that on the BC coast. However, a suspicion lingered that Olive Ridley turtles must pass by our coast as they have been spotted off the Washington coast and as far north as Alaska. Loggerhead turtles may eventually be spotted here, as they also have been seen in Alaska (Hodge and Wing, 2000).

In the fall as weather gets cooler, turtles that remain in northern waters risk getting sluggish, their digestion system shuts down and any food in their gut ferments. The added stress of cold waters make turtles susceptible to disease, infections from injuries, and in some cases, the turtles drown.

Green turtle carcasses found here in late fall tend to be large juveniles and small adults (McAlpine et al., 2002). Were they too inexperienced to know it was time to head south? Once these green turtle carcasses divulged their secrets, they get sent to local institutions to further scientific research and education.

Despite being critically endangered, leatherbacks are the most commonly spotted spotted sea turtle in BC waters (Matsuda et al., 2006). Sightings occur all along the coast, suggesting these turtles take advantage of warm sea surface temperatures between late summer and early fall (Spaven et al., 2009). As of 2009, there were 126 unique leatherback sightings recorded for BC (Spaven et al., 2009). Generally, “little is known of the occurrence and distribution of leatherback sea turtles in the waters of BC” (Spaven et al., 2009).

If you want to see a leatherback turtle’s shell, the Royal British Columbia Museum has one on display in the marine room in the Natural History Gallery. Naming these turtles ‘leatherbacks’ is appropriate as their distinct shell is covered in skin, reminiscent of a dried leather coat.

In February, 2012, I accompanied Gavin Hanke, the vertebrates curator at the Royal British Columbia Museum, on a trip to Nanimo’s Pacific Biological Station to pick up the Olive Ridley turtle that had been found on Wickanninsh Beach and transport it to the museum. At the Pacific Biological Station, the turtle was stored in a large walk-in freezer along with marine animals collected for scientific research. Even in the sub-zero air, the freezer stunk of stale fish. The aroma stuck to my clothes and stayed with me the rest of the day.

A large green garbage can barely contained the Olive Ridley turtle; its nose reached right up to the lid. The animal’s plastron and internal organs had been removed during the necropsy, so only the turtle’s head, limbs and carapace remained. Hollowed out, the turtle still seemed huge.

Eventually the turtle will be preserved and added to the museum’s collection. Behind the closed doors (to contain the smell) of the museum’s wet lab, the turtle will be soaked in formaldehyde; a process called ‘fixing’ that is akin to pickling. The formaldehyde links proteins within the turtle’s cells, to lock the animal in a ‘life-like’ look. The best way to determine if the fixing process is complete is to poke the specimen with your finger. If it feels rubbery it is done. For a turtle this size, the fixing process takes a few weeks.

Once the carcass is fixed, it is soaked in water to remove excess formaldehyde. Finally, the turtle will be stored in a vat (because it is too big for a bottle) of ethanol. Alcohol is easier to work with than formaldehyde. Over the long term, ethanol keeps bacteria and fungi at bay. Future researches will not be able to perform any DNA analysis since the formaldehyde was used to fix the turtle.

Thinking back to Costa Rica, once she had excavated a pit in the sand, we approached with only the dimmest lights to watch the leatherback turtle lay her eggs. The guides assured us that we weren’t bothering her, which I didn’t believe as they needed our entrance fee to fund the nature reserve. Even in the dim light, the turtle’s eggs were brilliant white and there were lots of them. Each one was a perfect sphere. I was curious what they felt like — a curiosity that remained unsatisfied.

When she was finished, the leatherback used her back legs to slowly sweep sand over her eggs. She never looked at what she was doing, but still buried the eggs perfectly. Once done, she hauled herself with her massive flippers/front legs back to the ocean leaving a trench in the sand behind her. We quietly backed away as her form became a dark mass surrounded by sparkly surf.

Further on, a newly hatched leatherback was making its way toward the water across our path. I picked it up. It was floppy and wiggly like newborns often are, and its front legs dwarfed the rest of its body. The size difference between this tiny turtle that fit into my hand and its gargantuan mother was stunning. Since a lot of us were on the beach that night, I took the turtle to the water rather than let it run the risk of being stepped on by another tourist. It fought the gentle surf, then it slipped under the surface and vanished from sight. Would it some day tour past the BC coast? Would it beat the odds and return to the beach to lay its own batch of eggs?

In the darkness, I also headed to sea. A boat took me back to the outskirts of Tamarindo, and my hotel. This time, I didn’t stop to check the water for crocodiles.


Polovina, J.J., G.H. Balazs, E.A. Howell, D.M. Parker, M.P. Seki and P.H. Dutton. 2004. Forage and migration habitat of loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) sea turtles in the central North Pacific Ocean. Fisheries Oceanography, 13:1, 36-51.

McAlpine, D.F., S.A. Orchard, and K.A. Sendall. 2002. Recent Occurrences of the Green Turtle from British Columbia Waters. Northwest Science, 76, No 2, 185-188.

McAlpine, D.F., S.A. Orchard, K.A. Sendall and R. Palm. 2004. Status of Marine Turtles in British Columbia Waters: A Reassessment. The Canadian Field-Naturalist. 118. 72-76.

Matsuda., B.M., D.M. Green and P.T. Gregory. 2006. Amphibians and Reptiles of British Columbia. Royal BC Museum, Victoria, Canada, 266pp.

Spaven, L.D., Ford, J.K.B, and Sbrocchi, C. 2009. Occurrence of leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) off the Pacific coast of Canada, 1931-2009. Canadian Technical Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. 2858: vi + 32 p.

Stinson, M. L. 1984. Biology of sea turtles in San Diego Bay, California and in the northeastern Pacific Ocean. MSc. thesis, San Diego State University, California.

Hodge, R. P., and B. L. Wing. 2000. Occurrences of marine turtles in Alaska waters 1960-1998. Herpetological Review. 31: 148-151.

Image is from here.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Lost Marbles

Not the angle of repose I was looking for
I lost several hours this morning when I fell down a rabbit hole of interesting facts. I was looking for something specific about what is called an ‘angle of repose.’ No it isn’t the angle of my lawn chair - although I did stumble upon a blog called ‘My Angle of Repose’ and a 1971 novel titled ‘Angle of Repose’.

The angle of repose I’m interested in is the maximum angle a pile of something (i.e. a granular material) could reach before tumbling down. A google scholar search found scientists piling a plethora of items from mustard seeds to firewood.

Not surprisingly, the shape of what you are piling matters. In a 1966 paper, piles of tiny spheres and angular crushed quartzite were examined. For diameters of 0.5 mm, the angle of repose for the spheres was 38 degrees while for the quartzite it was a steeper 57 degrees. Meaning flatish, irregular things pile better than round things.

But, diameters of 0.5 mm are tiny, what about something bigger? For bigger things, the angle of repose decreases. The tiny spheres above would form a pile while attempting to pile marbles would only lead to escaped marbles - and an excuse to say: “help, I’ve lost my marbles.”

Adding water changes things - and this is where I really got sucked in. A 1997 paper titled ‘What keeps sandcastles standing’ was irresistible to me and completely unrelated to what I was looking for, so I read it.

If you are going to build a fancy sandcastle, you’ll quickly discover that dry sand won’t work, only wet sand will do. That’s because the properties of wet and dry sand are different. They did a lab experiment to prove it by modeling wet sand with spherical polystyrene beads ‘wetted’ with corn and vacuum-pump oil.

As a tangent - a completely different study used rice piles to model avalanches. What you use likely comes down to what you can get to work in the lab. My experience with lab experiments I designed myself clearly demonstrated that it isn’t easy to come up with something that works.

They found that by only slightly coating the beads (coating of less than 50 nm) dramatically increases the angle of repose. This means that by adding water to sand, the liquid introduces attractive forces that act to bind the particles. At first clumps form, which grow as more liquid is added until what you are working with (sand, polystyrene beads, etc) holds together.

The angle of repose is an important factor when studying slope stability and landslide prediction. How gravity influences the angle has also been studied, so what we know here can be transferred to exotic locals such as Mars. A point to ponder if you have to trek across scree in your local mountains or on Mars.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Not in my slow cooker...

from left to right (best guess): black bear, cougar, cougar, 
bear cub, lynx, badger. On the bottom: polar bear.

Conversation the other day turned macabre as guests, who are heading out bear hunting this week, asked my husband how to clean a bear’s skull for display - not surprisingly, my husband knows about these sorts of things.

Mammal’s skulls tend to hold together much better than the skulls of reptiles or birds, so preparing them is simpler. First remove the fleshy bits as close to the skull as possible. A sharp knife would do the trick.

Get rid of the eyeballs (perhaps give them to a friend for a tasty treat, in Mary Roach’s Gulp she mentions cultures who enjoy that sort of thing). I’m not sure exactly how one removes eyeballs from a skull and I really don’t want to be spending time thinking about it - no doubt I will at 2am.

Someone would have to commit the zombie act of removing the brains. A chopstick stuck inside and swished about would work. Once the brain is pureed, shake it out.

Now it's time to get all CSI and slowly boil the skull. A slow-cooker would be ideal. Cover the skull with water, turn it on low and walk away. After a very long time, a day or so, the remaining flesh and tendons would fall right off (like any well done rack of ribs). You could baste the beary-soup with a solvent like alcohol or acetone to remove excess oils out of the bone. Pull the skull out and set it aside to dry. Fish any teeth that fell out from the resulting broth, dry them off and use white glue to put them back in place.

For a final touch, spray a 10 percent solution of white glue over the entire dry skull. This prevents the bone from drying out and delaminating (powdering), incidentally, this is the same technique used to set fake turf onto a super-detailed model railway - in case multitasking of model railways and skull preparation ever comes up. Keep bleach and peroxide away from the skull as both act to break down proteins in the bone causing it to turn to powder far sooner.

All that is left is to find a nice place to display the skull. If you ever want a skull but don’t want to put in the work, nice replicas can be found (e.g. here).

As a tangent - the conversation was entirely hypothetical as the would-be-bear-hunter had no plans on taking a rifle into the woods with him.

Case of skulls photo was taken here

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

It might be hard, but...

The result of blowing bubbles in my backyard
While reading a textbook* aimed at first year science students, deep in a chapter, I came across this passage:

 “... because a mathematical description of the coriolis deflection involves vector equations and, hence, is difficult to grasp, we will rely on a more general and somewhat inaccurate explanation of the concept.” 

Now, the author did put the technical stuff in an appendix, which began with: “Although few understand the coriolis effect...” 

The author's right, vector calculus can be hard, but, that’s beside the point. All sorts of things are ‘difficult to grasp’ yet we do them anyway. This textbook is for students in a first year science course. We should be inspiring them to go on and study more science, not scare them off because of perceived difficulty. Why even mention concepts are ‘difficult’ or that ‘few understand’?

Reminds me of an old article in the Onion about how science is hard (here).

We are doing ourselves a disservice when we set up things as hard - if you are interested, hard things are doable and should be tackled. I don’t think people aim to be a professional dancer or lawyer thinking they are on an easy path. Science is the same. The fact that there is so much complexity in the world around us is fascinating and we’ll never run out of new things to learn.

Why not present information in a science textbook without judgement on how difficult the concepts are? I’ve never come across another textbook that did. Unfortunately, there was more:

“Unfortunately, the concept of vorticity is difficult to grasp without a background in physics and mathematics ...” 

And that was the end of the discussion of vorticity.

On a tangent... some time ago, I rushed into the living room to catch a science story on the news about how a particle was clocked traveling faster than light (which has since been shown not to be the case). At the end, the anchor (Peter Mansbridge) questioned why we should care about this result and the science correspondent (Bob McDonald) gave a good answer. Then the next story was about the auction of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels and no one ever questioned why we should care. Interesting...

*the textbook is Invitation to Oceanography by P.R. Pinet. Over all, it reads well, has nice figures and is easy to follow.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tilting Isopycnals (the simplified version)

Sunset over Cumberland Sound
One of the things I’m attempting to determine is if the Baffin Island Current*, which passes outside of the mouth of Cumberland Sound, bends into the sound. Last summer, we were able to conduct two rounds of CTD** casts at regular intervals across the sound's mouth. Unfortunately, I wasn’t actually there as I was too pregnant to be at sea. I doubt I would have fit in the bunk as the ship we used is a particularly cramped research vessel (picture here).

Even though it was cramped, the ship had a hull-mounted current meter. Unfortunately, the instrument wasn’t turned on. No one on board had the knowledge to fiddle with it, so I missed out on that data (that’s the way it goes sometimes). Without measured currents, how does one infer water flow from CTD data?

The Baffin Island Current is geostrophic, that is, the pressure gradient force is balanced by the Coriolis force. In this case, friction and tides become unimportant and can be ignored when calculating current flows.

The pressure gradient force is the weight of water as the sea surface height is not at the same everywhere. This force is always directed from areas with high pressure to areas of low pressure. Without a balancing force, a parcel of water will move from the area of high pressure to the low one. But, there is another force out there to balance with - the Coriolis force.

Actually, the Coriolis force isn’t a real force; instead it is like an imaginary friend that shows up to solve a problem. It pops up when we treat our rotating planet as though it’s an inertial frame of reference to use Newton’s laws. Newton's laws form the base of ocean physics - and most other things that aren't moving too fast or are too small. Now, we’ll move on to pretending the Coriolis force is real. This force acts in different directions depending on the hemisphere, since I work in the northern hemisphere, I’ll take it as acting to the right.

As soon as the parcel of water from above starts to move because of the pressure gradient force, it will be acted upon by the Coriolis force and deflected to the right. The result will be a current that flows along an isobar (line of constant pressure) - a geostrophic flow.

In the ocean, pressure is difficult to measure. Fortunately, pressure is related to density and density depends on salinity and temperature which I measured. In the Arctic, where Cumberland Sound is, density depends mostly on the salinity, however, since I measured both I used both. I’ve calculated density and plotted up lines of constant density, which are called isopycnals. From plotting a cross-section of density, isopycnal slopes tell us if water flows in or out of the section, which is exactly what I’m looking for (note: isobars and isopycnals have opposite slopes).

From isopycnal slopes, a relative velocity can be calculated as currents move faster where the isopycnal slopes are steeper. Actual velocities would have been nice to get, leaving me wishing I had been on the ship to turn on the current meter. However, relative velocities still answer my question of whether the Baffin Island Current bends into my site. The answer is yes it does.

*The Baffin Island Current is the official name of this current which passes along the coast of Baffin Island (a nice diagram showing it can be found in this paper). Many currents have assigned names, the Gulf Stream and Kuroshio are perhaps more familiar examples. 

**CTD stands for Conductivity Temperature Depth. From conductivity, salinity is calculated. This instrument samples the water as it descends directly down from the ship resulting in profiles of these properties with depth.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Urban Nature

diversity in the garden
Why should you cultivate dandelions in sidewalk cracks, spiders in the attic and mushrooms in lawns...

Now that spring has fully arrived, I’m spending time weeding my garden. Volunteer plants have sprung up everywhere, like, well, weeds. I’m not pulling everything out - much to the annoyance of my neighbor who claims my few dandelions are an eyesore even though millions are in the park across the street.

Even in an urban environment (like where I live), we’re still part of nature. Urban living doesn't have to mean surrounding ourselves with a concrete jungle; we can still make room for diversity in nature. Even the dandelion that takes root in a tiny crack in the pavement and the moss that grows on your roof counts as diversity.

Diversity is important because it adds a complexity that makes an ecosystem stable. A single change that destroys one species is not a big deal if many species fill that niche, but a very big deal if it was the only species. For this reason, any ecosystem with only a few species is vulnerable. Consider a lawn containing a single species of grass - soon weeds will move in or nutrients will be used up, forcing the owner to take drastic action like applying herbicides or fancy synthetic fertilizers. Or, consider diversity in relation to our food crops: using a single variety can result in crop failures and no back-up to turn to. A sad example is the potato famine that occurred in Ireland between 1845-1852 (from wikipedia article here). Even though there are many varieties of potatoes on this planet, the Irish only planted a select few species and blight wiped them out - bad, bad news.

A diverse ecosystem, in contrast, acts to buffer the effects of change. No one goes out into an old growth forest and sprays the dandelions (although, exotic plants can still invade). My garden, which I pack full off as many different crops into my tiny yard as I can, will always produce me something.

Taken as a whole, the Earth is an example of a diverse ecosystem and can be considered a biosphere. People have dabbled in creating artificial biospheres since at least Victorian times. On a small scale, you can go out and buy an 'ecosphere' which is a sealed glass ball filled with water. Inside the sphere is a little ecosystem consisting of shrimp, algae and bacteria, which isn’t very diverse. In 1986, Carl Sagan wrote a glowing article about these ecospheres called, 'The world that came in the mail'. Their makers say these glass worlds can last up to 10 years, but critics say the shrimp are slowly being poisoned by their own waste while starving. Perhaps a bigger biosphere is needed.

Biosphere 2 (earth is Biosphere 1) is a 3.14 acre sealed greenhouse in Arizona that is broken up into several different types of ecosystems. Each ecosystem included several species that filled the same ecological niche, and soils were seeded with micro-organisms in an effort to enhance diversity. In the early 90's, an experiment was conducted by sealing in eight volunteers to simulate using a biosphere for space colonization. I remember seeing the ad for volunteers and being fascinated with the idea; however I had other commitments at the time and couldn't apply - which is perhaps for the better.

These eight people to be were sealed into Biosphere 2 for two years where they grew their own food. Their atmosphere was also enclosed, so the only oxygen available came from the plants within the biosphere. It turns out the biosphere wasn't a stable system: carbon dioxide levels fluctuated widely and oxygen levels couldn't be maintained. All the pollinating insects died, while cockroach and ant populations overran the place. The people sealed inside couldn't grow enough produce, forcing them onto calorie restricted diets.

One result of this experiment was to demonstrate that creating a stable biosphere is currently outside our capabilities. Since we haven’t successfully made a new biosphere, Biosphere I is all we have. So don't get rid of all the diversity that pops up or moves in. Keep a little diversity at home.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Reading, thinking, writing

I love dandelions when they've gone to seed
I spend most of my time doing one of three things - reading, thinking or writing. All are activities done alone. I hope the end result will be something creative and I’ve read that solitude is necessary for creativity.

Right now I’m reading Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I bought the book last week when I found out my local book shop didn’t have this one in yet (a book I’m very much looking forward to).

I’m about half-way through Quiet, which means I’ll be done in a couple of days. I’m finding the book fascinating, especially since I’m an introvert. I’ve always known I’m an introvert and I’ve always counted that as one of my strengths, even when others have not.

Quiet is about the value of introverts in our extrovert-centric society, especially around creative work. It is clear from research that brilliant ideas often come from people who mostly work alone, where group work typically results in ideas that came from the one that spoke the loudest - not necessarily the smartest.

She writes about how brainstorming in theory produces better ideas that individuals working alone - an idea that many team-building sessions glom on to. However, the actual research shows the opposite is true. When brainstorming and working in solitude are subjected to an actual test, more and better ideas are generated when working alone. Perhaps, I’ll point that out next time I’m forced into a brainstorming session (more likely, I’ll simply endure it).

In another interesting study she found, violin players were compared who all spent the same amount of time practicing. The best musicians were the ones that spent the most time working alone in ‘deliberate practice’ - which translates to working specifically on a nuance or skill where the musician struggles. The idea of a ‘deliberate practice’ intrigues me.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book

As a tangent, the author describes herself this way: “I’m prone to wild flights of self-doubt, but I also have a deep well of courage in my own convictions. I feel horribly uncomfortable on my first day in a foreign city, but I love to travel. I was shy as a child, but have outgrown the worst of it.” - a description that would also apply well to me.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Turdus migratorius (backyard Robins)

This is not a Robin
How the ordinary can be missed...

Winter is over and I’m delighted to report it’s warm enough to sleep with my window open! My island in the Pacific is temperate, not tropical, so spring warmth is always welcome. With the window open, the first and last thing I hear each day is singing birds.

This time of year, Robins are the ones singing. Around here we don’t have the dainty European ones (they were introduced about in the early 1900s, but didn’t take like the starlings and house sparrows did). Instead, we have a member of the thrush family, Turdus migratorius or American Robin. I’ve read that robins go through puberty once a year (article here) as hours of daylight increase. By this time of year they’re looking for a mate and the search is a noisy affair.

While I was out walking around a local bog, Red-wing Blackbirds were conducting a similar noisy quest as the robins. I heard the blackbirds long before seeing them, a feat my walking companion took to mean I’m an expert on birds. I’m not. Red-wing Blackbirds and Robins are the a few bird calls I recognize (Bald Eagles are another - majestic bird, ridiculous sound). We couldn’t see the birds at first, so we stopped and gazed out into the bog. Eventually, between the dried cattails, we saw flashes of fire-engine* red as the males jockeyed to catch the eye of the females.

I do purposely go out to see birds, but unintentionally I do it poorly. I have a bird identification book and binoculars, which I almost always forget to take with me. I have a check list for local birds that I’m filling out, yet I can’t tell the difference between different species of gulls. I’m a member of the local natural history society and they regularly do outings to watch birds, yet I’ve never gone with them.

There is always at least one Robin in my backyard, so I don’t have to go out of my way to see them. Unlike the Resplendent Quetzal, a bird I traipsed through the jungle in Costa Rica to see, the ubiquitous Robin is easy to ignore. They lack the iridescent green body and brilliant red breast of the quetzal. Even the flashy red wings of blackbirds eclipse a robin’s colouring. A Robin’s breast is the same shade of the liquid that seeps out of a bucket of nails left in the rain. Additionally, most Robin’s wings droop just a bit, giving them a goofy look which is augmented by the bird’s tendency to endlessly pursue their reflection in a window.

Soon, the Robins will sort out who to mate with and the songs will fade. Fragments of delicate blue egg shells will be discarded as the next generation of ordinary Robins are hatched. From my desk, I can watch a Robin bounce over the ground, stop and tug an earthworm out of the ground, a comical procedure. As the bird flies away with a worm in its beak, I’m always left wondering how does the Robin know the worm is there?

* actually, around here, most of the fire-engines are yellow.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

How I work

a page out of my messy notebook
an even messier page
I’ve been thinking about how I work - be it my writing or scientific work (which tend to be offshoots of the same thing as the tangents here are often of stuff that don’t fit with my science). When I started my current project I made an effort not to work the same way as I did with my previous project. I wanted to be more deliberate and structured - basically, I wanted to work from a plan.

I like structure and I like thinking about how to apply structures to my work. I do this with most projects I work on, even my garden has a carefully thought out structure which starts as sketches in one of my notebooks. Structure is form of a plan which allows me to put separate pieces together and not miss anything.

One of the things that stuck with me from my army days was having a plan. At the very least by having a plan, I have a place to write my changes on. It gives a place to start and can be shared with others. When I go out and do field work, I always have a plan. Things may not go according to the plan, and that’s okay. Sometimes deviating from a plan when an opportunity arises can create better results. Or, if things aren’t going well, I can quickly determine what’s important to my grand scheme and what isn’t and can be canceled.

For the thinking/analyzing work I do when I get home, I don’t see how a straight forward plan would work as I’m looking at data that has never been seen before. I worked somewhat aimlessly on a previous project, which resulted in me taking more time that I would have liked. For my current project, I try to work within a structure based on notes. I’m trying (hopefully successfully) to combine the new things I find with other work to create a story worth telling - not analyze every piece of data with every possible analytical tool.

I’ve been following note keeping ideas from Organizing Creativity (he seems to have really thought about how to work and many of his ideas work well for me). I keep multiple Circus Ponies notebooks that are annotated and organized. The outline of the paper I’m currently working on has been assembled from these electronic notebooks. But, I don’t start electronically (perhaps I’m a luddite).

I find that I need to physically write things down to internalize them. Plus, keeping notes prevents me from skimming the source material since academic papers tend to be very dry reading. As I read, ideas often pop into my head which I write down with a different coloured pen. Since, I like to make visual connections between ideas, my notebooks are littered with diagrams and mind maps.

Keeping physical notes allows me to get away from screens for a time, which is good for me (there is plenty of current research that shows sitting in front of a screen all day isn’t the best for your health). I haven’t figured out how to juggle reading a paper and having a laptop on my lap while sitting in my comfy chair. Yes, I could read the paper on an electronic device, I’m just not that technically advanced nor do I have the will to be. Sitting away from my computer for a time works for me.

My written notes all get transcribed into an electronic form. This may seem time consuming, but I find it gives me the opportunity to rethink some of my ideas and remind me of important details in other work.

Since, I think about how I work, over time I’m likely to change my working habits. I doubt there is a magic working method that I won’t evolve over time.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Waves in the Ocean - redone

A photo of waves taken from the safety of the shore
Some time back, I wrote about how, once you are out of sight of the shore, waves in the ocean look the same at different heights (original post is here). I reworked the post, removing the helicopter scariness for the UVic Ocean Student Society's blog - find the post here.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Upside down grazers

possible alien world?
Imagine a world where animals graze on a surface of green extending above our heads. To me this sounds like a scene from a science fiction movie set on an alien world that requires ‘unabtainium’ or a ‘flux-vortex’ to exist. Yet, habitats like this exist on earth. The underside of sea ice is one (caves are probably another).

In the Arctic, the sun returns long before the ice melts. Since first year ice is relatively clear, sunlight can pass through. Algae takes advantage of this light and sets up shop on the bottom surface of the ice. A two-dimensional world is created in the normally three-dimensional euphotic zone.

Ice algae plays an important role at the base of the ecosystem. These algae blooms represent the beginning of the Arctic grazing season as no photosynthesis can occur during the long winter polar night. Since other phytoplankton are scarce this time of year, creatures flock to the icy roof for a meal. Diners include diatoms, protozoa, nematodes, copepods and others. Copepods in particular are a food source for bigger creatures and fish such Arctic cod. These fish are eaten by bigger fish, birds and marine mammals.

Light is critical for ice algae to thrive, so any snow covering the ice can have a negative impact. Too much snow and there won’t be enough light for the algae to grow. Additionally, particulates in the ice can block sunlight. A large mining or smelting operation could coat the ice in particles, blocking the algae’s light.

This ecosystem, like all others on our planet, will be impacted by climate change - and we don’t know exactly what the end result will be. Ice algae need the clearer first-year ice to grow. If warmer conditions made this ice melt sooner, the algae would sink and die. The grazers that depend on the algae would starve. On the sea floor, algae would decompose potentially creating anoxic conditions, a potentially fatal environment for bottom dwellers such as turbot, Greenland sharks and Arctic skate. Or, if warmer conditions result in less multiyear ice, potentially more first year ice could form. Ice algae would have more space to grow and more food could be available for all (assuming there was enough nutrients). 

Image is from here

Monday, January 28, 2013

Something on glass sponges...

Here I am building a mooring
For my masters work I looked at flow over a local glass sponge reef. It turns out that how the tides interact with a sub-surface ridge may influence the conditions the sponge reef lives in. I wrote a little about it for the UVic Ocean Student Society here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Getting a sample of water

one alternative to taking water samples...

As an oceanographer, I often think about how to sample the water I’m interested in. Generally, I prefer using instruments that measure a property in place returning just an electronic data file, but sometimes, water must be taken for analysis which raises the question: how do you get water from the ocean and into a lab? The simplest solution is a bucket at the end of a rope - a technique I’ve found myself using in the past. This equipment is easy to find and easy to use. The downside is you can only get surface water this way. Getting waters from intermediate depths takes fancier gear, and it took a long time of trial and error to develop the instruments needed to collect water from these depths.

A theoretical idea…

Water sampling equipment started from an idea presented at the British Royal Society early in its history from someone who never went to sea. Robert Hook designed a box of wood to be lowered on a line. Water flow held the end valves open on the way down. When the instrument reached the desired depth, it would be hauled up, and the change in direction would close the end valves. This design ultimately evolved into our modern water sampler, however, the original wasn’t practical. The wood would swell in the water and no seal was maintained - if you hauled back the sampler and it actually contained water, there was no way to know it came from the targeted depth.

A reality check…

To reliably work, water sampling instruments made the leap from theoretical designs to functional equipment via multiple design iterations (I often wondered how much of this occurred on a deck of a ship where some poor technician was trying to make this theoretical, lab-built equipment work).

By the time of the Challenger Expedition (1872-76) a working instrument existed - a stop-cock water bottle. This sampler had spring-loaded stoppers for both ends. When it was being lowered into the ocean the stoppers would be open, allowing water to flow freely through the bottle. At the desired depth, the bottle being lowered, was pulled up slightly, allowed to fall back and then jerked to a stop - action that would close the stoppers and trap the water inside.

Several design iterations later, and still in common use, is the Niskin bottle (designed in the 1960’s). Niskin bottles are made of plastic to reduce sample contamination and the end caps have rubber washers to improve their seal. These bottles are lowered down a wire in the open position. When the bottle reaches the desired depth a metal messenger, basically a metal bead that clips onto the wire, is sent down the wire to trip the bottle closed. An added advantage is these bottles can be used in series, allowing for multiple samples to be taken at one time. They can even be arranged in a rosette for more detailed water collection schemes.

Do we need to take the water…

“To replace the laborious analysis of recovered water samples the marine scientist may employ a single sensing unit which will telemeter back to him, or record on tape, data on the temperature, salinity, conductivity, oxygen content and sound velocity of the water in which it is placed.”
                   - Historical Instruments in Oceanography by Anita McConnell, 1981

Water sampling is still necessary for many things, however, electronic sensors can be deployed for long periods of time, reporting back parameters which can provide an ongoing record at that location. Ocean networks like Venus and Neptune provide ongoing reporting that could never be obtained from water sampling alone.

As a tangent - the photo is a simple mooring I built with electronic recording instruments (salinity and temperature) that was deployed for a year, part of that under ice. Yes, it looks like a pile of rope.