May 6: Chukchi Sea Sampling Day

As we begin Day 7 of our trip up here to Barrow, Carie has officially declared that “Super Fantastic Science Has Happened!”

While Carie is busy in the cold room chopping up ice cores, microtoming them into thin sections and inspecting them under the microscope, keeping meticulous notes, setting up cell incubations, consulting with the PIs, videotaping the team for science outreach, singing songs to stay warm, etc. she has had barely any time to keep up with the blog. Well, almost no time. As you’ll see shortly, her thoughts are interspersed throughout this post as well. Until Carie can fully take over again, I’ll fill in some of the details.

Here are some photos from our first day out on the sea ice in the Chukchi Sea.


The Rotten Ice crew, aka Delta Squad, getting mandatory snowmobile training before setting out on the ice. Photo by Julianne

Snowmobile training. Photo by Julianne


Shelly and an unidentified masked member of Delta Squad inspects a sled. Photo by Julianne

Carie: …..After a hearty breakfast and stuffing our pockets with cookies, muffins, and fruit from the cafeteria (as well as a few very creative variations on the toast, ham, and butter sandwich), we rolled up to the staging theater where our bear guard and the safety crew were there to greet us for snow machine training and bear safety orientation. Somewhat to my disappointment (and the relief of the more Arctic-experienced in our group) training consisted of handing us helmets and showing us the throttle and ignition on the snow machines and handing us off to our capable bear guard, Orion.

Sled loaded with coolers full of coring equipment, saws, measuring devices of all sorts, sample bags, and a pack of sample labels I had carefully prepared back in Seattle, we set off on our first field expedition, two to snow machine, Karen with a sparkly pink helmet, me behind Shelly who did not disappoint as a wildwoman driver…..

Conditions were overcast with light flurries and a temperature of about -10 degrees Celsius. As we drove away, the Theater, dirt road, and power lines shrunk to specks on the horizon. As far as I could tell, we were headed towards the break between sea and sky, a discontinuity in whites and grays that was sometimes a sudden thin brightness and other times a dark line in the distance. We were following a well-marked trail, although I had no idea how far it went or what we would find at its end.

Iced-over Chukchi Sea: sea ice to the horizon and beyond. Photo by Julianne

Carie:….Orion shepherded us on an ice trail on the Chukchi Sea to the West of Barrow that the locals use to get to whaling camps. We selected a site about a kilometer away from Hajo Eicken’s mass balance site, which would allow us to match some of our measurements with his time series of sea ice thickness, temperature, and other data….. 

Within minutes of parking the snow machines until our departure 6 hours later, we were fully occupied. Some of the first measurements were of the snow depth and the ambient air temperature. The next important step was to take a first core of the sea ice.

Measuring snow depth over the ice. Photo by Julianne


Making observations from a Chukchi Sea ice core. Photo by Julianne


Brown algal layer at the bottom of one of our Chukchi Sea ice cores. Photo by Julianne

The first core gave us a glimpse of what to expect of the sea ice and how best to proceed.

Carie:…..When we pulled out the first core and laid it out on our table to photograph it, there was a big brown algal layer at the bottom, and we knew we had found what we were looking for. However, the ice was thicker than we had expected, thicker than the length of our core barrel. This meant having to drill the core the length of the barrel, pulling the first part of the core out, adding an extender to the core, and then going again. Which meant a lot more work for Shelly, our designated Corer. In theory, we were going to take turns since coring is hard physical work. But Shelly, aka “Superhuman Coring Machine” (powered by >70%v dark chocolate) had a combination of experience, finesse, height, and stamina that none of us could match. She outlasted all three of our drill batteries, and kept going when someone from the lab brought us a generator-powered drill…..


Shelly drilling a core, accompanied by Monica who is almost unrecognizable in her parka. There were no Monica-sized parkas available from APL. Photo by Julianne


Carie taking notes while hiding from the wind between some sample storage coolers. Photo by Julianne

As the officially appointed scribe and task-master, Carie had plenty to keep track of. She was constantly at attention, ready to record the blizzard of numbers that everyone called out. I realized that we were not necessarily out here to collect ice cores but to collect numbers about ice cores (you’ll get a sense of that from what Carie has written below). In science, numbers are gold. Not to mention a nimble mind, well-organized record keeping systems, and mobile fingers in sub-zero temperatures! I still don’t know how Carie manages to keep her writing legible when all my own fingers had turned into claws from the cold.

Carie:…..It was cold, and there was a frigid wind. Despite all of our layers, thick down parkas, hats, and gloves, we all felt the bite. As the Postdoc-with-a-Plan, I was the designated notetaker, list-checker, and sample-labeler, and my hands quickly went numb and stayed that way for the rest of the day (it turns out that it is still possible to take detailed notes with a frozen hand). I recorded water, air, snow, and core temperatures (at a resolution of every five centimeters along a 145 cm core), salinity measurements, sackhole fill times, and directed the collection, cutting into pre-determined horizons, and proper labeling and storage of 22 ice cores, 42 20-cm sub-samples, and 30 liters of sackhole brines and seawater. Everyone was busy, Karen and Julianne tag-teamed the sectioning and measuring of all of the cores and handle the collection of liquid samples. When measurements needed to be taken, a part needed to be found, or a message relayed, someone always stepped up immediately. It was a lot of sampling we did, but we worked as efficiently as if we’d been doing this together for years, and we (miraculously) got it all done…..


Karen cutting pucks of ice for density measurements. Photo by Julianne

Upon returning to the lab after dinner, we began Day 2.1: Sample Processing. To stay as close to in situ conditions as possible, particularly for the biological and chemical aspects, the Team wanted to process their sea water and brine samples as soon as possible. We all donned our winter jackets and spent the next few hours in the cold rooms, filtering, aliquotting, and pipetting sea water and brine. Here you can see Monica and Karen testing the  photosynthetic efficiency of the sea ice algae in a small ice section. At ~2 am, we finally called it a day. The sun had only set almost an hour before at 12:52 am.



Monica and Karen testing ice sections for photosynthetic efficiency. Photo by Julianne

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