March 7, 2016: Dude, where’s my ice?

I arrived to Barrow, AK on March 5. It was a long plane ride. My life feels like it’s just awkward sleeping positions on planes. But it was worth it!

I got here before noon with Abdullah. Flying in over the Chukchi Sea, I see a lot of water which made me freak. As we approached the shore overhead I could see that – yes – there was ice, though barely. I could tell even from the plane that the ice was not nearly as far out from shore as it was even just a few years ago. Natives recall the ice stretching out as far as 10-12 miles in years past, and decades ago it reached farther than that. It was maybe a kilometer in some areas (less than a mile). Often wind will come in and break off pieces  of the ice during the season which I’ve heard happened not long before our research team arrived in late February. 

After retrieving our ice permits the first thing we did was go out on the ice! No equipment on Sunday because the wind chill was crucial, too crucial for the equipment, and even a little crucial for us – but we couldn’t stay away. We didn’t walk out far on the ice because of this. Other than the 25mph winds slapping our faces it was a beautiful day. The sky was blue, the sun was up, and ice as far as we could see. You could see out on the horizon a smokey haze just above the ice – that was water vapor. Yep, water vapor from the ocean. Because the ocean was so near to shore this year to the point where we could see the steam coming up from the surface. No bueno. 

Last week’s crew got some good data to give us an idea of what we’re working with. In 2014, the average ice thickness was about 1.2-1.8meters. That was considered thin then, too. This year, the ice has been measured to be about .90meters. .90meters. Need I say it again? 90cm. THAT’S ALMOST HALF IN SOME PLACES. It’s not thin enough to be dangerous to walk on, but it has various negative impacts on the surrounding environment. The lack of ice that stretches out from shore causes the whales to be closer to the shore. Some may think this is good news for whaling season. However, the thinness of the ice makes it too dangerous to set up camp near the open water. This lack of ice also increases the amount of Polar Bear sightings around town which is dangerous for the townspeople and is also an implication that the hunting land (ice) for the bears is inefficient. 

It has been rather windy since I have been here. Up to a -40F wind chill. I am hoping to be able to get at least the sensor sleds out on the ice today to do a few test runs. We brought the OhmMapper, a ground penetrating radar (GPR), and three homemade sensor sleds. Three of the sleds are taking infrared (IR) temperature data including surface temperature and ambient air temperature. One of the sleds has a platform with 6 or 7 Dallas Semiconductor temperature sensors to monitor any temperature gradient from the surface of the ice up to about 1.5 meters up. So far no such temperature gradient has been detected. 

If we can at least confirm that the sleds are working properly, we can get out there with all of the equipment, ready to go, on the days that won’t be too cold. Hopefully the wind will die down by Wednesday. Stay tuned!

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