Wednesday, August 12, 2009

An update from the USA

I took a slight hiatus from the blog but I am back. Even though our field season has been over for a week now, there is plenty more work to be done. Most of the physical effort has been put in, and now it is time to put the brain into overdrive and start making sense of all this data and mud we safely transported back to the states. Some people will be working with data more so than others. Like I mentioned before, in my case, I get to look at mud! (If only it were that simple)

The picture on the right is many pictures stitched together of one of my cores that we sliced open this afternoon. Using a combination of tools including a saw on a stand we first had to slice the plastic core tube in half. Sounds simple, but if you are a tenth of an inch too deep in cutting, you will split the core too quickly, splatter and possibly destroy all your hard earned mud. So when you get 90% through the side of the tube, you take a knife and cut the rest by hand. Then with a tripod that has a guitar string attached to it, you slide the core through it, evenly splitting the mud into two sections. (I bet a picture of that would help, I'll try to get one tomorrow morning when I go back for my next core)

Then, voila, it is split! Using a razor blade u can scrape off the uneven blobs of mud, running the blade parallel to those really nice laminations you see. So remember all that talk of varves from earlier? In that photo, you can probably vaguely make out those varves. Looking at them in detail (ie. up close) will reveal more detail about their thickness, grain size etc. Each little varve tells a story, which of course our jobs as climatologists is to decipher that story. The way someone once explained it to me is to think of a varve as an ancient language, and we have deciphered bits and pieces of this language, but there is still more work to do, and each lake can tell its own story a little differently.

Svalbard was a great experience, and as I get more pictures organized I'll keep posting here. Also, like I said, just because the fun field season is over doesn't mean the work and learning ends. As I learn new things about what my cores are telling me, I will share them here. If all goes well, I will have data and a poster to present at conferences in the spring.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A bright Sunday morning in the Arctic

I believe I may have mentioned it before, but the day of the week really means nothing when you are out working in the field. We leave the Isfjord Radio Basecamp Tuesday afternoon to head back to Longyearbyen, the 'town' about 25 miles from here. Before we can leave, we need to retrieve all of the equipment that we hauled out to Linne the first few days we were here to conduct our research. Then of course is the task (or what most of us are referring to as the challenge) of packing everything up to take back to Longyearbyen, as well as Friday's long day of flying back to the states.

Yesterday, we all hiked to the glacier, which was about 17 miles round trip. And of course when that 17 miles is across loose rocks, moraines (where glaciers reach their maximum distance down a valley, dump all of their rocks and sediment and start to retreat), and rivers and small ponds that overtopped some people's boots (not fun!). At any rate, the view from the glacier was incredible, as well as the fact that we were standing on a thick sheet of ice that is thousands of years old. This is real life Earth processes in motion, changing at a scale we can visibly see from year to year (for better or for worse). Glacial mass balance measurements have been recorded and tracked from year to year (Glacial Mass Balance = Total water in (via snowfall,
rain etc) - Melting) and for the last 50 years that mass balance has been negative, along with the majority of glaciers these days. Using GPS, we measured the perimeter of the glacier's extent, and in comparing it to GPS data taken in 2006, it has retreated approximately 90 meters. That is about 100 feet a year, and that starts to add up over decades. To the left is a picture looking up at the glacier. It was a little foggy the other day when the photo was taken, but it wraps up around the bend into the clouds.

Since Thursday some others had hiked to the glacier, we all stayed back and worked on our cores and other odds and ends on Friday. The day started out foggy, but turned out to be beautiful and sunny, with hardly any wind. The Arctic Ocean was like glass, and we took advantage of the weather by going for a swim (and by swim I mean running in and running out as quick as possible because the water could not be any more than 40, and that's being optimistic). And here's the proof...

On the left is us together (Alice, Jacalyn, Chris, Franklin, and I) before the swim, and on the right is us in the water (I'm in the middle with my hands over my face, probably screaming in shock).

So that is about all for updates here. Last night was the brightest I have seen midnight the whole time we have been here. The sun is fairly low in the North sky, but there were only a few high cirrus clouds in the sky. More to come later.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

And some pictures for you to enjoy (now that I got my own finally on the computer)

The polar bear statue that your luggage goes around at the Svalbard/Longyearbyen Airport... A view of the tarmac at the airport after arriving, time 12:15 AM

The downtown 'Main Street' of Longyearbyen
Swimming in the ocean with survival suits on
Our typical commute to work...
And our typical load for the day...

We ran into a reindeer on the walk home the other day...

Freshly retrieved core of Kongressvatnet!

And finally, a nice view of Linnebreen (the Linne glacier) from the ridge on our walk back from Kongressvatnet

Making progress

Good evening from the Isfjord Radio Basecamp, 78 degrees North, 13 degrees East. We are in the fog right now, and have been for most of the evening. As we came over the crest of the first hill leaving the lake this evening, the wind was whipping ice pellets at us as the clouds whisked by at record speed. It almost looked like you were flying through the clouds in an airplane they were going by so fast. And to make matters worse, our direction home was dead into the wind. To put the icing on the cake, we were a little apprehensive with reports of a polar bear still in the area (kind of tough to see when they blend in with fog that yields 150 foot visibility at best), and were carrying back our cores that I spoke of in a previous post. Since the very top of these cores is still settling out of the water, we had to be extra careful in walking back with them to disturb them as little as possible, otherwise those nice laminations (varves) will get disturbed.

The other group (4 of them) hiked all the way up to the glacier today. Hopefully I can get some of their pictures to share with you guys. Up there, we have several cameras monitoring the movement and depletion of the glacier, as well as ablation stakes (measure the melting/removal of ice from the glacier) and weather stations. All of the data needs to be downloaded, batteries checked, and there are a couple of other small projects they are going to work on up there. Besides all of that, the other reason it is a big deal when they hike to the glacier is because it is an additional 2 1/2 hour hike from the south end of the lake! (Just to refresh your memory, we have a 45 minute hike from basecamp to the lake, a 15 minute boat ride down to the south end of the lake). They called by satellite phone at 7 PM to let us know they were leaving the glacier, so they won't be in until almost 11 PM. Talk about a long day.

This week has flown by, people have been very successful coring Lake Linne (Linnevatnet), and theirs and my cores from Kongressvatnet have all been safely transported back to Isfjord Radio basecamp. The next challenge is making them safe for transport to Longyearbyen, which is an hour plus boat ride, then finally for commercial air transport to get them back to the US. We are still working out just exactly how we are going to do that, and so far it is looking to be quite a challenge.

The last big event that I almost forgot to mention was the return of the polar bear on Tuesday. Just as we were planning to head out for our day (and on time for once), one of the other students, Chris, goes, "Ummm, there is a bear over there guys." And sure enough, the bear was back, though at a safe distance of maybe a 1/4 mile. Now last time he did this, he kind of wandered around at least a few hundred yards out and then made his way to the ocean. Tuesday, not so much, he started heading straight for our building! And man was this thing big, one paw was probably about the size of my entire torso. He came within 10 or so yards of the building, and thankfully for some reason made the right decision not to attack any of the people watching him with shotgun in hand, and turned away and took off right back where he came from. I'll get a picture of that up a little later. Hope you all enjoyed the post, I'll save the science for my next post when I plan to give you guys a little more information about what exactly I'm going to do with all of my mud that is sitting out in the garage here.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Time-lapse video created

Check this out... (I figured out how to create a time-lapse video of the camera images so enjoy).

Just a little background about these images... A few years ago some of the student's along with
Professor Steve Roof of Hampshire College built a housing for a camera that is situated on a
Below is Steve at the top with the housing and solar panels on the device.
ledge about 250 feet. This 6 megapixel camera is connected to a big battery (about the size of your standard car battery) that is recharged from a small solar panel placed on top of the housing. Attached to the camera is a logger that is programmed to have the camera take photos twice a day, once at 11 Am and once at 4 PM. Every summer the information the memory cards are swapped and the pictures are taken back to be analyzed and wow'ed at.

(Previous work researchers have done is using basic-photo programs like Photoshop to analyze the rate of melting going on in a cropped section. One can then correlate this to the available weather station loggers that we have set up throughout the valley to get quantitative melt-water rates.

At any rate, click play. The images start around April 5th and stop at July 24th I believe. If you notice, there was snow storms right through May, and the lake wasn't even free of ice until about a week before we arrived here! Keep in mind, the sun had been up for 24-hours a day since mid-April and it took this long to thaw all of the ice.

Here is a shot of me and Steve peeking inside and placing the camera back on its tripod.

I struck gold!

Okay, so the core I retrieved today may not be considered gold to most of you, but when you drop a plastic device down to the bottom of a 150-foot deep lake, pull it up and retrieve a beautiful core of mud, successfully cap it and transport it back to the shore, you feel like you've struck it rich. That was exactly what went down today, twice! Although I owe the credit to the first successful core to Professor Mike Rotelle of Bates College who successfully cored and pulled up the first piece of mud. Of course, the day would not have been half the success it was without Al Werner, professor from Mount Holyoke, and two of my peers, Alex and Alice, that helped with the coring and water sampling process, and most importantly of all, carrying all the gear tools and equipment up to the lake which is an additional hour hike each way from the south hut on Lake Linne (Linnevatnet). Below is a picture taken by Mike of Al, Alex and I returning with the core of mud.

It's tough getting pictures from everyone but as I get some good shots I will keep them coming.
Here is a nice shot of us enjoying our lunches with Kongressvatnet (the lake I cored and will be analyzing for my senior thesis) in the background. It is still hard for me to believe that a lake that is maybe 1/3 mile wide is 150 feet deep!

Anyways, this morning started out extremely foggy. We couldn't see more than 100 yards ahead. Just as we got to Linne, the sun broke through and it got warm! I'm talking over 50 degrees warm. It was a perfect day for the longer hike up to Kongress where all of my success occured. Unfortunately, the fog rolled back in this afternoon and they are predicting rain for the next two or three days.

Before I leave for bed I'll share with you a little scientific information about the lake I am studying, Kongressvatnet. What makes it so unique over Linne (which is much easier to access, larger, and coreable) is that it is meriomictic. That means that layers don't intermix, that is, it is a stratified lake. Normally, lakes mix and overturn twice a year (especially in temperate climates such as New England), but towards the bottom of Kongress, it goes completely anoxic. Chemical reactions taking place at the bottom of this lake (about the deepest 30 feet) create a reducing state which basically prevents any oxygen from surviving. This water is sulfur rich, and being just a slight bit denser than the rest of the lake, it prevents it from mixing with upper, lighter layers. And when you pull up a sample of its water, it smells like rotten eggs (the smell you get some sulfates). The location in the water where this takes place is known as the "chemocline".

This of course brings us to the most important part about this lake being meriomictic! Since it is depleted of oxygen at the bottom of the lake, very few organisms can actually survive down there (there are these little things known as purple sulfur bacteria but they don't really pose a threat to my work). So, since you don't have little clams or fish digging through the top layers, these sediment deposits go untouched. This is what gets you those fine annually laminated varves that I spoke of in my first post! So I think I have bored you (or perhaps entertained you) with enough science for today. Do a search of meriomictic or chemocline, or even lake varves if you want to learn more.

Also... the place that we are staying at has a website, and hosts tour groups as well as vacationers making their way here on their own. If you want to check out the accommodations (they also have some great pictures of the area) click here. Goodnight!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A day in the field

What a long couple of days it has been!

I'll give you a quick rundown of our typical day...

8 AM - Breakfast in the main building. Load up on as much food as we can, and pack sandwiches for the day.

9 AM - Time to load up all the extra gear we'll need to carry to the field for our time here. Running back and forth between the garage and shed to gather all the necessary equip.

10 AM - We are ready for our commute to work. Everyone's backpacks are loaded w/ at least 30 lbs of goods (sometimes 50 or 6
0) with equipment, changes of clothes, rain/river wading boots, more extra layers, FOOD, etc. After a 45 min hike over rocks, through muck and streams, and up and down a couple of hills we arrive at the lake. A quick 15 minute boat ride on little 6 person zodiac's will take us to the south end of the lake where our little hut is!
By then it is usually past 11 and we disburse into groups. One day was spent recovering moorings with the help of some GPS coordinates and a little luck. Today was spent hiking an extra hour each way up to another lake to run some samples (more on that later). Another task also including finding a rock in a stream with probes attached to it. This probe tracks time and takes temperature readings every half an hour. Combining this data with the time lapse camera we can chart the melting of the melt water stream. Below is Alice and Chris excited after a fifteen minute search for the rock!

With lunch snuck in there somewhere, we finally round everyone up by 5 or 530 to start the commute home.

Once again, hopping in the boats, securing them at the other side of the lake, and a 45 minute hike gets us back just in time for dinner @ 7 PM.

After dinner we usually have plenty of data to go through, and before you know it it's almost 11:30 (the time of this post) and it's time for bed so we can repeat! I have found that it is useless trying to figure out which day of the week it is, because you only have so many days out in the field you have to make the most of it, so every day is a work day!

The weather has been fair. Almost reaching 50 a couple of days! Yesterday it rained, which combined with spending much of the time leaning over a boat and pulling up sediment traps that were overflowing with water everywhere made for a wet day to say the least.

That is all for now, I think I need to catch some sleep. Hopefully will get more pictures up in the coming days and have good news to report after coring my lake!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Polar Bear Alert!

Well we arrived at the Isfjord Radio Station mid-day on Thursday. Our luggage and gear had to go out in one boat, and we were sent out in the second. It is about an hour ride, and the waves definitely got us wet. Upon arrival we learned that a polar bear had been hanging around the last few days, and was even spotted climbing out of the garbage by the dock!

This morning as we were sorting through our gear and loading our packs to head out to the lake, the person who oversees people who stay out here came scambling out to tell us to keep back and come back closer. The bear was back, roaming the tundra a few hundred yards away. The site of him kept us entertained as well as delayed from departing for a good hour or two.

Getting out to the lake was great today. Temperatures really warmed up, we are pretty sure it was above 50 and when the wind wasn't blowing we were all shedding layers, even down to t-shirts at times. I will talk more about that later when I have the pictures uploaded to do it justice. Now it is back to meeting and discussing some of the data we downloaded from the camera's and weather stations that have been continuously running since last year's expedition was here.

Between the constant light of day and the lack of civilization I am finding that trying to figure out what day of the week it is is pointless. Tonight (Friday) will be much like any other night for the next 10 days. I must add before I leave that the food they serve here is delicious! Last night we had what looked like a shepherd's pie but when we dug in, there was salmon beneath. Stay tuned, more to come as we get our projects underway!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Update! Still in Longyearbyen (Svalbard's version of civilization)

Hello everyone!
I want to give a special thanks to my friend Steven Dodrill who works at a local radio station back home in Marshfield, Massachusetts. 95.9 FM WATD. He has posted a link to this blog on their website. So if any of you are just linking to this from there, welcome! Please be sure to scroll down and read my first post, I tried to give a semi-brief but informative post on where I am and what I will be doing. Feel free to post comments or questions at the bottom of my posts. I will do my best to answer any and all of them as they come.

I am taking advantage of some of the down time we are having before setting off on a boat to Kappe Linne (a 25 mile boat ride from here) where we will spend our 12 days in the field. Now by field, we won't actually be camping and living primitively. From what I hear, we have a chef who will cook us breakfast and have dinner ready every day we get back from the field.

We will be focusing our work on three main sites, Linnevatnet, Kongressvatnet and Linnebreen. Linne and Kongress are common names of the sites and the suffixes -vatnet stands for lake while -breen stands for glacier. More on that later as we get into the field and I get some actual photos to show you what we will be doing! Since we only have 12 days in the field, our work is a little limited, we can't do any long term monitorings of the lake and ice dynamics. However, since last season the lakes have been probed and monitored extensively.

One of the really neat things we will retrieve up there are photos from cameras that are fixed on a hill overlooking Linnevatnet and the glacier. Once a day at the same time it snaps a photo. When we get there, we can download the memory cards onto laptops and create a time-series video of how the glaciers have moved and the melting/forming of ice on the lake. Then combining the available data of local weather stations (we also have a handful of those set up around our sites) we can try and quantify ice movement and melting relating to temperature, sunlight, rainfall etc.

This morning we awoke to snow flying in the air and the mountains across the way that had glaciers in the valleys were covered with a dusting of snow! Supposedly last week it had reached 50 degrees, but no sign of that yet here!

Today we had to be trained on shooting a rifle and flare gun. Every group must carry them at all times, because an encounter with a polar bear although rare, can occur. I'll have you know that since 1995 of all the University led expeditions (approximately 15,000 people since then), there has only been the need to shoot and kill one bear.

After that we were taken out to the fjord (an inlet with steep sides created by glaciers), changed into wet suites (not your typical wet suites, very fancy and I presume expensive wet suites) that keep you almost 100% dry. With ocean temperatures around 40 degrees, you can actually stay warm in them for up to 24 hours if necessary. Hopefully this will be the last time I have to jump into the Arctic Ocean but at least I can say I did!

There are some other very interesting things I have learned about the island of Svalbard that maybe I will type up in a later post. For now, check out some of the pictures I have taken here! Hope you enjoy.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Arrived under the midnight sun!

I will keep this post short. We arrived here on Svalbard in the main village of Longyearbyen. We were all surprised by how many people fly up here daily, the 737 was almost full! What a long day of travel we had, including an 8 hour layover in Oslo. Most of us got out to enjoy the city, seeing Paliament and Frogner Park that is filled with sculptor from Vigeland of the early 1900s.

The weather here is cold (surprise, surprise). We were expecting to be able to retrieve our luggage in Oslo because of the 8 hour layover, which I planned for by wearing sandals on the plane with intentions of changing into shoes or boots before the final leg of our trip. When that didn't happen, getting off a plane in shorts and flip flops in just above freezing temperatures was quite the wake up call! I was much better prepared today, but the wind howls quite strongly through the valley. Hopefully I can upload some pictures by tomorrow, the landscape really is incredible, and I'm not sure that even pictures can do it justice. There is very little vegetation, and the slopes are incredibly steep.

Tomorrow we have safety training, rifles and flare guns, as well as cold water immersion. Apparently that is when they put us in thick waterproof suites of a sort, boat out into the ocean and make us jump off. Can't wait (until that is over with!).

Monday, July 13, 2009


Welcome and thanks for stopping by. Whatever it is that brought you here today, I hope you stick around the next few weeks and check in as I head to an island that is only about 600 miles from the physical North Pole of our planet. Where I will be is called Svalbard, and it is a group of islands under the rule of Norway since the 1920s. The sun has been up here since April 20th and will not set again until August 26th. The climate is arctic, with an annual tempearture average below freezing (approx 22 degrees). Lucky for me, it will be a balmy 40 degrees on average while I am there through late July and early August. For more information about where I am, I highly suggest you check out April's issue of National Geographic. A link to the full article is right here.

I should probably introduce myself. My name is David Vaillencourt, and I graduated from Whitman-Hanson in 2005, and headed to Bryant University to study business shortly thereafter. I soon realized that business was not my forte, and transferred to the Geology Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where I study Earth Systems, and will be graduating next May (2010). Here, we try to understand the large scale systems on our planet, and how they interact. This includes the: biosphere - life on land and the sea; atmosphere - weather and climate; hydrosphere - water in the oceans, air, and continents; and cryosphere - snow and ice-covered regions, as well as the impact of human activities on these systems. I will be using my knowledge, as well as the extensive knowledge of the professors accompanying us to carry out my research in Svalbard.

So why am I going, and what am I doing? In short, I will be studying climate variability of the arctic. If only it was that simple I could stop right there. More specifically, I will be looking at sediments from a lake to help determine what the climate has been like over the last several hundred areas in this remote region. Many lakes in the Arctic are known to be varved (which means that they have annual layers that one can easily recognize under a microscope, and sometimes even with the naked eye). This helps scientists easily date the sediments (the mud at the bottom of the lake) as you head deeper and deeper through the mud. You are probably asking yourself, well what good does that do to determine climate change?

Well there are many things you can do with this data, some more complex than others. One way is to measure the thickness of these varves. Think about being in the mountains of northern New England in the springtime. After a heavy winter snowfall, the warm spring sun melts this snow and the streams rage down the mountains into larger streams and rivers, and eventually into the many lakes and ponds of northern New England. On warmer days more snow melts and the greater energy created by this flow of water transports higher amount of sediments (as well as larger pieces of rocks) than when it is cold and not as much water flows. A lazy river may not move you very far if you sit in one, but a flooded river will certainly sweep you from your feet, think of rocks and other materials in the same way. Since it is so cold where I will be, these snowcaps and glaciers never fully melt so a simple argument is that when a warm summer occurred, you will see a larger influx of rock and clay material, and vice versa.

So maybe that makes sense but you are probably still wondering, who cares about a remote island near the north pole, I live here in the United States. Well, climate changes on a global scale and it has been shown that a small increase in temperature in temperate climates (where you and I live) is magnified in arctic regions. Furthermore, in the last 50 years sea ice has declined over 20%, and that leads to increases in the sea levels as well as a host of other changes that will undoubtedly affect us in the decades to come. But I am not here to talk about global warming, or the politics or debates of it. I'm here to tell you of my experience in an arctic island where Polar Bears and reindeer vastly outnumber people. I will be working with six other undergraduates as well as two highly regarded professor's in our field. Our days will be long, hiking an hour each way over rugged terrain to reach the lakes and glaciers that we will be studying, but I am told that I'm in for an extremely rewarding experience. As often as I can, I will update this blog, hopefully with some pictures of the landscape and equipment we will be using. For now I will leave you with a list of a few websites to check out if you are further interested in our research:

Please feel free to leave comments or ask questions. I will do my best to respond to them.