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ICESCAPE scientists scan Arctic seas for melt ponds, “frazil,” “grease” and “pancake”

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Haley Smith Kingsland in the Arctic

Editor’s Note: Haley Smith Kingsland is an Earth systems master’s student at Stanford University specializing in science communication. For five weeks she’s in the land of no sunsets participating in ICESCAPE, a NASA-sponsored research cruise to investigate the effects of climate change on the Chukchi and Bering seas. This is her second blog post for Scientific American.

When ICESCAPE Co-chief Scientist Don Perovich of the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory conducts an ice watch, he scans for formation types like frazil, shuga, grease and pancake. He identifies sizes like brash and ice cake, and speaks in lingo like finger rafting, lead and polyna. And then from a high vantage point he and his team select the perfect floe for their experiments. "It’s always a total comedy skit," Don says, to distinguish one from another.

For days I’d peered over the port side as the sea ice scientists carefully tiptoed down the sharp descent of the brow, Chris Polashenski and Don Perovich at melt pond in Arcticdressed in helmets and dry suits before the equipment sleds. I watched as they became little dots on a smooth floe coated with blue-gray melt ponds along the curvature of the earth. Some were drilling with a vertical auger spiraled like a dragon’s back. They’d lower sampling bottles on a string into the new hole to collect water at different depths. Others were sending sensors outstretched like elbows beneath the sea ice to measure its optical properties. I saw vibrant instruments—golden battery boxes, red cords, silver surface references shaped like tripods. My eyes caught dozens of blue hues on the sea ice due to its scattering and absorption of sunlight.

One day, I too disembarked for an ice station: On-Ice Deployment Number Six. In an orange mustang survival suit and fanny pack brimming with camera lenses, I felt giddy looking back at our floating home. Parked in a floe over which the night before had stretched a fog bow, the Healy was so large it wouldn’t fully fit into my viewfinder.

I followed the Coast Guard rescue swimmer with a yellow noodle strapped around his chest. We marched across a thin stream of water that had originated in one melt pond and was trying to reach the ocean. I was a piece in a board game, shuffling along a clearly defined course, until we arrived at an aqua melt pond so clear we must have landed in the tropics.

Harnessed to a Coast Guard rescue leash and sporting knee-high camouflage laced boots, Don’s graduate student Chris Polashenski stepped into the melt pond. He positioned a brown cylindrical ice corer about half his body height to churn through the sea ice like a giant screw. The scene looked straight out of Candy Land as the orange ridges of the corer—a hard candy stick—swirled through the melt pond, the color of blue raspberry syrup, against a backdrop of mounds of ice like sugar. The hollow Chris Polashenski and Don Perovich at Arctic melt pondcore barrel trapped an intact slice that Chris slid out, cut into pieces, and bottled in sample jars corresponding to different depths. His research will determine how sea ice underneath melt ponds prevents ice water from draining into the ocean. The precise hole the core left looked like a dilated pupil surrounded by an eyeball of ice rings descending at each depth.

I listened to the corer boring, the saw scraping and the hushed interactions between scientists. Wind whirred against the cone-shaped ice jutting from the melt pond, forms that reminded me of faceless gnomes wearing tall hats bunched above their ears. My eyes watered in their reflection and my cheeks flushed pink.

Images: Haley Smith Kingsland, credit Luke Trusel; Chris Polashenski and Don Perovich, credit Haley Smith Kingsland; Chris Polashenski and Don Perovich, credit Haley Smith Kingsland

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  1. 1. tygereye50 7:16 pm 07/4/2010

    Haley Smith, you are quite a writer. I thoroughly enjoyed your short article. Scientific American needs to hold on to you.

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  2. 2. cdenton7 8:07 pm 07/4/2010

    werecoyote it is true that the earth was once warmer than it is today, and that humans were not present at that time. For the very reason that humans were not alive at that time, we do not know if humans can survive the same conditions as the earth once experienced without humans on it. It might be to hot to survive. It might be too hot to grow food. The truth is we do not know. Scientifically, greenhouse gases causing the earth to warm makes sense.

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  3. 3. Werecoyote 12:05 am 07/5/2010

    Forbarers of humans must of survived if they hadnt we would not have the global warming.

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  4. 4. country boy 12:16 am 07/5/2010

    When we as ascertain the cause of the earth’s temperature fluctuations in the past I will entertain anthropomorphic reasoning’s for the current fluctuations. Remember Ockham’s razor if applied to the weather changes and we first conceder the tenants o f uniformitarianism in that what caused the changes in the past prior to mans influence is the most likely and simplest reason for what’s happening now.

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  5. 5. LGlennL 12:55 am 07/5/2010

    What could be wrong with studying the effects of global warming? Thankfully some curious minds are trying understand.

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  6. 6. ecozapperhalter 5:05 am 07/5/2010

    The present ecosystem has worked along with the very slow gradualism of Continental drift, many other subtle forces, and climate change, occuring over a very long, long time period. The problem now is that man’s ability to change that environment has out paced/speeded up the relatively slow processes of a very old earth. The Machine age along with it many technolgies , coupled with greedy self interst, raises the real possibility we are changing things way too fast. Shouldn’t it be studied ? Or are some afraid to face the consequences of what may be coming due to man’s recent interference ; his lack of foresight? A state of constant denial is counter productive for man’s survival.

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  7. 7. LenMan 9:49 am 07/5/2010

    it doesn’t matter if humans are the cause of global warming or not. the fact is – things around us are changing, and we are doing comparatively nothing to help decelerate that process.

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  8. 8. MCMalkemus 9:58 am 07/5/2010

    Your reasoning while commendable, is flawed. Mouse sized mammals might survive quite well in environments that would easily kill us.

    Here’s question for you: If humans are not responsible for any portion of global warming, even though they pour a vast amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, what is the cause of arctic melting, which doesn’t follow the 50-70 year cycle of warming/cooling.

    Is it just a coincidence, or is there another reason.

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  9. 9. country boy 9:02 pm 07/5/2010

    Has anyone here studied geology in greater depth than earth science 101? When examining changes in the earth in geologic terms many if not most people talk of average rates of change. For example if you are examining a strata of xxx thickness and it formed over 1,000,000 years many assume an average annual rate of .xxx per year and it appears to be a very gradual change this is rarely the case . The norm is usually catastrophic change and not gradual. Such as volcanoes, floods, drought, and mudslides and in biological systems famine, plagues, disease, evasion etc think the dinosaur’s asteroid or Native Americans ands small pox. Both had massive impact I a short period of time , catastrophic change is the norm.

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  10. 10. robert schmidt 9:14 pm 07/5/2010

    @country boy, "what caused the changes in the past prior to mans influence is the most likely and simplest reason for what’s happening now", if you would allow yourself to see evidence that does not confirm your biases, then you would know that those other causes have been ruled out. Furthermore, Occam’s Razor does not imply that a past cause of a phenomenon must be assumed to be the present cause. Your comment is like saying that a person lying dead with a bullet hole in his head must have died of natural causes because people died of natural causes in the past. A cause must be determined scientifically, not by default. Occam’s razor would apply to two competing theories with equivalent evidence but different complexity. The causes of today’s climate change are quite clear to all but those with an agenda. For those people there will never be enough evidence because their beliefs aren’t based on evidence. But, if you are so certain that you are right then why don’t you do some research and publish a paper instead of trolling science sites? Or is spreading propaganda your only objective?

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  11. 11. tulcak 9:13 am 07/6/2010

    @countryboy: the geologic history does not show anywhere the incredibly large amount of CO2 in the atmosphere that exists today… never. we have calculated the amount of CO2 that human activity and harvesting of resources have pumped into the air. to dismiss the obvious link between the two is a monumental case of selective observation to fit one’s own pre-conceived theory. to want to preserve your world-view and ideology at the expense of rational examination of the facts is, in my opinion, a yet to be defined mental illness.

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  12. 12. jack.123 5:53 pm 07/7/2010

    I seem to remember reading about a mass extinction event some 251 million years ago or so where CO’2 were much higher than now,high enough in fact to produce heat enough to release much of the methane in the oceans.

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  13. 13. mike cook 8:05 pm 07/7/2010

    Only 10,000 yrs ago a sudden onset little ice age may have helped kill off the dire wolf, the sabretooth tiger, and the mammoth. Sudden onset little ice ages (SOLIAs) happen because, well, we don’t really know but the truth seems to be that the future of the Earth is to be colder, even returning to true ice ages for very long periods.

    As to how chilled humans desperate for protein killed off beasts that were much larger and physically fiercer than the average human, we used our brain. The way for four guys to kill a mammoth using only one spear is for two guys to stand in front of the mammoth and distract it by shouting and waving their arms. The other two ambush the mammoth from the rear. One raises the tail, the other jabs in the spear in the animal’s defenceless anus about four feet.

    Then the humans run away and wait for about three days while the animal dies. Then they feast. Killing wolves and sabre tooth tigers is trickier, but humans had no problem in attracting such creatures because humans themselves were the bait. It was a matter of building traps and snares, or of simply outnumbering the attackers.

    At any rate, some humans survived SOLIAs and some probably don’t. Extinction events just aren’t fair whenever they roll around, and they do roll around just when you least expect them.

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  14. 14. ennui 3:52 pm 07/8/2010

    How deep did they drill? Was it all solid ice or did they reach water?

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