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


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

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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