First Impressions

Following up on my last blog post (about culture) I thought I’d start this post with a quote. In the epic words of the Rolling Stones “you can’t always get what you want.”

I’m in Monterey Bay, California right now doing some fieldwork with my friend and colleague Dave Cade (a PhD student at Stanford) and as the quote alluded field work is filled with surprises.

I came down to help Dave tag humpback whales as part of his dissertation work with Jeremy Goldbogen on humpback whale kinesthetics and foraging ecology. Admittedly my interest is this visit is three-fold.  First, I wanted to see my buddy Dave.  Dave and I have worked together a long time and have been attempting to collaborate on project since we finished up our M.S. degrees in OSU’s College of Earth Oceans and Atmospheric Science. Second, I needed some training on tagging whales in preparation for my own fieldwork. As an addendum to my already rich PhD research I’ve been designing a tagging playback experiment that I am piloting with Dave’s help this summer from my favorite Five Finger Lighthouse. This July we’ll be playing back social sounds (Whups and Feeding Calls) to humpback whales in Frederick Sound.  The ultimate goal is to play sounds to tagged whales, so we can assess dive responses (should there be any), changes in foraging behavior, and of course, approach and avoidance behavior. We’ll also have a hydrophone in the water to document any acoustic responses from our focal animal.  It seemed wise to me to actually participate in a tagging event prior to trying to pull this off.  Lastly, I’m getting close to finishing up my PhD at Oregon State, and I’m trying to spread my wings and collaborate with more labs, institutes, and groups to see where my next few years as an acoustic ecologist might take me. A trip to visit my friend Dave at Stanford seemed like a great start.

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This July we will conduct playbacks to whales in the vicinity of the Five Finger Lighthouse. This island is nestled in Frederick Sound, Southeast Alaska. One of the world’s most productive humpback whale foraging grounds.

One of the folks I’ve been eager to meet is John Calambokidis, founder and research biologist of the Cascadia Research Institute.   Cascadia is a non-profit organization that is, in my estimation, the best example of non-profit research in the United States.  They successfully couple research of scientific merit with applied management implications. Further, they do so with humor, grace, and (from my outward eye and by their reputation), real concern for the environment. From this description, one can glean my excitement to introduce myself to John.

Well, spoiler alert, this weekend hasn’t gone as smoothly as I’d hoped. In part, I’m sitting in a coffee shop right now writing this. I am not tagging whales. Yesterday, despite our greatest efforts, we did not tag whales. We also did not run echo sounders or fly drones. In the words of my friend Dave Cade “it was a bust”. For me though, this weekend  was more than a bust.  Prepare yourself for the story I will tell for the rest of my life when someone asks me about my most embarrassing moment.

It’s about 8:15 a.m. We have seen, but not successfully tagged any of the humpback whales milling about Monterey Bay. I’ve not fallen on my face, said anything offensive, or made myself look overly confident while working on our 9 meter open air rigid hull inflatable. This should be easy enough. I’ve done fieldwork in Alaska, Hawaii, Antarctica, and the Oregon Coast. I spent months of my life living and working on boats. Not looking like a fool on the water should have been a given.

Now it’s 8:45 a.m., and we are a little further from shore. The swell has rolled in and, despite a lack of wind chop, the boat is noticeably rising and falling in the 8-13 foot rollers. At this point John begins to ask me about my research. We’ve met once before and he’s somewhat familiar with what I do. For whatever reason, however, I’m unable to articulately respond. This, for those of you who know me, should come as a surprise. Articulate is my secret middle name. It’s my tiny super power. It’s what I rely on when I am feeling foolish, lost or uncomfortable, and at 8:45 a.m., for whatever reason, my super power is gone, my brain, fuzzy, my mouth dry, my tongue uncoordinated. John continues, politely, to ask me about my work and as I worked through the rubber in my mouth to respond I realized something. My only option is, as politely as possible, to raise my hand ask John Calambokidis to please wait a moment, so I may vomit over the side of the vessel. Repeatedly.

There it is. Networking.

Moreover, as it turns out the simple act of talking turned out to be the trigger. So over the course of the day (we did stay on the water) every time I attempted to have more than a four word conversation, I’d have to politely excuse myself to throw up. Repeatedly. How can I speak more plainly: talking to John the founder and director of the Cascadia Research Institute, made me vomit. #NeverGettingHiredAnywhere.

To add insult to injury, we didn’t tag any whales yesterday. The behavior of the animals, possibly in combination with rising afternoon winds, and we couldn’t quite seal the deal. The drone pilot who’d been scheduled to join us on the water took a page out of my book and – not having a reputation as a seamen to uphold – asked to be returned to shore before he tossed his cookies. For me though, to add injury to injury my sensitive tummy didn’t let up until this morning, two hours after Dave and company left without me on flat calm waters to go tag whales again. I won’t go into the fine scale details of why I couldn’t go out today (I would have been happy to spend the day throwing up on the side of the boat again if it would salvage my poor reputation), but it suffices to say that while one can maintain some grace while vomiting over the side of the boat, if the tummy problems manifest in a different form… one should stay home.

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The view of windless, flat calm, Monterey Bay.

So here I am, at a lovely coffee shop in Monterey Bay, trying to imagine how I may have better prepared for this trip to avoid such calamities. There are some options, certainly, but none of them obvious or foolproof. So what I am left with instead is not how to avoid this situation in the future (I will inevitably be sea-sick again), but how to handle my current situation with as much grace as possible.

This, dear readers, is where I (as always) return to the esoteric. I once believed that in life I had, at the very least, control over my actions, my words, and my body. As it turns out, this weekend I relinquished that control to the ocean; and, if I think broadly, that is where the balance of power rightfully belongs.

So, rather than fight the literal movement of nature, I am left instead seeking grace. Grace is found in humility. Humility found in humor. So rather than crawl in a hole and cry, I’m here. Writing this.

My strengths are not in successful networking. The word makes me uncomfortable. When asked to put my “best foot forward” I have a tendency to take a step backwards. Forgiveness, on the other hand, and sincerity, these are my strengths. So, today I tell my ego to take a few days rest. I forgive the ocean for exposing my weaknesses and begin mentally drafting the email I’ll send to John Calambokidis next time I want to talk about collaborations.  It will start: “Dear John, you may remember me as the girl that vomited repeatedly from your boat. I was wondering if you’d be interested in collaborating on an acoustics project?”

The Season is Officially… over.

The 2016 Alaskan field season is officially over. I can drag my feet and hang my head all I want, but the acoustic and behavioral data collection for 2016 is done and the process of studying for my comprehensive exams is in full swing (I’m taking a short break from outlining the management procedures of the IWC to write this blog). Admitting that I will not wake to the sound of humpback whales breathing outside my tent is a tough reality. Going a day without seeing a seal or an otter has been harder than I expected, but I realize it is time to say goodbye.

This summer was challenging, for various reasons. Year two, I think, always is. Expectations are variable, hopes run high, and the delicious satisfaction that comes with problem solving doesn’t always happen. The problems are already solved.

Despite this, the 2016 field season remains the most lucrative of my career , with hundreds of hours of data collection and a total of nearly a thousand surveys to compliment the anticipated 3,000 hours of recordings. I learned a great deal about nature, humanity, and myself, and I have high hopes that our scientific efforts will be fruitful! Further, I deepened some of my most valuable relationships (scientifically and personally) which colleagues that intend to keep for a lifetime.

But my writing this blog post doesn’t adequately paint the picture of what life felt like on the island, or why we study what we study. PBS, however, has done a pretty nice job of doing that for us. So I encourage you to watch the five-minute film below. It was produced by PBS and Alaska public media, but really it’s the brainchild of Hanna Gomes.  She did a really nice job capturing our world of Strawberry Island. I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye.

Watch and Listen

My broken heart limped off of Strawberry Island a few weeks ago on a day when the fog was too thick to permit my sentimental heart watch the island fade into the distance. But while our field season on the island had come to an end, my field work for the summer was not quite complete.

My work in Glacier Bay studying humpback whale acoustics is partially based on my previous work conducted from the Five Finger Lighthouse. I’m interested in comparing the two regions (both the soundscapes and the behaviors of the whales themselves), as we have historic population and acoustics information from both regions dating back to the late 1980’s (Thank you Malme and Miles! Thank you Scott Baker!). To get the ball rolling on this comparison I made my way to the Five Finger Lighthouse for a short 10 day foray into “late season acoustic behavior”.

I don’t have anything definitive to report, except that the team of volunteers who have been working on maintaining my favorite historic structure have been hard at work, and that the whales were abundant beyond my wildest dreams. If Glacier Bay is indicative of high quality interactions with individual humpback whales (remember Cervantes), than Frederick Sound is a strong argument for quantity over quality. In this, my tenth summer spent with Alaskan humpbacks, I finally broke the record for highest concentration of animals in a single area. Don’t believe me? Watch the short clip below and see a glimpse of the 40+animals milling around the region. Once you’re done watching, listen to the sound file to get an idea of what these animals were saying when this video was filmed. In my humble opinion, it is in this pairing of sight and sound that we begin to understand.

Watch

Listen

(These videos and recordings  were collected  under a research permit and with zoom lenses. Endangered or not it is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards, to alter the behavior of an animal, or to recklessly operate a vessel — even a kayak– in the presence of humpback whales). 

Three down one to go

Well folks, furlough has come to a close and it’s time to return to the island for Stint 4. This will be the last sampling period for the Acoustic Spyglass Project and as I sit here in Bartlett Cove I’m torn between sentimentality, gratitude, and the practical indifference that comes from knowing that while the end is near, this field season isn’t over yet. 

Transitions can be tricky (consider the life of a whale researcher studying migrating whales!), but they are valuable. The next 8 days give us a last chance to watch deeply and see if it is only us, the researchers, who are wrapping up the season, or to see if perhaps the wildlife is also shifting as late summer approaches. 

Fingers crossed we are attentive enough to notice.

The first group photo of Stint 4

Incumbent

There was a point in the not too distant past when the mayor of the small town of Gustavus also ran the landfill. The mayor position is a one year gig, today Paul continues to run the landfill. After leaving his political career behind he seems content to talk about recycling (if you meet him ask him about co-mingling), and to be exuberantly invested in his town. While I didn’t get the chance to ask him if his time spent as mayor changed how he viewed Gustavus, I am certain it changed his body of knowledge about his community.

This is, in many ways, how I view returning to Strawberry Island – as an incumbent mayor who has been recently elected to a second term. Our initial field team was tasked with establishing a small (and ephemeral) community on Strawberry Island; our little peninsula consisted of five human citizens, approximately 30 humpback whale citizens, and a large un-censused population of voles, birds, and of course harbor seals. The structure we established during our first term in office is holding up well — protocols are streamlined, our tasks are efficiently assigned and completed, our well oiled machine was restarted with relative ease. But there is a tacit anticipation that this year on the island we will accomplish more, grow more, and see more than we saw last year.

But I’m not much of a politician really; my goal is not to out-do 2015 but to strive to be as humbled by this year’s field season as we were by last year’s field season. So how do we do that?

Well, so far life is peppered with heaps of humpback whales (we had a day with 10-15 whales in the survey area and another 10 or so just out of sight), sunset kayaks, sunrise surveys, and visitors to break bread with on the island. Our oyster catchers are alive and well, and though I can’t confirm, I think they may be nesting. The harbor porpoise have calved and are regularly visitors to our island cove. In short, life on the island is bustling.

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We arrived on the island just as the whales moved into the area. (photo credit: L. Matthews)

In slightly sadder news, this year a Glacier Bay whale nicknamed Festus was found dead in the water. Two of our team members, Luke and myself were able to participate in the necropsy of this well known animal. Festus was among the first (if not the first) humpback whale to be ID’ed in Glacier Bay. He was first photographed in 1972, and has been a regular inhabitant of the Park ever since. It’s difficult to say at this point if his death was tragic, or whether it was simply time, but my hope is that the samples we were able to extract and the evidence that we gathered on the beach last week will help solve the mystery of his death.

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Luke and I had the privilege of spending a day with an amazing necropsy team.

Thought the event was sad (I described it as feeling like a funeral for someone who made you so happy you that giggle through their service despite yourself), our necropsy team was inspiring. In the company of Glacier Bay’s humpback whale monitoring team (Chris, Janet, and Lou), bear biologist Tania (talk about women in science!), BC based veterinarian Stephen (nicest man ever, even when covered in whale blood), and the slew of Gustavus-folk who just happened to show up (Of course, when you need an MD most she and her entire family of science minded enthusiasts will be camping nearby)!

I realize as I’m wrapping this up that I’m not really doing our first few weeks in the field justice; maybe it’s because I’m exhausted, or possibly the allure of Gustavus on the Fourth of July has my mind wandering. What I did learn last year is that the photos never do it justice, the stories always miss the details, and that even the mayor needs the day off from time to time.

Making a splash in the world of marine mammals

*Guest Post By Lucas Williams*

Hello friends,

Those who’ve been gracious enough to check out my blog are likely aware that I spent last summer in Glacier Bay, Alaska as a field tech under the mentorship of Michelle Fournet (Miche). Well, I am happy to announce that I’m doing it all over again. I will be returning to my home away from home, Strawberry island, for the summer of 2016.

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Oh yeah, I’m back baby

I get to go back out into the field this summer to practice some ‘hands on’ science (not to mention experience some of the best camping this world has to offer for 3 months), but my school year has also been filled with science. There’s just been a lot more numbers involved, and lots of maps.

Before I joined everyone in Alaska last summer, Michelle and I sat down several times before the field season started to discuss potential thesis projects I could do using the data we would collect. My original idea was to investigate sound shadow usage by humpback whales in Glacier Bay. Sound acts as a wave, and similarly to light, can be blocked or dampened by obstructive objects. I was going to use the spatial data we collected to determine if humpback whales were foraging/traveling more frequently in sound shadows created by the topography and bathymetry of the survey area, and compare densities in sound shadow areas depending on level of water vessel traffic. Unfortunately, the whole survey area was essentially one large sound shadow, making any kind of comparison on the local scale largely pointless.

So, my original project was bust. But, with plenty of guidance from Michelle, I was able to craft an even better thesis project. I decided to investigate corridor usage by humpback whales. This eventually evolved into my current thesis project, eloquently titled “Local scale habitat use by humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) on a Southeast Alaskan foraging ground”. I’m looking at how whales use their forage grounds on a smaller scale to minimize energy expenditure while maximizing foraging intake.

I’ve made a lot of progress on this research, but not without learning several things I was told but certainly didn’t know until I experienced them myself. Those included:

  1. You never get everything right on the first try when it comes to writing a scientific paper
  2. Spreadsheets are an underappreciated form of art (yes I said it)
  3. A lot of data analysis is actually just learning how to use software
  4. ArcGIS is a sentient program that feeds off the frustration of innocent and naïve users.
  5. Finding a good mentor is like receiving a gift that just keeps on giving

This all lead to this previous weekend where I gave a 15 minute presentation of my project’s current results at the Northwest Student Society of Marine Mammals conference in Seattle. Not only are conferences a lot more fun than I anticipated (scientists are cool) but the presentation itself served as my first formal introduction to the marine mammal world. It wasn’t a huge hello, more like a friendly wave, but it felt like real progress.

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A density heat map representing traveling whales in the survey area. Notice the bright green corridor in the center

Whether I end up becoming a professional marine mammal scientist is still up in the air. If you had told me last year that I would be presenting legitimate scientific results at a conference before heading off to a field season in Alaska I would have laughed in your face. But here I am. I don’t exactly know what’s in store for the future, but I’m damn excited. Here’s to another awesome year that I fully expect will challenge me in all new ways.

I’m going to make a more concerted effort this summer to bring more content to this blog as the season progresses, and you can expect another post from me in the near future.

Cheers!

Luke

Find Your Park

The marine forecast is calling for 25-knot winds and 5-foot seas in Glacier Bay National Park today. Yesterday, when we were tightening the last nylocks on our hydrophone landers, and working out the last details of our array deployment, folks were pretty keen to remind us that the weather was going to kick up. I decided not to be nervous, what’s the point.

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Clockwise from upper right: Snacks, Kenya, Bumblebee, and Bruiser.  The hydrophones that listen where we cannot. 

Today in the rain and the fog we put four instruments, that our team has literally pour blood sweat and tears into, into the ocean for a second year. Aside from one overactive buoy on the final drop (I turned to Chris and said, “My only concern is about that buoy.” I should have listened to my gut sooner), our day went smoothly and quickly – despite the persistent drizzle and fog dancing on deck. Our efficient little team completed the deployment by 10:45am. Plenty of time for a quick visit to Strawberry Island, and a boat ride home, all before the weather hit. Unlike last year, where we hooted and hollered our victory, this year the boat ride back was subdued. I didn’t dance a victory dance, I sighed a blissful sigh of relief.

Want to know something though? The best part of today wasn’t getting the hydrophones in the water (though long term, I’m certain that’s what I’ll be most grateful for), the best part was seeing the harbor porpoise sipping air off the port side of our deployment vessel, watching the bull sea lion growl with his huge mouth agape, and spotting the seals and birds diving after the same schools of small fish. I love our hydrophones – don’t get me wrong. I’ve slept with them next to my bed at night, kissed their housings, and whispered sweet nothings to them. I love them most, however, because they give me the motivation, the inspiration, and the permission to be outside here in Glacier Bay.

The National Park Service is having its centennial anniversary this year. It has been one hundred years since the intrinsic value of our wild places was recognized, and protected for no other reason than to ensure its persistence. Being a part of this legacy is something that I can’t quite put words too. Joining the ranks of my mentors, past and present, and contributing to what we know about and how we interact with the natural world with forever be one of my greatest achievements. I’m fortunate enough to stand in the footsteps of giants; for me, however, those footsteps were carved out by the journey of glaciers moving through this landscape well before I was born. Footsteps that have become the ocean home to the animals that I love, and the backdrop to the science that I create.

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Staged and almost ready to go on the dock in Bartlett Cove. Our equipment prep was completed in the company of otters, eagle, and Bonaparte gulls happily cackling

Technology enables me to listen to a world I otherwise cannot hear, but it is the sound of the ocean butting up against the islands that brought me to acoustics in the first place. We human tool users are ingenious in finding ways to solve problems and answer questions. Places like Glacier Bay, however, are essential for inspiring the questions in the first place.

One hundred years. That’s not a trivial tenure. How many times over the past 100 years have you visited a National Park? If you’ve never been, let this be the year that you find your park. I’ve certainly found mine.

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The view from Strawberry Island, overlooking our hydrophone array: Glacier Bay National Park

 

 

 

Failing Gracefully

It’s been big year; there have been many successes and a few failures. Most recently Leanna, David and I flew to Glacier Bay National Park (#FindYourPark) to deploy the four elements in our hydrophone array, and we failed. We were not able to deploy any of our instruments. We did however, fail gracefully.

Poise under pressure is something that I learned from ice; I was recently reminded of this when we were in Juneau (my unofficial hometown) standing in front of the Mendenhall Glacier, which I’ve seen a thousand times before. It took cold, pressure, and time to make that glacier. In the Juneau spring light the glacier glistens like the gemstone it is. When I’m under pressures I strive to transform myself the same way glaciers do, with grace and quiet poise.

We were, in large part, capable of this during our failed deployment trip. Steadfast in her optimism Leanna kept us moving forward from solution to solution, and true to my glacial training I think I kept up with cool head and rational mind. While we were disappointed that we could not fix our broken hydrophones in time to meet out deployment schedule, we were never actually ‘stressed’ about the decision. It was clear that the decision not to deploy was the right one. Better not to put our precious ears into the water now, then to pull them up in October and discover they haven’t been listening.

What happened?  It’s small and technical, but it had to do with using a 9-volt battery to do a job that it wasn’t big enough to do. A simple mistake in a complicated process, one that may have been avoided if perhaps I’d had more experience programming hydrophones in PicoDos- but then how do we gain experience if not by doing things for the first time? I could point fingers, place blame, or beat myself up, but where’s the poise in that?

So Leanna and I are headed back to Alaska next week to try again. I hope we don’t fail a second time, but if we do I’m confident we’ll learn something along the way, and that the whales and seals will not stop calling as a result.

Antarctica Part VII- Mission Accomplished!

I’m happy to report (I’ll be it a bit late) that the OBH (Ocean Bottom Hydrophone… for those of you just joining us) has been safely recovered! It is now snugly packed on board the R/V Araon and prepared for transport back to NOAA. Our first attempt to contact our instrument was a success (we sang to it, it sang back… how I love acoustics); however, the glorious sunshine that graced us during our recovery was unfortunately accompanied by 45-knot winds. The ship, which is large and generally stable, pitched in the wind. Our instrument is robust, but not unbreakable, and requires hoisting onto the deck via an onboard winch once it appears at the oceans surface. This translates to a lot of potential swinging – particularly in choppy seas. As usual the crew of the R/V Araon did not disappoint. They recommended a delay, and the recovery was postponed.

Brett and his "beard-cap".  Who says scientists don't have a sense of humor?

Brett and his “beard-cap”. Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor?

What was not postponed, however, was our end of research cruise celebration. Despite the delay our research team was treated to a feast! Korean wine, sashimi and tempura, even chocolate cakes were served. We ate until we could not eat any more, and made merry in the mess hall until our sides split from laughing (ok, there may have been some dancing in the lounge as well, a cap with a beard knit into it, and Christmas carols). It was a glorious way to celebrate the ‘almost end of cruise’.

While the following day’s 8 AM recovery seemed early given the night’s festivities, the entire operation went off without incident. Our instrument appeared as predicted after the release command was sent, and the crew deftly maneuvered her onboard (despite another pick up in the wind). For me, the moment was one of blissful relief. This was my first large-scale recovery (of what I hope will be many). This trip was a gift and an opportunity, to successfully accomplish my mission was glorious. Further, the anticipation for seeing the instrument when she appeared from ~1000 m depth had been building for months. When it was finally placed on board I completely forgot about the lack of sleep. It was amazing. I was struck by how little bio-fouling took place (although admittedly the instrument was well beyond the photic zone), other than a thin film and what appeared to be a handful of deep water limpets.

Hydrophone recovery attempt #1- notice the white caps in the background?

Hydrophone recovery attempt #1- notice the white caps in the background?

By comparison, the OBS (Ocean Bottom Seismometer) recovery was significantly more dramatic.  Two OBS’s were deployed last year, both locations are currently covered in ice.  To recover our instruments the R/V Araon’s ice breaking capabilities were put into full use.  The ship was used to break, and then clear, a hole in the ice directly above where the OBS was deployed.  Nature abhors a vacuum, so as soon as the ice was cleared (which took hours) it would quickly drift back into position.  Despite this, the ship’s captain managed to clear an opening in the ice about the size of a small lake.  this required copious amounts of circular ice breaking, the ship track lines were dizzying.  The operation, however, was brilliantly executed.  The OBS was released directly into the center of the clearing (much to our relief).

Overall we successfully recovered one OBS, one OBH, deployed ~20 CTD casts (more if you consider that at times we deployed two separate instruments), and we successfully deployed to 500 m oceanographic mooring. Most of this was done in close proximity to the Drygalski Ice Tongue, which lived up in full to its reputation.

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The Drygalski Ice Tongue, just prior to the OBS recovery

 

While our team was able to ride the euphoria of a successful mission for some time, I must admit the days following the end of the cruise were hard. Brett, the Kiwi scientist from NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmosphere) joined us on the Araon for the duration of the cruise, but would not sail back with us. Similarly to our Italian colleagues Brett left via helicopter and disappeared across the ice. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that in a landscape that exists at such a large scale, that relationships here are formed so quickly. It’s a silly metaphor but I suppose this is not altogether unlike the ice  itself, which freezes quickly (pancake ice anyone?), but has the potential to stay intact for many years. In any case we returned to the mouth of Terra Nova bay and bid a rushed goodbye to our dear friend. I hope he makes it home in time for Christmas.

Our research team (minus photographer Brett) enjoying Korean barbeque.

Our research team (minus photographer Brett) enjoying Korean barbeque.

As for the rest of our team? We’ll spend Christmas on the ship. We should be back in Lyttelton, New Zealand by December 27th, and will disembark shortly therafter. For now, we have a new group of Korean scientists on the ship. They have been at Jang Bogo for various durations, some only a week, others as much as a year! Additionally, we have a new group of Italian scientists from Mario Zuchelli Station who are in transit home. I’d thought my Italian lessons were over… I suppose we’ll have to see.

 

More on Christmas and the northbound transit soon!

 

Your Antarctic Correspondent,

Michelle

 

**Disclaimer — This post was written a few days ago… but due to lack of internet I wasn’t able to post it. Stay tuned for notes on how Christmas turned out, and what our return to New Zealand looked like**

 

 

 

 

Antarctica the Day After Tomorrow: Part Three

The day after tomorrow we will arrive in icy waters on the R/V Araon. It will take another few days to break through the ice and arrive at the Jang Bogo. The overarching mission of the KOPRI project is to investigate ice dynamics in the Ross Sea/ Terra Nova Bay region, with particular interest in the Drygalvski Ice Tongue. We’ve just entered Antarctic waters (we passed the 60 degree parallel late last night), and we’re getting closer.

An interlude: there is a lot of time to burn on the ship. Most people spend time working (I’m writing my dissertation proposal, and processing data for my first manuscript) but in the evenings, after our daily science meeting, we watch movies. Last night we watched “The Day After Tomorrow”. The premise of the movie is far fetched- paleoclimatologist (Dennis Quaid) predicts a catastrophic climactic shift 100-1000 years in the future and it actually takes place instantaneously in the next 48 hours. Due to the melting of Antarctica the earth’s ocean has become desalinized, the Gulf Stream has cooled, and climate goes haywire throwing us into an instantaneous ice age.

Is it possible? To the best of my scientific knowledge- no. However, there’s an interesting line in the movie when Dennis Quaid (NOAA scientist) asserts, “We know that Antarctica has been melting, but no one knows how much fresh water it puts into the ocean, or understands anything about ice dynamics!” Evidently the entire fiasco could have been avoided if we just knew more about Antarctic ice!

Well, the movie had it way off, but they got one thing close to right. We are investigating ice dynamics in Antarctica. The NOAA-Pacific Marine Environmental Lab (PMEL) is part of an integrated effort to understand just that -ice dynamics in Antarctica. The hydrophone that I’m sent to recover for PMEL (in cooperation with KOPRI) has been listening to the sound of shifting ice. If you are unaware that ice makes noise, well you have been missing one of life’s great sound effects. While I haven’t had the chance to listen to Antarctic sea ice you may remember from a previous blog post that I was part of a team that analyzed a years worth of acoustic data from the Arctic where winter sea ice abounds. The sea ice sings, wheezes, moans, cracks, and whirs. It sounds like an abiotic opera, and could easily be the character in a science fiction movie (Marvin the Martian was a Bearded seal… remember? Well, perhaps Sea Ice is his alien companion?).

But these squeaks, wheezes, and moans are more than the musical byproducts of ice- they are data. Sound can be used to infer the state of the ice, whether it is melting, moving, or quaking. In short, similar to using passive acoustic monitoring to understand ecosystem dynamics of baleen whale species, we can also use passive acoustic monitoring to understand something about polar ice dynamics. And if Dennis Quaid has taught us anything it’s that ignoring Antarctic sea ice could destroy Manhattan, this weekend (well… maybe not). More likely, understanding Antarctic ice dynamics will give us critical information linked to sea level rise and shifting climactic regimes. Not quite as sexy as destroying Manhattan- but equally as important.

Over and Out.

Your Antarctic Correspondent, Michelle

 

PS- Did I mention we passed the 60 Degree Parallel! I’m at the bottom of the world!