Friday, April 13, 2012

Let the science begin...

Last night, Tony and Eric from UMIAQ picked up our team of seven scientists and technical staff at the Barrow airport. A new truck and a large passenger van awaited us, we were quickly and efficiently escorted to the UMAIQ operations office. There we completed local site access permits, received our vehicles for the week, and were given a general safety overview. We were also assigned radios and instructed as to their proper use and operation. Cell phones work sporadically when on the tundra so radios are the preferred mode of staying in touch with other members of our team and with UMIAQ staff.

We were also given a tour of the warehouse and garage facilities that we will be using this week. The boxes of supplies and equipment that we shipped to Barrow last week were securely stored and tagged "NGEE Arctic". Our small hydraulic drill rig was in the garage where we will spend Thursday making sure that it works properly. It had already been mounted on a wooden sled for transport to the tundra with a snow machine.

Our Thursday began with breakfast, a project briefing which we intend to do every day, and then preparations for working at our field site. We will break off into three teams today in order to achieve our objectives: test operation of drill rig and evaluate sample collection protocols; transport necessary supplies and materials to a staging area near our field site; and then conduct initial GPS survey and mapping of potential sampling points. We will work out a plan to install a web-camera on the tundra.

Transport on the tundra is always a little problematic. Although boardwalks are in place from the turnout on Cake Eater Road, they are currently buried under at least a meter of hard packed snow. It can be significantly more in some places due to drifting snow. So we have opted for snow machines with sleds that we can use to transport people and supplies to our site. UMIAQ can make these available as part of their logistical support and provides mandatory safety training for all users. We completed the required training and then three of our team members began moving supplies. There are strict guidelines on snow machine operation on the Barrow Environmental Observatory, including the route one can take going to and returning from the tundra.

David and Ken worked most of the morning to get the hydraulic drill rig operational. It checked out in good working order. After a few modifications to the sled-mount infrastructure, Larry hooked the sled to one of our snow machines and we were ready to take initial permafrost cores right after lunch. We were making good progress. Like everything, however, there was a modest learning curve, but we completed the day with a half dozen cores and confidence that we could collect more cores from the ice-wedge polygons that we hope to characterize in Phase 1 of the NGEE Arctic project.

One thing about working this far north in Alaska is that the sun stays up much later than we are accustomed. Daylight periods are currently more than 16 hours long with the sun setting at 10:30pm. Today, we worked up until 8:00pm with the sun still way above the horizon. It was good to get back to the hut. Sitting around the table, we all agreed that it had been a successful day. We have some problems to work out, but not bad for our first day on the tundra.

Although today was a beautiful day, there are rumors that high winds are headed for the North Slope. Winds could cause the wind chill factor to fall below -20 degrees F. That would not stop our work, but it could make progress slow. Locals tell us that changes in the weather happen all the time so you have to be prepared and, more importantly, flexible. The Arctic is teaching us many lessons.