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August 29, 2006

Today was the day scheduled for exploring the mission’s first ice station, which was located at 80° 51' N, 140° 27' E. After searching for two hours for the "right ice" — thick ice with few pools of melt water — the captain finally parked the ship.

lowering cage onto iceWhile the bridge crew kept watch for any safety issues, ice specialists scouted the ice and marked appropriate pathways for exploration. When the location was deemed safe, the ship’s fore and aft cranes were used to lower scientists and their gear in baskets to the ice. Due to some concerns about ice conditions, many of us thought we might not get off the ship — a frustrating thought to say the least. Finally, a Russian crew member pointed to Art, me and Timo, a graduate student from Estonia. We were loaded into a basket and then lowered onto the ice.

It's hard to describe what it feels like to be on the ice for the first time. It’s a bit of a jolt when you realize that the only thing between you and 3,000 feet of frigid ocean water is a thin veneer of ice. The fact that you are hundreds of miles from the closest solid ground is brought home when all you can see is ice, ocean and a really big ship.

The purpose of getting out on the ice at various locations is to collect data and to install long-term monitoring equipment. Snow samples and ice cores will be taken at each ice station — the thickness at this first station was 1.2 to 1.4 m (remember that thin veneer?). Analysis of the ice cores will help scientists study ice buoyancy. In addtion, ice core data was scheduled to be used to verify ice thickness measurements made by satellite imagery, but the satellite blew up during launch.

Scientists from the DAMOCLES project will install several long-term observation stations at each ice station. These observation stations will transmit data to the crew of the Tara, a research ship scheduled to spend the next two years locked in ice. We hope to rendezvous with Tara later in the week. (Read an article detailing Tara's mission.)

One component of the DAMOCLES observation stations is an instrument package known as POPS (Polar Ocean Profiling System). POPS has three main parts: a long wire (1 km at this station) that remains underwater, a module that travels up and down the wire and an antenna that sticks out above the ice. The POPS module gathers water conductivity, pressure and temperature data daily. This data is transmitted via the antenna to a passing satellite and then on to the scientists. Although protected in aluminum and plastic housings, the above ice portion of POPS is sure to attract visitors. As Todd, one of the K–12 teachers on the expedition, noted, the whole thing looks like a polar bear back-scratching post. Barring bear vandalism and any technical glitches, the batteries should transmit data for the next two to three years.

POPS teamDuring its deployment, the POPS (Polar Ocean Profiling System) developed a few glitches. First a signal problem occurred, and then the 1 km wire being fed through the ice into the ocean below became wedged in the ice. After working for hours, the scientists were able to free the wire and finish feeding it through the ice. The remaining POPS components were set up without further problems. Fourteen hours after being lowered to the ice, the science team in charge of POPS was tired, cold, but very happy.

One of the goals of the K–12 teacher program organized by the International Arctic Research Center and funded by the NSF is to facilitate teacher participation in scientific research and to encourage participants to share their experiences with their fellow educators. On this cruise, there are 14 teachers on board from seven countries (USA, UK, Russia, Canada, Germany, Sweden and France).

Since the beginning of the voyage, the teachers have attended lectures by polar scientists and are now beginning to work with various research projects. At the first ice station, they were ready and willing to help the scientists with their projects. They have also brought their insights and inquisitive nature, as well as their sense of humor along to enliven our work and conversations. An example of the latter is that at one point while on the ice a team needed their tool bucket. We all looked for a minute before finding the bucket behind some other gear. At that point, Tim, one of the most energetic teachers I have ever met, quipped, "Whose idea was it to bring a white bucket to the Arctic?" It brought a good laugh from everyone.

—Mike Dunn


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Kapitan Dranitsyn