Sunday, 31 March 2013

Here is the link to the Guardian front page where they are running the article on the polar bear.

Polar Bear Sighted!

We have some serious and incredible news. A Polar Bear has been sighted near the ship.

If you are reading this blog for the first time, this is from the scientists aboard British Antarctic Survey Voyage the JR281 on the James Clark Ross. We  have spotted a Polar Bear near the coast of the South Orkney Islands in the South Atlantic. As far as we know this is the first recorded sighting of a polar bear in Antarctic waters.

This afternoon, after completing a large number of Mooring recoveries and CTD casts, almost all the crew and scientists were inside the ship. It was -15 C outside and just beginning to snow. Phil Mele from Lamont-Doherty in New York was the only one outside. He was preparing a sounder to find the location of our next mooring retrieval. He spotted the polar bear on a nearby raft of ice. He began yelling out. Thankfully Gwyn Evans was nearby on an upper deck and heard Phil. Gwyn quickly took this photo:

Gwyn then ran down to the lower deck and managed to take this photo before the bear ran away and swam to a larger ice flow in the distance.

Gwyn and Phil quickly contacted the bridge. I heard Phil's calls from the main lab and saw the bear from the window but couldn't get a clearer picture by the time I got my camera. The captain has steered the ship toward the direction the bear headed and we have suspended other work to try and find it. It became dark very soon after we saw it and there is very little moonlight so far tonight.

The internet is very slow and we are trying to contact all the relevant authorities. Polar Bears are only thought to be found in the Arctic. We are not sure whether the bears are here due to a freak of nature or some sort of bizarre accident/experiment. Jean-Baptiste Sallee, Andy Watson and the Captain have called the British Antarctic Survey head office and they are contacting CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources), other government and nongovernment organisations and the media. There are no polar bear experts on board but from the photos the bear appears healthy. BAS has also contacted media outlets and JB has been interviewed by the Guardian.

More news to come.


Saturday, 30 March 2013

Day 16 - Orkney Passage and the Path of the Humpback

Yesterday was momentous.
The sun rose over a vast landscape of shimmering blue water with a cool icy crust. The horizon glowed red then orange and then chromatic yellows and blues. Massive icebergs, a saw-tooth of sky scrapers on the horizon. We were floating on central park and Manhattan is stretched around us.

Leopard seals are spotted, lazing and groaning, drifting along on distant frozen platforms. Rafts of penguins float by congregating on concaved ice blocks, swimming with heads poked up and bodies jumping and diving from the water. Piercing the water, before one such congregation, a fin is spotted and a spray of water in the air.

The word is passed around and we flock, like the very penguins we gawk at, to the edges of the ship. As if satisfying a whale sized thirst for attention, this giant of the sea, this giant of the earth, gives us a remarkable display (and one we are happy to receive). Scientists and permanent crew alike are buzzing. Andy Watson and I stand at the corner of the ship as the whale passes just meters from us. We are like children - star struck and speechless. Even George, veteran of 30 years on the ship is following the majesty of this creature back and forward. At one moment Gwyn and I search frantically. From nowhere the whale pops its head from the water, as if to say: “peek-a-boo!”. As Simon, the deck engineer, says afterwards: “If that doesn’t get your heart racing, you’re in the wrong job”.

Circle after circle are made of the ship, with the odd pirouette and spin under the water before a final salute and flash of its tail fin.

The excitement is hard to come down from. Work must go on. We are here for a reason. A closing of the skies, a solid southerly breeze and the beginnings of a snow storm remind us where we really are.
We are now sitting over Orkney Passage, one of the key gateways between the Sub-Polar Weddell Region and the Atlantic - A pathway between true Antarctic waters and the rest of the ocean. The ice is open enough for us to recover some moorings, but not without a fight. Tomorrow I will tell you what they are there for.  Although the story will not have the majestic draw of a creature like a Humpback Whale, the enormity, mystery and antiquity of the Antarctic Bottom Water is quite a tale. (And yes there will be more pretty pictures tomorrow ;-)

Thanks for all your comments and support! Making this Blog has been really fun and I am glad it is being enjoyed. Soon we will have more profiles and some guest posts.Here is a wonderful portrait of Gwyn talking to the Whale by JB's talanted, 3 year old, neice: 

Illustration by Thaïs: From left it reads "The man who talks with the whale - The whale - Who are you? Are you a huge red whale? (burst out laughing)".

Friday, 29 March 2013

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Day 14 - Icebergs on the horizon and a portrait of the voyage leader

We are now steaming between Elephant Island and the South Orkneys. The weather has continued to improve and we were treated to a sunset over distant icebergs and sea ice. The vivid colours continued as the full moon rose to the east. 

Photo: Two icebergs and a horizon of sea ice under the full moon.

The latest map of sea-ice gives us a good chance of recovering the moorings near the Orkneys but far less of recovering the moorings further south. If the ice is thick and covers a lot of the surface, there is a good chance the moorings could get stuck as they float to the top. Once lodged in the ice there is no way we’d get them back. Phil from the Lamont Earth Observatory in New York, who has been sent down to get them, is apprehensive, but pragmatic. The batteries are ‘rated’ for another two years he says. But that is two more years of trying to get funding to get them out, two more years where the mooring could be exposed to rust, critters and more ice and two years later that the precious data will be analysed and brought into scientific sphere. We have our fingers crossed the ice isn’t as bad as the satellites make it look.

As today was a day off for most of us, I thought I’d take the opportunity to do a profile. And who better to start with than our Voyage Leader Extraordinaire: Jean-Baptiste Sallee.

Jean-Baptiste, or JB as he is known (the French are no less into acronyms than us Anglos), is an Oceanographer hailing originally from near Paris. He did a PhD in Oceanography in Toulouse then moved to Hobart to do a Post-Doctoral Fellowship. He has been at the British Antarctic Survey since 2010 and will soon be heading back to France to take a fellowship in Paris. 

When I first met JB in Hobart many years ago I thought he was a direct descendent from Jacques Cousteau himself. He was a debonair Frenchman, into Scuba, red wine and sailing the Seven Seas. Since living in Australia he began to assimilate to and Anglo-Saxon and more recently, very British way of life. Now, he proudly wears a Union Jack on his orange British Antarctic Survey jacket and I have heard him extort the wonders of mint sauce on lamb roast. I have even seen him happily stand in a long queue without pushing to the front and once, after taking a sip of warm ale in a Cambridge pub, he said “I quite like it”.

 Photo: JB refuses to been seen without the Union Jack on his shoulder...;-)

Metamorphoses aside, he is a great scientist and voyage leader. JB’s main scientific interest is the surface layers of the Southern Ocean. JB has quantified the rate at which water and CO2 are pumped into the Ocean interior via this area. In fact, around 40% of the CO2 in the ocean that is of human-industrial origin has entered through the Southern Ocean, and JB has helped to understand where and how that is occurring. As a voyage leader he has been well organised, keen to inspire scientific thought and discussion and above all keeps a cool head. Despite his high level role he has been willing to get his hands dirty when needed (and dress the part too!).

 Photo: JB getting down and dirty to clean up one of the ships labs for the tracer team at the biggining of the voyage.

A la mere de Jean-Baptiste: Il et pas telemont Roz-Beef come jais dit, mais peut etre il va prefere plus une Yorkshire Pudding que une baguette le prochain visit chez vous...;-)   

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Day 13 Land Ahoy!

The final CTD of the South America to Antarctica section is achieved at 7am. It is met with jubilation, elation and relief. Measurements have been taken along this same line every year bar 2 from 1994 - an unprecedentedly comprehensive time-series especially considering it is some of the most inhostpitipal territory known.

Photo Xing Feng (left) manages the Doppler Current Meter thingy while JB and Stevie take blob samples from one of the last casts of the America to Antarctica Section.
Along the way, the no no-nonsense, down to earth Xing Feng from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been managing a lesser known 4-letter acronym: the lowered ADCP. The ADCP stands for Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler. If you have switched off already because of all this fancy physics talk...bare with me just a moment...please...please. The ADCP send out an acoustic signal into the water. If the signal comes back faster than it was sent, we know the current is coming towards us if it comes back slower we know the current is moving away from us (this is known as Doppler shift). It is a bit like throwing a ball at your little brother. If he is running away scared the ball will hit him and not bounce back very quickly. If he is angry and running towards you in a fit of rage... the ball will hit you very hard (and probably so will he). If you have never played brandings or have never had a little’ll never get physics...sorry.

So the ADCP can tell us the current speed all the huh! We attach it to the CTD (yes I admit CTD is not a very good name as it does a lot more than conductivity-temperature and depth ...but anyway). As the CTD sinks and is hauled up, Xing Feng’s little Doppler thinging measures the speed of the water.  This helps us measure the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and tell us where the Blob of tracer might be heading and why it might be mixing.


 Photo: The North-East tip of Elephant Island with Cape Petrels in the foreground.

Once the last CTD is on board and the last samples have been taken we see an incredible sight: Elephant Island. As you’d expect, this morning the ocean is grey, windy, misty, frothy (etc...etc...insert adjectives) and...incredibly...a mountain juts out of the water and pierces the low lying clouds. It isn’t the kind of place one would like to be stranded on. Shackleton and his entire where crew where apparently stranded there before managing to row to South Georgia and then climb across it...quite a feat it feels like from our temperature controlled instrument room.

Photo: Navigation charts on the bridge show our path past Elephant Island. (Taken by Gwyn)

Day off today! Hooray! Time to explore this Bar thing they have on the boat...

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Day 12 - The Antarctic last!

There is something exciting about throwing an expensive piece of kit over the side and hoping it comes back. Emboldened by the previous day’s success and a further calming of the weather, we continue to deploy the VMP and measure turbulence rates. It is quite fun for most of us (well, for those of us whose kit it isn’t…). When at the surface, it begins pinging signals back and forth. We all run to the main bridge and look out for a little fluorescent flag and a flashing light. Sometimes a bird, hoping it has just found a feed, helps us out. Then we have the fun job of hooking the floating instrument as it passes by. It is a bit like a combination of jousting and fishing.


 Photo: Gwen the scientists and much of the crew's eyes are in demand.

 Photo:  "Hey! You're not an Albatross"

 Photo: Gwyn and James go fishing for VMPs

We have only been at see 9 days, but for the CTD crew, the monotony is beginning to wear:

Get up
Chat to Brian at the end of his red-eye shift
Grab a quick breakfast before his CTD comes on board
Take water samples from the bottles
Prepare the CTD for the next deployment
Steam 20 miles to next site
Check meteorological and ongoing measurements
Process some data
Get to station
Put CTD in water
Lower to bottom – raise to top
Take CTD out of water

I am sure it isn’t any easier for the chemists:
Take water from bottle
Poor water into machine that goes ping
Write down reading
Take water from bottle

Today however we are close to a major milestone, we have reached the base of the Antarctic Continental Shelf. This is where the ocean depth goes from very deep (like 3-4km) to very shallow (like 100m-200m). It signals the end of this ‘Section’ and means we will have soon gathered enough data to estimate the strength of the Circumpolar Current. Hopefully by the morning we will be in the shallows and heading east to see if the ice has frozen over our moorings. And, if it has, there will be lots of pretty icebergs, seals and penguins to look at…stay tuned.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Day 11 Seeing through the fog

The weather is harsh today. The sky is low, dark and misty. Rain tumbles down over the deck.  Winds of 30knots lash the sea causing rippling pulsations along the surface. If the scene wasn’t hostile enough, a floating Eagrit is seen from the observation deck. It is one of the birds we had seen a few days earlier, disoriented having lost their way. It has not been able to stay in the air any longer and will now surely drown.

Photo: Not much hope left for this little one.

The swell is modest so we can continue to take water samples. The VMP – the device which is used to measure turbulence – is held back. Because the VMP is released and then recovered, John and Alex (its custodians) are reluctant to deploy it if there are too many whitecaps or a thick fog. Both of these would make it all the more difficult to find on recovery.  This frustrates Jean-Baptiste and many of us. A major focus of this project is to measure mixing of the blob. But, to reconcile these, we need direct measurements of that mixing.  In the mid afternoon the weather is rough but the forecast good, so we give it a go. The mist thickens into the night and the VMPs fate is on tenterhooks. All lights are turned off on the bridge and we scour the opaque landscape. Finally, a flash from its light is spotted. The VMP is not lost and another precious measurement is taken.

Photo: Andrew and Jean-Baptiste ‘wake-up’ and ARGO float.

Between measuring the blob and turbulence etc. we are contributing to a broader oceanographic mission. We have on board 6 autonomous buoys called ‘Argo floats’. Up until the early 00’s, if you wanted to know what the temperature and salinity was in the ocean, you had to go out on a boat and measure it - like we are doing now. These days most of it is done by ARGO buoys. Thanks to advances in technology, satellite communication, a fair amount of money (driven by a real need to understand the ocean’s role in climate), and collaboration between all the major oceanographic centres in the world, ARGO floats are now everywhere.

Photo: Deployment of the float.

An ARGO float is basically a thermometer attached to a big piston. The piston compresses a fluid, which makes the ARGO float dense, so it sinks. When the piston is released the float is more buoyant so it floats to the surface. When at the surface, ARGO buoys can send messages via satellite thanks to what is effectively a mobile telephone stuck to the top. They phone home to let us know how warm it is in the deep ocean. So they are bit like a teenage son or daughter away on a gap year. You can’t control where they go but can only hope they will phone home from time to time to tell you how they are getting on (collect calls only…of course).

Image: Distribution of ARGO floats by the country that deployed them. There where more than 3000 in 2010. The serial numbers on ours reads close to 6000.