Sunday, November 29, 2009

My Year (and a month) with Environment Canada

In a few days I’ll put a piece on here about my upcoming job, however, now is a good time to look back at the year that was and the position that inspired the “Arctic” part of this blog’s URL. Last summer, during the Phoenix Mission, I was in a bit of a bind: looking for a job on short notice while working 24hour 39 minute days. Since I had already defended my PhD, my time at the University of Arizona was drawing to a close. But with the job market upset, my options for postdoctoral work were few. Through contacts, I was introduced to Jan Bottenheim at Environment Canada.

[ Our fearless leader, Dr. Jan Bottenheim. Photo by Spencer Brown retrieved from]

Jan explained to me that the Ocean-Atmosphere-Sea Ice-Snowpack (OASIS) section of the International Polar Year (IPY) team at EC was looking for some assistance with their planned expedition up to Barrow, Alaska that winter. It sounded exciting, and presented a chance to experience one of the most similar environments on Earth to the Mars Chamber in my lab. Since I had already been placed on the VF list by NSERC it was merely a formality to join up and I started work in November to prepare for the March Field Study.

[The Arctic Ocean, seen from the North Coast of Alaska, is not so different from the Martian vistas I am used to. The cloud in the distance is a constant feature of the open lead whose temperature, -1.8°C, is far warmer then the surroundings. Also, the bright star seen is Venus. Photo by the Author ]

Aside from myself and Jan, the team featured several experienced Arctic Scientists and Technicians. Stoyka Netcheva brought spectroscopic expertise working with MAX-DOAS systems and with Environment Canada’s heavily instrumented sled which would go Out-Over-The-Ice, named OOTI. Sandy Steffen, an expert in atmospheric mercury, would be in charge of a mercury speciation experiment and several Tekran monitors. Ralf Staebler would study data collected by sonic anemometers, a fast-ozone instrument, and atmospheric structure as revealed by a powerful sodar (audible day and night near the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium Facilities). Meanwhile Patrick Lee and Andrew Sheppard helped us strive to keep everything working smoothly. As broad as this suite of specialities is, we were a small part of a larger international effort at Barrow drawing on Arctic researchers the world over.

[ My compadres in Barrow. Clockwise from Paul Shepson (Purdue University) in Green: Ralf Staebler, Stoyka Netcheva, Jan Bottenheim and Sandy Steffen. Photo by Spencer Brown retrieved from]

As for myself, I would lend assistance where it was needed and use my experience with the GARDIS mercury instruments to analyze the data to be collected by the OOTI sled. However, in the months leading up to the expedition in March, I had also been working with Jan and Paul Shepson’s group at Purdue University to develop a mobile version of their Bromine Oxide (BrO) collection apparatus. In its benchtop form, this was a system that weighed several hundred kilograms, required more then a kilowatt of power and constant liquid nitrogen to run down. By trimming this down to the bare essentials, we hoped to be able to make measurements out on extremely thin ice in the midst of frost flowers.

[ Frost flower pan: the ice here, several miles from shore, is less then an inch thick and only a few hours old. The spindly structures are called frost flowers and are suspected to be active sites for Arctic atmospheric chemistry. A pressure ridge is visible in the distance. Photo by the Author. ]

Despite some shipping snafus, almost everything arrived in close to working order. After a bit of last-minute McGuyvering, (including the transformation of Teflon snow-scoop into a high-pressure gasket using a hunting knife, amongst other adventures) we were ready to go.

Barrow, Alaska is the most northerly land in the United States. The northernmost point, located at the border between the Beaufort and Chuckchi Seas, is at latitude of 71°21’N. This far enough north that mid-winter sees a single 80-day long night. By the time we landed in late Febuary, however, polar sunrise had already occurred and the days were lengthening by ten minutes each and every day – an appreciable amount. Much of the illumination was twilight rather then direct sunshine: by the time I left to return to Toronto in mid-March, it was light enough outside to see until just before midnight.

We had chosen Barrow for this field study due to the presence of an ocean current-driven perennial open lead which guaranteed access to exposed sea water (an area known as a polynya) as well as pans of fresh first-year sea ice (called a nilas) created almost daily. These areas are of specific interest to researchers since they are especially active in the chemistry of trace gasses, in particular Ozone and Mercury. These gasses in the near-surface atmosphere play an important role in deleterious biotic processes and may enter the food chain.

As the arctic warms, periodic and puzzling “depletion episodes” are being observed in which these gasses disappear from the atmosphere. These events are increasing in frequency. Thus, for the health of the arctic bio system, it is important to determine where these gasses are disappearing to and what forms they take. OOTI would sample these gasses directly and determine the vertical flux (rate of adsorption into the frozen surface, or out of it). As well, some clues as to what is happening, chemically are offered by BrO, hence the presence of my experiment on our study.

[ Science out on the Ice. I unload the BrO Equipment on a frost flower pan. Photo by Spencer Brown. ]

Even with a warming arctic, for now, it is still plenty cold in March. On several days, windchill values at the warmest part of the day exceeded -60°C and even the shortest trips out into the field required extensive preparation. The clothing required to sustain human life out on the Arctic Ocean may well be the closest I will come to wearing a space suit.

[ Dr. Stoyka Netcheva models our expedition gear on the Elson Lagoon near Barrow, AK. The Instrumented sled in the image is OOTI. Photo by the Author ]

Initially, we stayed close to our base of operations. But over time we gained confidence and took longer snowmachine treks with the OOTI sled, leaving it overnight on the relatively protected Elson Lagoon and eventually out on the frozen sea past a hundred-foot tall pressure ridge within spitting distance of open water. We were also able to collect a full suite of BrO samples on a nila less then 1-inch thick, several miles from shore on sea ice only a few hours old.

[ Our Inupiat guide and Polar Bear Guard, Carl Kippi, keeps watch with me on top of a pressure ridge out on the Arctic Ocean. Photo by the Author. ]

Later on, over the summer and into the fall, I worked to develop a process for analyzing the samples we had collected. While we didn’t get hard and fast values in the end, we did show that the process was viable and the experiment was a success. I spoke a little of this at AGU in late May. While the lab work was satisfying, I have found that my thoughts often return to the field study, through the toil of the rest of the year.

There is a certain harsh beauty to the arctic, especially the frozen artic ocean in winter. Many researchers even compared it to the “Magnificent Desolation” of the Moon. Of course, to the trained planetary scientist’s eye, the imprint left by the wind upon the landscape is more reminiscent of Martian structures, but this is a minor quibble. It is certainly a place where the elemental in nature is front and center. Contrasting with the monochromatic world of snow and ice and cold is the explosion of colour that is the Aurora Borealis. Never before have I seen such displays; titanic energies glowing, dancing and changing colour and form in the arctic night.

[ A Swirling Aurora near the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC), photo by the Author ]

There are also rudimentary signs and vignettes of life all around, if you look closely enough. Polar Bear paw prints out on the ocean (with frozen spittle and chewed intake lines on the OOTI!). Caribou out on the tundra breaking through the crust of snow to feed on previous summer’s grasses, preserved beneath. Innupiat peoples hunting seals in the open lead. Still the canvass of ice is not that different from the austere beauty of the rocky shores of Newfoundland where I grew up, or the deserts of Arizona where I studied. Each has a story to tell. All these landscapes are a part of me now, and as I move forward to new challenges, I thank Jan for allowing me to add one more to my experience.

[ The Polar Desert. Photo by the Author. ]

Author's note: Images for this post have been obtained, in part, from Spencer Brown, a professional photographer who accompanied us out on the ice. His photography, not only of the Arctic, is spectacular and his portfolio , is definately worth a visit. For more information on OASIS, please visit our website and blog at


  1. Dear John...

    very good expedition you had there.....

    I always dream to have such trips and i don't care if i take a year or two over there.....

    If i may ask...does your arizona mail id still work? if not please give me ur mail id...

    cheers !!!!!

  2. Nikhil: sorry for not noticing your comment until today. The U of A email address (which can be found here: )does still work, although I should point out that you will need to copy the email address and replace the [at] with @. Simply clicking on the link will not work (it's my attempt to foil the spambots).