Ross’s Gull (Photo: Luke DeCicco, USFWS)
As we reached our sampling site in Barrow Canyon, I received a message from the bird observer, Luke DeCicco, telling me to come up to the bridge immediately. The last message I received from Luke to come to the bridge was to tell me about the Snowy Owls so I knew this was going to be good. I was right as flying around the ship were flocks of Ross’s Gulls. Ross’s Gulls are found only in the Arctic and very rarely go south of the Bering Strait. The only way to see them in North America is at sea in the Arctic Ocean or off of Barrow in the fall. They are tied closely to the ice edge and Luke had been anxiously looking for them the entire cruise. He got his long awaited glimpse of what he called the “apex of avian awesomeness” with hundreds of Ross’s Gulls flying north by the ship all day. He was in heaven and with one glimpse of these little gulls, I knew why. Small in size, the birds have a very interesting coloration with a lavender grey back and wings and a pink breast. The pink plumage, derived from their diet of krill and other plankton, is the same pink that glows in the sky at sunset and the grey is that of the Arctic sky. A perfectly adapted little bird for their environment, I was excited to see these birds, another unique species to the Arctic! Thanks Luke for the great photos!
(Photo Credit: Luke DeCicco, USFWS)
With the sampling by the Mackenzie River finished, it was time for us to continue steaming to the west back towards Barrow Canyon to finish up some work there before heading back to Dutch Harbor. It was a foggy and snowy day with a long steam ahead of us. In the evening, the skies cleared and the Northern Lights, Aurora borealis, illuminated the sky in a stunning display.
I have always dreamed about seeing the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis and knowing that we are so far north and in prime Aurora season, I have made it a nightly ritual to go out on deck to check for clear skies. On a few evenings, the clouds have parted and the skies were illuminated with the shimmering green of the Aurora. I am very excited to have seen the Aurora on a few occasions on this cruise although have found photographing the Aurora from a moving ship to be quite challenging. I can now add the Aurora to the unique and extraordinary things I have seen on this expedition which have left me yearning for more time up here.
The Aurora with a silhouette of a buoy on deck
After completing our stations at the mouth of Amundsen Gulf, we transited to our next sampling area in the waters off of the Mackenzie River. We are sampling here to determine the role of freshwater from the river on the acidity of the ocean. The Mackenzie River is the largest river emptying into the Beaufort Sea; the only other being the Colville River which is one-tenth the size of the Mackenzie. Therefore the freshwater input from the Mackenzie may play an important role in the ocean chemistry of the Beaufort Sea and Arctic Ocean. The low alkalinity water from the river and high pCO2 (partial pressure) leads to decreased buffering capacity and higher acidity in the coastal waters.
While sampling near the river mouth, the water was clearly filled with silt from the river and the freshwater signal was high indicating that the river is playing an important role in the ocean chemistry of the area.
The other half of the dynamic duo working with Dr. Mathis is Stacey Reisdorph, a master’s student at the Ocean Acidification Research Center (OARC). From Iowa, Stacey has come a long way since her first time at sea on a Disney Cruise in 2009 as she immerses herself in the world of chemical and geological oceanography in the waters off of Alaska.
Starting off studying early childhood and elementary education at the University of Northern Iowa, Stacey soon learned that her passions lay elsewhere. With the encouragement of her family and a fantastic geology professor, Stacey became a geology and earth sciences double major and had found her passion. When it came time to apply to graduate school, Stacey fulfilled her dream of moving to Alaska when she was accepted into a master’s program in glaciology at University of Alaska-Fairbanks. However, Stacey soon decided that she wanted to do something a little different and found a new home with Dr. Sam VanLaningham who suggested she start working with Dr. Mathis on a new and very exciting project in Glacier Bay.
After a little bit of bouncing, Stacey found a home in the Mathis Lab at OARC in January 2011 and is quickly becoming a chemical oceanographer as she delves into the water chemistry of Glacier Bay, a treasured National Park and home to many whales, sea lions, and otters. Working closely with the Park Service, Stacey heads to Glacier Bay once a month to sample a series of stations for dissolved inorganic carbon, alkalinity, oxygen isotopes, nutrients, dissolved oxygen, total suspended sediments and particulate organic carbon. Stacey is adding water sampling data to a time series of CTD data that has been collected since the early 1990s.
Glacier Bay is of particular interest because with climate change there is an increase in glacial meltwater entering the ecosystem leading to changes in the water chemistry. Glacial meltwater is low in alkalinity and therefore decreases the ability of the water to buffer against acidification. With this valuable time series of data, Stacey hopes to understand the dynamics and circulations patterns of the water from the mouth of the Bay to the freshwater sources throughout the year.
Bubo scandiacus (photo credit: Luke DeCicco, USFWS)
Polar bears are the quintessential Arctic predator, but there is another equally well-adapted creature to this cold icy environment, the Snowy Owl. While we were sampling at the mouth of Amundsen Gulf, in the distance a large bird was flying towards the ship. As the bird approached the ship, it became clear that it as a Snowy Owl soaring majestically around the ship. Next thing we knew there was more than one and we had at least four owls flying around the ship! It was incredible…a flock of Snowy Owls just coming by to check us out!
A snowy owl taking a rest on the ship
Map of the Cruise Track (courtesy Healy Map Server)
After an exciting two days in the ice, it was time to head south to our next sampling area at the mouth of Amundsen Gulf. Half of our transit was in thick ice so the ship rattled and shook all night as we broke through the ice. There is nothing quite like being on an ice breaker as it is very loud as we go through the ice and as we hit larger pieces of ice, the hull rattles and sounds as if it is going to break. It is quite an experience and unlike anything else. At around 3am, we hit open water and could then move faster towards our next stations about 240 nautical miles away.
Like the previous two days, we are sampling at the mouth of one of the straits of the Northwest Passage. For centuries, explorers had looked for ways to navigate these waters to find a faster way to reach Asia for trade, although never successful in this mission due to ice blocking the passage. Much like these explorers of the past, we are looking for modes of passage to the Atlantic but instead of searching for trade routes, we are looking for the pathways with which Pacific water is entering the North Atlantic. During the summer, Pacific water takes a one-way journey to the Arctic Ocean through the Bering Strait and the question is: how does this Pacific water get to the Atlantic Ocean? Does it find the long sought after pathway through the Northwest Passage or does it find another route? We are hoping that sampling in these two straits will reveal the answer to this mystery or at least add some insight into this complex system of water movement. One thing is certain, the global “conveyor belt” of ocean circulation is certainly more complex than we once thought.
Sea Smoke rising off the water in the early morning near Amundsen Gulf
Gaelin Rosenwaks & Jeremy Mathis with EC Flag #118 in front of Prince Patrick Island, at 75.42 N
Both Fellows of the Explorers Club, Jeremy Mathis and I are honored to be carrying Explorers Club Flag #118 together on this expedition. Flag #118 has been on many expeditions since its first expedition in Australia in 1946 including one to the summit of Mt Everest! We are very excited to include our expedition in the great history of the Explorers Club and, as young explorers, to continue the great legacy of exploration that is embodied in the Club and the honor of carrying the Flag.
After a beautiful sun-filled day sampling in the ice that included a sighting of a polar bear, we reached the northernmost point of the cruise, just two nautical miles offshore of Prince Patrick Island on the north side of M’Clure Strait at 75.42 degrees North. It is very cold up here with temperatures hovering around 3 degrees Fahrenheit, -13 degrees F with wind chill! Despite the cold temperatures, I spent much of the day outside, going inside only when I could no longer feel my fingers enough to hit the shutter on my camera. We finished our sampling line just as the sun set and the moon rose over Prince Patrick Island. It was another stunning day in the Arctic!
Sunrise in M’Clure Strait
Sampling in the Ice
Prince Patrick Island, the North side of M’Clure Strait
After we finished sampling, it was time to head south through the ice to our next sampling area at the mouth of Amundsen Gulf. The moon was shining brightly reflecting on the ice as we steamed south and said goodbye to a fantastic two days in the ice!
Steaming South out of the ice…
Whenever I come on expeditions, everyone wants to know what animals I have seen. Here in the Arctic Fall as we find ourselves so far north, we have not seen many animals except for a few birds and the occasional seal. Today while in M’Clure Strait, we saw the ultimate arctic predator, a POLAR BEAR! As we steamed between stations towards Prince Patrick Island, there he was cruising all alone on the ice-covered sea; so beautiful and majestic. In this super harsh environment, this bear survives in all its glory. I feel very privileged to see a polar bear in its natural habitat, the sea ice. The bear looked up at the ship and, not phased by us, went on walking…So incredibly beautiful!
Just cruising on the vast sea ice
The day started out much the same way as the day before ended, with us steaming. But within a few hours, we were beginning to see newly forming pancake ice! There is nothing on this earth that is as beautiful as sea ice and if I needed reaffirmation of that, I got it today as we steamed through endless pancake ice to our next station inside M’Clure Strait. As we approached Banks Island and the promontory that marked the opening to the Strait, the ice became a bit thicker and there was a quiet excitement to be sampling in this new and exciting area so far north.
Ice with Cape M’Clure in the distance
We continued around Cape M’Clure and into the Strait where we were going to sample, getting only 700 meters from shore for our first sampling station. The sun was shining and it has to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. With pancake ice forming before our eyes and yellow glowing cliffs, we watched the sun set over the cliff as we positioned the boat. Truly a magical spot and to think about how few people have been here and the explorers that came here so long ago blew my mind. Then it got dark and the moon was out and shining brightly, reflecting on the ice. Only one word can describe this place: stunning. Hard to put into words, but very special…as one person said, we are in a remote and special place…I couldn’t say it better…
Looking into the Strait: Cape Crozier
Out of the Strait: Cape M’Clure
Larger Pancake Ice as we headed to our sampling station
At our sampling station, only 700m from shore
The sun setting behind Banks Island
A beautiful Arctic night