State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Sampling Water at the North Pole

The 2012 field season started out better than we could hope for. The weather has been great for flying and sampling water below the thick sea ice that covers much of the Arctic Ocean. Good weather means no low clouds or fog to prevent our pilots from seeing where they are going. Unlike regular airplanes that can land and take off in most weather, our planes don’t have the fancy technical instruments such as radar that can peer through cloudy skies. We were able to recover water samples from three stations, including one at the North Pole–a big success since the North Pole is crucial to understanding global ocean currents. The North Pole station is the farthest from Alert, requiring four to five hours of flying to get there, including a stop to refuel on the way and sometimes on the way back. To refuel, we land on the ice where we have have prepared a make-shift gas station several days earlier. The station consists of several drums of fuel and a beacon that allows us to find it on a constantly shifting landscape of ice; the sea ice moves several hundred meters each day. Unlike the South Pole, the North Pole is surrounded by water and so the landscape here looks very uniform. It’s hard to know that you’ve arrived some place special.
To collect our water samples, we drill through up to eight feet of ice and lower a special sampling device into the hole that will measure the water’s temperature, salinity (conductivity) and dissolved oxygen as it descends. Today we are not allowed to fly and so we will spend the day resting and preparing our equipment for the days ahead.
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