State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Anatomy of an ‘Ice Station’

Moving equipment on and off the Healy for sampling requires organization. (photo T. Kenna)
Moving equipment on and off the Healy for sampling requires organization and creativity. Photo: T. Kenna

Completing an “Ice Station” means collecting samples over a wide range of Arctic water and ice conditions. Each station means a major orchestration of people and resources. The teams gather, equipment is assembled, and the trek off the ship begins. After the first off-ship exodus, the sample teams are well practiced in moving equipment and setting up work areas so as not to interfere with the other stations. There is no shortage of space so spreading out is not a challenge!

Sampling on the ice also means being aware of your environment. A required component is the Polar Bear watch. Fortunately we have not seen a polar bear when out on the ice.
Sampling on the ice also means being aware of the environment, requiring a polar bear watch. Fortunately the team has not seen a polar bear when out on the ice. Photo: T. Kenna

Collecting a wide range of samples at multiple Arctic locations allows GEOTRACES to get an integrated look at the trace elements moving through the Arctic ocean ecosystem, and to better understand how these elements connect to the larger global ocean. Each is carefully collected. Whether the elements are “contaminants” or essential nutrients, there is a specific protocol in order to quantify the inputs without “dirtying” the sample. It may seem odd to think of “dirtying” something we label a contaminant, but in order to fully understand the concentrations and methods of transport for each element, every sample is handled with the same amount of care.

The following photo essay showcases the various ice/water sampling stations and reviews what is being collected at each.

Snow samples: The snow collected at this station is being used in part to determine the presence/absence of contamination related to the March 11, 2011, Fukushima event.

Tim Kenna collecting a snow sample. The sample area is generally 1 or 2 square meters and collected down to the ice. (Photo B. Schmoker)
Tim Kenna collecting a snow sample. The sample area is generally 1 or 2 square meters , with the snow collected down to the ice surface below and carefully bagged. Photo: B. Schmoker

Both the snow samples and the ice core sections will be analyzed and examined along with the information collected from seawater, suspended particulates and bottom sediments, in order to better understand the influence of processes specific to the Arctic on the transport and distribution of several anthropogenic radionuclides.

Bagging up the snow from the snow station. Each sample is labeled by quadrant of ice collected. (Photo B. Schmoker)
Lamont’s Tim Kenna (r) and Wright State University graduate student Alison Agather (l) bag up snow. Each sample is carefully bagged and labeled by quadrant of ice collected. Photo: B. Schmoker

Ice core samples: The ice cores are sections of sea ice, and again are being collected to determine the presence/absence of contamination related to Fukushima. In general the samplers were able to obtain 1.5 to 2 meters of ice in the cores.

Section of sea ice core collected by drilling into the ice. (Photo Cory Mendenhall, USCG)
Section of sea ice core collected by drilling into the ice. As the cores are collected they are photographed, labeled by sections, and ice properties were measured in situ prior to being taken back to the labs. Photo: Cory Mendenhall, USCG

Melt ponds: Surface melt ponds form on the sea ice in the long days of the Arctic summer. The warmth of the sun creates ponds that sit on top of the ice. The water collected in these ponds carries different properties than either the sea ice from which it melted, or the ocean water from which the sea ice formed. Most often these ponds have a frozen surface layer that needs to be drilled through before water is pumped out for collection.

Surface Melt Pond Team collecting water sample. (Photo T. Kenna)
Surface melt pond team collecting water sample. Photo: T. Kenna

Beryllium-7 (7Be) samples: Produced in the atmosphere when cosmic rays collide with nitrogen atoms, 7Be is constantly being added to the surface of the water, and therefore is a great surface water tracer. With its very short half-life, ~ 53 days, 7Be can be used to track water parcel circulation as it moves between surface and deep water (which has no significant source of the 7Be isotope). The surface water pulls the 7Be with it as it moves down deeper into the ocean, allowing us to track and time the mixing process.

Pumping water through the hole drilled by auger. (photo B. Schmoker)
The Beryllium team first uses a gas-powered auger to create a hole for a pump and a CTD instrument (used to measure salinity, temperature and depth)  to fit through. They then pump water through the hole for collection. Because beryllium is in very small amounts, they pump thousands of liters of water from three or four depths. Each is pumped through big cartridges that absorb the Be. Photo: B. Schmoker

Dirty ice samples: The dirty ice work is more opportunistic, and therefore is not part of each ice station. If dirty ice is spotted, it will be sampled, and while it may not be part of each ice station, it is part of the overall GEOTRACES protocol. While most of the stations sample for quantification, i.e. grams of sediment/ml ice, the dirty ice samples are used more for characterization, i.e. composition or mineralogy. For Tim’s work the collection of dirty ice is used to look at sediments originating from continental shelves bordering the Arctic, with the goal of evaluating or characterizing dirty ice as a transport vector for anthropogenic radionuclides.

Tim sampling dirty ice. (photo C. Mendenhall).
Tim sampling dirty ice with a pick and bucket. Photo: C. Mendenhall

Minimal processing of the samples collected at the stations will occur on the Healy. The snow and ice gets melted and the seawater acidified. The focus of the trip is to collect as much material as possible. There will be plenty of time for processing when the researchers are back at their home institutions.

Margie Turrin is blogging for Tim Kenna, who is reporting from the field as part of the Arctic GEOTRACES, a National Science Foundation-funded project.

For more on the GEOTRACES program, visit the website here.

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