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Glaciers Melting Everywhere But Not A Drop To Drink
ScienceDave | June 6, 2007 at 02:46 pmby
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During the past year, media attention of polar scientific research has increased dramatically, due to both the impending impacts of global warming on melting ice and the commencement of the latest installment of last year's International Polar Year. As such, experiences from the Great White North are being disseminated.
Last fall, I participated in an oceanographic research cruise and had the opportunity to work with someone who, six weeks prior, had literally been to the North Pole (he has water in a small glass vial from the bottom of the ocean there, a tradition of old oceanographers). As a sea-going technician for the Institute of Ocean Sciences, he assured me it wouldn't be the last time.
We sat in the science laboratory on board, watching a computer monitor trace fluorescent yellow and green and blue lines onto a graph. These were real-time measurements of different physical and chemical properties of the water, extending down over four kilometers. I asked him about his first and latest experience in the Arctic.
"I would just sit outside, and watch the ice crack." he said, slightly muffled by the drone of the winch that was lowering the instrument just outside our porthole. "It was so beautiful, I could sit out there for hours. Imagine pieces of ice the size of a house heaving and tipping over in the water beside you." I stared blankly at him, trying to imagine the house I grew up in as a block of ice, bobbing up and down in the water.
"Then underneath, they were beautiful hues of blue and green and purple as the seawater melted them. I couldn't stay outside long of course, even wearing long-johns under my survival suit, it was too cold," he said, leaning back in his chair, he put one foot up on a splinter-ridden wooden box containing glass bottles, and sipped on his freeze dried coffee. The chair's wheels had been cut in half to prevent them from sliding to and fro with the sway of the boat, when the chair isn't roped down that is.
"Most people couldn't sleep!", he went on. "They needed ear plugs to get a decent night's rest. The ice pounded against the hull, the metal creaked, the ice booms." I thought it sounded more like a haunted house than a boat, but he insisted otherwise, "I slept like a baby, the sounds of the ice lulled me to sleep."
A few years ago, a friend of mine at the university spent three months on an icebreaker in the Arctic - his first oceanographic cruise. We sailed together last fall, along with the tech from IOS. "So, obviously you don't get seasick in the Arctic?" I said emphatically, gobbling down two Bonamines and leaning back as far as I could in my chair - when your head is tipped horizontally, your seasickness tends to subside.
My friend laughed, "No you don't! But the ship jerks around a lot, up to a meter or more, as the ice shifts and you bust through. The worst is when you're ramming a big chunk. Every 10 minutes its WHAM for about an hour, until they [the bridge] give up and wait for the ice to clear on its own."
"So I guess you didn't watch too many movies?" I said as he popped a DVD into the players's tray. We thought the irony of watching A Perfect Storm at sea was too good to pass up. He chuckled, took off his shoes, and placed his bottle of duty-free beer in a large wooden holder bolted down to the table's surface. At sea, everything is secure.
Six months before, he spent nearly 8 weeks at the opposite end of the Earth in the Ross Sea, named after British explorer Sir James Clark Ross. Along with the Weddell Sea, the Ross Sea is an area of vast biological productivity due to seasonal ice melting. Large blooms of phytoplankton, aka microscopic plants, can be seen in the spring from space.
I asked him how his trips to the North and South compared. He paused, looked ahead past the table holding his beer, and slowly shook his head, "There is no comparison! I loved both for very different reasons." His excitement and passion was bursting out of him at the seams. "You go to the Antarctic, and you're partying with penguins on New Years. You go to the North Pole, and you see a polar bear feasting on a seal, a red stain covering an otherwise white landscape. There's no comparison."
I sat in awe, cradling the half full bottle of beer between my thighs, listening to steel anchor slam against the boat as we crested over a large swell.
I thought about penguins and polar bears. I thought about the next five years of grad school. I thought about losing it all in 100 years. I thought how wonderful it is to have scientists dedicating their careers to saving it. I slept well that night.
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