Travails of 'Field Work' Beset Scientists at Icy Top of the World

Climate researchers complete set-up of high-tech basecamp

A dozen people mill around the tent "terminal" at what is affectionately called "SHEBA International Airport." They peer into a Saturday evening's darkness for a glimpse of landing lights on the Twin Otter that will carry them back to the mainland.

In the distance, the 322-foot Canadian ice breaker Des Groseilliers is little more than a cluster of lights suspended just above the ice floe that serves as a research platform and subject for the SHEBA project.

This departure, and two more that will take place the next day, close the deployment phase of the most intensely focused, technologically advanced, civilian Arctic climate-research project in history.

For 13 months, the equipment will record details of the amounts of heat exchanged among ocean, ice, and atmosphere. That information will feed the complex computer programs designed to simulate Earth's climate. These climate models estimate that average temperatures in the Arctic will eventually rise to a level twice that of temperatures in lower latitudes under global-warming scenarios. But modelers must make too many guesses about the processes that take place up here. As a result, when they ask their models to forecast next summer's ice melt, the computers overestimate the actual melt by a wide margin.

During the preceding week, activities at the ice station have shifted noticeably. Fewer people are on the ice, and more are in the officer's wardroom, hunched over computers and putting finishing touches on detailed instructions for the handful of scientists and technicians who will staff the camp through the long, dark winter.

Already, the challenges of operating research gear in the harsh Arctic climate are becoming apparent. Out at the remote meteorological sites, power supplies and data recorders are kept in large insulated boxes warmed by propane heaters. The propane tanks must be replaced every two weeks.

The acoustic anemometers, which help researchers determine the heat flux at the remote sites, were tested in large freezer-like rooms to temperatures of -50 degrees F or colder. But the test facilities can't produce the ice crystals that build up on exposed surfaces even on the clearest days. The icy jacket, known as rime, coats the devices here.

"We've got $20,000 rime detectors," grumbles one engineer as he surveys the ice-encrusted devices. He's put in an order for electrical heat tape, which he hopes will discourage rime buildups.

"We'd like to make the first data available to modelers after Christmas," says James Moore of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., which is providing data-management support for the project. In the spring, many of the people leaving this weekend will return for much of the rest of the project's field time, when the ice will be the most active. In addition, aircraft will overfly the area, taking atmospheric measurements, while a Navy submarine will take readings on the underside of the floe to provide yet another measure of ice thickness.

For now, the sense that a critical phase of the project is ending is palpable. Among the "short timers," laughter comes more readily. People who have spent much of their time on the ship at computers find reasons to head out onto the ice one last time.

On Halloween morning, the ship shudders slightly. A lead has opened up under the ship and runs fore and aft into the darkness. The ice on the port side retains its grip on the icebreaker Des Grosseilliers, opening a gap along the starboard side that leaves the gangway dangling over water. Before the open water can freeze too much, a small bulldozer draws the Des Groseilliers back toward the starboard side and the main camp.

On Sunday morning, the lead has spread again. This time, with the ship frozen to the ice on the starboard side, a power line running to equipment on the port side stretches to the breaking point, then snaps. The "live" end falls into the water and shorts out, "smoking" some of the power equipment. Fortunately, the research equipment is fine.

Says one researcher as he walks toward the airport terminal at Deadhorse, Alaska for his flight home, "That's field work for you."

* Previous articles in this series appeared in the daily edition on Oct. 21, 23, 28, 29, 31, and Nov. 3, 5, 12, and 14.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.