Allison Einolf ’13 set sail this summer into a changing climate

Allison Einolf ’13 (Portland, Ore.) spent this summer doing polar oceanography research with physical
oceanography and engineering professor Andreas Muenchow of the University of Delaware. The physics major’s research focused on an area between Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island called the Nares Strait.

In mid-July, shortly before the group left the U.S., that area got international attention when Muenchow posted an online account of the break-off of a large chunk of the Petermann Glacier.

Einolf, who spent the month of August aboard the CCGS Henry Larsen, was among the expedition members who blogged about polar research, history, and climate change. Following are several excerpts from her postings.

To read more, go to

Nares Strait 2012: Of Walrus, Polar Bears, Narwhales, and Nibbles

August 14

Steaming out of Alexandra Fjord after another successful mooring recovery, we are heading south to service two automated weather stations at the southern entrance to Nares Strait. During the last 3 days we have seen schools of narwhales in Petermann Fjord, a polar bear on an ice floe in Kennedy Channel just off Hans Island, and now several schools of walrus in Alexandra Fjord. I do not recall this much wild life during prior trips to Nares Strait.

Most wildlife is first seen on the bridge of the CCGS Henry Larsen. An announcement is usually made via the ship’s loudspeakers that often pipe music or the report of the day. It is a funny sight to see 10 scientists and 10-20 crew scrambles for cameras and a good viewing position. The officer in charge aboard the bridge is also in charge of the ship’s camera whose pictures are placed on a public computer for all aboard to access. I also placed several videos from Petermann Fjord and glacier on the same public access point. It is remarkable how freely everyone aboard shares photos, videos, as well as data, experiences, and skills. It makes for a most pleasant atmosphere working and living together for the 2-3 weeks we scientists are aboard.

As for the narwhales of Petermann Fjord, our sadly absent colleague Dr. Helen Johnson of the University of Oxford was the first person to ever report these bottom-feeding mammals deep inside Petermann Fjord from a helicopter flight in 2009. She also conducted the zodiac survey along the edge of the floating glacier that broke off in 2010 and some more in 2012. Narwhales have been observed to dive down to over 1000 meters depth to feed via tiny pressure and temperature profilers attached their thick skins. The data were transmitted via satellite when the whales surfaced for breathing.

The polar bear knows no fear and approaches every moving object, including a red icebreaker without fear, but lots of curiosity and investigates. Our polar bear perhaps thought that the big red moving ship was a wounded, blood-soaked food item. Everything is food for polar bears; some have been successful to tear down automated weather stations. Two polar bears were sighted from the ship’s helicopter today while landing a party of three to install a new weather station with an Iridium link for real-time data display. Everyone tried to finish the job as quickly as possible to get off the small island without encountering the bears.

Which brings me to the last item of this post: I have been struggling for 2 days with “nybbles” while trying to extract information on how battery voltage changed over time on some of our moorings in order to track down and diagnose a potential malfunction in one of our instruments. And the problem was that some information within a he binary data stream was separated by nybbles. It is a beautiful new word that I learnt 2 days ago from our Chief Scientist Dr. Humfrey Melling. Lots of the many data streams we are dealing with from our moored instruments, our survey instruments, our weather stations, our e-mails, etc., are digital data that are stored as binary (composed of “0” and “1”) or hexadecimal numbers (composed of 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,A,B,C,D,E,F) where our decimal number 255, for example is coded as 11111111 in binary or FF in hexadecimal. The number 255 is represented as 8 bits, which equals 1 byte, which equals 2 nybbles. So a “nibble” is half a byte and the F of a hexadecimal number represents the information content of 1 nybble. To get my voltage recordings, I had to separate a single byte into its two nybbles to allocate one (along with another byte) battery voltage while the other was allocated to a second independent battery voltage.

If this sounds “geek,” it is. In order to watch the narwhales, walrus, and polar bears for a short moment, more advanced skills and a wicked sense of humor and hard work are absolutely essential. We just finished our last CTD cast at 1:30 am local time to measure temperatures and salinities within one nautical mile off Greenland near 78.5 North and 72.5 West. Rain turned to snow … winter is upon us at 2am on Aug.-14 already.

Nare Strait 2012: Entering Uncharted Waters

 Aug. 11, 2012

As scientists, we’re constantly exploring new things, but usually our exploration is within the realm of knowledge. Rarely do we have an opportunity to sail where no one has sailed before. Yesterday our location was plotted inside of what was the Petermann Glacier on the now outdated navigational chart. We were in uncharted waters.

As a child, I read hundreds of books about exploration fictional, historical, futuristic, mythical. I read about traveling to the furthest reaches of the universe or the depths of the ocean, and I longed for the life of an adventurer. So I made igloos out of blankets, and my brother and I fought off dragons and found new worlds in our basement and the nearby parks.

As I grew up, I became slightly disappointed that most of the world is charted and mapped. It took the adventure out of things. I came to accept that I would have to find different ways to explore the world around me, and I turned my love of adventure to science. I never would have guessed that science would bring me to a place of complete unknowns.

I was excited when we saw the Petermann Ice Island at the mouth of the fjord. I was thrilled and amazed, and I kept on taking pictures rather going inside to get a hat and gloves. That was when it first sunk in: No one had seen this before. The ice island has been talked about and examined from satellite imagery, but no one previously had gotten so close they could almost touch it.

I was filled with awe as I photographed it because I realized I could see only its edges near the ship, and that it was in fact so huge I could barely comprehend its size. Even in a helicopter, 3,000 feet up, it was impossible for my fellow scientists to get the entire island into one photo. The expanse of white goes on forever. It’s awe inspiring.

But my excitement at the edge of the ice island was nothing compared to my exhilaration as we broke through the ice at the fjord’s mouth and sailed into uncharted waters. Of course the edges of the fjord have been charted, and they can be seen from satellite imagery, but nothing was known about what lay beneath the ice.

As we lowered the first rosette and brought back the first water samples, I once again realized that we were pioneers. We were the first to be here, since the water here has been covered in ice for at least 180 years, and probably much longer. We were the first to take water samples, and the first to take depth soundings. We are explorers. The adventure of it has had me smiling constantly, and I don’t think that anything I write will come close to describing the wonder of how it feels to be here.

Nares Strait 2012: Of Cod’s Tongues, Scrunchions, Screech—and so much more

August 8, 2012

Tomorrow will mark our first full week aboard the CCGS Henry Larsen. In one week, I’ve learned a lot, ranging from what cod tongue tasted like to the details of sea ice crystal formation. It’s been an incredible week.

Being on the Larsen is almost like being part of a mobile Newfoundland town. Most of the crew speaks in heavy accents that sound more Irish than Canadian, and cod tongues, scrunchions (pork rind), and Screech (40 percent alcohol rum) are normal fare. I tasted cod tongues today, and I made my entire table laugh with the face I made.

The last few days have been full of retrieving moorings from 2009 and CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth) sensor and rosette survey lines. We successfully retrieved six of seven sets of instruments deployed here in 2009, though at least two were severely damaged. A few seem to have hitched a ride with the Petermann ice island in 2010, and are definitely the worse for it.

Today we finished the second of our survey lines. We alternate between lowering the CTD sensor and the rosette, which collects bottles of water at different depths. We then do what some call “piddling the bottles,” or collecting samples from the collected water, to process for data regarding barium, oxygen-18, salinity, and nutrients like phosphate or sulfate.



August 20 2012

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