ISR Workshop Pt 2

Since the experiment night was such a late night, the organizers were merciful and put together a short excursion Wednesday morning that didn’t require much brain power.  We were shuttled down to a nearby park for a little nature walk, stopping once or twice along the way due to stray reindeer in the road.

I was never quick enough to get a snapshot of the reindeer in the road that forced us to stop the bus as the reindeer ran off into the woods. The driver did, however, slow down long enough for us to get a photo of domesticated reindeer.  Not exactly wild animals, but you get the point.

After spending a few hours outside on a short treasure hunt it was time to head back to Sodankylä and get to work.  As it turned out, the previous night’s experiment hadn’t turned out quite like we hoped.  The data from our “Plan C” was a little disappointing; imagine a storm chaser getting 2 hours to run an experiment at a world class facility but having only clear, blue skies to look at.  Fortunately for us, the radar facility in Sondrestrom, Greenland was operating very similarly to our “Plan A” experiment idea.  Mary McCready and the rest of the Sondrestrom crew were extremely helpful by providing us with a backup set of data to work with.

The Sondrestrom Research Facility is located along the west coast of Greenland just north of the Arctic Circle. The site is operated by SRI International and the National Science Foundation. (Photos courtesy of Mary McCready, SRI)

Before we got completely lost in data analysis, we found time to have a little more fun Wednesday night.  In Finland, saunas are a very integral part of the culture.  Some polls have reported that there is a sauna for every 2 people in Finland.  Our hosts wanted to make sure we got the opportunity to share in this bit of the culture, so they invited us out for a night at the sauna, which even included a floating sauna!

While most of the evening was spent in a traditional sauna along the shore, we each got a chance to experience the floating sauna. It’s very refreshing to open the sauna door and jump into the river and cool off, literally just a step away. (Photo by David Koronczay)

Thursday and Friday were spent working like crazy to get ready for the final presentations on Saturday morning.  The mornings were typically spent in lecture learning more about the radar systems and the afternoons/evenings were spent in group work cranking through the data as fast as possible.

Our original experiment idea involved looking horizon to horizon, north to straight up to south, in order to map the region in the atmosphere where aurora appears, typically called the auroral oval.  The data from the Sondrestrom radar was a little more complicated than our original experiment.  It performed similar horizon to horizon scans, but slightly tipped away from the vertical (local meridian).  The Sondrestrom mode produced data profiles that look like a fan waving back and forth.  The good news: we saw aurora!

In the video above the green regions indicate elevated electron density in the ionosphere (~100-400+ km altitude).  The occasional blips of red indicate regions of increased electron density, which is one way we can identify aurora even when the skies are too bright to see it visually.

Our final presentations on Saturday morning were a total group effort, everyone contributed. Here I am presenting some of the introductory material while the rest of my group waits patiently for their turn. (Photo by Phil Erickson)

Several days and long nights later, we were ready to present the results of the experiment to the rest of the school.  After a lot of hard work we had something we were confident to share and the presentation went well.  Just like that, however, the school was over and it was time to pack up, load the bus, and head back to the train station for our trip back to Helsinki.

Santa’s Village is outside Rovaniemi, Finland. Just to clarify, he still *works* at the North Pole, this is just his offseason home. (By Ruslan0202 (talk) (Uploads) – Own work, Public Domain,

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we cross the Arctic Circle (~66° N latitude) on the way from Sodankylä to the train station in Rovaniemi.  Perhaps more importantly, we drove right past Santa’s Village, though we weren’t allowed to stop and say hello to the Big Guy.  Once back at the train station we took the same overnight train back to Helsinki.

The side benefit of super long days near the Arctic Circle is an extremely long sunset. This sort of view lasted for the better part of an hour during our train ride back south. It was a very nice way to cap off a long week of hard work.

The next morning once I arrived in Helsinki, I immediately started a week of travel through more of Scandinavia.  That will be the subject of another post (or two) in the near future.  Thanks for reading.  Until next time…

Addendum: For anyone who would like to see what we presented, I’ve uploaded our presentation here:  ISR2016-Group4.  A lot of it may not make sense without someone to talk about it, but it at least has some pretty pictures!


Longyearbyen tidbits

After five and a half weeks on the road, including about three weeks in Longyearbyen, there are a handful of things I found interesting but never managed to make it into blog posts.  I thought today would be a good day to share some of the rest of the photos from my trip.

You see the influence of polar bears is all over the town. This sign is the first thing you see once you step out of the Longyearbyen airport.  Watch out for bears!

One of the first things you notice in Longyearbyen are the polar bears.  In my experience this just meant signs and statues, but no one leaves town without proper protection.  Cross-country skiers don’t leave town without a rifle slung across their backs (origin of the biathlon, perhaps?).

This guy guards the hallway in Mary Ann’s restaurant in Longyearbyen.  I’m not sure who tried to box this bear but I think the bear would win.

I never saw a live polar bear while I was up there, and I’m fine with that.  I think if you can see a bear you are probably too close.  I will happily live with just seeing the stuffed version.

The Global Seed Vault is located just outside of town up the side of a mountain. It holds more than 10,000 seed samples of over 300 different species.

There wasn’t much to see in the dark, but the Global Seed Vault is located just outside of town, along the drive up to KSAT, a massive satellite tracking facility.  Some say that the seed vault is preparation for re-starting society after a potential global doomsday scenario.

There are coal mines all over the island. This mine on the side of the mountain slope is just above the town but hasn’t produced any coal for years.

Most of the economy on the island revolves around the coal industry.  In recent years tourism and research facilities have begun to supplement the production of the mines.

Many of the mines would transfer their coal down to the docks via a cable car system, similar to a ski lift. The town of Longyearbyen is dotted with towers that would transfer the cars loaded with coal to a central location.

The complex system used to move coal around was interesting, but it took a while to figure out what the goofy shaped building on the edge of town was used for.

Three different mines would shuttle coal to this building perched on a ridge at the edge of town. The coal would then go from this building down the slope to ships waiting in the dock.

Svalbard is technically a part of Norway, but is governed by many of its own laws.  Russia lays claim to the island as well, and a few towns are primarily Russian in culture.

Russia lays claim to Svalbard in addition to Norway since both are interested in the resources on the island. Although Longyearbyen is primarily a Norwegian settlement, you can see the Russian influence in town, like this bust of Vladimir Lenin at the restaurant Kroa.

Part of the Norwegian influence on the culture is the cuisine.  There are a few things I got to try on my trip that you won’t find in the grocery stores back in the U.S.

Top left: Minke whale on a pizza. Bottom left: Reindeer stew (those are cranberries on the stew, not Rudolph nose) Right: Pizza Hut ad at the Tromso airport for Reindeer pizza.

I tried seal steak but forgot to get a photo.   That was the rarest thing to find on a menu.  I saw whale at several different restaurants, but it was also not available everywhere.  Only a few countries still serve whale, including Norway, Iceland, and Japan.  Reindeer was a little more common, but still not something I’m used to seeing as a dinner option.  All three were delicious!

Svalbard reindeer are a unique breed found only on the island. They are specially adapted to surviving the harsh climate. You can see them in the middle of town just going about their business.

I did manage to see reindeer outside of a restaurant.  I heard stories of years past where reindeer were seen all over town in Longyearbyen.  This year I only heard of a few sightings while we were there, including this one on my way to the store.  I only had my phone on me at the time and didn’t want to get too close, so the picture is a little fuzzy.

If you ever wondered where all your letters to Santa went, I think I’ve found the answer. As the northernmost civilized settlement (only 800 miles from the North Pole), I think this is where the big guy gets his mail.

Christmas is huge in Norway, the whole town was decorated by the time we left.  They have to get their trees shipped up from the mainland since no trees grow on the island, but that doesn’t dampen the spirit of the locals.

I had another amazing trip this winter and am extremely grateful for the opportunity to see another corner of the world.  Although I am certain Christmas in Norway would have been quite an experience, I am happy to be home after a successful mission.

Until next time…

Day 5 – Signs of Life

Today was the first day I did science-related work down on the ice instead of just training.  We went up the hill from town to an area called Arrival Heights.  My research group already has instruments installed up there so I was going up to scout out the area for the new equipment installation.  The good news was the items I shipped down in October made it safely and were waiting for me when I got there.  The bad news was the unforeseen hoops I’ll have to jump through before getting to work.  So today turned into only a scouting mission, but it’s at least a start.  On the bright side, this was the first glimpse I got of Mt. Erebus, the tallest mountain in the area at 12,448 feet and also the southernmost active volcano in the world.

This is the road leaving McMurdo headed toward the Discovery Hut
This is the road leaving McMurdo headed toward the Discovery Hut

After dinner, since the sun never sets, we went for a short hike out of town to Scott’s Discovery Hut. It’s named after Robert Falcon Scott, one of the first major explorers in the area.  The hut was built in 1902 and was the first building on Ross Island, where McMurdo is located.

The road leading up to Scott's Hut
The road leading up to Scott’s Hut

The building has been restored to preserve the history of Scott’s accomplishment.  100+ years of Antarctic winters takes quite the toll.

View of Scott's Hut from the observation point.  McMurdo is visible in the background.
View of Scott’s Hut from the observation point. McMurdo is visible in the background.

More importantly, when we went out on the observation point above the hut to check out the view, we saw our first (interesting) wildlife: seals!

One of the seals just hanging out on the ice.
One of the seals just hanging out on the ice.

They spotted us pretty quickly…

It didn't take long for the seals to notice us up on the ridge but they didn't seem to mind.
It didn’t take long for the seals to notice us up on the ridge but they didn’t seem to mind.

…and posed for us…

The seals relax frequently between shuffling around on the ice.
The seals relax frequently between shuffling around on the ice.

…and talked to us…

The seals made lots of noise breathing and exhaling, and occasionally yelled really loudly.
The seals made lots of noise breathing and exhaling, and occasionally yelled really loudly.

…and I’m pretty sure even waved at us.

A couple of the seals looked like they were having a good time rolling around (watch for seal poop!)
A couple of the seals looked like they were having a good time rolling around (watch out for seal poop!)

It was definitely exciting to finally see some cool animals down here.  I hope to see as much as I can while we’re here on the coast since there won’t be anything alive at the South Pole.

Until next time…

Penguin status check: 3 days, still no penguins

Alaska Part 3: More than just ice

The last day of the glacier course was spent on a cruise out of Whittier, AK into Prince William Sound.  The cruise promised we’d see 26 glaciers in one day, but I’ll spare you more pictures of ice 🙂  Instead, I’d like to happily announce that our whale-watching luck has turned for the better.  We saw whales for the second time in a row!

Humpback whale lunge feeding in Prince William Sound
Humpback whale lunge feeding in Prince William Sound

This humpback was lunge feeding, which is how you usually get the shots of the whale’s head coming out of the water.  This guy was too close to the shore to clear the water so all we got was some fin, but it’s still spectacular watching these huge animals move in the water.

After the glacier course we headed up north from Anchorage to Denali National Park where Mt McKinley is located.  We stayed in a cabin near the park entrance that had an awesome view, despite the fact that it rained almost the entire time we were there.  Our view for most of the time looked something like this:

The view from our cabin's front door near Denali National Park
The view from our cabin’s front door near Denali National Park

There are more mountains hiding in the background, but I felt this was a pretty accurate representation of the weather while were there.  Still awesome, though.  For our only full day at the park we got up super early for an all day bus tour since you can only access most of the park roads by bus.  It’s amazing how easy it was to get up early when the sun basically never sets!  From the bus we saw all kinds of cool wildlife, including several moose, Dall sheep, golden eagles, and caribou.  We even saw a female grizzly and her two cubs.

Brown bears in Denali Nat'l Park
Brown bears in Denali Nat’l Park

We got just past halfway to the end of the 92 mile park road when we were informed that the road had been washed out further along and we’d have to turn back.  It was definitely a bummer but the trip was still worth it.  There were plenty of mountains visible along the ride which made for spectacular views, but we didn’t get to see the big one.  We had been told even before starting that only 30% of visitors ever get to see Mt McKinley due to poor visibility, so getting cut short before reaching that viewpoint wasn’t a total disappointment.  Since we got cut short on the bus tour we had to go exploring for wildlife in what little bit of the park we could access on our own.  In a chance on our last drive out of the park we met this guy:

Young bull moose in Denali Nat'l Park
Young bull moose in Denali Nat’l Park

I like to think he was saying goodbye and apologizing for the cloudy weather.  The next day we drove back to Anchorage where it was of course sunny and beautiful out, but I suppose that’s just the way the weather goes in Alaska.