The countdown is on!

Two weeks from today I leave on my first research-related travel as a part of the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Research Lab (MIRL). For those who haven’t heard, I’m going to Antarctica!  I’ll be gone for about 5 weeks to help install some scientific equipment at various locations on the Antarctic continent.

What kind of equipment, you ask?

The group I’m going with will be installing a few different kinds of magnetometers, sensors that measure changes in Earth’s magnetic field.  Different kinds of magnetometers measure different frequencies of variations in the magnetic field.  Our lab is typically interested in Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) or Ultra Low Frequency (ULF) fluctuations (yes, those are real scientific terms!).  A few months ago I went to a farm outside of campus to test an ELF system, one of the sensors I’m installing on my upcoming trip.   Here’s what it looks like:

ELF magnetometer
ELF magnetometer at Thomson Farm

The long white tube contains the sensor itself.  It’s basically a long metal rod with copper wire wrapped around it millions of times.  The sensor is really sensitive so we have to get it away from any sort of electrical noise, hence the test at a farm outside of town, far away from the power grid.  The spool holds the cable that runs from the main building so we can get the sensor as far away as possible from noisy electrical signals.

Trying to get as far away from civilization as possible in the middle of New England.
Trying to get as far away from civilization as possible in the middle of New England.

In the Antarctic installation this will stretch several hundred feet away from the building where the electronics are housed.  The electronics for the ELF system look something like this:

ELF electronics that will be installed at McMurdo Station, Antarctica

This box takes the information from the magnetometer and turns it into useful bits and bytes that a computer can then save in a format we can read.  Once we were sure the system was functioning properly, we boxed it up and shipped it down to the ice, where it will be waiting for me upon arrival.

What are we measuring all this for?  I’ll let Jon Stewart help me illustrate:

Any questions?  Send them my way.  Otherwise, I’ll continue to update this site throughout my trip, so stay tuned!

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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.

Alaska Part 2: More glaciers!

The next main attraction of the trip was the hike on Matanuska glacier, another terrestrial glacier east of Anchorage.  Along the way we stopped for lunch at a place that grilled freshly-caught Alaskan salmon for us out on the back lawn.    The place also conveniently had this fantastic view of the valley and the glacier itself.

The view of Matanuska Glacier from our lunch cookout.
The view of Matanuska Glacier from our lunch cookout.

When a glacier stops moving it continues to melt under the sun but it doesn’t get any fresh ice to replenish the white surface.  That means all the mud and rocks that were previously inside the glacier pile up on top of the glacier, leaving behind what looks like a muddy field.  It mostly looks pretty gross, but in this case enough mud has accumulated for long enough that a young forest has begun to grow on top of the glacier.  The closest section of trees in the picture below is growing on top of the ice, which scientists first noticed when trees collapsed on top of a melting section of ice!

VIew from the terminus of Matanuska Glacier of the mud and forest on top of the ice.
VIew from the terminus of Matanuska Glacier of the mud and forest on top of the ice.

I really couldn’t even tell that the mud we were walking on was only a thin layer on top of the ice.  When we dug down an inch or two through the mud, though, we found nothing but solid ice.  Here is a great example that, if you look closely, shows rocks suspended in the ice.

A close up view of ice revealed under the mud on Matanuska Glacier.
A close up view of ice revealed under the mud on Matanuska Glacier.

The most interesting stuff, though, was the active part of the glacier.  We hiked across the mud to the ice and up a ways until we came to a small lake that has formed from melting ice in the middle of the glacier.  To get a sense for how big the ice forms are, there is a climber on the left side of the picture climbing the face of the ice (again you might have to click on the image to enlarge in order to see the climber).

View of the small lake that has formed in the middle of Matanuska Glacier.
View of the small lake that has formed in the middle of Matanuska Glacier.

The big muddy object in the foreground of this picture is one of the really cool features found on glaciers.  Rocks that are propped up like this are called table rocks and can be found all over the surface of active glaciers.  As the surface of glaciers melt, they leave behind all the rocks and mud contained within.  As the rocks and mud are first exposed to direct sunlight, however, the ice underneath the objects are hidden from the sun and therefore can’t melt as fast as the ice around them, so the objects are propped up on these little mounds of ice.

All the mud and rocks wasn’t what I had pictured when I first imagined hiking on a glacier.  The ice is what makes glaciers so visually stunning.  In lots of place we found this really vibrantly colored blue ice.

Glacier ice melts and re-freezes in bubble-free ice that has this blue hue.
Glacier ice melts and re-freezes in bubble-free ice that has this blue hue.

Some of the ice in a glacier melts and refreezes, and when this happens all the bubbles are squeezed out of the ice.  This denser, bubble-free ice scatters the light differently, giving the ice a beautiful blue hue.  Here we saw a couple layers of the blue ice but one of the layers is partially covered in dirt and rocks.

There was a ton more we saw just on this day, but these were some of the main highlights.  This was probably the best part of the trip for me, when else will I get to walk on a glacier!?

Alaska Part 1

To get started with my blog, what better way to kick things off than with our trip to Alaska.  After only a few days we have seen some incredible sights.  The wildlife has been pretty spectacular, and that includes our first whale sighting (!!!) and my first glimpse of a moose (at 65 mph on the highway, but it still counts).  The main attraction of this trip, though, has been the glaciers.

Our first close up was at Aialik Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park.  The glacier is about a mile wide and over 20 miles long, stretching up into the Harding Ice Sheet.  For reference, the speck at the bottom right of the glacier is a 95 foot cruise boat (you’ll probably need to click on the image to enlarge in order to see the boat)!

Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. As the nice gentleman sharing a table with us on the cruise ship remarked, "that [chills] a lot of high balls!"
Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. As the nice gentleman sharing a table with us on the cruise ship remarked, “that [chills] a lot of high balls!”
This glacier is a tidewater glacier, which means the glacier terminates at the ocean.  These glaciers are overall relatively stable and less sensitive to climate change than others.  These glaciers are really interesting to see because they primarily lose ice mass by calving, which is the technical term for a big hunk of ice breaking off and falling into the ocean.  Hearing the ice calve sounds like thunder rolling and requires you keep a good distance from the edge.

Next up was Portage Glacier, east of Anchorage.  This is a terrestrial glacier that comes down out of the mountains but doesn’t terminate at the ocean.  This is very accessible by boat or by hiking.  This glacier has been studied by scientists for well over 100 years.

Portage Glacier, 1958 (NOAA)
View of Portage Glacier from site of current visitor center, 1958 (NOAA)

This glacier has been retreating back up into the mountains for over 100 years, leaving Portage Lake in its wake.  Even just 50 years ago the lake was little more than just a puddle.  Now the lake is 600 feet deep at the center!  Today, a photo from a similar vantage point looks like this.

View from Portage Lake, June 2014
View from Portage Lake from visitor center, June 2014

The current edge of the glacier today has receded back behind the dark mountain on the right, not even in sight from the 2014 photo of Portage Lake above.  The ice you seen in the mountains of the Portage Lake photo is actually Burns Glacier, and Portage Glacier is around behind the large mountain on the right of the photo.  An up close photo of Portage Glacier looks almost like a tidewater glacier.

Portage Glacier, June 2014
Portage Glacier, June 2014

As you can see, the glacier is right up next to the water, so some calving occurs like it does in tidewater glaciers.  The dark spot in the middle of the glacier is the shore of the lake, though, which means the glacier has almost receded out of the lake.  At the terminus the glacier is about a half mile wide and towers a couple hundred feet over the water.

Hello world

Hi everybody!

I have decided to start a blog, inspired mostly by the other MIRL students that have come before.  I currently work in the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Research Lab (MIRL) at the University of New Hampshire.  Previous students have kept online journals (a.k.a. blogs) to document their travels and field work with the lab.  I’m getting started a little bit early to get some practice in before documenting my research field work.

This blog will give me a chance to share with everybody what I’m doing with my research and keep everyone up to date.  I plan to post about the science related events going on in my life, including more than just my travels with the lab.  If anyone has any questions about the things I post or even about things that I haven’t posted, please feel free to ask.