Grit Factor and Teamwork

Noah Walcutt, University of Rhode Island, inspects mangled sediment traps recovered from the first sampling site. Shark damage was later confirmed. Credit: University of Rhode Island/Melissa Omand
Noah Walcutt, University of Rhode Island, inspects mangled sediment traps recovered from the first sampling site. Shark damage was later confirmed. Credit: University of Rhode Island/Melissa Omand

by Stephanie Schollaert Uz, North Pacific Ocean

Shark attack. Rough weather. Intermittent technology. These are just a few of the challenges of shipboard research on the R/V Falkor. Yet the science continues with unbelievable tenacity on the 28-day Sea to Space Particle Investigation.

When Melissa Omand’s sediment traps, deployed to measure sinking particles, were returned from the sea bent and broken at the end of the first 4-day sampling site, she was briefly discouraged. She wondered whether her experiment to collect data with an iPhone was jeopardizing established collection methods. The iPhone housing is big and heavy and could have swung into the other three sediment-collecting tubes and smashed them.

Then one of the line handlers showed me a shard that got stuck in his finger—later revealed under the microscope of the resident taxonomist as part of a shark’s tooth and confirmed by shark experts ashore. Shark bite marks were also noticed on the more rugged, indefatigable wire walker. Several ship’s crew volunteered their time and talent to rebuild the sediment traps stronger and better. After that, the refurbished sediment traps survived deployment and collected stunning data at the next station.

Hemispheric view by Suomi-NPP VIIRS on Feb 9, 2017 in true color. Clouds and atmospheric particles are white; ocean is blue. The ship’s track is shown in the red line. Station M is our last sampling site. Credit: NASA/Norman Kuring
Hemispheric view by Suomi-NPP VIIRS on Feb 9, 2017 in true color. Clouds and atmospheric particles are white; ocean is blue. The ship’s track is shown in the red line. Station M is our last sampling site. Credit: NASA/Norman Kuring

As those on the U.S. West Coast are well aware, the past month has seen a constant procession of low pressure weather systems across the Pacific. One of the main goals of this cruise is to collect data that can later be used to tune ocean color satellite measurements. Rough weather at sea is more than an inconvenience: it makes it unsafe to use the light sensor we put in the water to compare to satellite measurements. Persistent clouds obscure satellite coverage of our area—making match-ups between in-water measurements and satellite data impossible anyway.

To avoid the bad weather and high seas we would have encountered on our original planned cruise track nearly straight north, the ship’s captain worked closely with the chief scientist to revise our plans and head east.

As we started work at our second site, however, we lost all internet. The ship’s IT coordinator found a broken satellite antenna that caused the internet not to work during certain ship headings. Again, the captain worked closely with the science party to modify the course track for on-site sampling that would also permit internet connectivity.

In spite of everyone’s best attempts to maximize our bandwidth, we still experienced repeated drop-outs during the NASA Earth Facebook live event we conducted from the ship on Feb 6. It felt like the movie Groundhog Day, with repeated re-introductions as we reconnected to the event again and again. Thankfully, we had help from NASA JPL colleagues ashore and an engaged audience who remained online and sent excellent questions and follow-up questions afterward.

Another challenge was finding and recovering the sediment traps from the second sampling site as it was issuing a weak and intermittent GPS signal between large waves. All hands on deck kept look-out during the wind and rain until its little orange top was spotted. The crew skillfully maneuvered the ship along-side and caught the instrument’s yellow handling line to lift it back aboard with a crane.

IMG_0673
In heavy seas, Philipp Günther, Falkor’s chief officer, retrieves sediment traps that were deployed around 150 meters deep to collect sinking ocean particles. Credit: NASA/Stephanie Schollaert Uz

Over and over again during this expedition, we experience challenges that are solved through teamwork between the science party and ship’s crew. The novel data being collected here would not be possible without this persistence and collaboration.

Participating in this field campaign to improve the quality of ocean color satellite measurements are five of us from NASA Goddard’s Ocean Color group, plus NASA- and NSF-funded scientists from other organizations. In addition to improving current satellite measurements, data collected here will assist in the development of algorithms for NASA’s first hyper spectral satellite, Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE), scheduled to launch in 2022.

R/V Falkor ship-time is generously provided by the Schmidt Ocean Institute, a philanthropic organization led by Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy Schmidt. For #Sea2Space cruise track and updates: https://schmidtocean.org/cruise/sea-space-particle-investigation/

Super Bowl Sunday in the Atmosphere’s Mixing Bowl

Mission manager Tim Moes and Operations Engineer Matt Berry support the Falcons aboard NASA's DC-8 flying laboratory on the ATom flight leg from Fiji to New Zealand, Feb. 6, 2017. Credit: NASA/Ellen Gray
Mission manager Tim Moes and Operations Engineer Matt Berry support the Falcons aboard NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory on the ATom flight leg from Fiji to New Zealand on Feb. 6, 2017. Credit: NASA

by Ellen Gray / CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND /

Good communication is key to keeping the 44 scientists and aircrew happy on NASA’s DC-8 aircraft. The team is in close quarters for a month-long journey around the world to survey the atmosphere on NASA’s Atmospheric Tomography, or ATom, mission. On the plane they keep in touch with each other via headset and with scientists supporting the mission back home via satellite chat room.

But on Feb. 6, on the other side of the International Date Line (Feb. 5 in the United States), as the team made their transit from Nadi, Fiji, to Christchurch, New Zealand, one topic was forbidden—updates on the Super Bowl.

Róisín Commane, an atmospheric scientist and Patriots fan at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, did a rough poll. Half the people on the plane followed football, and they were nearly evenly split between Patriots and Falcons fans. And all of them wanted to see the game unspoiled.

On the ground in Christchurch, Quincy Allison, the logistics coordinator with NASA’s Earth Science Project Office out of Ames Research Center, had already arranged with hotel staff to record the game and play it in a conference room after the ATom team got in that evening.

Meanwhile, during their Super Bowl news blackout, the team continued to make measurements to better understand our atmosphere. The ATom mission is the most comprehensive survey of the atmosphere to date, with 22 science instruments measuring more than 200 gases and air particles and an itinerary that has it tracing from the North Pole down the Pacific Ocean to Christchurch, then cutting across to the southern tip of Chile, then traveling back up the center of the Atlantic to Greenland and the Arctic. Along the way they’re island hopping between flights, with only a day or two on the ground before moving on. Christchurch, at about halfway, is their longest stopover at three days and also their major resupply point.

Gathering data to help understand the atmospheric chemistry that drives air quality around the globe is worth the grueling pace for Commane, who likened the atmosphere to a different kind of bowl.

Atmospheric chemist Róisín Commane on the stairs of DC-8. Air intake valves stubble the outside of the plane to draw air into the instruments while in flight. Nadi, Fiji, Feb 6 2017. Credit: NASA
Atmospheric chemist Róisín Commane on the stairs of NASA’s DC-8. Air intake valves stubble the outside of the plane to draw air into the instruments while in flight. Nadi, Fiji, Feb 6 2017. Credit: NASA

“It’s like a mixing bowl,” she said. The air over the oceans is theoretically clean, but winds, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, carry pollution from industry or fires from continent to continent. Looking at some of their data in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, she said they saw signs of fires. “I said, ‘Where did this come from?’” she recalled. The weather and wind models said Africa, where agricultural fires are common in the summer and fall. “That’s on the opposite side of the world.”

Clouds above the Pacific Ocean on the way from Fiji to New Zealand. Feb 6, 2017. Credit: NASA
Clouds above the Pacific Ocean on the way from Fiji to New Zealand on Feb 6, 2017. Credit: NASA

Air doesn’t stay in one place, and as it travels, the hundreds of different gases and particles that make up the air encounter new ones generated in different areas, and they chemically react with each other. Some of the pollutants are scrubbed out of the atmosphere this way, disappearing or transformed into new gases. These are the processes that the ATom science team is interested in learning more about, in addition to just knowing how much pollution is really out there over the ocean.

A lack of measurements gives people a false sense that everything is okay, said Commane. “We think we don’t need to do better,” she said. Poor air quality is something she doesn’t want anyone to live with, whether it’s generated at home or is a wind-driven import. “You might not always be able to see it, but when you’re in it you can feel it. You can taste it.”

 

From One Seasonal Extreme to Another

The crew of the C-130, including flight engineer Archie Archambault, foreground, prepare to depart Wallops for Shreveport, Louisiana — the first stop for ACT-America’s winter field campaign. Credit: NASA/Patrick Black
The crew of the C-130, including flight engineer Archie Archambault, foreground, prepare to depart Wallops for Shreveport, Louisiana — the first stop for ACT-America’s winter field campaign. Credit: NASA/Patrick Black

by Joe Atkinson / HAMPTON, VIRGINIA /

Last year, the first in a series of five flight campaigns for Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America, or ACT-America, sent researchers into the field at the blazing peak of summer.

The flights were investigating how weather systems and other atmospheric phenomena affect the movement of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere around the eastern half of the United States.

This year, those same researchers are doing it all again. And this time, they’re heading out during the deepest, coldest part of winter. Flights out of Shreveport, Louisiana, begin February 1. In coming weeks, ACT-America’s base of operations will move twice — once to Lincoln, Nebraska, and then to coastal Virginia.

A crew makes final preparations to NASA’s C-130H at Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore ahead of ACT-America’s winter field campaign. Credit: NASA/Patrick Black
A crew makes final preparations to NASA’s C-130H at Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore ahead of ACT-America’s winter field campaign. Credit: NASA/Patrick Black

So why trade one seasonal extreme for another?

“Because the carbon budget, especially when it comes to carbon dioxide, is highly seasonal,” said Ken Davis, ACT-America prinicpal investigator from Penn State University.

From summer to winter, the exchange of carbon dioxide between the biosphere on land and the atmosphere goes through some big changes.

“The biosphere is growing vigorously in the summer, taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,” said Davis from his office at Penn State. “In the winter, it’s slowly breathing out — not a lot, because it’s cold. But it is slowly exhaling all winter long.”

The transport of greenhouse gases through the atmosphere can be quite different in winter as well. The jet stream plunges deeper south and tends to bring with it more intense storms. Those mid-latitude cyclones cause vigorous mixing of the gases in the atmosphere.

One thing that tends to stay relatively steady from season to season — human carbon emissions from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

What makes ACT-America unique is that it marks the first time aircraft outfitted to take advanced measurements of greenhouse gases have collected continuous data on how greenhouse gases are transported through the atmosphere by weather systems.

Previous measurements studying greenhouse gases have mostly come from tower-based measurement stations and satellites (one of ACT-America’s goals is actually to verify data coming in from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite), or from aircraft flying in fair weather conditions when atmospheric transport is relatively simple.

The campaign will use instruments on a C-130H based out of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and a King Air B-200 based out of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Charles Howell, electronics engineer, makes final adjustments to the electrical system of NASA’s King Air B-200 at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman
Charles Howell, electronics engineer, makes final adjustments to the electrical system of NASA’s King Air B-200 at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

Davis believes the data the ACT-America team is collecting could help paint a much more detailed picture of what’s happening with greenhouse gases in the U.S.

“It’s our vision to enable the research community to monitor over time and space carbon dioxide and methane fluxes,” he said. “For example, if forests in the eastern U.S. become stressed by droughts and begin to de-gas their carbon stocks into the atmosphere, we want be able to detect it from atmospheric data and know quickly that we have a problem. And if measures are taken to reduce methane emissions from agriculture, and oil and gas extraction, we want to be able to verify that they’re proving effective.”

Breaking up the Intensity

Amid the flurry of activity that comes with being in the field, Ken Davis, principal investigator for ACT-America from Penn State, finds moments of calm in running and exploring nature. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman
Amid the flurry of activity that comes with being in the field, Ken Davis, principal investigator for ACT-America from Penn State, finds moments of calm in running and exploring nature. Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

That long-term vision motivates Davis as he faces what he refers to as “the intensity of the field deployment.”

To keep the intensity manageable, he finds little ways to decompress. The Penn State professor is an avid runner. Last summer, when he wasn’t on a flight or planning a flight or doing something related to the campaign, it wasn’t unusual to catch Davis in his unofficial uniform: a T-shirt, shorts and running shoes. That’s not likely to change for this flight campaign, regardless of the weather.

“That’s been my thing for a long time,” he said. “Get outside, go for a run.”

Davis also hopes to slow down and enjoy his surroundings — particularly in Virginia.

Last July wasn’t exactly the best time for that. From his temporary home base at Wallops, Davis ventured out to visit nearby Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore. The area is known for its pristine beaches, herds of wild ponies and migratory bird populations.

Unfortunately, when it’s warm, the area is also known for its hungry mosquitoes.

So Davis hopes the winter season will not only bring changes to concentrations of greenhouse gases, but also to concentrations of blood-sucking insects.

“We went out there in the summer and were eaten alive,” he said. “But I like the place and it should be fun to see it in the winter when we won’t be eaten alive.”

Why Ocean Particles? Why NASA?

by Stephanie Schollaert Uz / NORTHERN PACIFIC OCEAN /

Rolling with the waves on the research vessel Falkor, we’re searching for particles—primarily microscopic marine plants called phytoplankton, which play an important role in supporting life on Earth. Ocean phytoplankton come in many sizes, colors and types. This diversity determines their roles in the marine food web and our ability to distinguish them from Earth-observing satellites.

With improved optical instrumentation, we hope to regularly monitor their unique spectral signatures, or colors, from space. The collection of high-quality measurements taken at sea is essential for achieving that goal. Among the international team of 14 scientists and an artist-at-sea aboard this ship, many are using new technology and methods for the first time.

Zrinka Ljubesic, University of Zagreb, is observing phytoplankton and swimming zooplankton in sea water samples through the microscope. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA
Zrinka Ljubesic, University of Zagreb, is observing phytoplankton and swimming zooplankton in sea water samples through a microscope. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA

We sailed out of Honolulu on Thursday, January 26, and will end the expedition, called the Sea to Space Particle Investigation, in Portland, Oregon, next month. Our first stop to test instruments and collect samples was near the Marine Optical Buoy (MOBY) off Lanai, which has been measuring ocean color to calibrate NASA satellite data for 20 years.

Cloud-free skies at MOBY meant that I could take indirect measurements of atmospheric particles using a hand-held sun photometer. Knowing what’s in the sky is important for correcting satellite measurements of ocean color. About 90 percent of the signal satellites receive comes from the atmosphere. These sky measurements may also provide clues about the presence of mineral aerosols that fertilize phytoplankton blooms when they fall out of the air.

Hawaiian Islands in green with chlorophyll concentrations contoured at 0.1 mg m-3 intervals from the Suomi-NPP VIIRS at 22:54 UTC on Jan 27, 2017. The ship’s track is shown in the red line. Credit: Norman Kuring/NASA
The Hawaiian Islands are shaded green, and chlorophyll concentrations are contoured at intervals of 0.1 milligrams per cubic meter from the Suomi-NPP VIIRS at 22:54 UTC on Jan 27, 2017. The ship’s track is shown in the red line. Credit: Norman Kuring/NASA

Participating in this field campaign to improve the quality of ocean color satellite measurements are five of us from NASA Goddard’s Ocean Color group, including chief scientist Ivona Cetinic, plus NASA-funded scientists from other organizations. In addition to improving current satellite measurements, data collected here will assist in the development of algorithms for NASA’s first hyper spectral satellite called Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem, or PACE, scheduled to launch in 2022.

Scientists in yellow hard hats: Colleen Durkin (left) of Moss Landing Marine Lab and Melissa Omand of the University of Rhode Island (URI) ready sediment traps assisted by R/V Falkor crew members. The aluminum block below one trap includes an iPhone camera programmed for time lapse image collection by Omand and Noah Walcutt, both of URI, for use in holographic research by Ben Knorlein, Brown University. Credit: Zrinka Ljubesic, University of Zagreb
Scientists in yellow hard hats: Colleen Durkin (left) of Moss Landing Marine Lab and Melissa Omand of the University of Rhode Island (URI) ready sediment traps assisted by R/V Falkor crew members. The aluminum block below one trap includes an iPhone camera programmed for time lapse image collection by Omand and Noah Walcutt, also of URI, for use in holographic research by Ben Knorlein, Brown University. Credit: Zrinka Ljubesic, University of Zagreb

The expedition also includes scientists funded by the National Science Foundation who are conducting basic research into the variability of sinking particles, sometimes called marine snow. Two different types of sediment traps are being deployed to capture sinking particles, such as fecal pellets, aggregates and shells from certain phytoplankton, that will be identified under the microscope in the lab and through DNA sequencing.

A video clip of the Wirewalker being deployed from the RV/Falkor. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA

Meg Estapa of Skidmore College uses sediment traps mounted to a neutrally buoyant float that drifts around 150 meters deep near the base of the wind-mixed surface layer. Melissa Omand of the University of Rhode Island (URI) has sediment traps that also drift at a depth of 150 meters but is tethered to a surface buoy. A Wirewalker cycles up and down between them every 10 minutes measuring physical and biological indicators such as temperature, oxygen and phytoplankton fluorescence.

The traps go with the flow for four days as we sample the ocean down to 500 meters deep in a 20-square-kilometer box around them. The crew is extremely helpful and supportive of our research—even when it involves such duties as collecting water samples in the dead of night.

R/V Falkor ship time is generously provided by the Schmidt Ocean Institute, a philanthropic organization led by Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy Schmidt. Ironically, the main challenge is insufficient internet bandwidth. We’re all struggling to maintain minimal connection to the networked world. To distract us from our separation anxiety, however, is an incredible neverending menu of amazing food that one scientist compared to a wedding feast.

For #Sea2Space cruise track and updates: https://schmidtocean.org/cruise/sea-space-particle-investigation/

Ready to Go to Sea? Heck, Yes!

by Stephanie Schollaert Uz / GREENBELT, MARYLAND /

On January 20, as our nation’s capitol kicks into full inauguration frenzy, I’ll be catching a flight in the pre-dawn hours and heading west to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I have never been more excited to head out to sea! Guilt about leaving my family for a month-long research cruise aside, I have been studying the ocean from a chair for too long and jumped at the chance to participate in this expedition.

Carlie Wiener of the Schmidt Ocean Institute with a Lego model of the research vessel Falkor, the platform for the ‘Sea to Space Particle Investigation’. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz
Carlie Wiener of the Schmidt Ocean Institute with a Lego model of the research vessel Falkor, the platform for the Sea to Space Particle Investigation. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz

I spent the early part of my career at sea plying the North and South Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea: first as a Naval meteorology and oceanography officer and then as an oceanography researcher. More recently, my research has involved the nearly continuous view that satellites afford. Satellites are great because they view the entire ocean, nearly every day! But they only see the surface of the ocean, and sometimes we need to know what’s happening underneath, in the interior of the ocean, or how small-scale dynamics in the ocean are related to the surface signatures that we can detect from satellites. That is why NASA needs measurements collected at sea, and I’m looking forward to getting a close look at all the new in situ instruments in action.

The main goals of this expedition are to observe and characterize ocean phytoplankton (kinds, size, function) and sinking carbon. Measurements we collect about particles in the ocean and atmosphere will be used to tune, or ‘ground-truth,’ ocean color satellite observations. There is a lot of diversity among microscopic phytoplankton, and NASA is designing a satellite to distinguish major kinds. Data from this cruise will contribute toward that effort.

FlowCam microscopic images of diatoms (left), dinoflagellates (center & right). Credit: Harry Nelson/Fluid Imaging Technologies, Inc.
FlowCam microscopic images of diatoms (left), and dinoflagellates (center & right). Credit: Harry Nelson/Fluid Imaging Technologies, Inc.

How have I been preparing for this field campaign? Personally, I began preparing months ago by re-reading “The Never-ending Story” by Michael Ende with my ten-year-old, as the ship is named for the luckdragon Falkor. I visited my dentist and doctor to avoid any distraction in the middle of the ocean by a minor illness, such as a toothache, or a major emergency that could cost the expedition precious days at sea. More recently I have been collecting proper gear for the weather and conditions we expect between the tropics and North Pacific: water-proof overalls and jacket, steel-toed boots. Friends who’ve been to sea more recently also advised packing other details I’d forgotten, like shower shoes. With all the wintertime weather we could get, I’m packing motion-sickness medicine in case of high seas.

My sea bag - no space to store suitcases at sea – packed for the tropics and the foul weather anticipated in the North Pacific. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA
My sea bag – no space to store suitcases at sea – packed for the tropics and the foul weather anticipated in the North Pacific. Credit: Stephanie Schollaert Uz/NASA

Professional preparations also started months ago. My scientific contribution to the campaign will include monitoring physical variables (temperatures, currents, sea-surface heights) that indicate dynamical processes bringing nutrients from the depths toward the surface ocean to fertilize phytoplankton blooms. I’ve been talking to colleagues at NASA Goddard, JPL and NOAA who provide continuous near-real-time satellite and computer model information for this region that we can access during the cruise.

When we have cloud-free skies, I will take measurements of atmospheric particles using a hand-held sun photometer loaned to me by the Maritime Aerosol Network group at NASA Goddard. Knowing what’s in the sky is important for correcting satellite measurements of the ocean’s surface – about 90% of the signal satellites receive comes from the atmosphere. These sky measurements may also provide clues about the presence of mineral aerosols that fertilize phytoplankton blooms when they fall out of the air.

Current sea-surface temperatures with the approximate track of the R/V Falkor from Hawaii to the Pacific Northwest. Credit: PO.DAAC/NASA
Current sea-surface temperatures with the approximate track of the R/V Falkor from Hawaii to the Pacific Northwest. Credit: PO.DAAC/NASA

I’m also helping the field campaign with science communication through my role as communications coordinator for the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) Project – NASA’s first hyperspectral ocean color satellite. In conjunction with our hosts at the Schmidt Ocean Institute, we’re planning news stories, blogs and events on social media such as a Facebook Live event on @NASAEarth, February 6, at 2pm EST. Data collected during this field campaign and several others (e.g. CORAL, NAAMES, KORUS-OC) will be used to improve products derived from satellite measurements.

How am I feeling? Ready for this adventure and extremely grateful to the Schmidt Ocean Institute for sponsoring this research, to the scientists who wrote the proposal that was selected for this expedition, especially Ivona Cetinic, the chief scientist, who invited me to participate, and to my family for enabling me to take this month-long trip. Mostly though, I’m grateful to live in a society that values scientific inquiry and exploration. The more we know about Earth and the dynamic processes that support life, the better we can predict and prepare.

NASA IceBridge: Fit to Fly

The Mountains of Alexander Island as seen from the NASA DC-8 on October 15, 2016.  The curious feature near the floor of the valley at center may be a small patch of fog, or it may be an avalanche in progress. Credit: NASA/John Sonntag
The Mountains of Alexander Island as seen from the NASA DC-8 on October 15, 2016. The curious feature near the floor of the valley at center may be a small patch of fog, or it may be an avalanche in progress. Credit: NASA/John Sonntag

by Emily Schaller / PUNTA ARENAS, CHILE /

Imagine a 12-hour flight that takes off and lands in exactly the same place. Now imagine willingly boarding that flight six days per week. This is the routine that NASA’s Operation IceBridge team in Punta Arenas, Chile, follows for six weeks every fall in order to collect data on Antarctica’s changing ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice. Operation IceBridge’s mission is to collect data on changing polar land and sea ice and maintain continuity of measurements between ICESat missions. The original ICESat mission ended in 2009, and its successor, ICESat-2, is scheduled for launch in 2018.

Our DC-8 flying laboratory can’t land on the icy surface of Antarctica, so instead we base our operations as close as we can get—near the southern tip of Chile. The schedule is grueling but incredibly important for maintaining a yearly record of Antarctica’s changing ice.

What is it like inside the airplane every day for those 12-hour flights?

There are generally about 25 of us aboard, including pilots and crew and a team of scientists and engineers who operate a variety of instruments measuring the thickness and extent of ice sheets.

Operation IceBridge's DC-8 flight track from October 14, 2016, showing the position of the aircraft (green icon) over Antarctica about half way through the 11-hour science flight.  The DC-8 takes off and lands at Punta Arenas, Chile.
Operation IceBridge’s DC-8 flight track from October 14, 2016, showing the position of the aircraft (green icon) over Antarctica about half way through the 11-hour science flight. The DC-8 takes off and lands at Punta Arenas, Chile. Credit: NASA

Much of the roughly 12-hour flight is spent flying to and from Antarctica, with the meat of the science in the middle hours of the flight (between 3-9 hours after takeoff, if our mapping target of the day is near the Antarctic coast, or between 4-8 hours after takeoff if our mapping target is closer to the pole).  Most of the instruments do not collect data until we get to Antarctica, so this leaves hours of downtime at the beginning and end of each flight for many of the people aboard (except for the pilots and navigators, of course!).  We often fill this time with outreach and educational activities, as our airplane’s satellite data system allows us to live chat with classrooms back in the United States and all over the world.  Over the past 4 years, nearly 5,000 students in K-12 classrooms across the US and in Canada, Mexico and Chile have connected directly with our IceBridge teams in-flight.

In order to keep ourselves in shape and build team morale, an informal airborne Antarctic workout club has formed to help pass the time during our long flights. Originally inspired by a Navy tradition of dropping and doing 25 pushups on the hour, every hour, our DC-8 version of this tradition persists on many missions due to the encouragement of DC-8 Navigator Walter Klein, Operations Engineer Matt Berry and by IceBridge Project Manager John Woods.

Pushups_DC8_Antarctica
On October 15, 2016, while flying over Antarctica on the NASA DC-8, members of the Workout Club Above Antarctica get moving. Left: John Woods and Walter Klein. Right: Emily Schaller and Walter Klein. Credit: NASA/Emily Schaller

On recent IceBridge flights, in addition to (or in place of) pushups (depending on the person), the on-the-hour exercise also includes squats, stretching, yoga and ballet.

 IceBridge instrument scientist, Eric Fraim, aboard the DC-8 during an hourly exercise break, practices a Barre3-inspired pose above Antarctica. Credit: NASA/Emily Schaller

IceBridge instrument scientist, Eric Fraim, aboard the DC-8 during an hourly exercise break, practices a Barre3-inspired pose above Antarctica. Credit: NASA/Emily Schaller

While not everyone gets up every hour due to their various duties, there are usually a few people nearly every hour doing activities to keep the blood flowing and their minds and bodies engaged during the long daily flights over Antarctica.

NASA IceBridge Antarctica: We are fit to fly!

A Long Deployment, on Ice

Glaciers in northwest Greenland. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Glaciers in northwest Greenland. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

by Carol Rasmussen / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

“Svalbard was really nice. Thule was really cold. Kangerlussuaq was really small. We’re still trying to figure out what Iceland is really.”

That’s principal investigator Josh Willis’ capsule description of the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) campaign so far. Approaching the end of a month-long deployment in the Arctic, the team members are pacing themselves to finish their mission without running out of energy, patience or clean socks. It’s been a marathon campaign, relocating to a new base every few days, each one in a different time zone.

But there are compensations. Even the been-everywhere, seen-everything crew of the NASA G-III has been impressed by the spectacular Arctic scenery.

The ocean near Thule. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The ocean near Thule. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Few people on Earth have seen as much of the Greenland coast as this team. It’s a dramatic coastline scored with hundreds of fjords. Many contain glaciers—the places where warm subsurface ocean waters may have a chance to melt Greenland’s ice from below. Behind the fjords is a jumble of rock, snow and ice, and in front is ice and water. The OMG crew has now dropped about 180 of its planned 250 probes in open water within fjords, along the coastline and out onto the continental shelf.

The front of a Greenland glacier flowing into the ocean. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The front of a Greenland glacier flowing into the ocean. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The team has been operating out of four bases: Thule, in northwest Greenland; Kangerlussuaq, in southwest Greenland; the island of Svalbard, Norway; and their current location in Keflavik, Iceland. The bases allow them to stay close to whatever part of the coast they’re measuring rather than wasting fuel flying for hours across the huge island from a single base. Each base is in a different time zone, and the farthest jump is five hours’ difference.

What about jetlag?

“With so many time changes, I don’t try to adapt,” said flight engineer Phil Vaughn. “I sleep when I’m sleepy.”

Thule Air Base after a storm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Thule Air Base after a storm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Blizzard season starts in mid-September in cold Thule. This being an air base, storms are ranked using the air controller’s alphabet: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie or Delta. One night, the OMG crew watched conditions deteriorate to Charlie—complete lockdown. “The winds blow snow from the local icecaps so thick that it decreases visibility and it’s dangerous to be outside,” Willis said. “You don’t go outside at all. We used the time to get a little bit of outside work done and answer emails.” The storm lasted about 20 hours.

Having that much time for anything but work was something of a luxury on a field campaign. The crew is required to take a “hard down” day after every six flight days, giving them a chance to catch up on sleep or chores. But in a new location, one day may not be enough to find fresh produce, do laundry or pick up supplies that have run out. Hotels offer most of these services, but the fee can be hefty. One crew member grumbled that he was charged $90 for a small load of laundry at an earlier stop.

When I asked what happens if someone gets sick, the crew just looked at me. Finally, flight engineer Terry Lee said, “You try to stay away from the other people.” That’s not physically possible in a small plane. But staying home isn’t an option either.

Aurora borealis at Keflavik, Iceland, on Sept. 29. Some of the team saw their first northern lights on this tour. Credit: NASA
Aurora borealis at Keflavik, Iceland, on Sept. 29. Some of the team saw their first northern lights on this tour. Credit: NASA

OMG’s mission success makes up for a lot of inconveniences, though. After weeks of practice and with the keen eyes of the pilots, Willis and the team have gotten very good at finding alternate drop locations in thick ice or cloud cover. Engineers Lee and Vaughn have become expert marksmen at hitting small patches of water. And though the scenery is undeniably jaw-dropping, Willis’ favorite sight from the entire trip is something quite different. “After we dropped one probe, we did a very steep bank and started to climb. I looked over my shoulder and saw a tiny splash. I think that was our probe hitting the water.”

Teamwork Makes for a Dream Team

Josh Willis and Steve Dinardo celebrate a successful probe drop. Credit: NASA
Josh Willis and Steve Dinardo celebrate a successful probe drop. Credit: NASA

by Carol Rasmussen / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

The first thing you notice about the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) crew is the shared memories. “Where did we get that great pizza—Thule?”

“No, at the little restaurant in Svalbard, remember?”

The next is a story that begins “When we were in . . . ” could continue anywhere: Kazakhstan, Alaska or the Middle East. This is a team that has been working together well for a long time, in more far-flung locations than most world travelers even dream of.

The OMG crew is a textbook example of a high-performance team: a group with diverse and complementary expertise, well-defined jobs, ambitious goals and a strong commitment to the mission and to each other. On their arrival in Iceland, the group consisted of two mechanics/ground crew, two pilots, three flight engineers, the project manager and the principal investigator. A few people have swapped in and out since then, but each team member has distinct responsibilities, and each is essential to keep the mission running. “It’s been a great team effort here,” summarized flight engineer Phil Vaughn. “We’ve got the coordination down to a real good point where everybody knows what each other is doing.”

Johnny Davis (left) and Dave Fuller take inventory on arrival in Iceland. Credit: NASA
Johnny Scott (left) and Dave Fuller take inventory on arrival in Iceland. Credit: NASA

Johnny Scott and Dave Fuller are the ground crew, responsible for preflight and postflight checks and routine maintenance. Scott has worked on the NASA G-III for eight or nine years. The preflight check, which takes an hour or more for the two crew members, includes a walkaround where they simply apply their trained eyes to the aircraft inside and out. “After you’ve looked at the airplane so long, you’ll catch things fast,” Scott said. “You’ll say, ‘Hey, that’s not right.’ You’ll investigate. Most of the time you don’t find anything [significant], but you might find a leak or a crack, or something out of place.”

Arctic cold hasn’t added a lot of additional maintenance chores, Fuller said, because the planes are in heated hangars at their bases. The main difference Is air pressure. Just as you change your car’s tire pressure in winter in a cold climate, the plane systems also need to change. It’s not just tires: it’s things like the brake accumulator pressure—the reserve air needed for emergency brakes. “If the conditions are set correctly on the ground, then the plane will be fine while flying,” he explained.

Pilot Bill Ehrenstrom. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Pilot Bill Ehrenstrom. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Flying is the business of the pilots, and so are all the concerns that go with it—weather, flight plans, fuel management and a multitude of details. Bill Ehrenstrom is the pilot in charge. He and Scott Reagan have flown so many hours over Greenland already that they were concerned they would hit the 30-day limit of 100 hours, so they were joined in Iceland by Chris Condon. “We’ve been lucky to see things that a lot of people don’t ever get to see,” Ehrenstrom said about flying all those hours. “But the weather has been a challenge. We haven’t been able to drop probes in some place because of the weather, and it hasn’t always been the greatest at the sites.”

All three pilots had former careers in the military, and Reagan is planning to undertake a third career soon that some people would find even more intimidating than his first two: teaching high school history or physics.

Flight engineer Terry Lee and pilot Scott Reagan have been working together since the mid-1990s. Credit: NASA
Flight engineer Terry Lee and pilot Scott Reagan have been working together since the mid-1990s. Credit: NASA

“Never in my life did I think I’d get to drop things out of the airplane when we were out flying,” said flight engineer Vaughn. A flight engineer is responsible knowing all the plane’s electrical and computer systems and monitoring them during the flights, as well as supporting the pilots.  On top of that, it’s safe to say that Vaughn and Terry Lee are the world’s experts on dropping probes out of a G-III—this is the first experiment ever to do such a thing, and the aircraft had to be specifically modified to allow it. “It’s kind of a rush,” Lee said.

Flight engineer Phil Vaughn. Credit: NASA
Flight engineer Phil Vaughn. Credit: NASA

“Project manager” sounds like a desk job, but not on a NASA field project. Steve Dinardo doesn’t just track expenses; he tracks probe data at the airborne computer as well as shipboard operations in support of OMG and myriad other details. “To get this to all hang together and work sometimes is a miracle,” he said. Dinardo started at NASA working on space missions. “Aircraft projects are a lot more fun than spacecraft and a lot more challenging. I get to see the whole project from Step 1 to Step 100. That’s something you don’t get with spacecraft.”

The team relaxes in the plane during a lengthy transit flight. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The team relaxes in the plane during a lengthy transit flight. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The last team member is principal investigator Willis. OMG is his brain child, and he’s responsible for overall execution, as well as helping with science-related decisions in the field such as choosing good alternate sites for probe drops if the original choice is too iced in. Willis has integrated well with the rest of the crew, and he’s thrilled with their work. “I couldn’t have asked for a better team to support this mission,” he said. “It’s been a spectacular ride.”

Bullseye! The Hunt for Open Arctic Water

by Carol Rasmussen / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

The Oceans Melting Greenland science team carefully planned each location for the team to drop its ocean probes. Some sites are in narrow fjords; others are hundreds of miles out on the continental shelf. Each site was chosen to add value to the data the team is collecting.

The two biggest enemies of this planning are ice and weather.

Sea ice is at its lowest at this time of year, but there’s plenty of it around Greenland, especially in the north. The probes can’t punch through it to reach the water below. If a drop site is ice covered, the team looks for a location that is “close by and second best,” said principal investigator Josh Willis.  They might need to go to the next fjord over or a bit farther out on the shelf. Since no data whatsoever have been collected from much of the northern coastline, these alternatives have value too.

A perfect drop site, viewed through the tube where the ocean probes are dropped. Credit: NASA/Charlie Marshik
A perfect drop site, viewed through the tube where the ocean probes are dropped. Credit: NASA/Charlie Marshik
Ice in northern Greenland led to some frustrating days for probe drops. This fjord almost completely choked by ice was one of the unsuccessful probe drop sites, shown as orange pins on the map (below). Green pins indicate successful drops. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Ice in northern Greenland led to some frustrating days for probe drops. This fjord almost completely choked by ice was one of the unsuccessful probe drop sites, shown as orange pins on the map (below). Green pins indicate successful drops. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

_OMG_Josh Willis_Svarbard-Norway_ Orange NoGo-Green Go IMG_7690

Project manager Steve Dinardo has been working on airborne projects for 38 years. “Weather is always the problem. When you don’t want clouds, you get clouds. When you want clouds, you don’t get them,” he said.

OMG doesn’t want clouds. If the team can’t see the ocean, they can’t risk hitting a ship or whale by blindly dropping a probe. “We’re always looking for places where we can get a lot of work done in a short period of time,” Willis said. “If we fly in a region where the clouds are low and we can’t see the water through them, those can be really frustrating days.”

Turbulence can be a problem as well. To prepare and drop the probes, team members have to move around the cabin, not sit with the seatbelts securely fastened like commercial airline passengers.

It's not possible to drop probes in cloud cover like this. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It’s not possible to drop probes in cloud cover like this. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On the windy flight of Oct. 1, Dinardo was sitting at the computer to read the probe data.  “We were getting pretty hammered in the back,” he said. “Between me vibrating up and down and the keyboard vibrating up and down, I hit a number-lock key on the keyboard. The computer froze and I had to reboot it.” Despite that mishap, it was a successful day, with 14 probes dropped and returning signals.

Over the weeks of the mission, the team has gained skill at hitting small targets, Willis said. “We got really lucky one day when we were operating out of Svalbard, Norway. On a day when we were particularly frustrated by ice, we found a gigantic iceberg pushing through a huge area of sea ice, leaving a small wake behind it. The team amazingly bullseye’d the wake, dropping an ocean probe right through the water on the backside of the iceberg. It was a shining moment when the team showed we could hit a very small target from an aircraft traveling 200 knots.”

Flight engineer Terry Lee prepares to drop a probe. Credit: NASA
Flight engineer Terry Lee prepares to drop a probe. Credit: NASA

Today, however, weather is keeping the team on the ground. For several days, Dinardo and senior pilot Bill Ehrenstrom have been watching a forecast storm approach from the south. Today, it finally arrived. The crew was grounded by clouds and gusty winds over Greenland. Tomorrow doesn’t look any better, with the forecast calling for gusts up to 55 miles per hour.

“I think we have at least one more day before we have any chance of flying,” Ehrenstrom said, though he won’t make the final call till tomorrow morning.

 

 

Taking the Ocean’s Temperature Around Greenland

by Carol Rasmussen / KEFLAVIK, ICELAND /

SCENIC

Over the last three weeks, the Oceans Melting Greenland team has spent many hours flying over spectacular Arctic scenery. Fjords, glaciers, icebergs, the northern lights — they’ve seen enough sights to fill a guidebook. But the most compelling view, the view they came all the way north to see, is on a computer screen inside the plane.

OMG is in the field this fall to do one thing 250 times: drop ocean probes from an airplane around the entire coast of Greenland and read its measurements of ocean temperature and salinity. Relayed to the airborne computer, the data from the probes shows where warm, highly salty, subsurface Atlantic water is able to reach the bottoms of glaciers along the coast.

The computer on NASA's G-III aircraft shows an ocean probe's measurements as it sinks through the water near the Greenland coast. The water is warmest and saltiest near the surface.
The computer on NASA’s G-III aircraft shows an ocean probe’s measurements as it sinks through the water near the Greenland coast. The water is warmest and saltiest near the surface.

This water is warm only in comparison with the polar runoff that forms the surface layer, but its extra 6-8 degrees Fahrenheit (3-4 degrees C) makes it plenty warm enough to melt glacial ice. The polar water can be as cold as 4 degrees below freezing Fahrenheit (-2 degrees C). At those temperatures it doesn’t melt ice at all.

On 13 research flights since Sept. 13, the team has dropped 163 of the probes around all of Greenland except the southeast coast. They’ll pepper that coastline with the remaining probes from their new location in Keflavik, Iceland.

Flight engineers Phil Vaughn and Terry Lee (NASA Johnson Spaceflight Center) drop a probe on target. Credit: NASA
Flight engineers Phil Vaughn and Terry Lee (NASA Johnson Spaceflight Center) drop a probe on target. Credit: NASA

In the last year or two, various research teams have done seafloor surveys of a few Greenland glaciers and found deep gashes on the edge of the continental shelf where subsurface warm water can creep up on the shelf and melt the glaciers more quickly than the colder shallower water. But these few locations to the whole coastline would be risky business. Willis says that when they began the survey in mid-September, “I didn’t know what to expect. We knew that Atlantic water was getting into a few of these fjords, but the shelf has not been measured extensively before, and satellite data won’t tell you if warm, salty Atlantic water is there because it’s so far below the surface. You have to go drop a temperature sensor in the water.”

The probes relay their measurements in real time to the airborne computer, so the OMG team got views of subsurface conditions starting with the very first drop. As the measurements kept rolling in, the view from the computer screen became more and more disturbing.

OMG project manager Steve Dinardo (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) at the airborne computer that collects the probe data. Credit: NASA
OMG project manager Steve Dinardo (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) at the airborne computer that collects the probe data. Credit: NASA

“Very soon, it became clear that there was a good deal of warm water on the shelf — not just in the fjords but spread out. As we mapped farther and farther north, we could see more warm water on the shelf. Now we’ve sampled [most of] the continental shelf, and everywhere that it’s deep enough, there seems to be Atlantic water present,” Willis said.

It’s unlikely that the southeast section will contain surprises, he added, because scientists already know that glaciers in this sector are melting very quickly and ocean warming is evident on the surface.

Willis emphasizes this is only a first impression from watching the data on screen. However, he pointed out, “Every time we make a discovery about ice melt in Greenland, we find the picture is worse than we thought it was before. I don’t think this will be any exception.”

AN ARCTIC PORFOLIO

Crew members of NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland mission have seen extraordinary sights during their latest deployment, both from the plane and at their four bases. Here are a few highlights.