Carin Ashjian is a WHOI researcher and Chief Scientist for this cruise. Read her Bio
All photos by Carin Ashjian unless noted otherwise.
PolarTREC teacher Simone Welch is a long way from Washington, DC. See what she's reporting back to her students.
Fog and wind, wind and fog: NOAA Forecast for Bering Sea Offshore
Healy arrived safely in Dutch Harbor on May 12. Scientists are offloading gear, preparing for the next phase of research, and re-learning what solid ground feels like.
We saw another boat today, the first one in 30-odd days. We are heading south in the Bering Sea, sampling every 10 miles along the 70 m isobath. The pace is fast for the CTD group who take water samples from the rosette at every station. For the rest of us, it is an end to the cruise. Time to wash everything, to make sure all the data are archived, to dig our boxes out of the jumble of the hold, and to start the jigsaw puzzle of packing it all back up.
As we go south, we keep re-entering the ice. It dogs us as we go. Our track twists as the seafloor topography meanders along the spine of the Bering Sea. The ice too follows our track, sometimes disappearing for hours and then suddenly re-appearing. Last night I was awakened in the early morning hours to the familiar thump and rumble as Healy bonked ice floes.
Today we encountered an ice field of the dirtiest ice (right) we have seen for the entire cruise. The ice must have come from shallow Bristol Bay to the east of us since the sediment in the ice clearly came from a nearshore, turbulent environment.
In an ironic twist of fate, the Bering Sea has turned into a millpond now that most of us are finished sampling. In ice free regions, Healy hardly moves (no rolling or pitching) as we cruise between station locations (at 10+ knots).
Right: The water is like glass. It is overcast and the sky is gray as well as the water so that it is difficult to tell the difference between the two.
We return to Dutch on May 12, three days from now. The amount of work to do is staggering. But there is a sense of anticipation in the air. People are starting to think of the world outside of this small microcosm, this tiny community. It is always strange to return to the outside world, or perhaps I should say the real world.
At around 11 yesterday morning, the bow of Healy turned to the south and we started our long trek along the 70 m isobath towards Dutch Harbor. Now I know that I only have one more evening in the ice, one more evening to watch for seals from my perch up on the bridge and to watch the ice floes bigger than my car pushed aside by the ship. Left: The pack ice thins as the ship heads south.
The ice has become quite thin here and, although still covers quite a large area of the sea (80-90%), it is loosely packed and moves aside easily when nudged by Healy. Just the day before yesterday we were in very thick, very compressed ice. It took us 8 hours to go 20 miles that day, seemed as though we would never reach the next station. Now, the ice is almost trivial.
Tonight we’re taking a break from the 70 m isobath sampling (we stop about every 10 miles to do a CTD cast) to go to the southwest and sample the phytoplankton bloom one last time. The bloom has become quite extensive, according to our satellite imagery, and we’re eager to collect water, plankton, benthic animals, particles, and mud once more from the bloom. We think it might be declining so we would have sampled the start and now, we hope, a mature bloom.
Check out the Polar Discovery website that is covering our cruise for a recent posting that shows some interesting facts about copepods, the animals that my group is studying. We’re looking at their grazing and reproduction (egg laying) rates.
The other day, I was working at the microscope and one of our copepods started to lay eggs right on the microscope slide! When the eggs are first laid, they are not round but rather elongated. As they sit in the salt water, the round up and become firmer. I always feel a bit like a voyeur, watching them lay eggs. Right: The copepod laying eggs. The eggs are coming out at her tail area. They are pinky orange.
Our work in the phytoplankton bloom went well. The weather allowed us to sample repeatedly, despite heavy fog during one of our sediment trap recoveries.
Left: The sediment traps hang from orange buoys in the foreground. The tall spar holds instruments that relay the position of the traps to a satellite and then to us on the ship. Other instruments include a VHF transmitter and a radar reflector so we can find the traps. Good thing! This was quite close to the ship.
Right: The small boat seen in the photo with the traps is retrieved using an ingenious elevator. The boat drives onto a platform, attached with a hook, and "rolled" up the side of the ship, as seen in this photo (note small white wheels). It is quite a ride since the boat is kept on the 03 deck, one deck above where I am taking this picture. See larger image
My team conducted four grazing experiments in five days, feeding the phytoplankton to copepods and krill. We’ve also conducted egg production experiments with the dominant copepod, Calanus, and the results are amazing. Many of them are now laying eggs, in contrast to the situation just a few days (and a few miles) ago, where few or even none of the animals laid eggs.
These copepods rely on plentiful food, such as a phytoplankton bloom, to provide the energy and material to produce eggs. The response of the population to the bloom is not unexpected, but it is exciting. Groups studying primary production, water column flux, and the seafloor have all seen the impact of the bloom on their component of the ecosystem.
Now we have left the bloom and are heading back into the potentially less biologically active regions still under the ice. Even here, however, spring does come to the Bering Sea. We sampled here several weeks ago and look forward to seeing the changes in the ecosystem during those few weeks.
The ice itself has receded considerably to the north and has become more diffuse, more fragmented, and less coherent. The weather has changed already since we left the open ocean; the air temperature is cooler and of course the sea temperature is cooler. The view ahead is clear, with no fog.
Still looking for phytoplankton and trying to avoid rough weather, we moved 100 miles to the northwest before exiting the ice near an area where the ocean color satellite image had shown enhanced phytoplankton concentration.
Right: Ship's track and location, with the track color coded by fluorescence. The upper blue line shows a track from 3 weeks ago. The one coming in at a diagonal from the lower right shows the track when we exited the ice. The ice edge is just where the track color changes from blue to green to yellow. See larger image
We settled in to conduct a process station -- a series of measurements and sampling in which all of the groups on board participate to understand plankton behavior across trophic levels, in both the water column and on the seafloor.
Right now we are transiting north to find some ice on which to conduct an ice station tomorrow. The goal is to return to the bloom to sample one more time, so we cannot move to far to the north. We are hoping that the weather holds long enough for us to finish our work in the bloom and head back north into the ice again.
Polar Discovery's “Sounds of Healy” includes audio of life aboard ship, such as the sound of ice breaking at the bow, specialized hydraulic equipment, and even a vacuum toilet.
During the last few days, we moved off of the shelf and out of the ice into open water. Suddenly, Healy was a “real” ship, cutting through the waves with a great swishing sound and a bow spray as she rose and fell gently with the swell.
Our speed picked up to 15 knots as we moved rapidly offshore to deploy a floating sediment trap before dark; we were virtually flying compared to our speed through ice.
The weather has become very warm because of winds from the south so that it is quite pleasant to work on deck. This was our first opportunity to put in the floating sediment traps -- they need to be in open water and at the shelf break -- and we raced to take that opportunity. The traps went in smoothly in the early evening.
Left: Pat Kelly (left) and Mike Lomas (right) remove the cylinders in which particles have collected during the deployment.
The next day, wind, waves, and swell picked up, making conditions too rough to permit launching of the small boat that we would use to retrieve the traps and bring them to Healy for hoisting.
Instead, the Captain and crew decided to collect them directly from Healy -- no small feat. This 420-foot long, huge red “sail” would have to be maneuvered next to the relatively tiny and vulnerable buoys and spar, with traps hanging below to 100 m, that constitute the sediment trap.
Right: An intense moment in the aft control room as the sediment trap is recovered. The ship can be driven from here when it is useful to better see what is going on near the stern, The bridge is hundreds of feet forward and much higher. Captain Sommer is in the background on the left. John Rose (in the t-shirt) is giving commands. Dale Bateman, XO (in sunglasses) and Silas Ayers (foreground) watch intently. All eyes are on the sediment trap as Rose keeps the ship lined up just right.
The traps were “corralled” against the starboard side of the ship and slid back to the stern where they were caught first with a grappling hook, then with a hook and line. The traps were then brought around to the stern and hauled aboard. Pat, owner of the traps, was very relieved. And -- best of all -- the traps collected some good stuff!
Since then, we have worked our way back inshore. We were hot in pursuit of a phytoplankton bloom that we had observed in satellite ocean color just offshore of the ice edge. Alas, 40-knot winds spun up during our first station. We cut and run for the safety of the ice, where the swell and seas are dampened. Now we are waiting to see if the wind subsides tonight so that we can sneak back out of the ice and sample the phytoplankton bloom.
Healy is rolling gently. A strong low has moved in over the Bering Sea and the swell from the open sea has penetrated some 70 miles into the loose pack. Ice fragments rise and fall as the long waves pass through.
It is disconcerting. It also makes for tricky sampling, since the ice field constantly moves around the ship. It is not an easy task to position the ship so that the large ice chunks stay away from our working areas. Right: The ice pack has become more diffuse, with a lot of open water among the floes.
We experienced the worst weather of the trip today. With winds of 25-30 knots and driving snow, we decided it would be folly to try to do a net tow – which would be somewhat akin to launching a black, cone-shaped kite off of the stern.
By noon, the winds had risen to 40 knots with driving snow. We doubted the safety of deploying instruments, but proceeded with a CTD cast, which went well.
Right: Ray Mendoza gives hand signals to bring the CTD
(conductivity-temperature-depth) instrument back on board during 40-knot winds. Note that the CTD is not horizontal -- the wind is blowing it sideways! Learn more about why we do CTD casts.
I went down to check out the situation on the stern for deploying our VPR. Phil said, “No way, it’s crazy out there.”
As I tried to open the watertight door, I realized that there was no way I would be able to close it. Outside, ice chunks crowded up against the stern, just where we wanted to place the VPR. I went back inside and cancelled both the VPR cast and the CalVet cast (CalVet is a type of net).
Now, later in the evening, the wind has died somewhat. We are heading to the southwest, to deeper water, looser ice, and the ice edge. Soon we will be looking for an ice edge bloom of phytoplankton.
We had an exciting morning. I had dragged myself out of slumber at around 3am to deploy the Video Plankton Recorder. Just before I entered the lab, I heard the “bing bing bing bing bing bing bing” of the alarm. Then I heard that there was a fuel leak: all hands to to their muster stations.
The ten or so scientists who were awake gathered in the science conference lounge. Other bedraggled, bleary-eyed scientists straggled in from their staterooms. We sat staring at each other in a near stupor (some people went back to sleep), working on a crossword puzzle, or chatting quietly.
After about half an hour, word came down from the bridge that the leak had been secured and we could all go back to what we were doing (sleep for most people!). It was a good reminder that occasionally things don’t go quite as planned.
We are now transiting south to begin a new east-west transect line across the Bering Sea, from the shallow (30 m) nearshore to the deep, deep (2,700 m) water off of the shelf. We are able to thread our way through numerous “leads” (open areas) in the ice. I anticipate an evening of sleep uninterrupted by alarms or appointments with the video plankton recorder.
Right: Ice station. Note the huge slabs of overturned ice and snow in the foreground; we upturned these pieces with the ship.
Yesterday was fantastically beautiful -- sunny and clear all day, which really makes working easier. My group did a zooplankton grazing experiment. We caught our plankton at about 6am; by 7:30am we had them picked out and ready to go for the experiment.
To pick plankton, we bundled up in multiple layers and went inside the aptly-named “cold room.” Plankton are very sensitive to temperature and it is important to keep them at their natural temperature: about -1.8 C or 28 F. So we sat in this climate-controlled chamber, with our eyes against cold, metal microscopes and our hands encased in gloves, to pick out the animals.
There is a great sense of anticipation as we look into each plankton sample: who’s home here? –- but we don’t last that long in the cold room.
Tomorrow we will feed the plankton ambient (naturally occurring) water column phytoplankton. We will also feed them water to which we will add ice algae, to see if the plankton are eating the ice algae. It is all part of understanding the importance of ice algae to the spring ecosystem here in the Bering Sea.
Shortly after turning to the north, we hit heavy, snow-covered ice. So we are going slowly. Some hours we make 6 miles. Some hours we make 3 miles. This makes for a long haul when our desired location is 150 miles away.
We’ve been slogging along since last night; only 75 more miles to go. We are doing a lot of backing and ramming and just plain heavy pushing. There are three engines running, making the roar from the engine room sound deeper than usual. I can feel the power of these engines as the ship tries to push through … and then comes to a halt … pushing futilely against the heavy snow and ice.
Then there is silence as the ship backs up, slipping almost soundlessly back along the path she has broken in the ice. Finally, a great rumbling and clacking of ice, with vibrations, as the ship moves forward. The whole ship vibrates and almost quivers with anticipation as we gain speed. Then, inevitably, we slow again, dragged to a halt by the heavy snow.
The weather today has been fantastic, clear and sunny all day. The day dawned with a lovely sunrise and a net tow in 10 F weather. Now, after 9pm, it is fully sunny and a balmy 17 F. Today was a lazy sort of day as we moved north. People took advantage of the lull in sampling to catch up on record keeping and to "recharge their batteries." Tomorrow we start up again, with an on-ice deployment that will last for 8 hours. We are happy to be back in the real ice again.
I continue to be amazed at the huge variety of shapes and topography of the ice, from thick snow windblown into windrows to newly frozen, fragile clear ice covered with frost flowers (crystals). Occasionally we see seals, the large, log-shaped bearded seals and the smaller, agile spotted seals. Too far away for my camera!
My day-before-Easter began very early. Or perhaps, the previous day had not yet finished. I was up sampling plankton using the Video Plankton Recorder at 1am. It was very cold last night, near 10 degrees F, and very windy (20+ knots).
I bundled up -- hat, fleece, face mask, hard hat liner, hard hat, down vest, mustang suit, boots. Yet the cold snuck in around my wrists where the gloves and suit met. And the face mask was completely inadequate against the wind. Nonetheless, once I got over the initial cold blast as I rolled my instrument out across the deck to the fantail, it wasn’t TOO bad.Later, when I woke for the second time, a lovely yellow moon shone over the sea ice. Such beauty makes up for the cold. The sunrise (above) was exceptional as well -- an appropriate start for a fantastic, sunny but cold day.
Left: BM2 Yeckley tends the roasting pig for our Easter celebration. Roasting started at midnight on Saturday. The pig was basted with cider vinegar and brown sugar. The fragrance on the decks while it was roasting was delectable!
We are working in the western Bering Sea, near the International Date Line and the border with Russia. Here, the sea ice is thinning. Much of it has broken into smaller floes between which new ice is now forming with the cold temperatures of the last few days. The air was so cold last night that the ice squeaked like Styrofoam as it rubbed against the ship’s hull.
As we cruise through the ice, we occasionally see algae growing on the underside of the ice -- a sure sign that spring has begun in the Bering Sea.
A central question of our research is: How important is this early bloom of plant material to “jump-starting” the ecosystem after the long, cold, dark winter? Ice algae bloom under the ice when the snow and ice layers become thinner and let springtime light through to the underside of the ice. Later in the spring, small plants in the water column start to bloom as well. Above: ice algae.
We think that the ice algae is critically important to many creatures, from microscopic copepods and krill (zooplankton) that live in the water column to the larger animals that live on the sea floor. These receive a “rain” of ice algae as it detaches from the underside of the ice and sinks to the sea floor. Many of us are doing experiments and measurements to understand the importance of ice algae to the ecosystem.
Yesterday the benthic team collected cores of mud from the seafloor. This instrument jams clear plastic tubes about 4 inches in diameter down into the mud, then puts “caps” on the top and bottom so that the mud is collected intact. Once the cores are back on the surface, various experiments are conducted with them.
When going to check her core, Heather found, much to her amazement, a large clam on the surface of the core. The clam must have been jammed into the tube along with the mud and had migrated up to the surface, probably to find more oxygenated water.
The corer had perfectly captured the clam and it was totally invisible until it emerged at the surface. We called the clam “Lucky” because it was lucky to have been captured rather than being smashed by the tube. Of course, since Lucky was eventually sacrificed to science, perhaps it wasn’t so lucky after all.
Left: Lucky in his tube in the refrigerated room. This is a quite large clam and is good food for walrus.
But until then, Lucky provided something new and different to both science and ship’s crew as a steady parade of people went in to view the clam in the tube.
It's been warm (30s F), with intermittent snow squalls. The vibrations from the ship crashing through sea ice were so severe today that I couldn’t even pick up one of the very small copepods that we have been working with.
The forceps in my hand danced around, the sleeping copepod in the dish danced around like a crazed bee, and the counter itself shook. I had to stop and come back later when the ship had calmed down.
My group (Phil, Donna, and Celia) are measuring how much and what type of food the dominant copepod species were eating. We are also measuring how many copepods are laying eggs and how many eggs each one lays. Above: Celia and Phil identify krill.
One group has collected cores of mud from the seafloor and are measuring that mud. Left: Dave Shull carefully transports a mud core into the lab.
Other groups are working with microscopic plants called phytoplankton. Yet another group is working with krill, which are plankton that look a bit like shrimp but are much smaller. Others went out on the ice yesterday to collect ice cores and to measure ice thickness, snow cover, and other properties. Here on Healy, we work 24 hours a day.
For the last three days, 41 scientists and some 90 crew on this 420-foot icebreaker have been preparing to go to sea, setting up the science labs and tying down anything that moves to prevent it from flying across the room in the event of a strong roll.
We reached the ice at about 9am and I felt a familiar tremor as Healy ran gently into a wayward piece of ice. Left: Snow coats the ship and the thin, newly frozen ice in an open lead. Note the high winds (red flag on bow).
Tonight we did some of our planned activities at a station along the way, but strong winds precluded us from doing all of our work, including plankton tows. We hope tomorrow will bring calmer winds and easier working conditions.