Barrow, Alaska Oct/Nov 2012

After the Cassini PSG at JPL in October 2012, I joined Kevin Hand's Astrobiology field team for a week in Barrow, Alaska aka Ukpeagvik (Inupiaq 'place where snowy owls are hunted') :pop 4200, northernmost city in the United states at 71 degrees north ; 1300 miles from the North Pole. Traditional hunting of Bowhead whales still takes place here. This radar image shows the lakes to be open but there is some sea ice, which I think is typical of late spring conditions (in October the lakes had just frozen over but the sea was still open). Note that the lakes are aligned - this is not due to glacial action. These are thermokarstic lakes that have been melted out of the permafrost - water currents are set up by wind and cause preferential erosion at the ends orthogonal to the prevailing wind direction, which I thought was rather cool.... Image courtesy of National Snow and Ice Data Center, Boulder, CO. (Manley, W. F., L. R. Lestak, C. E.Tweedie, and J. A. Maslanik.. 2005. Reduced-Resolution Radar Imagery, Digital Elevation Models, and Related GIS Layers for Barrow, Alaska, USA.)
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On the flight up I got a good view of the coastal fjords and glaciers

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A Quonset hut (rather typical Barrow architecture) was home for the 10 scientists. The permafrost challenges conventional utilities : a truck came daily to refill our 300-gallon water tank, and another truck took away the sewage.

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Although only 200m from the cold, grey Arctic Ocean, inside was pretty cosy, and Dan ensured we were well-provisioned. Highlight was a five-dish Chinese banquet cooked by Yonquin Liu from Beijing, who usually studies lakes in Tibet.

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The field sites (Sukok Lake and Walakpa Lake) were about 25 and 15km across the tundra from Barrow, necessitating an hour or so snow machine commute on each field day. Initially very bouncy on the frost-heaved patterned ground, later in the week there was enough powder to make the dynamics quite different. Here's me and my trusty steed, with the Barrow satellite ground station in the background.

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A couple of days were gloomy with blowing snow, but we were lucky with one bright day. The sun came up about 10.30am, when we would start loading the sleds with equipment - this picture was at noon en route to the field. (In two weeks time the sun stops coming up at all!)

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Our target - methane bubbling up from a seep at Sukok. The seep bubbles can form patches of open water (as here, as the freeze gets underway) or as we found a few days later, dangerously thin ice.

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One research objective was to test an under-ice rover. This was buoyant and used sawtooth wheels to drive under the ice and aim cameras at the seep. It has a small tail to brace against rotation. It seemed to work well.

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With snow cover on Walakpa, keeping track of the rover required some sweeping. Here Andrew Klesh of JPL practices for the curling team while John Leichty in black drives with a touchpad. The tents were for profiling salinity and oxygen in the lake and for analysis of lake sediment cores.

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I dangled my GoPro camera through a hole in the ice to see what was going on - here's the rover (tail drooping) and the lake bottom. Note the reflection of the rover seen in the underside of a bubble beneath the ice.

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At Sukok, multiple layers of bubbles were frozen in the ice. One classification scheme describes these bubbles as 'koshka' (Russian for 'Cat' - smaller bubbles would be 'kotenok' (kittens), big ones 'kotara' (big fat cat')

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It is straightforward to demonstrate that the bubbles are methane, or at least are flammable. After punching through the ice and igniting, this one burned for almost a minute. (This same week, the Curiosity rover announced non-detection of methane on Mars).

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Kevin Hand undertook some sophisticated in-situ analysis, catching the bubbles with the funnel appratus at left and measuring the carbon isotope ratio with a cavity ring-down spectrometer. A heated tent was sometimes essential for science operations.

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Meanwhile, a parallel effort at the field sites was to laboriously hammer coring tubes into the lake bottom for Megan Rohrssen and Paula Matheus to study the chemistry and ecology. Pulling the cores out took some muscle. In the -15C temperatures and 15mph winds, the lake water would freeze on the core (or your gloves) in less than a minute. Dan Berisford looks on.

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Portrait of the field team, a couple of whom (John Priscu to my left and Alison Murray in front of me) are Antarctic veterans. Inupiat local 'Tony' at left was our bear guard that day : the shotgun has two firecracker rounds to warn off a polar bear, then two slugs if that doesnt work. Happily we did not encounter any bears.

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Back in Barrow, we did see some wildlife, however - a group of six arctic foxes foraged and gambolled around the dumpster outside the lab.

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