Midnight Sun in the Arctic

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It is 12:00 am and Matt woke me up for my watch, as usual I pull on my boots and warm layers on then emerge from my cabin. I am in awe with what I see and immediately become wide awake. Just off the bow the persistent sun casts a glow behind intimidating dark towering shadows of what’s left of an old mountain chain created when two even older land masses collided some 1800 million years ago. The deformed rocks are topped off with snowy valleys at its peaks.  It is 6 degrees Celsius out, I wonder if that is usual.  Summer in Greenland was warmest on record last year in Kangerlussuaq, a town nearby where the average June temperature was 2.3 degrees Celsius above the 1981-2000 average. Due to multiple factors, including temperature the inland ice sheet lost 39.3% of its surface mass in 2014.

It is very calm right now and we have motor sailed most of our way from Nuuk, Greenland’s Capital to Sisimut which is just above the Arctic Circle at 66.3 degrees North. Most Greenlandic people speak English but they typically speak Greenlandic and Danish. They are excited to hear that Americans are interested in learning about and studying Greenland. I hope to eventually talk to the Greenlandic students to ask them how global warming is affecting them and how they are dealing with these challenges at home on their melting island.

No ice, no ice bergs, no evidence of what you might expect to find crossing the Arctic Circle. Just a few rocks awash to avoid while piloting my way into Sisimut Harbor. I have seen sea birds every day since leaving Annapolis but I expected to see a lot more marine wildlife. Many of these animals need the ice to thrive like the polar bear. Polar Bears are the ultimate drifters, they sail along the Arctic waters on ice floes of Baffin Bay visiting the shore even in Southern Greenland. They swim long distances to reach shore only if their icy transportation melts away and the seals, their meal disappear with it. They occasionally come to land to have their cubs. Apparently, if you are careful of drift ice, one can navigate to Sisimut year round, riding the West Greenland Current North in the year round open polar waters all the way from the southern tip of Greenland, Cape Farvel.  During winter much of the Arctic waters are frozen, and ice extends south into Baffin Bay on the west coast and extensively from the Arctic Ocean on the East Coast. How far south has the ice sheet reached in the past and more recently during this interglacial ice sheet retreat?

Besides searching for the warm North Atlantic water that is creeping its way up North from the depths to melt the glaciers that protrude from the land we are helping Smithsonian develop a shipboard water carbon sampling device. Humans has been burning fossil fuels for over 150 years, pumping massive amounts of carbon into the air which then interacts with the ocean. The seawater’s pH is lowered, making the world’s waters more acidic which makes it difficult for some marine animals to create their shells and it slows the growth of reefs. The Smithsonian’s pCO2 system has been successfully set up and operates at multiple docks throughout the Chesapeake Bay. Can the pCO2 system work just as well on a constantly moving vessel over a 100 day period? We are modifying the system to deal with the inertial motion forces all boats experience such as heave, pitch, roll, yaw and most often heel, considering that our vessel is a sailboat. A variety of sea grasses, such as kelp can clog the pump that draws the sea water sample through the system. We even pulled out a small fish that worked its way in.

The water leaves the pump and joins with outside air in a controlled octopus looking series of chambers, the Equilibrator, which is fastened to the mast high enough so the excess water flows out of the boat and the new combined air sample is sent to a box for the carbon level to be recorded. The carbon readings at the ocean surface are usually in equilimbrium with the atmosphere, so the “brain” , a box stowed in the galley which holds the infrared-gas analyzer reads around 399.6 parts per million (ppm). Worldwide this number increases by 1 every year.
Water surface carbon readings in Back Creek Annapolis soared up to 4000 when we first installed the system in June. In coastal systems the readings can swing by the 1000’s because there are so many factors. Fresh water mixing with salt, photosynthesis cycles, tidal and thermal changes and nutrient intrusions can alter the readings over different geographic or temporal combinations. Off coastal Greenland, the prolonged sun can be a factor and can increase carbon as we sail through plankton blooms. The salinity will be a factor considering the freshwater glacial runoff plumes carrying nutrients along while varying temperatures can also dramatically alter the carbon level measurements. When the pCO2 system is working well its data will provide scientists insight into global CO2 at critical land-sea interactions and we will take corresponding water samples that will help give clues on how coastal marine acidification is affecting a polar environment. I wonder what carbon values we fill find when navigating into glacial fjords as we go North? What impacts could the carbon and acidity have on the surrounding marine life?

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