Some features of this site are not compatible with your browser. Install Opera Mini to better experience this site.

Notes from the Field

Final Preparations

September 17th, 2019 by Nathan Kurtz, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

MOSAiC is a polar expedition on the German research icebreaker Polarstern, which will drift along in the Arctic Ocean while trapped in sea ice for one year. The expedition is led by the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research.

The view of Tromsø from a nearby mountain. Photo by Nathan Kurtz.

Final preparations are now underway for MOSAiC with our departure scheduled for Friday and with it I’ll be writing about some of my experiences throughout the expedition. Many of the scientists in my group arrived in Tromsø on Saturday and since then we’ve been conducting final training, instrument preparation, and packing. This has been a massive international effort and those involved have done a tremendous job to get us to this point. Now as these final preparations begin the air is filled with a palpable mixture of excitement, stress, and innumerable other feelings that come out like bursting bubbles of emotions most typically expressed over food and drinks.

Primarily there seems to be a sense of uncertainty. Is there something we forgot? What will the ice conditions be like when we get there? What difficulties will we encounter that we could better prepare for now? Questions like these are ever present on the minds of scientists as our jobs require us to be critical, questioning, and exacting. Uncertainty is something that is always expected and tolerated, but to which we are always striving to reduce to as low a level as possible. For my own part, I can thankfully be more tolerant of these kinds of uncertainties. I am relatively new to field work and not reliant on a particular experiment to make or break my science, rather I am primarily interested in utilizing the data collected to improve and evaluate the sea ice thickness retrievals from the ICESat-2 satellite which was launched almost exactly a year ago today. ICESat-2 is a laser altimeter which will benefit from measurements such as snow depth, ice thickness, freeboard, and density. MOSAiC is well set up to take these measurements from a variety of scales and I’ll be looking to help out where I can with these and other aspects of the initial set-up of the expedition.

Aside from my own personal science interests there is a vast array of other experiments being conducted which will measure properties of the ocean, ice, snow, and atmosphere. For this reason, the expedition has been billed as the largest ever conducted in the central Arctic. But inevitably questions of identity and importance have come up in discussion with my colleagues. Where will MOSAiC fit in the history of Arctic research such as in comparison to the highly successful Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean (SHEBA) ship expedition which was undertaken nearly 20 years ago? It’s a difficult question and contingent on many factors, some of which (such as where the ice drift will take us over the coming months) are beyond our control. There also seems to be a bit of a differing viewpoint between how non-scientists and scientists view the expedition. For scientists, fieldwork is an exciting part of our job, but still something to be viewed in the context of work. For non-scientists it seems to carry the air of adventure and hearkens back to the past era of Arctic exploration where there was much more unknown, dangerous, and an association with the hero’s journey. Thankfully we live in a much safer time where modern technology and preparations have made things a bit more routine. But as I experienced quite viscerally today during helicopter escape training, going through the motions of breath control and calm action needed for escape from a submerged vessel are a reminder that the ever present element of danger in a hostile landscape still creates feelings (albeit much milder) of adventure and heroism even if things are much different in modern times.

Perhaps the most difficult thing that has come up is the pain and sadness of leaving family and friends behind for such a long period of time with only limited communication in the form of text-only emails being available. Those going for the full leg will not be coming back until just after the new year, quite a long time to be away. Having good companions for the journey will be an essential element for combating loneliness, and thankfully those I’ve met so far have been friendly and up for the job. Hearing that my own young children were crying as they came to terms with just how long my own absence will be has also not been an easy thing to take. I’m reminded that the word nostalgia (the root meaning of which means “pain for home”) originally referred to a disease with quite severe symptoms. Though I prefer the modern meaning of the word which allows for a more positive reminder that I have something to look forward to after my work on the ship is finished.

In just a few days time we’ll finally begin our voyage starting first into the open ocean as we head north. Though a bit anxious about this from not having spent much time on the open ocean before, I’m inspired by the words of the poet Rilke in treating this as a unique time for inducing an internal sense of order “when anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise, and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused.” Lastly, I’m reminded that despite the danger and sacrifices made to participate in field work that we do these things because we’re passionate about our jobs and deeply believe in the importance of the research being done. So despite whatever inevitable concerns are present, I’m largely filled with excitement as I look forward to the great adventure to come!

Waiting for Balloon Weather

September 5th, 2019 by Lina Tran

It’s 1:30 p.m. MT, and scientists and engineers at NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility’s field site file into a meeting room. Time for the weather briefing. It’s standing room only — the biggest group of people I’ve seen yet in my week in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, population roughly 1,000. 

Daily weather briefings give rhythm to otherwise irregular days filled with launch attempts and instrument tests. Everyone is here to send balloons to the top of the sky; this daily meeting is where the decisions are made about whether we’ll try to do it the next morning. Since launch preparations begin around 2 a.m., this is when I learn whether I need to set my alarm for 12:30 a.m., six hours earlier than usual. 

Joy Ng/NASA Goddard

I’m a NASA writer, here with a team of scientists and engineers launching a solar scope called BITSE, which is testing a new way to see the Sun. BITSE — short for Balloon-borne Investigation of Temperature and Speed of Electrons in the corona — is a coronagraph, a kind of instrument that peers at the Sun’s dim atmosphere, the corona. BITSE will search for clues to how the solar wind, the stream of charged particles constantly blowing from the Sun, forms there. 

To me, it seems the most challenging thing about launching scientific balloons is the weather. It has to be just right in an entire chunk of sky: from the ground where the balloon launches, through the long stretch of blue where it ascends, to some 22 miles up where it floats. The balloon also needs consistent winds and fair skies along its projected flight path, which spans hundreds of miles and changes every day — depending on the weather, of course. 

“Basically, we can’t have wind at the surface when we lay out the balloon,” NASA mission manager Amy Canfield explained. “Then, when the balloon is inflated, we want light low-level winds, so the balloon ascends nice and calm, straight up. The weather can change just like” — she snapped — “that. If it changes, we have to scrub for the day.” 

Chelsey Ballarte/NASA Wallops

In Fort Sumner, a town in the desert 4,000 feet above sea level, late summer is hot, and the wind blows like a hair-dryer on low. Fort Sumner, which sits in the waist of New Mexico, is well-positioned for balloon launches. It’s remote, about an hour drive to the next town in any direction. Ascending balloons aren’t likely to stray too far north into the Rocky Mountains or too far south into Mexico.   

Chelsey Ballarte/NASA Wallops

BITSE passed its final test before launch, so now we’re just waiting for good weather. Waiting each day to learn whether BITSE will get a chance to fly that night is nerve-wracking. One of the scientists on the team likened our seemingly endless wait to life in the movie Groundhog Day. 

Several times, thunderstorms hundreds of miles away kept BITSE grounded. The air above a thunderstorm is cold, so when a balloon passes overhead, you get balloon droop. The helium inside shrinks from the chill and the balloon plunges — bad news for the team if that cuts the flight short or drops BITSE into a rough storm. 

Another time, had BITSE launched, the winds would have carried it on a grand tour of pretty much every population center between Fort Sumner and eastern Arizona, which safety regulations won’t permit. Often, gusting winds on the ground prevented smooth unrolling of the balloon. “If you feel wind blowing in your face, we’re not launching a balloon,” NASA mission operations manager Andy Hynous said.

The balloon program in Fort Sumner also takes advantage of what’s called the Turnaround — a stratospheric weather pattern that has the upper atmospheric winds blowing east to west the first half of the year and west to east in the second. Each fall balloon campaign takes place during the last weeks of east-to-west winds, just before the Turnaround. They send balloons west, into a part of the country where there are vast swathes of open, uninhabited land. 

The meteorologist working on the balloon campaign says most other meteorologists don’t care what happens in the stratosphere since it doesn’t touch our lives, far below. But for science instruments, the region offers the chance to show their mettle above most of Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists gain access to measurements and tests they can’t do on ground-based instruments. For BITSE, flying 22 miles up means studying the Sun’s dim atmosphere with much less interfering light than it would experience from the ground. The flight could also pave the way for an instrument descendant of BITSE’s to potentially do the same science from space one day. 

Joy Ng/NASA Goddard

After the weather update, NASA mission range safety officer Lauren Morgan presents her assessment of risks in the projected flight path. Besides good weather, BITSE also needs a thumbs-up from safety to fly. She considers a number of factors to ensure a safe flight. How many towns or cities would the balloon fly over? Which airports need to be alerted? Then, at the end of the flight, when BITSE parachutes down, she’ll consider whether the recovery team — which meets BITSE and brings the 6,000-pound load back to Fort Sumner — can safely drive into potential landing spots. She wants to avoid towns and cities, national parks and wilderness areas, public infrastructure like wind farms, and even the delicate habitats of endangered species. 

Day by day, the team will keep presenting new forecasts and projections, searching for a window just right for BITSE’s flight. Until then, the only thing for us to do is keep waiting for the winds to align. 

Final Field Days in Batamay, Northeast Siberia

August 27th, 2019 by Sander Veraverbeke

Clement Delcourt, Rebecca Scholten and Sander Veraverbeke (from left to right, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) after a day of sampling in an area that burned with high severity.

If only I could collect my thoughts about how I feel here in the tiny village of Batamay, idyllically located at the confluence of the Lena and Aldan rivers, after four weeks of campaigning in the burned larch forests of Northeast Siberia. But this process started much earlier. In December of last year we started analyzing satellite images to find suitable burn scars for carbon combustion sampling. Many people told me the idea of collecting data in Northeast Siberia is nice, theoretically, but logistically not feasible. These logistic challenges are likely part of the reason why so little data has been collected here. Yet, a data shortage in the large swaths of larch forests in Northeast Siberia is also a prime reason why we wanted to come here.

Are the logistical challenges in Siberia greater than in for example Alaska and Canada? From my experience, yes. This is mostly a matter of the difficult to travel ‘last mile’. It was surprisingly easy to reach the tiny villages of Ert and Batamay (of approximately 500 and 200 people), the small villages near our burn scars of interest. Reaching Batamay even included a scenic boat ride across the Lena river. From the villages it was about 5 km to the burn scar and 10 to 20 km to our camping sites. And this is where the adventure began. Did we get stuck in the mud? Yes, multiple times, but we made it out every time. Was it difficult to reach our sites? Yes, if often required scrambling over boggy grassland and woody debris, and through dense bush, but we always made it, and more importantly, we made it safely back to the camp. Were the stretches of camping and sampling physically challenging? Yes, we definitely felt weathered and sometimes charred, but rain or shine, we kept true to our goal of sampling more plots. And I feel proud about what we accomplished as a team! In total we measured 42 burned plots and 12 unburned plots. These plots cover gradients of forest types (larch and pine forests), fire severity and landscape position. In the fires, we collected data that will estimate carbon emissions. We also assessed how larch forests recover after fire and how the active layer, the seasonally thawed top layer of soils in permafrost regions, thickens after fire (at least before our active layer probe broke half way the campaign). 

Photos of all the plots we measured.

Location of our field plots (red dots) in the Ert (left) and Batamay (right) burn scars near Yakutsk in Northeast Siberia. The background images are from Sentinel-2.

We are eager to analyze samples in the lab, and later interpret the data in our offices. We are hopeful the data we collected will improve our understanding of the role of fire in the Northeastern Siberian larch forests. We will graph our results, and write a manuscript. People will read our work, and may cite it and use our data. But we will be the only ones that know how this campaign really evolved; how we crossed rivers, woody debris and endless bush to get to these locations; how we shared our simple lunches of bread, salami, cheese, cucumber and tomatoes at some burned spot; how we were happy to finally take a serious wash in the banja, Russian sauna, when we came back in the village after days of camping. I am extremely thankful to my team for what we have accomplished. We realize that it is privilege to visit these remote places, yet this does not make the long days, difficult hikes and sometimes monotonous tasks any easier. We came from the Netherlands, USA and Russia to do this together. A big thanks to Clement, Rebecca, Dave, Tatiana, Brendan, Roman and Brian. I am also very grateful to our local collaborator Dr. Trofim Maximov from the Institute of Biological Problems of the Cryolithozone of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Without Trofim and his team, none of this would have been possible. I was also touched by the welcoming and warm-hearted locals from our host villages. They were very curious to our endeavors, and even though language barriers inhibited our conversations, they also helped making our campaign a success.

Our teams in Ert (Top, left to right: local, Roman Petrov (Institute of Biological Problems of the Cryolithozone), Clement Delcourt, Rebecca Scholten (VU Amsterdam), Tatiana Shestakova, Brendan Rogers (Woods Hole Research Center), local guide, Sander Veraverbeke (VU) and local collaborator) and Batamay (Bottom, left to right: R. Petrov, C. Delcourt, Brian Izbicki (Northern Arizona University), R. Scholten, S. Veraverbeke, local guide and Dave van Wees (VU)).

We sampled burn scars from 2017 and 2018. This year’s fire season in Siberia is extremely vigorous. Many days we experienced smoky skies partly veiling sunlight; a direct consequence of fires burning nearby. This year’s events also demonstrate the urgency of why we need to better understand the interaction between climate change and fires in Siberia. As our field campaign developed this year, we started talking more and more about next year’s campaign. We are intrigued by the current fires within the Arctic Circle in Northeast Siberia. We want to understand their climatic drivers and consequences. We will be back next year for Fire Expedition Siberia 2020.

This field campaign is part of the ‘Fires pushing trees North’ project funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and affiliated with NASA ABoVE. This blog post was written by Sander Veraverbeke, assistant professor in remote sensing at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and project lead of ‘Fires pushing trees North.’

Photo by Amy Canfield, Mission Manager of the Balloon Program Office.

I’d like to welcome you back to the ballooning extraordinaire blog. As is normally the case, the weather in Ft. Sumner has been gracious enough for us to conduct our first successful flight of the campaign. Our first flight was conducted by the BOBCAT team. You can see in the photo (below) the payload gondola and our Mobile Launch Vehicle beautifully backlit by the New Mexican sunrise. The gondola is the structure that carries all the stuff that the science team needs to make their experiment work. The BOBCAT mission is a testbed demonstration for a cool, new type of cryogenic liquid containment system for balloon-borne telescopes. A lot of people might not know that cryogenic liquids are gases that have been cooled and compressed for so long that they actually turn into a liquid.

Our balloons at NASA use helium as a gas to rise from the ground, just like your run of the mill party balloons from the store, and they end up flying pretty good. But sometimes the science instruments we fly also use helium and other gases to protect their telescopes and detectors from moisture, particles in the air, and other stuff like that. Here’s where the “cool” part comes in. Sometimes the instruments need to be kept really, really cold. To do that, they use cryogenic helium and nitrogen liquids. At standard pressure, like here on the ground, liquid helium is 4 Kelvin. In Celsius, that’s -269 degrees. That’s pretty darn cold. The equipment to keep gases like helium that cold are usually pretty bulky and heavy. Dr. Alan Kogut, from the Goddard Space Flight Center, has figured out a way to make that equipment a lot lighter, which means that the instruments will be able to fly longer and higher then they would have.

Photo by Amy Canfield, Mission Manager of the Balloon Program Office.

In total, BOBCAT flew a total 4.5 hours at an altitude of over 125,000 feet. BOBCAT gracefully flew from Ft. Sumner, New Mexico all the way to just outside Sanders, Arizona. We couldn’t have asked for a better flight. Thanks again for checking out this update, and look for another real soon!

Sampling the 2017 Burn Scar Near Batamay

August 17th, 2019 by Dave van Wees

DBH (diameter at breast height)… 3.7 cm, killed by fire, severity 2, … adventitious roots at 7 cm (adventitious roots are small additional roots that larch trees have that help determine the depth of burning in the organic soil layer). Those are the words that would repeatedly disturb the forests’ eternal silence, besides the occasional call of a black woodpecker. This routine is part of making an inventory of the many trees (varying from roughly 50 to more than 300) that cover the 30 meter by 2 meter transect that is laid out in the field plot of interest. Such a transect is selected based on homogeneity in fire effects and assumed to represent a larger area of 30 by 30 meters, the size of a Landsat satellite pixel. This enables the direct comparison of ground s and satellite observations, which is in turn essential for upscaling to regional or continental scale estimates of available biomass and combustion.

A typical house in the village Batamay (Photo credit: Dave van Wees)

Our science team is in Batamay now, a small village about 170 km North of the capital of Yakutia and the coldest city on Earth, Yakutsk. Compared to our previous location, Ert, this is farther away from the main cluster of large fires that plague Siberia right now. However, fires are also active here, as I witnessed during my flight from Amsterdam to Yakutsk.

Fires approximately 100 km West of Yakutsk seen from airplane (Photo credit: Dave van Wees).

In order to get to Batamay, we had to drive for multiple hours and cross the Lena river by boat. The boat trip was not exactly like the luxury Lena river cruise that can be booked to visit the well-known ‘Lena pillars’, but it brought us to our study destination. After reaching Batamay, we continued our travels using one of these typical sturdy Russian vans to the designated camp site for a week of camping inside the burn scar that we wanted to measure. This burn scar is the result of a particularly high severity fire from 2017. The current science indicates that fires in Siberia are mostly low severity surface fires compared to the high severity crown fires in boreal North America. The high severity core of the Batamay burn scar may be out of the ordinary and attracted our interest. Could Siberian fires locally be more severe than thought and do we underestimate their emissions? Furthermore, what does this potential of high severity fire in Siberia mean for the future fire regime in a changing climate?

Crossing the Lena river by boat (Photo credit: Dave van Wees).

Having lunch in a high severity burn plot (Photo credit: Dave van Wees).

On the way from Yakutsk to the burn scar we have had some fine demonstrations of the Yakutian approach to problem solving. Little time is spent on overthinking possible issues beforehand, and instead problems are solved on the spot. Surprisingly, this method has been successful in every occasion we experienced an obstacle. For example, when a stretch of water is too shallow for a boat to float or a road too muddy for a car to cross, the consequences are faced instead of avoided, but always solved afterwards. This radiates a certain simplicity and relaxed approach to life that is almost fully opposed to the scientific approach and might be hard to relate to as westerners. What do the locals actually think of our complicated scientific instruments and methodologies? Sadly this is hard to say, because of the locals’ Yakutian language which is closer to Turkish than Russian (as if Russian wasn’t hard enough already) and introduces multiple new letters to the Cyrillic alphabet. And also because the locals are not men of many words anyway. However, like everyone else, these people also notice the effects of climate change, such as warmer winters and more heavy rain spells, such as the recent floods near Irkutsk

On the fly bridge fixing on our way to the camping site (Photo credit: Dave van Wees).

At the camp site, we were accompanied by five locals from Batamay: a guard, a driver, two cooks, and a guard dog. It was comforting to have this company and it is safe to say that this made all of us sleep better at night. In a matter of minutes a patch of tall grass was transformed into a cosy camp site including a fire place, picnic table and food warehouse, all made from the branches and logs available in the forest, and some old containers used previously by road constructors. Another great example of what you can construct from logs: a trailer able to withstand all bumps we faced on the road.

Our guard dog and trusty companion (Photo credit: Dave van Wees).

Filtering water at the camp site (Photo credit: Dave van Wees).

Improvised trailer constructed from logs (Photo credit: Brian Izbicki)

During our camping stay in the Batamay burn scar we have collected data from 24 field plots with varying degrees of fire severity. The coming week we will stay in a house in village and we will venture out in the fire scar again. Now we will focus more on unburned ‘control’ plots. This allows the comparison of the situation before and after the fire, which gives invaluable insight in quantifying the greenhouse gas emissions from the fire.

This field campaign is part of the ‘Fires pushing trees North’ project funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and affiliated with NASA ABoVE. This blog post was written by Dave van Wees, PhD student at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, studying global fire emissions using satellite data and biogeochemical modeling.