This is part 1 of 3 interview posts on the recent ArcticMix expedition led by Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) scientists. (See Part 2 and Part 3). The overall goal of ArcticMix is to improve climate change forecast models by better describing ocean water and characteristics around the Arctic. While most oceans consist of a warmer water layer resting on top of cooler water, the Arctic has the reverse—a thin, cold, freshwater layer from melting glaciers resting on top of a warmer sub-surface layer. As the Arctic becomes increasingly ice free, there’s a higher chance that deeper heat will be brought to the surface by storm energy, further accelerating ice melt in a positive feedback loop. As ice melts and waters warm, sea-level rise puts coastal communities at risk, inundating precious habitats for humans and wildlife alike. Therefore, better understanding the processes involved in ice-melt is enormously important to mitigating and responding to climate change globally.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Thomas Peacock, a scientist part of the ArcticMix, recently back from a month-long expedition aboard a cutting-edge research vessel, the 261ft long, R/V Sikuliaq (see-KOO-lee-auk). The following interview has been abbreviated, rearranged and ever so slightly re-worded and from its original audio format.
Q: Who are you and what do you do?
A: I’m Thomas Peacock, I’m an associate professor in mechanical engineering at MIT and my research focuses on the oceans.
Q: How did you get into your field?
A: It wasn’t an entirely pre-planned career path. I’ve always liked research and fluid flows because we live our lives amongst fluids whether it’s oceans, rivers or the atmosphere around us. I’ve always been interested in geophysical problems as opposed to industrial problems. And from a personal point of view, I’ve always enjoyed going to interesting parts of the world. This trip to the Arctic is a good example!
Q: What kind of planning goes into a cruise like this one?
A: A huge amount of logistical planning goes into this. From the scientific side, the original proposal for this work would have been submitted 2-3 years ago, then you need to get funding for the research, and ship time to go up there. Once you have all that in place, there’s about a year’s worth of modeling to make predictions of what you’re going to find up there. Then, the major equipment is shipped in advance, because you’ve got some very, very big items. Personally, also a lot of planning, I’m a relatively new father: I have a 14-month old daughter so leaving my wife alone for a month is no small matter. Also from a personal side, I’m a professor here at MIT, so I need to arrange for someone to teach while I’m away.
Q: What kind of clothes did you pack?
A: It’s interesting, you actually don’t have to pack so much because the ship is very well equipped for cold weather gear. So if you’re operating up on deck, the ship has all the gloves, boots, survival suits, everything needed. All you really need to bring is layered clothing to wear underneath. In fact, actually, it’s kind of funny, my first research cruise was about 10 years ago. I turned up with a huge, extremely heavy, difficult to carry pack. And I remember Matthew and Jennifer, the two chief scientists being very amused at this rookie turning up like this. 10 years later on this cruise, I turned up with my fairly modest backpack. I felt like I was a proper physical oceanographer.
“I find that in this branch of oceanography, it’s wonderfully open, people really all want to achieve the same thing”
Q: How did you meet your collaborators?
A: Several of the scientists, particularly the chief scientists: Matthew Alford and Jennifer MacKinnon (interviewed in Part 3 of the Oceanbites Mingles with ArcticMix posts!) and myself have been colleagues over several years. It’s a very dynamic, engaging and inclusive group of people. Some scientific communities can be quite exclusive—they want to protect their ideas, get patents, I find that in this branch of oceanography, it’s wonderfully open, people really all want to achieve the same thing. This cruise was particularly remarkable in terms of how genial and cordial the whole environment was, and not just amongst the scientists—that was very strong—but also with the crew of the research vessel. For example, one of the chefs opened up his kitchen and invited people to come and learn from him. Several of the science party spent evenings with him helping cook dinner which was great! And so it’s a little bit of a shame when you come ashore and go your separate ways because you know you’re not going to have that group of people together again doing the same thing.
Q: What was your role on the ship?
A: Scientifically, my role was to bring my model that we’ve developed to compare with real data. My model looks at how internal waves propagate through the density structure of the Arctic Ocean. The second thing is that the Arctic has very unique phenomena of what are called double diffusive staircases. You can get this very fine structure in the Arctic Ocean that you can’t see in almost any other part of the world because it’s a delicate mechanism that requires a fairly quiescent environment. We’re going to look into more detail about how persistent these fine-scaled structures are and how that compares historically. It may be that they are less prevalent than has been seen on previous trips and this might be an indication of increasing activity in the Arctic Ocean (the absence of protective ice cover means storms can inject more energy, generating more activity in the form of internal waves). In terms of my role on the ship, it was the same as many others, we were organized into three different watches, each watching eight hours. And during those eight hours, we have the responsibility of manning the equipment, monitoring everything and making sure all things are working.
Q: Were you ever in any danger?
A: We were never in any danger regarding the ice capabilities, the boat is well equipped, well prepared, and the captain, well-trained. He always assesses the situations well in advance before you even get to a scenario that might be considered danger.
“The most exciting thing is that it’s part of the world that very few people get to visit”
Q: What is the most exciting thing about being in the Arctic? Do you have a story to share?
A: The most exciting thing is that it’s part of the world that very few people get to visit. So you feel very privileged to be up there and to be able to see the ocean in increasingly frozen stages. We were there through the ice minimum, which was around early September, and by the time we were leaving, the ocean was starting to freeze up again. You’d wake up one morning and the appearance of the ocean surface looked a little different. For example, you’d no longer see little waves on the surface, they were all suppressed by the ice starting to form. Then those little crystals started to form into bigger pancakes, and that formed an ice sheet. To see that evolution was something very remarkable. And also, to be up there and to see the wildlife–polar bears in particular, that felt quite amazing.
Q: That leads into the next question, what kind of marine or terrestrial life did you see?
A: We saw plenty of marine life. We saw a polar bear with a recent kill and given where we were that was quite fortuitous. We saw a bunch of walruses; we saw whales: grey whales, humpback whales; we saw a puffin. Actually a surprising one was a huge jellyfish. When we brought up a piece of equipment, there was a huge jellyfish wrapped around it. And actually one time, one of our sensors started malfunctioning on a significant piece of equipment we were towing behind the ship. We thought one of the sensors was broken, but when we brought it up, it was actually a tiny little krill that had gotten sucked into one of the pump valves.
Q: Is there a potential for your findings to influence policy, marine managers or decision-makers?
A: Well that’s a long-term hope. Our research would influence and support large-scale computational models that are our best bet for making predictions of what’s going to happen in the Arctic Ocean. In turn, these models are really what are being used to inform policy and decision makers on how to proceed.
To learn more about Thomas and the other scientists participating in the ArcticMix, visit the ArcticMix Blog. The writing, photos and videos are stellar! Also stay tuned for ArcticMix interviews Parts 2 and 3, here on oceanbites!
Writer’s note: I want to thank Dr. Thomas Peacock for his time and also Dr. Thomas Moore for reaching out with this opportunity. Lastly, climate change is here and now. Not only do the oceans and atmospheres need to be understood in their entirety to mitigate and prepare for negative impacts, but we also need good policies to create large-scale change. These policies require engaged citizens. So vote, be active in your community, and why not follow along with the upcoming COP21, Paris 2015.