This is part two of three in a series on the recent ArcticMix expedition (see part 1 and part 3) lead by Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) scientists. The overall goal of ArcticMix is to improve climate change forecast models by better describing ocean water characteristics in 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, the chance deeper heat will be brought to the surface by storm energy is increased, 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.
Oceanbites sat down with Elizabeth “Effie” Fine, a second-year physical oceanography graduate student at SIO, to discuss her experiences in the field, and what lead her to the Arctic.
How did you get into Arctic science? What are your visions for Arctic science? I have a background in physics, and got a summer internship at Scripps [Institution of Oceanography] and completely loved it. I got interested in studying internal waves and how energy moves in the ocean. When I was applying to Scripps, Jen MacKinnon* had this proposal to do this Arctic research project and she asked me if I wanted to be the grad student for this project and it just sounded like an incredible opportunity and not at all what I had in mind initially, but it all worked out.
*Jennifer MacKinnon is a chief scientist in the ArcticMix expedition and a professor at SIO.
What did you have in mind? Well, the group I had been doing research which does a lot of Equatorial research, so I had been thinking more along the lines of Tahiti, but this project seemed like a really interesting intersection of science and climate issues.
Was this your first time in the field? No, second.
Before that was it also Arctic? No, I did a trip to the Bay of Bengal last summer.
Contrasting the two experiences, how were they similar and how were they different? Did one prepare you for the other? The science in those two locations is actually kind of similar even though they’re obviously very different climates. In the Bay of Bengal there’s a lot river run-off, and so you have this layer of fresh water at the surface and there’s very strong stratification between that and the salty water beneath it. The Arctic actually has the same thing. It has the ice-melt that’s cold and fresh over the warm and salty bottom, so that part was similar, and some of the tools we were using were also similar.
“[Jennifer MacKinnon] … asked me if I wanted to be the grad student for this project and it just sounded like an incredible opportunity and not at all what I had in mind initially…”
The biggest difference from my perspective was that I did that cruise before I had taken my first year of classes, and I didn’t have any field experience at that point. For this project I had a little bit more background going into it, and I was able to be more involved with the on-the-fly data processing and that kind of thing.
Coming to Scripps [SIO] was your goal to do fieldwork? Yes.
How do your passions and hobbies contribute to [your desire to do fieldwork]? I assume you’re probably an outdoors person? I’ve always loved the ocean and being near the ocean. I did sailing programs in high school. Fieldwork is a really nice intersection of things I would like to do for fun like going out on a ship and exploring places, and getting to do really interesting science while I’m there.
“Fieldwork is a really nice intersection of things I would like to do for fun like going out on a ship and exploring places, and getting to do really interesting science while I’m there.”
So, is it actually fun? Yes, it’s a lot of fun.
What is the most exciting aspect of the work that you do? Well, there are all these very big powerful models that do actually a very good job of predicting the earth’s climate. At the same time when you really get into the details of them there’s a lot off stuff that we really don’t know yet. Those models can’t resolve very small-scale processes, and so they generally use the same mixing parameters over areas where mixing is actually different. When we go out in the field to collect data, the goal is ultimately to improve our understanding of these small-scale processes that can affect the climate in big ways.
The Arctic trip was amazing because you’re seeing these landscapes that are just totally incredible, which most people don’t get to see. And the people I’m working with are such an intelligent, driven, hardworking group of people, that are also really fun to be with, and so it’s very special to be part of a team like that.
It’s called a “mission.” I assume that everybody on the ship is kind of working toward answering the same scientific question or do you have your own sub-question that you’re working on? How are things organized? For this trip everyone was looking at the same big questions and we did a couple of sub-projects within that. We did a survey project near the Mackenzie River Canyon and another one in the Bering Strait, as well as some surveys of eddies, and a day of exploring near the ice edge, so these were sort of sub-projects but the all relate back to the same bigger question. We also had a videographer and a blogger with us, so they were focused on outreach and sharing what we were finding.
“…the people I’m working with are such an intelligent, driven, hardworking group of people, that are also really fun to be with, and so it’s very special to be part of a team like that.”
You’re working with a lot of fancy, maybe even finicky equipment, so how do you deal with the unexpected? We had a team of awesome engineers, and we absolutely had the unexpected. One of our instruments had just gotten completely retooled for this experiment. We did a one day test cruise, and I think it had gotten about two hours of testing in the water before going out to the Arctic. So, we definitely found some things that didn’t handle that environment as well as we’d hoped they would. Our engineers were able to manufacture new parts on the ship and to fix problems as they came up. We also have two instruments and can only be using one of them at time anyway, because you can’t have multiple lines going off the ship, so if something needed to be fixed, we could switch to a different kind of survey while it was getting repaired.
It seems that you guys interface a lot with the public. Why do think people should care about the ArcticMix Project? Why do you think it’s important to share you research with the public? This research is really important for understanding what’s happening to our climate and what’s going to happen to it. The better our climate models work the better we can either try to mitigate the affects or try to come up with contingency plans for what we’re going to do in the future. The Arctic Ocean is changing very rapidly even year-to-year. And so I think being out there and taking all these pictures and having all these experiences like watching [sea ice form] … being able to ground predictions about the Arctic in a specific story with specific pictures … I think that it makes it seem more real than when you’re just reading about how the Arctic sea ice is melting, like, “that’s too bad.”
“… being out there and taking all these pictures and having all these experiences … I think that it makes it seem more real than when you’re just reading about how the Arctic sea ice is melting, like, ‘that’s too bad.’”
Since you’re the only grad student we’re interviewing, I thought it would be interesting to get your perspective as a grad student. Is there a well-defined hierarchy on the ship? Is it an egalitarian endeavor? I think it’s a good balance. Jen [MacKinnon], who is a chief scientist would ask for everyone’s input on decisions. Everyone took turns giving presentations sharing what they are doing, and people were working on many different things. And there was still a defined, “You’re on watch now. It’s you’re turn to stand outside.” It was a good balance.
Traveling back in time … Before you embark on your trip what do you do to prepare yourself? How do you prepare as a team? I took my departmentals* in June and we were leaving for this in August and so there was actually a pretty limited amount of time when I was trying to read papers to get up to speed on the literature. I think one of the big challenges was that the Arctic was a new region of study for most people on the team, so just figuring out which areas we needed to focus on was one of the priorities. We also did a test cruise to do final testing on all the instruments. Everything ships months in advance so by the time I was finished with departmentals the instruments were already gone. I was also trying to get the software working to do real-time analysis.
*Departmentals refers to the exam taken upon completion of the first year of the graduate program.
You mentioned reading up a lot before you went. How important is the sort of real-time data analysis and off-hand understanding? The more that you can do it, the better off you are because there were a couple of things where we were just sitting there looking at these screens and we’re like, “wait … does that look right?” In terms of the literature I still wish I had a better understanding of it going in. Being able to adjust your initial plan on the fly just gets you so much more flexibility.
What skills do you think have been the most useful to you in the field? What skills did you bring in? What skills did you come away with? I did my undergraduate degree and a Masters in physics and I have some experience programming and working with models. That’s been really helpful because it makes it a little bit less overwhelming to have a ton of data, or to have these software things that aren’t working just because you’ve gone through similar situations before and have a little bit of faith that it’s going to work out.
In terms of what I came away with … going through this has given me a much more intuitive sense of what kinds of things I should be looking for and what looks exciting. We did all of these presentations and I learned a ton from the other people on the ship about their research, a lot of which will tie into the project.
“I think going through [fieldwork] has given me a much more intuitive sense of what kinds of things I should be looking for and what looks exciting.”
Do you have advice for younger people interested in pursuing science? I think taking science classes and math classes and learning to program will set you up for a bunch of different options.
Last comments? One of things that’s really impressed me the last couple of the years is how complicated the ocean is and how wrong it is to think of it as this homogeneous blob of water … when you look at all these different instruments and what they’re able to do you realize there’s a ton of structure and ton of different processes going on so it’s very exciting to be out there in the field and to watch that unfold in real time.
Interviewer note: Special thanks to Dr. Thomas Moore for providing media from the ArcticMix expedition. Check out other excellent footage and pictures at the ArcticMix blog.
Abrahim is a PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego where he studies marine chemical biology.