Physical oceanography

Oceanbites Mingles With ArcticMix (Part 3)

This is part three of three in a series on the recent ArcticMix expedition (see part 1 and part 2) 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.

Dr. MacKinnon, excited to see instruments deployed. Photo credit: Thomas Moore.

I had a lovely conversation with Dr. Jennifer MacKinnon, chief scientist of the ArcticMix cruise. The following is an abbreviated version of our exchange, which was rearranged and lightly modified when converted from its original audio format.

Who are you and what do you do?

Sorry I’m just… shutting off a pot of rice. I’m trying to make dinner in advance. I have to go teach a class and then I have to go to soccer practice and… [fades into a good-natured grumble]. So. I’m a professor here at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I am a physical oceanographer, which means I study the physics of how the ocean moves and, in particular, I study small-scale mixing in the ocean and what produces it and why we care about it and what its patterns are. The closer you look [at ocean water movement], the more complicated and swirly and confusing it gets and so understanding the whole thing in its infinite complexity is really very daunting. Studying things that are actually very small, like I’m just trying to understand what’s happening in a one meter-sized box in the ocean- you have some hope of actually thoroughly understanding what’s happening in that very small space.

How did you get into your field?

I started undergraduate being a physics major just because I like to understand how the world works as much as to go into physics. I did a couple summer internships doing particle physics sorts of things where I was stuck in a basement counting little particles… I had a few friends who went into oceanography and were on a boat and they were like, “Hey, we’re still doing physics but it’s in environmental science and it matters to the real world and you’re out doing fieldwork!” and it really sounded significantly more appealing.

“The closer you look [at ocean water movement], the more complicated and swirly and confusing it gets… Studying things that are actually very small… you have some hope of actually thoroughly understanding what’s happening in that very small space.”


On deck after a job well done. Photo credit: Thomas Moore.

What was your role on the ship?

I was the chief scientist, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I am more insightful or knowledgeable than anyone else. I view my role as to facilitate everything happening in an efficient and correct way… I have some vision of an overall plan for how the experiment should go, meaning: what are our priorities? So everyone gets out there and is like, “I’m really excited about this!” but we can’t do all 50 bajillion things- the ship would be driving around in circles. You kind of have to be like, “ok, well, let’s see how many of everyone’s priorities we can get to”… Let’s try to think about a plan that would… achieve as many of these goals as we can in an efficient way while trying to keep in mind how the different things we are studying combine into a more cohesive story that is larger in its impact- more than the sum of its parts.

What is the hardest part of doing science in the Arctic?

There are some harsh weather logistics… So we arrived in Nome and we had been scheduled with 3 days to load the ship and set up all of our equipment… expecting to leave after 3 days of building all of our instruments and screwing everything together. We were told, “Actually, there’s a huge storm coming in and this dock, while it will accept a big ship, is not very stable and so if it starts getting really windy the ship will bang against the dock and cause a lot of damage… Instead of having 3 days to prepare, you have 8 hours”, which caused general chaos and screaming and “ahh!”. Panic. A lot of panic. I’ve had ships leave late before due to various malfunctions or delays but I have never had a ship leave early.

What unusual or unexpected skills have you acquired in the field?

I am not a particularly well-balanced person. That’s not one of my strong suits. I tend to just randomly walk into the wall when I’m walking down a straight hallway, I’ll just kind of lurch sideways… That is obviously problematic on a ship. One of the trickiest things is showering on a ship. You can imagine- showers are really slippery and you’re trying to wash your hair, and I have a ton of hair… and the whole shower is going back and forth… that’s a real acquired skill and that’s one of those things I feel like I’ve actually gotten good at over the years.

“When you’re doing real science and you don’t know the answers, it’s incredibly fun… It’s the best job I can imagine.”


Is there any way for university students to get involved with a project like this?

We have taken undergraduates before and even high school students who have just contacted one or the other of us (the principal investigators of the experiment) and said, “Hey, I am an undergraduate student and I’m really interested in oceanography- do you have any opportunities for me to volunteer?” Sometimes people are looking for volunteers and sometimes they are not. But it’s not infrequent that that will happen. If someone is interested I would recommend doing a little bit of homework and looking around at people’s research and finding people’s websites and finding

Dr. MacKinnon removing a robot from the deck with Dr. Matthew Alford. Photo credit: Thomas Moore.

research that looks exciting or interesting to you and just giving them a call… The more general answer is that all of the U.S.-based research vessels are coordinated by one organization: UNOLS. There’s a space [on their website] for people to register as a volunteer.

Is there anything else you would like to tell me about you, ArcticMix, or science in general?

We had a great time. When you’re doing real science and you don’t know the answers, it’s incredibly fun… It’s not like it is [in school] when you’re just trying to study for a test. You get to hypothesize your own ideas and try them out and work with your friends… It’s the best job I can imagine.

Author’s note: Thanks to Dr. MacKinnon for her time and to Dr. Thomas Moore for reaching out with this opportunity. To read more about ArcticMix scientists, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. For more on how your lifestyle contributes to global warming and what you can do about it, calculate your carbon footprint.

What’s that? Can’t get enough? Be sure to check out part 1 and part 2 of the ArcticMix series.


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