Today's blog post is written by one of the REU students, Daksha Rajagopalan. Daksha is going into her senior year at Yale University, where she is majoring in physics. Daksha reflects on the beauty of this place and why she is so excited about learning geology.

Daksha with CTD
Daksha Rajagopalan with the CTD device (photo from Rebecca Siegel)

Today, as I held the boat on shore (so it wouldn't drift away with Mark) while Rebecca uploaded the data from the HOBO (and Liz stood guard for polar bears), my eyes soaked in the beauty of this place.

Retrieving the HOBO
I'm holding on to the rock to keep the boat in place while Rebecca retrieves the HOBO device.

The sharply cut, barren mountains. Streaks of white ice running down their sides. Rock faces and grey lines cutting across these mountains. I imagined the polar bears and arctic foxes that must roam around from time to time. Turning around, I saw where the glacier meets the fjord. Where the enormous mass of frozen ice, accumulated from snowfall over millenia, breaks off sharply into Kongsfjorden. Kongsfjorden, the fjord we are working in, connects to the Fram strait, which in turn bridges the Greenland Sea to the Arctic Ocean. As I turned, from the delta we were moored at (where icebergs had washed up to the shore today), to look at the fjord, a flock of geese waddled away from us, into the cold waters. Much closer to the glacier, about 100 meters from the ice face, swarms and swarms of birds were diving into the water. This is the place where meltwater from the bottom of the glacier, enters the bottom of the fjord and rises to the surface. This is the place where “upwelling” occurs: where cool, nutrient-rich water wells up to the surface.

Birds in upwelling plume
View of the hundreds of kittiwakes in the upwelling in front of the glacier. Look closely and you can see hundreds of white dots near the glacier front.

My eyes continued to roam across everything I could see. The brown and grey mountains. The bleak clouds hanging over us. The choppy waters. The deep blue icebergs. This landscape has really started to grow on me! I'll admit, I don't have much of a geology background at all, and, coming out to the field, I was slightly terrified of being the only non-geologist around, and that too with very little experience “outdoors”. You see, I grew up in highly-urbanized Singapore, travelling frequently to India and all around Southeast Asia. And I've been studying physics and environmental studies (focusing on history, anthropology, ethics, and religion) at Yale for the last three years, with only an introductory background to the science of atmosphere and oceans. Bottom-line: I knew very little about rocks, and I was a little worried that I'd be the odd-one-out in the group. While I find stories of how the world has formed very interesting, I'd never paid much attention to rocks and the stories that they can tell. So when I say this landscape has started to grow on me, I mean that in the last couple of weeks, I've started to appreciate how the glaciers, over time, slowly cut the valleys out of the mountains. The flowing ice carves out an entire landscape! But how do you know where the ice flowed? How do you figure it out, when it happened so long ago?

Birds resting on an iceberg.
Birds resting on an iceberg.

It's like playing with a jigsaw puzzle. Or like the boardgame Clue (/Cluedo). You have all these little pieces of things: a bit of this sort of sediment over here, some larger rocks out there, certain kinds of old, dead animals in the smaller rock that you find... And you have to piece it all together! That's one of the things I love about science; it tells stories. Remember how I saw lots of birds today at the upwelling near the glacier? Well, science tells a story here, too. When the ice melts, it releases fresh (non-salty) water, which flows as a stream under the glacier. When this cold, fresh water enters the sea (which has warmer and saltier water), the fresh water rises to the surface because it is less dense, bringing up nutrients from the bottom of the sea. Fish, in search of food, will feed in the nutrient-rich water; and birds, searching for fish, will find abundant food at the ice face. And me, travelling along in a little boat with Mark and Liz and Rebecca, that's exactly why I find abundant birds near the glacier!

Some of the many icebergs we had to drive through to get to and from the glacier margin.

Science tells stories; it tells such intricate stories and helps to poke at beautiful mysteries all around us, but that's not why I first fell in love with science. You see, it's also like a language we use for thinking about the entire universe. Just as we use English (or Mandarin or Welsh) to talk to friends, and just as we express our emotions with music and dance, so too do we use math and science to communicate what we observe in the world around us. And what is it that we observe in the world around us? What is the universe made of? That's what first fascinated me about science. In ninth grade, I read Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. It's this popular-science book all about string theory. What makes up an atom? What makes up a proton? What makes up a quark? What does each little particle look like (and sound like and feel like and wiggle like)? I started taking physics classes in highschool... And I started to think: Why do objects have weight, where is mass coming from, what does mass really mean? Why do all the particles in the universe that we see ... stick together to form objects?

The third reason I really like science is because it's just so much fun! You're collecting all these data, all these numbers and you're making figures out of them... to look for patterns! It's kind of like looking at a honeycomb or bathroom floor tiles and looking for the pattern in there. Or looking at a series of numbers and trying to figure out what they all have in common or how they are related to each other. It's solving a puzzle, really!

CTD data
My first set of CTD data. There is an interesting story hidden in this data that I am excited to understand.

So, say I'm interested in understanding how fast glaciers are shrinking (which I am! and you might want to be interested in this too, since it's going to affect, among a ton of other things, worldwide sea levels...), and I want to find out how the glacier is being melted (under the sea-surface) by warmer sea water (another way glaciers can also lose ice is by calving, as Mark's videos show).

Calving of Kronebreen glacier
Calving of Kronebreen glacier

Then what I'm doing now is taking CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth) measurements so I can understand what different “types” of water are under the water surface (or “water stratification”: for example, maybe the top 10 meters is warm and salty, maybe it is fresh, cold water under that, and maybe there might be much warmer at the bottom). I'm interested in finding out if warmer water from the North Atlantic is coming up the Fram strait and into Kongsfjorden, and if the heat from this warmer water is increasing how quickly this glacier is melting. And trying to figure this out is going to be such a fun puzzle; I get to make all these plots of all the data we find, and then sit and think about how the salinity and temperature and density change with depth in different parts of the fjord, and how these changes are affected by the time or the tide. I also get to figure out how to trace certain “water bodies” back to the North Atlantic—or maybe they're not coming from there at all?

uploading the CTD data
That's me (Daksha) uploading data from the CTD device. It's so wonderful to see a picture emerge of what the water is like below the surface.

And, speaking of how fun science is, I cannot forget to mention the fieldwork! Just being out here, having to troubleshoot equipment (as Mark has described!). Learning to use rifles and to tie knots. Learning to work in a team and take all the data we'll be using. Or even the danger of walking from our rooms to the lab, for fear of getting pooped on by birds! There are all these Arctic terns around here, and they are very aggressive this year.

What a great team! Rebecca lowers the winch so Liz can collect her sediment samples. I will Rebecca wind up the winch. Meanwhile Mark keeps the boat in a staionary position.

Iceberg sediment collection
Liz is collecting samples, with an ice axe, of sediment from an iceberg that had once been on the bottom of the glacier. These dirty icebergs are part of the puzzle we are trying to understand. (I am behind Liz holding the other ice axe - keeping the boat in place while she collects the sample.)

I'm looking out of the window as I write this, and I just saw Liz walk home with her laundry atop her head, and an arctic tern swooping at her, probably clicking away, trying to scare her. Apparently, the family of three arctic foxes (who usually eat tern chicks) has moved away, and so, the tern chicks are growing, with very, very protective parents. I look out of the window again. A sanderling scurries by, poking at the tundra for food. It's amazing how fast these birds run. You know, today, as we rode the choppy waves back, a flock of birds flew with us, at the same pace we were riding at. Witnessing all this reminds me how amazing the world we share is.

boat in front of glacier
Our boat in front of the glacier. (Photo by Julie Brigham-Grete)

Ny Ålesund, Spitsbergen
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