Thursday, 21 August
Yesterday was our last full day on the JCR and it was very busy. We all packed up our scientific equipment and slowly, as the day progressed, the ships' labs started to look empty. However, the research also continued with Mags, Stig and Anette completing their zooplankton distribution work.
Whilst all this was going on Susan and Ming continued their filming and eventually, just as the JCR left Kongsfjord, Susan interviewed me on the ship's bows with the hills and glaciers in the background.
Again, I found it difficult to summarise what we have achieved in a few sentences without using technical jargon and without oversimplifying our results. Once more Susan and Ming made the experience less painful than I expected.
The day then ended with the traditional end of cruise party as we sailed south to Longyearbyen. This was my opportunity, as chief scientist, to thank the officers, crew and scientists for all their help in making this such a successful research cruise. They have been a wonderful team. Presents were given and received, and there was lots of food and drink. It was a great way to end the expedition.
So now I am sat typing this last diary entry in Longyearbyen. We arrived here this morning and left the ship at mid-day. It has been a day of mixed emotions with everyone sad to leave the ship and say goodbye to the officers and crew, but also relieved that the hard work is now over.
For myself, I am also pleased that the expedition went so well. There is still a lot of hard work ahead analysing our samples and data back in the UK, France and Norway; however, our preliminary results are more exciting than we expected. We should therefore have an important scientific story to tell.
For a summary of the expedition's preliminary results visit the SAMS website
Tuesday, 19 August
A life of a scientist is never dull and this evening I have just spent an hour dangling small metal balls off the ship using a fishing rod!
Every few minutes Mags sends me an instruction by radio to either lower or raise the balls. I duly oblige by winding in or letting out the fishing line. I won't go into details but it is all to do with calibrating her echo sounder.
It is actually a peaceful interlude in an otherwise busy day finishing our research, packing our gear and talking to Susan and Ming from the BBC.
They joined the ship today, complete with the latest UK newspapers, having flown in to Ny Alesund this morning. It's good to see them again but reminds me that we will soon be rejoining the rest of the world.
This is a big day for George Paglibro and Laila Sadler. George has been filming the expedition for the BBC while Laila has been photographing our exploits and running our website.
It is now time to help Susan and Ming put together their science program for Newsnight with both Ellie and Henrik giving interviews to camera.
Monday, 18 August
It is Monday evening and we are moored in Kongsfjord, opposite the "science" village of Ny Alesund, on the west coast of Svalbard.
We have travelled a long way today. In the early hours of this morning, around 1 am, we were north of Svalbard in thick pack ice and fog which eventually opened up allowing the JCR to pick up speed on our journey south.
The weather also cleared giving us some stunning last views of sea ice lit up by the midnight sun.
Once we reached open water we stopped the ship for Emilie Le Floc'h, Eric Fouiland and Elanor Bell to take their final set of microbial plant and bacterial growth measurements.
Their results so far have proved very interesting. A lot of the carbon captured by the microbial plants is re-entering the seawater cells in dissolved form as organic compounds.
These compounds are usually taken up and recycled by bacteria but in our cold waters most of them are accumulating in the seawater. We now need to work out why the bacteria are not using them and where they eventually go.
We then continued onto Kongsfjord and deployed Henrik's Landers for the last time surrounded by hills and glaciers, but no more sea-ice or polar bears.
Friday 15 August
For the last two days we have been working in Rijpforden, a large fjord surrounded by hills and glaciers at the far north east corner of Svalbard. Getting here took considerable time and effort as we had to drive the ship through several miles of thick sea-ice in the early hours of Thursday morning. Watching Graham, the Captain, carefully control the ship's speed and direction I begin to appreciate how difficult this is.
Too fast and the ship may be damaged. Too slow and we grind to a halt.
But the ice is lumpy so the speed needs continually adjusting. It's a long night for the Graham but thanks to his skill and experience we arrive safely and on time.
So why go to all this trouble to reach the fjord? Rijpfjorden is a unique place: a very cold high latitude coastal sea in which we have instruments continually monitoring the physics and biology. We can use these long-term observations to help us extrapolate our detailed but short-term experimental observations to longer time scales.
The fjord has also been covered in ice until earlier this week so we have the chance to see how the creatures living in surface waters respond to a dramatic increase in sunlight and wind mixing.
However the first task is for Kate to map the bathymetry of the fjord using a multi-beam sonar. This gives us a very detailed map of the sea floor. This is the first time it has been done in Rijpforden making subsequent navigation much safer.
Next Stig Falk-Petersen, Anette Wold and Mags Wallace undertake a detailed study of zooplankton distribution using nets and echo-sounder.
Zooplankton are small shrimp-like animals which eat microbial plants in surface waters during the night, then descend to deep dark waters during the day to hide from predators. But how do they behave when exposed to continuous sun?
Then more Landers, sea-bed cores and water sampling. It has been a busy two days!
Monday, 11 August
During the last two days we have completed observations and experiments at a station influenced by loose, melting pack ice.
These have gone well but we have two problems:
Firstly we have had to leave one of Henrik's Landers sitting on the sea bed. We deployed it at this same site a week ago on route to our sea ice station. Now it is ready to float to the surface but sea-ice has moved in from the north and there is a danger it will surface below a flow. We will pick it up later in the cruise but this is very frustrating for Henrik.
The second problem is that the flow cytometer is playing up again. This is also very frustrating for Jane and Elaine Mitchell. Elaine, who joined us in Longyearbyen, operates the instrument back home in Oban and has an ongoing love/hate relationship with it. We are all three calling it various names which I will not repeat here!
The lesson for today: never work with sea-ice, Lander's or flow cytometers!
The results from our other work are, however, now coming in fast as we process samples and we are beginning to build up a picture of what is going on in our area or the Arctic.
Later in the cruise, when communications improve (we are currently reporting by Iridium satellite), I will summarise what we have found. In the meantime we are heading west to open waters in search, not of ice, but of a muddy sea floor.
Saturday, 9 August
Sea-ice is unpredictable stuff and, having left our ice station, we now find ourselves surrounded by loose pack ice much further to the south-west than we expected. This was open water when we crossed it six days ago. Svalbard seems to have quite a lot of sea-ice this year and this seems to be due to strong northerly winds blowing it south towards the islands.
Loose, melting pack ice allows more sunlight to reach the microbial plants in surface waters. It also adds freshwater to the ocean surface preventing the wind mixing the plants to deeper, darker waters. The melting ice edge therefore supports a productive ecosystem making it interesting to study.
We are not the only ones studying the waters below us. There seem to be increasing numbers of birds feeding along the edges of the ice flows.
They also follow our ship waiting for us to disturb the surface ice and water bringing small animals within their reach.
And more polar bears too * I thought we might not see any yet we see them everyday!
Thursday, 7 August
Working on sea-ice is never easy and during the last two days at our ice station we have had to deal with broken equipment, an (almost) broken nose and a polar bear stealing one of our marker flags!
Ok, the broken nose is an exaggeration as it's really only a small cut to my face; however, a couple of our older water sampling bottles did break due to the cold and the polar bear did pick up and play with one of our flags. Robert Paterson, the Chief Officer, has a great photo to prove it.
Despite such minor set-backs we have completed a successful set of observations and experiments in and under the ice. The water beneath the ice is very cold and dark yet we have found some relatively high concentrations of microbial plants: either they are very well adapted to low light or they have been carried in from sunnier waters. Our results will answer this.
Everything takes twice as long working on the ice so we are all very tired. But it has been a great 2 days. The sea ice is an amazing place and we are sorry to head back into open waters.
Sunday 3 August
I can just make out the walruses huddled together on a low lying spit called Moffen Island. This is a conservation site so we are not allowed to take a closer look. We had hoped they would swim out to meet us but it is almost midnight and I'm sure they are more interested in sleeping than in us scientists!
We have completed a busy but successful three days work at our last Atlantic water station (the water a balmy 7oC) and have now entered very cold Arctic waters north of Svalbard. We have chased the ice and found it at last, the loose pack floating by the ship. However, it is much further south than we expected, blown here by northerly winds.
This is good news for our next task: to take the JCR as far as we can into the ice so that we can work on the pack ice itself. Can't wait!
Friday 1 August
It's been an eventful but productive two days.
Yesterday we ended our long journey north to Svalbard but it was with mixed emotions that the ship came finally to a halt just offshore from Longyearbyen, the main town on the archipelago.
It was exciting to sail up Ilsfjorden surrounded by stunning views of the surrounding hills and glaciers, and to welcome on board the rest of our team (who had flown to Longyearbyen). Joining us are colleagues from SAMS, Norway, France and the BBC. It is now a truly international expedition.
However, it was sad to say goodbye to Mike, John, Terry and Joe who head back home. They have worked hard and achieved a great deal during the last week and we will miss them.
We were soon on our way back out of Islfjorden and by this morning had arrived at our first major Arctic study site. It is in open waters to the north west of Svalbard and just south of the sea-ice. We will stay here about three days and undertake an intensive set of observations and experiments.
The first of these is the deployment of the benthic Landers. These are large frames holding a sophisticated set of instruments which are lowered to the sea bed where they will remain for 24 hours (see Henrik Stahl's blog for more).
There then followed a great set of sediment cores which delight the geochemists and benthic biologists. And to top it all the day darkened and we caught a glimpse of the partial eclipse of the sun through foggy skies.
Wednesday 30 July
It's Wednesday afternoon and I am on the bridge of the JCR, binoculars in hand, scanning the sea below for any sign of a large yellow buoy. It is very quiet as the Captain and officers concentrate on moving the ship into position near a set of instruments moored to the seabed.
The instruments have been underwater for many months and its time to collect them by sending out an acoustic signal which releases them from their anchor, allowing the buoy we are looking for to float them to the surface. Will we see it?
We are in Storfjorden on the south side of Svalbard and we can see the snow covered hills and glaciers of the island in the distance.
It's an area of particular interest to physical oceanographers because the salty Arctic water in the fjord sinks and flows out of the fjord into the deep ocean.
Deploying the oceanographic instument in Storfjorden
This process is thought to be important in global ocean circulation. Storfjorden is therefore an excellent "model system" to study.
On board we have a team from the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory in Liverpool. Earlier in the day John Kenny, Terry Doyle and Joe Collins successfully deployed a set of large instruments which will measure the flow of water out of the fjord.
This is a major objective of the cruise and I am pleased it has gone so well.
After about an hour of searching there is no sign of the buoy, and we can't find the instruments using the ships echo sounder. Maybe they have been dragged away by trawlers?
It's a disappointing end to an otherwise very successful day and I am reminded, yet again, of how difficult it is to do science in the Arctic.
We continue on our way - next stop Lonyearbyen!
Monday 28 July, 2008
I am writing this entry whilst collecting microbial samples in the early hours of Monday morning.
Every half hour (during which the JCR travels about five miles) I take a water sample from a supply of seawater pumped up to the lab from a pipe sticking out of the ships hull.
At my request, the rest of the team have been taking samples round the clock since leaving Portland so it is now only fair that I do my bit and stay up late for the unpopular night shift.
It is not as bad as it sounds as I have the labs to myself and appreciate the peace and quiet!
Jane Manning counting microbes using the Flow Cytometer
So far we have collected hundreds of samples which Jane Manning, a PhD student from Swansea University, is counting using a flow cytometer.
This is a very sophisticated instrument but also very temperamental so poor Jane has been spending much of her time trying to persuade it to behave itself!
So why take all these samples? We imagine the sea to be mixed up by wind and tides but look closely and we find that many of its creatures, including microbes, congregate together in patches in the same way that people in a city centre congregate around the most popular food outlets.
But just how patchy are microbial populations? Our high frequency sampling across thousands of miles of sea offers an opportunity to find out.
It is now time for me to take another sample. It is dark and misty outside, there is a chill in the air, and for the first time on this cruise I am wearing a jumper. A big change from yesterday but this is not surprising as we have just crossed the Arctic Circle a few hours ago. We are now in the Arctic!
Saturday 26 July, 2008
Today has been a glorious sunny day with the sea so calm that we are able to see the fins of pilot whales swimming some way off.
I wish it were always like this at sea and am tempted to spend the day out on deck sunbathing. However, as usual, there is work to be done: first, another sampling station then some time showing Andrea Veszelovszki how to process her microbial samples.
Andrea, a SAMS marine science student is helping out with the microbial studies. It's her first time but she has previously worked at sea so I know she is a "safe pair of hands" in a moving laboratory.
Processing her microbial samples involves the dreaded filtering which, as I mentioned yesterday, is very boring. However, her filters have to be mounted very quickly onto microscope slides before they dry which is tricky and requires concentration and nimble fingers. She soon gets the hang of it and her slides are perfect.
Andrea, as an undergraduate, is the most junior member of the team so will spend a lot of this cruise filtering. It was the same for all of us when we started our careers in oceanography and we have all "been there". However, later on in the cruise she will run her own honours project experiments which will be really interesting.
The day has ended with views of Norwegian hills, their snow glowing pink in the sunset. Not long now until we cross the Arctic Circle!
Friday 25 July, 2008
It's 6am and I'm crawling along a tight passage deep in the bowels of the ship (a place called the Transducer Room) having climbed down a long vertical shaft from the upper decks.
It's a bit like a scene from the Second World War submarine movie Das Boot - lots of pipes and valves all crammed along a small claustrophobic walkway.
I'm down here because I need to test the ships pumped seawater supply from which we are collecting water in the labs above.
The transducer room is only 1 metre above the bottom of the ship (an eerie thought) and at the closest point to the where the seawater enters the ship. From there it flows through pumps and pipes to the lab so comparing samples from here and in the lab enables us to find out if the pumps damage the precious and fragile microbes which several of us are interested in.
Showing me the way and helping me collect the water is our deck engineer Simon Wright. I first met Simon on one of the JCR's first Antarctic research cruises in 1992.
He has an amazing knowledge of the ship and there seems to be no item of the ship's science equipment that he cannot operate, repair or build. Equally amazing is his ability to put up with us scientists, especially at the beginning of the cruise when he is continuously bombarded with hundreds of questions and requests.
He's a bit of a legend amongst the UK polar sea-going scientists and simply knowing that he is on board is a great comfort to any chief scientist.
We are at our second station in the southern North Sea and back up on deck the rest of the team are collecting water using a CTD rosette. This is a frame containing electronic instruments which is lowered through the water column.
It also holds several water collection bottles which are automatically closed at different depths.
Anastasia Charalampopoulou, a postgraduate student from the UK National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton, is leading this work. With the help of her supervisor, Mike Lucas, she is trying to find out how much carbon a group of microbial plants (called coccolithophores) are using to make their calcarious shells.
These shells sink to the sea floor and play an important role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; however, because they are made of chalk they dissolve easily in acidic water.
This important carbon sink may therefore be vulnerable in future as the oceans become more acidic (a side effect of global warming).
Mike is a very experienced oceanographer and offers guidance when required, but deciding what to do is Anastasia's call and she soon has everyone well organised (including Mike!) and everything goes to plan.
The rest of the day is spent processing the samples, which mainly involves lots of people filtering particles and microbes out of the seawater.
Filtering is the main activity of most biological oceanographers.
It is also one of the most boring activities known to man. It typically involves pouring water into a funnel at the bottom of which is a paper thin plastic filter, about as round as a cup.
The water is then pulled through the filter and collected in a flask below using an electric pump. It's a little like making filtered coffee. It takes about two minutes to learn how to do it (that's the exciting bit!) after which it is sheer tedium.
The rest of day is not, however, dull. We have an emergency drill in the afternoon when we all don lifejackets and climb inside the life boats. Dolphins are also spotted alongside the ship reminding us that we are being studied by the inhabitants of the sea as we study them!
Finally a last walk out onto the deck for fresh air. It's getting dark and I see the flares of North Sea oilrigs in the distance.
I wonder if Ian, my next door neighbour and rig engineer, is working on one of them; with such good weather I hope he is home with his family rather than stuck at sea.
Most of us who live on land forget that there are lots of people like Simon and Ian who spend much of their lives at sea. Without them we would not be able buy bananas, drive our cars, or understand how the oceans respond to burning all that oil.
Thursday 24 July, 2008
Off to the Arctic - our first day at sea!
At last! We are heading north on our voyage of discovery to the ice waters of the Arctic.
I start my account of our expedition at the end of our first full day at sea on the RRS James Clark Ross.
The weather is fine, the ship is sailing north at full speed, and our scientific gear set up and ready to go in the ship's labs and on deck.
It has been a long hard road to get here - more than two years work to obtain funding, arrange the ship, plan our experiments, put together a team, and pack our equipment - and the last month has been one of the busiest of my life.
But all that seems a distant memory now we are on our way.
So what it is like to head off to sea and lead an expedition on one of the world's best research ships? It all starts for me with the "calm before the storm": a relaxing drive south with stop over with my parents and sister's family in Yorkshire.
This is a peaceful interlude between a frenetic few days packing and the start of the cruise. The car is full of gear, stuffed in at the last minute, having arrived after our lorry took the bulk our equipment south. It also contains an incubator with frozen chemicals which spend the night in my mum's freezer alongside the lamp chops and raspberries - fortunately they are well sealed in bags and non-toxic!
On arrival in Portland it is easy to spot the red hull and familiar white superstructure of the RRS James Clark Ross (known to all as the JCR).
This is my fourth research cruise on the JCR so I know her well; it therefore does not take long to find my way around again. And I soon get meet officers and crew from past expeditions, which is always a nice surprise. My first task is to meet the captain, Graham Chapman, in whose safe hands we will travel. Then off to unload the car and settle into my cabin.
One of the perks of being chief scientist (or the principal scientific officer - PSO) is that I have my own rather luxurious cabin. It's actually a suite comprising office/lounge, bedroom and bathroom.
This is, however, a poisoned chalice as the cabin is located up high near the bridge and therefore rocks to and fro a lot in bad weather - guaranteed to make you sea-sick! I'm glad the forecast is for calm seas.
The next two days are spent unpacking boxes and setting up our equipment in the labs.
It is a chaotic sight with boxes and bits of gear everywhere, and we are continually bumping into each other as we try to cram all our kit into the labs.
Everything has to be fixed to the benches with screws, nails, bungies and tape, and at first it seems an impossible task to be ready for when the ship sails; however, order slowly emerges from the chaos.
During this period we are also visited by Susan Watts, the science correspondent for BBC2's Newsnight programme, and her producer Ming Tsang.
They are reporting on our trip and, as PSO, I need to explain why we are going to the Arctic and what we are going to do in two sentences. This is not an easy task but Susan and Ming are very patient and I am helped by Susan's incisive questions and Ming's infectious enthusiasm.
All in all it has been a hectic couple of days and by the end of it all I'm actually relieved to escape to my cabin to complete the health and safety red-tape forms! Most important, we are now ready to go and leave Portland harbour on time.
One day later and we are now steaming north across the North Sea.
The last 24 hours have been spent testing equipment which has involved stopping the ship to collect water samples at our first "shake-down" station just west of Dover in the English Channel.
It has also been a chance to get to know the officers and crew, and some of the scientists from other institutes who I have only briefly met before. Working at sea is as much about the people as it is about the science.
It's early days but so far everyone has worked well together and I'm very grateful to have such a good team on board. I'm also pleased that the cruise has got off to such a good start and we are on our way.