Environment Forum

from Photographers' Blog:

An arctic adventure

Wind patterns are left in the ice pack that covers the Arctic Ocean north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska March 19, 2011.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The Arctic Ocean in March is basically an ocean of ice. Almost the entire thing is covered from October to June in an icepack that only partially disappears in the summer and is still very solid in March.

Why would anyone in their right mind volunteer to spend a month to a month in a half in temperatures that usually don’t exceed -10 degrees Fahrenheit or -23 degrees Celsius? In the case of the roughly two dozen souls who work either for the British, Canadian and United States Navy or the Arctic Physics Laboratory Ice Station, it is because there is work to be done.

A man carries an ice auger to a remote warming station near the 2011 Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska March 18, 2011.    REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

And the first piece of work is to physically build the camp. To do this, firstly a piece of “multi-year” ice must be found, that means that it is thick enough (theoretically) that it won’t split in half and will support the weight of a camp while having enough room for an airplane runway and helicopter landing pad. Next, these folks need to load an antique airplane with enough plywood and nails to build a half a dozen un-insulated boxes to live in, this usually takes about 3 days as the workers must fly back to their base at Prudhoe Bay each evening to avoid the -30 to -50 degree temperatures until they build enough shelters to house them all.

Over the course of roughly a week the camp actually morphs into something of an oasis of civility surrounded by an ocean of ice that is continuously floating around on the Arctic Ocean as it is driven by the prevailing wind of the day. The huts are heated by jet fuel and become quite cozy while a large tent is erected for cooking and eating. All this to support a command center that communicates with two nuclear submarines below the ice. The camp is a support base for the U.S. Navy and exists to understand how best submarines, sonar systems, and underwater communications can work in such a harsh environment.

Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station (APLIS) employee Keith Magness (L) watches as U.S. Navy postgraduate researcher Lt. Brandon Schmidt works to prepare a hole in the Arctic ice that will allow sonar instrumentation to be used for research at the 2011 APLIS camp north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska March 18, 2011.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

We were approached by Navy and research center to come up and do a story about this camp and the work they do with U.S. Navy submarines. When I was asked if this was something I would be interested in, I of course said yes. Who wouldn’t like to go to the Arctic, sleep in a plywood hutch, and go underneath the ice in a nuclear submarine? Thus began the mad rush to prepare for a trip into some of the most extreme conditions I have ever worked in. It was a rush to organize all of the base layers, fleece layers, wool socks, jackets, insulated pants, and other assorted necessaries before sitting down to pack the equipment I would need. Camera-wise I wanted to be prepared for anything; from wide angle images of the ice-pack to photographing a polar bear from a comfortable distance (in the off-chance that I actually saw one, they are rare to see this time of year.) I sat down and assembled the kit into my backpack, including three cameras, five lenses and assorted batteries, memory cards and chargers.

from Tales from the Trail:

Should U.S. oil royalties pay for studies of BP spill’s environmental impact?

OIL-SPILL/Oil caused the mess in the Gulf of Mexico. Should U.S. oil royalties pay for scientists to study what happened, and what's still happening, to this complex environment?

At least one scientist thinks so. Ed Overton of Louisiana State University figures the billions of dollars collected in royalties by the now-defunct and much-reviled Minerals Management Service -- re-named and re-organized as the Bureau of Ocean Energy -- must have enough money to pay for research into the environmental impact of the Deepwater Horizon blowout and spill.

Speaking at a Senate hearing last week on the effects of oil-dispersing chemicals, Overton and other experts called the BP spill an unintentional "grand experiment" into what deep water oil exploration can do to animals, plants, water and land in the Gulf. As Overton put it, the oil and dispersants are out there now. Best to study them over the months and years ahead to figure out what they're doing to the environment.

New Jersey has best payback on residential solar in U.S.

California may be the Golden State, but it’s New Jersey where U.S. residents get the best deal on their solar power systems, new research shows.

A survey by Global Solar Centertried to give an “apples to apples” comparison for the cost of solar power in all 50 states, the center’s chairman Jack Hidary told Reuters.

The common denominator turned out to be the cash payback, or how many years it would take a residential or commercial customer to recoup their investment and start seeing real savings, Hidary said.
“That takes into account the cost of the system, the sun at that spot, the incentives of that region, utility rates. It blends in everything all together,” Hidary said.

Fishing for information

The research vessel Professor Khromov is just a few kms off the easternmost point of Siberia, and U.S. technologist Kevin Taylor is struggling to reel in an orange buoy that had been deep beneath the Bering Strait for nearly a year.

The first time he tries, the ship veers too far away from the prize and must make a slow, wide turn for another pass. The second time, Taylor’s hook is not quite ready and the float bobs again into the Khromov’s wake. This takes practice, even in calm waters.

A main task of the RUSALCA expedition, a joint-U.S.-Russian scientific effort taking place in August and September, is to retrieve data-gathering moorings that were dropped 50 meters to the bottom during stormy weather last October, and to leave new ones.

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