Sunday, September 20, 2009

On the Dome


Today is day 6 of Katherine and my stay upon the Dome, a 500-metre tall mound of dolomite and granite that forms the southwestern wall of the Alexandra Fjord lowlands. Up here is polar desert, an ecosystem that dominates the High Arctic, and that is relatively under-studied. There’s an interesting soil transition here, as well, with one half of our study area derived from dolomite parent material, and one half derived from granite. There’s a clear transition zone between the two soils, with the light-coloured dolomite fading into the dark grey and black granite across a discontinuity only about one metre wide. Previous work by Steve and Greg and others in this area has included a series of transects that span this discontinuity.

The helicopter arrived the morning of July 9, and carried ourselves and our gear up to the Dome. The flight was only about 5 minutes, then the pilot returned to base camp and picked up the majority of our equipment in a sling. Here the pilot is dropping off this cargo.

We got our stuff unpacked from the helicopter’s sling-net fairly quickly, then wandered around looking for decent tent-pads. Here’s Katherine’s tent, with some of our gear behind it.

The weather has been surprisingly excellent for us. Steve was rather concerned that we would experience quite cold and difficult conditions, to the point that he left for me his Canada Goose down parka, which he normally only wears when air temperatures drop below -20ºC. Even with the strong winds we had late on the second day, it’s never been that chilly here for us.

Another look at our camp, on our third day on the Dome. My tent is the one on the left.

Local terrain.

Today is the third day in the row of clear, cloudless skies. Air temperatures have been up to about 12ºC, which doesn’t sound that warm, but with 24-hour sunlight and absolutely no shade, it’s T-shirt weather. Especially when one is physically active, as I have been somewhat, digging pits.

Some said that I would not be able to dig pits in the extremely rocky soil of the polar desert, that such a project was doomed. However, I was able to implant my soil probes to reasonable depths – the deepest was down to about 35 cm – and dig pits deeper than that for sampling in situ soil conditions and gathering samples for DNA and other analyses. Steve went so far as to describe me as the “pit master” in a sat-phone conversation we had yesterday.

A view to the north from near our camp on the Dome.

A hanging glacier on the north side of Alexandra Fjord, close to the western end.

At the moment, I’m taking advantage of the spare electrical power from our generator to run this computer without draining its batteries, while I’m sampling from soil probes in the granitic soil. Running probes is an odd kind of workflow – each probe is
sampled by the FTIR for 3 minutes, with 2 minutes of ambient purging between each probe. This chops the work into tiny pieces, as I read a book or type here for the sampling period, then disconnect the far end of the hoses from the probe and stand around for 2 minutes before starting the next sample. Two minutes isn’t really enough time to do anything at all, but is long enough that I find myself staring at my watch, willing the seconds to roll past.

Katherine ran the probes for a bit, giving me a chance to wander around.

Here's a picture Katherine took of me, running the probes a few days earlier.

The probes take on a distinctly alien appearance when the light hits them just right in the late afternoon.

Today’s probe sampling represents my last use of the FTIR on the dome. I’ll next use it to measure probes and flux chambers in the lowlands, in about 2 or 3 days. My workload on the dome has been not too heavy, which means this dome excursion of 8 days has represented something of a break or holiday from the somewhat more vigorous schedule of work in the lowland. For Katherine, these 8 days really are a vacation. In the lowlands she’s been waking up before 6:00am, and literally running across the tundra to accomplish her quite time-sensitive stable-isotope work. Up here, she doesn’t have enough time to do a full set of experiments, but does have enough time to collect what I think is a neat little data set that will add to one of her papers she will publish during her PhD, and should turn a good paper into a great one.
The good weather we’ve had has been instrumental in allowing us to accomplish our tasks a little ahead of the planned schedule. I’m imagining what this work would be like under conditions of near-zero air temperatures, high winds, and snow or rain. Certainly I wouldn’t be having as good a time.

My office.

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