Found 41 Resources containing: Ice breaking operations
Image of an Icebreaker, either the USS Burton Island (AG-88) or the USS Edisto (AG-89) moving through the ice during Operation Windmill. Operation Windmill (1947-1948), an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.
Image of the USS Burton Island (AG-88) and the USS Edisto (AG-89) breaking ice in Antarctica, for Operation Windmill. The USS Burton Island can be seen to the left of the image with the crew standing on deck. The USS Edisto is in the bottom of the image and it is connected to the USS Burton by a rope. The caption at the bottom of the image reads: "Operation Iceikle." Operation Windmill (1947-1948) was an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.
Image of the USS Burton Island (AG-88) to the left and the USS Edisto (AG-89) to the right breaking ice in Antarctica. A sled and skis can be seen in the ice. The two ships were used in Operation Windmill from 1947-1948. Operation Windmill was an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.
Aerial image of of either the USS Burton Island (AG-88) or the USS Edisto (AG-89), ships used for Operation Windmill. A helicopter and a plane can be seen on the deck of the ship. Operation Windmill (1947-1948) was an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.
Image of the USS Burton Island (AG-88) at the South Pole. The USS Burton Island and the USS Edisto (AG-89) were the two ships used for Operation Windmill. The caption at the bottom reads: "USS Burton Island At South Pole." Operation Windmill (1947-1948) was an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.
Image of the USS Burton Island (AG-88) off the coast of Antarctica. The number 88 on the ship indicates that it is the USS Burton Island. A second Icebreaker ,the USS Edisto (AG-89), was also used during the expedition. Operation Windmill (1947-1948) was an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.
In 2013, a huge iceberg broke away from the Pine Island Glacier, one of the largest in West Antarctica. Two years later, the glacier lost another hulking chunk of ice. And just a few days ago, a similarly unfortunate event happened once again. As Chris Mooney reports for the Washington Post, the Pine Island Glacier has released an iceberg more than 100 square miles in size, deepening scientists’ concerns about thinning ice shelves and rising sea levels.
Satellite images captured the break—or “calving,” as it is known among experts—between September 23 and September 24. Stef Lhermitte, a satellite observation specialist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, posted photos of the calving event on Twitter this past Saturday. He explained that the iceberg spanned 580 square kilometers (approximately 103 square miles), making it roughly four times the size of Manhattan.
Scientists have been watching the Pine Island Glacier closely over the years. It is one of the fastest-melting glaciers in Antarctica, and could raise global sea levels by 1.7 feet if it melted entirely. Last fall, NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission captured a photo of a large rift in the glacier, portending the recent calving event.
The latest iceberg to break away from the Pine Island Glacier is not as big as the ones that calved in 2013 and 2015—which measured 252 square miles and 225 square miles, respectively—and it is much smaller than the mammoth iceberg that split from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf in July of this year. Thus by itself, the latest chunk breaking off from the floating ice shelf isn't worrisome.
"Floating ice shelves are like ice cubes in a glass of water,” Alessandra Potenza writes for the Verge. “[W]hen the ice cubes melt, the water level in the glass doesn’t rise.” But what is concerning about this recent breakup is that the floating ice shelves form a vital barrier that stops the bulk of the glacier from drifting into the sea and contributing to rising water levels.
Lhermitte, the satellite observation specialist, tells Mooney of the Washington Post that scientists “are very worried about what might happen to Pine Island Glacier in relation to sea level rise.”
Also troubling is the fact that the rift formed at the center of the glacier’s floating ice shelf, rather than at its sides. According to Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky, the likely cause is warmer ocean temperatures, which are hitting the base of the glacier.
Unfortunately, more trouble may lie ahead for the Pine Island Glacier. Ian Howat, a glaciologist at Ohio State University, tells Mooney that in March of 2017, a “series of thin cracks was visible in the center of the ice shelf about 3 km inland of the current break”—suggesting that another calving event could be on the horizon.
Driving through the tiny mountain town of Ouray in southwest Colorado (population 1,000), you’d never guess the picturesque enclave is home to one of the world’s largest ice climbing parks. With nearly 200 different climbing routes and 17,000 vertical feet of terrain along the mile-long Uncompahgre Gorge, Ouray Ice Park is a dream destination for both beginners and veteran ice climbers alike.
The people who create this icy playground are known as ice farmers. Each year as winter approaches, they use a complex system of pipes, irrigation, and shower heads nestled atop the gorge to create towering walls of frozen water.
Ice climbing became popular in the United States during the late 1960s, and although adventurers have been scaling backcountry routes built by Mother Nature for decades, there are now a handful of manmade ice parks in the country. Among them: EXUM Ice Park in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Sandstone Ice Park in Sandstone, Minnesota. There are also some smaller outfitters in the Midwest, Northeast, and Alaska with manmade ice climbing routes, but Ouray Ice Park is the biggest and most popular by far, due to its size, variety of climbs, and the fact that climbing in the park is absolutely free.
We spoke with Dan Chehayl, Ouray’s operations manager, to learn more about the unusual profession of ice farming.
Modern Farmer: What exactly does an ice farmer do? That might seem like a strange reference to some people.
Dan Chehayl: An ice farmer is someone who goes out to a rock face or cliff and either diverts water from a nearby source or enhances existing water flow by digging a trench to focus the water in one area. We are farmers! Our season is winter. As soon as the temperatures start dropping every November, we head out in the canyon to “farm some ice.”
MF: How do you create the climbs?
DC: We start by working on our plumbing, or irrigation, system to make sure it is all in working order before we start growing our crop. Another thing we have to do is what we call “deveg,” where we groom the cliff faces to prune all the shrubs and bushes that have grown up over the summer, because they affect the quality of ice we can make. This is a weeklong process.
Once that is all set, we begin running water through our mile-and-a-half long irrigation system to begin the process of making ice. Along the entire system, every five to ten feet or so, there are galvanized pipes that come out of the main supply pipe with valves, shower heads, and drains that give us the ability to make individual climbs in each area.
The actual ice-making process starts by running water through the drains and trying to saturate the cliffs so that the actual ground and rock gets colder and can hold onto and bond with the ice that will soon start to grow.
To get the ice to bond to the rock, we need really cold temperatures—teens are ideal. Once the ice has bonded, the process of making good ice is usually best in the mid to low 20s. Although we can build ice faster in colder temps, it is not as strong. As the temperatures drop more and the rock cools, the water begins to freeze and make teeny icicles and ice bumps all over the place.
We then turn our focus from drains to the shower heads, spraying droplets of different sizes with different types of shower heads to give more or less water to different areas, with the idea of getting the ice to grow. A light spray usually involves more air and smaller droplets so that the water will cool faster and freeze quicker as it hits the ice. A heavier spray will have bigger droplets and less air, and will cool slower giving it the opportunity to reach lower in the gorge to make ice lower down on the longer climbs in the park.
Changing out shower heads and moving them side to side, running water heavier on colder nights and lighter on warmer ones are all little things we do to nurture the ice every day.Shower heads that run along the top of the gorge produce spray of varying droplet sizes to form ice along the climbing routes. (Dan Chehayl)
MF: Where does the water come from?
DC: Our water is the runoff, or overflow from the city water supply. It comes from a spring in the mountains above town, then runs into our two 500,000 gallon city water tanks. When those are full, the runoff goes to a miniature hydro facility in the summer, and to the Ouray Ice Park in the winter. Either way, the water will eventually end up in the river and headed north. If it is not utilized by the farmers downstream, it will eventually make it to the Colorado River.
We usually start running water around November 20. It can take 20 days to a month [to create the climbs], sometimes more, until the ice is safe and sustainable enough to open to the public.Shower heads in action (Dan Chehayl)
MF: How did you get into ice farming?
DC: My senior applied research project at Sterling College [in Vermont] was titled “The Benefits of Ice Climbing as Tourism in Mountain Communities.” Little did I know when I started this project that I would end up at the Ouray Ice Park—the best example of this in the world.
I had been a rock climber for many years before I had the opportunity to learn to climb ice in Vermont. I got my start in January 2003 through some professors who did an ice-climbing course my first year for two weeks. The winters out there were very cold, and we had a secret spot in a little gorge that we could top-rope at first. As we got better, we started heading out into the backcountry to climb the ice from the ground up. Every climb was an adventure; it was a way for me to challenge myself and overcome obstacles, and a great way to hang out with friends.
My second year at Sterling College, several of the upper classmen visited Ouray with a professor of mine as part of a “mountain cultures semester.” When they returned to Vermont, it was spring break and they told me about the ice climbing mecca. At this point, I was already head over heels for the sport, so we all jumped into my Volvo station wagon and drove 36 hours straight to Ouray, got out of the car at 7am and started climbing. After that I was hooked on Ouray.
[Two years later] a friend of mine was working as an ice farmer in Ouray and they needed an extra hand, so I was hired on as a part-time ice farmer. I started at the bottom doing all the grunt work—shoveling snow off climbs, clearing anchors, lots of chopping ice bulges around the shower heads, drains and valves, sanding walkways, emptying trash cans. The following year, I began working full time farming the ice.
MF: You refer to Ouray Ice Park as a mecca for climbers. Why is that?
DC: It is the biggest and most popular, period. People do not travel from all over the world or country to go to any ice park other than ours. Our terrain is incredible, breathtaking, and awe-inspiring.
We are located five minutes outside of Ouray—also known as the Switzerland of America. We are in the heartland of many of the North America’s best backcountry ice climbs, so you can train for a few days at the park, then go out into the backcountry and climb a 300-foot continuous classic piece of ice like Bridal Veil Falls, The Ribbon, or Stairway to Heaven. We have about 17,000 feet of vertical ice climbs in the park and we see between seven and eight thousand visitors each season.
MF: What’s the best ice for climbing?
DC: The visiting climbers like ice that is big and fat and blue. Sometimes they like it sticky, like it is in the on warmer, sunny days or a lot of late season; sometimes they like it harder and more brittle. The ice is always different, depending on the weather and the season. That is part of the fun of it—it’s always different. Most people probably like the sticky stuff better—the “hero” ice or “plastic” that you can swing your ice axes in and it sticks automatically and effortlessly.A climber’s ice pick digs in to the manmade ice. (Dan Chehayl) A lone climber tackles a steep climb in Ouray’s Uncompahgre Gorge. (Dan Chehayl)
MF: How does the park benefit both the local community in Ouray County, and the climbing community at large?
DC: Without the Ouray Ice Park, Ouray would be a ghost town in the winter. There was little to no economy before the park really began to take off in the early ’90s. Over the years, as the park grew and became more popular and more climbers visited and moved into town, the economy grew with it, until it eventually became the ice climbing mecca it is today.
The local businesses and the community as a whole rely heavily on the park to keep their businesses going through the winter season. Ouray now has one of the largest climbing communities in the United States. Behind practically every door in town there is at least one climber, and it is a strong community where we are all friends and are all working together to protect our climbing resource and keep it sustainable as it grows each year. It is a very welcoming community as well—new climbers roll into town every day and are welcomed with open arms.
MF: What are your goals for the ice park? Any plans for expansion?
DC: Making the best ice possible, a good experience for the visitors, and safety for staff and visitors are my goals each year.
We are always looking to expand our terrain each year, adding additional climbs where we can. A continued goal is to maximize the benefit to the local community and the broader climbing community as well. Maintaining and improving the infrastructure is also a big focus, as is retention of staff year to year, making this a desirable job.
We are always adding shower heads to the ends of each section in the park to make one or two more climbs. We are also looking to expand some gaps in the park where there are presently no ice climbs or shower heads, but the pipe passes through to get to another area. The reason these places haven’t been developed in the past is either due to accessibility or sun exposure. The places where we are looking to develop a whole new area have poor accessibility because of safe access to the top of the cliff, both for the ice farmers and climbers. We would need to put infrastructure in the form of stairs and walkways to develop this, which entails board approval, city approval, and fundraising.
Check out this video from The Big Story, which shows ice farmers in action:
Other articles from Modern Farmer:
Greenland’s ice sheet is a majestic, chilly expanse. But in recent years, it’s been changing, with large hunks of ice splitting off in 2010 and 2012. In recent weeks, scientists have spotted evidence of a worrisome new crack on one of its most famous glaciers. But now, as Chris Mooney reports for The Washington Post, a NASA flyover has provided a better look at this alarming fissure.
Mooney recently reported on the discovery of the crack—an unexpected rupture in the Petermann Glacier that has concerned scientists. Located in northwest Greenland, the glacier is a kind of ice tongue, a tidewater glacier that is sensitive to changes in the water around it. It’s part of the bigger Greenland ice sheet, which covers most of Greenland. The ice sheet is about three times the size of Texas, but thanks to warming ocean and surface temperatures, it’s begun to shrink.
It’s not yet clear why the crack has formed, but thanks to new imagery scientists have confirmed its location. Positioned near the center of the glacier, the crack is close to a long-known fissure on the east side of the glacier. Researchers worry that the new crack could one day join up with the older one, linking them together.
The act of a glacier breaking off into icebergs is called calving, but it’s not as cute as its name might imply. Though glaciers do sometimes produce icebergs as part of normal ice fluctuations, warmer temperatures can cause unusual calving events.
The Greenland ice sheet has suffered tremendous losses in recent years. One 2016 study estimates that between 2011 and 2014 alone, it lost about 270 gigatons of ice, or the equivalent of about 110 million Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water every year, John Abraham reported for The Guardian last year. Scientists think that as waters warm and global climate change continues, Greenland will continue to lose both surface and underwater ice more quickly than other ice sheets. An abrupt melting event could cause a dramatic sea level rise.
The stakes are high for the Petermann Glacier—but NASA’s on the case when it comes to monitoring. The agency’s Operation IceBridge studies changes in the ice sheet through aerial surveys and satellite tracking. After being given coordinates by the Dutch researcher who first spotted the crack on satellite images, Mooney reports, they performed a flyover and confirmed its existence.
It’s still unclear whether the two rifts will connect, why they exist, or what might happen if they combine. But both cracks are a reminder that, like it or not, Earth’s ice is changing—and it’s imperative to learn as much as possible about glaciers while they still exist.
Eurocopter HH-65A Dolphin
Since 1984, the HH-65 has been the primary short-range search and rescue helicopter for the U.S. Coast Guard. It also supports law enforcement, drug interdiction, and ice-breaking missions. The type originated in France as the Aérospatiale (now EADS) SA.360, which first flew in 1972.
Gift of EADS, Inc.
Eurocopter HH-65A Dolphin (SA.366G Dauphin)
Since 1984, the HH-65 has been the primary short-range search and rescue helicopter for U.S. Coast Guard. The Dolphin also supports law enforcement, drug interdiction, and ice-breaking missions. The type originated in France as the Aérospatiale (now EADS) SA.360 and first flew in 1972. The current SA.366G-2 model features twin engines for safety, emergency pop-out floats, and a winch capable of lifting 272 kg (600 lb). Its avionics package allows the pilot to shoot an approach to a 50-foot hover in zero visibility without touching the controls and features radar that can see out to 193 kilometers (120 miles). The innovative fenestron tail-fan helps to reduce noise levels and is much safer than a conventional tail rotor during operations aboard ship.
Including four trials aircraft, the Coast Guard has accepted 100 HH-65s, which have performed nearly 60,000 search and rescue missions. The Coast Guard originally adopted the high-visibility red color scheme for use in the Arctic, but has now retained it on all Dolphins.
Rotor Diameter: 11.94 m (39 ft 2 in)
Length: 11.63 m (38 ft 2 in)
Height: 3.99 m (13 ft 1 in)
Weight, empty: 2763 kg (6,092 lb)
Weight, gross: 4,037 kg (8,900 lb)
Engine: 2 x Honeywell LTS-101-750B-2 turbines, 680 shp each
Crew: 4 - Pilot, Copilot, Crew Chief, Rescue Swimmer
Manufacturer: Aérospatiale, 1985
In the past few decades, icebergs have become a kind of potent visual metaphor for the threats posed by climate change. The ice dwindles while world leaders debate what should be done.
To the curious general public, however, how climate change affects icebergs and what that means can seem abstract. That's why the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. will offer a chance to visit an iceberg this summer. Fortunately, a harrowing helicopter ride isn't needed.
"Icebergs," an installation designed by the New York-based landscape architecture and urban design firm James Corner Field Operations, is an artistic interpretation of the underwater world of a glacial ice field. From July 2 through September 5, visitors will be able to explore underwater caves and grottos, and climb up a 56-foot-tall "bergy bit" to peer above the waterline—created by a suspended blue mesh bisecting the installation.
"What we are trying to do is create a very unique experience for the museum visitors, where they are able to immerse themselves in a landscape," says Isabel Castilla, a senior associate with James Corner and the project manager for "Icebergs."
The installation is intended to be a fun, family-oriented space to explore, with a mix of open spaces for gatherings of large groups of people and enclosures where a couple of people can chat more intimately. There will be a kiosk selling refreshments, a labyrinth for children to play and a slide providing a quick ride down from one of the icebergs. It is also a space for learning about the science surrounding icebergs. Ideally, the artificial icebergs will help visitors grasp what is happening to real icebergs at the planet's poles.
The firm studied photographs and research papers to understand icebergs. "We really got very involved in the iceberg world," Castilla says. "It is not something you know as much about as say, a forest ecosystem or a river." That deep delve into an icy world of glaciers gave Castilla and her colleagues a wealth of "ideas about design, color and light." They ended up choosing to work with materials they had never worked with before. The towering, pyramidal icebergs they created are built of reusable materials, such as polycarbonate paneling, a type of corrugated plastic often used in greenhouse construction.
Ironically, the National Building Museum's construction team recommended adding better ventilation to the largest icebergs, since they were so good at trapping heat inside, museum vice president of marketing Brett Rodgers says. These bergs won't melt, but visitors might've.This map of depths in the southern Atlantic and Southern Ocean near the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia Island shows tracks for two icebergs in red. (From Journal of Glaciology, Scambos, T et al, 2008)
Another part of the installation features facts about icebergs printed on the bergs themselves. "[An] iceberg known as B15 was the largest iceberg in history, measuring 23 by 183 miles, nearly the size of Connecticut," details one of the factoids. "If melted, the B15 iceberg could fill Lake Michigan, or 133.7 million National Building Museums."
Scientists are still learning about the factors at play in and around icebergs. Researchers like Ted Scambos take extraordinary risks to study the masses and examine what their role is in the Earth's complicated ecosystem. In 2006, Scambos, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado, and his team sailed on the icebreaker ship A.R.A. Almirante Irizar to take them close to an iceberg measuring roughly seven by six miles and towering more than 100 feet above the sea surface. There, they climbed aboard a military-style helicopter. Their goal was to set foot on the iceberg, place a group of scientific instruments and then remotely track the berg's movement as it floated north to disintegrate.
But on March 4, 2006, "the light over the huge, very smooth berg was almost hopelessly flat—no features at all, like flying over an infinite bowl of milk," wrote Scambos in a research log for the mission at NSIDC's website.
How could the pilot land the team in those conditions? Throwing a small smoke bomb to the surface provided a point of reference, but it wasn't enough. During the first approach, the pilot couldn't quite judge the helicopter’s angle and one of the landing skids struck the iceberg's surface. "The massive helicopter staggered like a lumbering beast that had tripped," Scambos recalls. Fortunately, the pilot was able to recover, throw another smoke bomb and land safely.
Scambos and his team's measurements would provide them with information about how icebergs move and melt, a proxy for how the great Antarctic ice sheet may melt as the climate changes and global temperatures warm. For the scientists, the risk was well worth the opportunity to contribute to the collective knowledge about how ocean levels may rise and endanger coastal cities.
Scambos has seen how a melting iceberg leaves a trail of freshwater in its wake. As the ice sheet that gave birth to the berg moved over the Antarctic continent, it picked up dirt and dust rich in minerals like iron. When the traveling iceberg carries those nutrients out into the ocean, they nourish the water and provoke a bloom of marine algae. The algae in turn are gobbled by microscopic animals and small fish, which feed larger animals such as seals and whales. An iceberg creates its own ecosystem.
"They are really interesting in their own right," Scambos says. "It is an interaction between ocean and ice." He says he's glad that the installation will give the public a way to learn about icebergs.
For example, physical forces can act on icebergs in surprising ways. Scambos and the team described some of these movements after tracking the iceberg they nearly crash-landed on and other icebergs. The data they gathered allowed them to describe the dance of those huge but fragile plates of ice across the ocean in a paper published in the Journal of Glaciology.
Icebergs are steered by currents and wind, but a major influence on their movements that came as surprise to the scientists was the push and pull of the tides. The ebb and flow of the Earth's tides actually tilts the ocean surface into a gentle slope—a difference of just a few feet over 600 miles or so. An iceberg drifting out to sea inscribes curlicues and pirouettes on this inclined surface.
Some of the counterintuitive tracks that icebergs take has to do with their shape. Even though Antarctic icebergs are sometimes hundreds of feet thick, their wide expanse makes them thin in comparison to their volume. Scambos likens them to a thin leaf that drifts across the surface of the ocean.
(In Greenland and other locations in the Arctic, icebergs tend to be smaller chunks, as they break off from glaciers that aren't as large as the Antarctic ice sheet. In "Icebergs," the mountain-like constructions are inspired by Arctic, rather than Antarctic, bergs.)
Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. Researchers and crew load up the helicopter used to take Ted Scambos and the team to an iceberg in Antarctica. (original image)
Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. The team leaves the icebreaker ship behind and sets out over the iceberg. (original image)
Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. A view from the helicopter window of the edge of an iceberg. (original image)
Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. Scambos (foreground) and the team set up scientific instruments and cameras on top an iceberg. Thanks to the timing of the good weather window, they had to spend the night on the iceberg. (original image)
Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. The sunset on an iceberg, with a sled carrying RADAR equipment in the foreground. (original image)
Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. Another view of the edge of a large iceberg (original image)
Eventually, every iceberg's dance stops. Warm air flowing across the surface of the iceberg gives rise to ponds of meltwater that trickle down into ice cracks created by stresses when the berg was part of the larger ice sheet. The weight of liquid water forces the cracks apart and leads to the rapid disintegration of the iceberg.
The instrument station on the first iceberg toppled over into slush and meltwater in early November 2006, about eight months after Scambos and the team installed it. On November 21, GPS data showed the station "teetering on the edge of the crumbling iceberg," according to the NSIDC. Then it fell into the sea.
Watching the breakup of the icebergs taught Scambos and the other researchers about how ice shelves could collapse. "Within a year or so, we can see the equivalent of decades of evolution in a plate of ice that stays next to Antarctica and all the processes that are likely to occur," Scambos says.
As the ice shelf slides off the coast of Antarctica—a natural process that happens sort of like a tube of toothpaste being squeezed, but instead of a giant hand at work, the sheet moves thanks to its own weight—the ice braces against the rocky islands it encounters. When icebergs move and melt away, the movement of the glaciers that feed the ice shelf can accelerate and squeeze out more ice into the ocean to melt.
Scientists have estimated that an iceberg's lifetime from when snow first falls on a glacial field and is compressed to ice to when that ice melts into ocean can take as long as 3,000 years. Global climate change could speed that timeline up, ultimately sending more water into the oceans than is able to fall again as snow.
That's heavy information to absorb at a fun summer exhibit like "Icebergs," but the designers hope that the theme will seem natural . "We were designing the exhibit with the mission to speak to the general public about the built environment and the science," Castilla says. The icebergs are intended to be beautiful and simple, while still showcasing how the materials and shapes come together to create a useable space. In the same way, the science behind icebergs and climate change should emerge through the exhibit's educational facts and lectures on the subject of climate change.
After all, climate change is increasingly a part of everyday life. "It's less news and more something we are always aware of," says Castilla.
Rising early at around 5 a.m., I get moving and go outside to walk off the sleep. Before me lies a different and beautiful world. It is crisp, the air tingles on the skin and the sun, which is not rising because it did not set, is low on the horizon, emanating a rose-tinted light that falls gently on a white landscape. Across McMurdo Sound the mountains rise mute and serene. Mount Erebus looms behind me with its white cloak of snow and ice disguising the seething magmatic heat that lies within. In this seemingly quiet and motionless setting, it is hard to believe that the earth and its covering of ice are on the move.
Slowly and almost imperceptibly, the sea ice moves in different directions depending on how close to shore it lies and which current is dominant. At this time of year, sea ice can be thin and often breaks into thousands of pieces that move along together like cattle on a drive. The great ice sheets lying on the continent are thicker and move at their own pace on a course dictated by topography and gravity. While this movement is imperceptible to us, it can be detected in the form of impressive pressure ridges that snake across the ice of the Sound where the plates have come together in a contest of wills. The forces between the ice sheets are enormous and result in buckling at the edges that form pressure ridges with ice piled tens of feet high. These ridges create openings in the ice that Stellars seals use to surface in order to sun themselves and rest from a day’s fishing. Dozens of these creatures can be seen in groups on the ice as I survey the scene. Humans are newcomers to this part of the world, and of the species who live here we are the least adapted and the least attuned to the ways of it.
After a hearty breakfast, I check e-mail to make sure yesterday’s journal, finished late last night, made it to the Castle. The answer—mostly. Seems I tried to send too many pictures at once and they did not get through. Panic! I have 15 minutes to rectify this before we leave to board the plane. I go to work on a computer that seems agonizingly slow. “Come on, come on, read the dadgum file!” (I actually said something a little more earthy.) Finally, the system absorbs the last picture and I rush to put on the final layer of the cold gear for the trip to the South Pole.
We are driven back to the Pegasus Airport and board a Hercules C130 that is even more spartan than the C17 we flew in on. The Hercules, the workhorse for the Air Force around the world, is a marvelous airplane that can land and take off on short runways in difficult conditions. Ours is outfitted with skis so it can slalom along on the ice to take off. I visit with the pilots in the cockpit after we are off the ground and they are reassuring by virtue of their confidence and professionalism. These are the men and women of the New York National Guard who have been at this job for many years. They understand how to navigate in a part of the world where latitude and longitude are almost meaningless because they all converge at the Pole. So they invent their own grid to help guide them, assisted by GPS technology.
Flying at 25,000 feet we can see the massive ice sheets and glaciers below us as well as the upper reaches of mountains that are high enough to rise out of the thousands of feet of ice that are found here. We are following largely a north-by-northwest route from McMurdo to the Pole, roughly paralleling the route that Robert Scott used on his ill-fated run to the Pole. Scott, the hardnosed British soldier, had his team pull their own sleds without the help of dogs, foot by agonizing foot over crevasses and pressure ridges on the glaciers. I am amazed as I look down on the Beardmore Glacier—the largest in the world—and its infinite crevasse field. When one considers that Scott was also determined to take along scientific collections, including rocks, it is impressive that he got as far as he did. Unfortunately for Scott, however, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the Pole before him using skills he had learned from native people in the Arctic.
One is struck by the fact that the world’s largest glaciers exist in a land where there is so little precipitation. The glaciers have been created over eons, growing little by little each year because that “little by little” never melts. Finally, they grow so massive that gravity eases the weight of the ice downhill through valleys that the glaciers carve wider by bulldozing rock and scraping and gouging it from the mountains. The detritus of the rock grinding is seen at the edges of the glaciers as dark bands.
Image by Smithsonian Institution. An aerial shot of a glacier en route to the South Pole. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institution. Kristina Johnson and Wayne Clough hoist the Smithsonian flag atop Observation Point—a site memorializing explorers who have died at the South Pole. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institution. G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian, at the geographic location of the South Pole. (original image)
Our Hercules lands us at the South Pole Station around 11:30 a.m. At the Pole the horizon is flat and the sun simply orbits in a circle around a line drawn straight up from the Pole. Fortunately for us, the weather is good. Although it is 25 below, it is not unpleasant because of the lack of wind. We walk to the headquarters facility and in doing so have to walk up three flights of stairs. Remember the warning we were given about the altitude? Although I took the altitude sickness pills we were issued in Christchurch, climbing the stairs I can feel the muscles pull deeply and the air seems too thin.
The facilities at the station are relatively new and built to serve the science and the people who conduct it. About 250 people are here in the summer, which ends three weeks from now in Antarctica. Only a skeleton crew will remain through the long, dark winter to maintain the scientific equipment and facilities infrastructure. In the main conference room of the large headquarters building we are given an overview of the science at the station and its support systems. A few questions elicit some interesting answers. For example, the buildings at the Pole rest on a huge ice sheet that is moving at an estimated speed of 30 feet per year. Each year the buildings travel along for the ride and shift to new locations. The water we are drinking tastes wonderful and we learn that it is melted water from ice far below the ground that was formed perhaps 2,500 years ago.
Our plan is to take a tour of most of the many impressive facilities at the Pole. But as we step outside it is all too apparent the weather has turned with a hard wind blowing and ice crystals falling from low clouds. Finally it seems cold enough to make you feel like you are really at the South Pole. I am told that with the wind chill, it feels like 35 degrees below zero—now that’s more like it! It also is exciting to see what is termed a “sun dog”—a beam of light that partially or fully rings the faint sun obscured by the clouds. Our sun dog is a complete halo around the sun and adds an element of beauty to an otherwise gray sky. The turning weather speeds up our tour since it seems the winds and blowing ice dictate that the last plane, which was to have flown up from McMurdo, is unlikely to make it and we will return on one that has recently arrived.
Our first stop is a telescope that records evidence of the Big Bang and may provide clues as to the cause of it. The team working on this new device is from the University of Chicago under the direction of Dr. John Carlson, who explains why the telescope is located at the Pole—conditions are the driest on Earth and the telescope can look straight up at the sky with no curvature of the Earth involved. Smithsonian scientists are involved with a number of other astronomical devices in the area and I ran into one of our colleagues from the Harvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Harvard Professor John Kovac. We turn to a project called “Ice Cube,” whose principal investigator is Dr. Francis Halzen of the University of Wisconsin. Holes are being drilled a mile and a half into the ice sheet to house instruments that will detect the signature of neutrinos that stray from space into our atmosphere and onto the Earth’s surface, particularly in the Antarctic where they strike ice and give off a ghostly glow. These tiny messengers from millions of miles away carry information about the formation of the universe. There are to be 80 vertical strings of some 4,800 detection modules, with most of these already complete. We watch as the last instruments of the season are lowered into the deep hole in the ice and are given the opportunity to autograph a detector’s protective shield. Dr. Halzen informs us these detectors may be in the ice for hundreds of years!
It is impressive not only to see the science of the South Pole but also to meet the people who work here and are rightfully proud of their contributions. Nothing is easy at the Pole, and everything has to be flown in. Equipment and buildings must be assembled and operated in incredibly cold conditions. It is about as difficult as it gets.
Our last stop of the day is at the South Pole itself, which is located near the headquarters building. Flags fly and there are plaques dedicated to Amundsen and Scott and their teams. We take some pictures but it has gotten even colder so no time is lost before we board the return flight to McMurdo and are on our way to base camp. Receding behind us is one of the most unique places in the world and I am glad to have lived to visit it.
Upon our return at about 6:30 p.m. we have some free time. The temperature is milder at McMurdo and the bright sun energizes me to climb to the top of Observation Point looking out over McMurdo Sound and the station. Members of Scott’s expedition team who remained at base camp would look for his return from the Pole from this point and it is capped by a wooden cross to commemorate Scott and the others who never returned. Kristina Johnson and I climb to the top for the panoramic view that is stunning at this time of day. To commemorate our climb, I have brought along a Smithsonian flag which we fly briefly at the summit. A fitting end for a wonderful day.
This summer, Alex Anesio will spend three weeks surrounded by thousands of holes in an Arctic ice sheet. He and his team will camp miles from the closest settlement, surrounded by a landscape ripped apart by huge, unstable crevasses. The only way in or out is by helicopter. The scientists' soundscape will be reduced to the crunching of crampons across the ice, the rush of glacial streams and the occasional groan of a massive ice sheet rearranging itself.
“It’s like being on another planet,” says Anesio, a biogeochemist at the University of Bristol in England who has worked in the Arctic for about 15 years. “The only thing you see around you is ice.”
He and his team will spend weeks on this isolated patch of the Greenland ice sheet in order to monitor puddles that may have the power to manipulate Earth’s climate.Cyroconite hole diameters vary in size from about the width of a pencil to that of a garbage can lid. (Joseph Cook)
The ability to tinker with our planet's climate isn't isolated to Arctic puddles. Microbes within these small pools, and nestled in lakebed sediments buried miles beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, could harbor the ability to seriously alter the global carbon cycle, as well as the climate. And researchers have only recently begun to navigate these minuscule worlds.
The puddles that Anesio studies are called cryoconite holes—"cryo" meaning ice and "conite" meaning "dust." They develop when piles of wind-blown debris settle on the white, reflective surface of a glacier or ice sheet. Darker than the snow and ice, this debris absorbs more heat from the sun than its surroundings and causes the ice underneath to melt into cylindrical holes up to about a foot deep.
Scientists once thought these holes were devoid of life. But researchers are now finding that they actually contain complex ecosystems of microbes like bacteria, algae and viruses.
Millions of these holes, generally ranging from the width of a pencil to the width of a garbage can lid, pockmark ice sheets in a Swiss cheese-like pattern around the world. Anesio’s team has estimated that, globally, the surface area of these holes adds up to roughly 9,000 square miles. That's a little smaller than the state of New Hampshire.
As these dark, scummy ecosystems expand across the ice, they can cause what would otherwise be a reflective, cooling surface to absorb increasingly more heat from the sun. This could potentially speed up the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, the team reported in March in the journal Geochemical Perspective Letters.
But Anesio’s team has also found that organisms in these holes can have a cooling effect on the planet by actively sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis. In fact, when the microorganisms take enough of this greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere, the holes behave like carbon sinks.
Whether these holes help to cool or warm the planet remains to be seen. But as a warmer climate creates more holes, the balance seems to be tipping toward a net warming rather than cooling effect on the atmosphere.
Anesio and his team will work this summer to monitor the chemical and physical properties of these holes in excruciating detail to better understand how they may impact glacial behaviors and Earth’s shifting climate.When enough dust accumulates on an ice sheet, the cryoconite holes merge and turn into lakes, such as this one in Greenland. (Joseph Cook)
The idea that microorganisms can live on glaciers and ice sheets—let alone thrive at globally significant scales—is still relatively new to science. Until the late 1990s, researchers generally considered ice at both poles to be more or less sterile environments.
“When you look at a glacier or an ice sheet, you don’t see anything that might give you clues as to whether there is life there,” says Jemma Wadham, a colleague of Anesio’s at the University of Bristol. Biologists hadn’t really studied glacial environments until the late 1990s when the first evidence of microbial life appeared.
The previous lack of interest wasn't because of technological limits, Wadham explains. All it would have taken to find life would have been to collect meltwater from in front of a glacier and look for signs of active microorganisms. “Nobody had done that,” says Wadham. “Which sounds a bit crazy, but I guess that’s how things evolve sometimes.”
Since the '90s, there has been a surge of research exploring microbes that live on the surface of or underneath glaciers and ice sheets. In recent years, researchers have found that these microbes are far from dormant. In fact, Anesio’s team reported in a 2009 study that microbes in some cryoconite holes are as biologically active as those found in warmer soils as far south as the Mediterranean.
“That was really surprising given the low temperature and low nutrient conditions [of the environment],” says Joseph Cook, a cryoconite hole researcher at the University of Sheffield, who was not involved in that study.
Over the course of a year, this activity could cumulatively suck up as much as an estimated 63,000 imperial tons of carbon dioxide, Anesio’s team reported in the 2009 paper. That's comparable to the emissions from about 13,500 cars in a given year, he says.
"[Anesio's study] was really the first attempt to quantify the amount of carbon that was going in and out of these systems, which was a huge step and very important,” says Cook.Alex Anesio and his team sleep in tents on the ice during their field studies. Some of the ice below the tent melts, but the tent then behaves as an insulator and keeps most of the base frozen, Anesio says. (Chris Bellas)
Anesio’s findings weren’t necessarily what you would expect of a body of freshwater. Most ponds and lakes generally release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the decomposition of organic material than they absorb through photosynthesis.
This is because most ponds and lakes sit in forests and receive a steady flow of animal and plant remains from those forests through groundwater. As a result, ponds and lakes often contain a lot of decomposable material, and decomposition often occurs more prevalently than photosynthesis does, Anesio explains.
Cryoconite holes, on the other hand, are isolated from forests—sometimes by tens of hundreds of miles—and receive the majority of their organic material through flecks of airborne debris. There isn’t as much material to break down, so photosynthesizing organisms tend to dominate, Anesio says.
It doesn't take much to flip that scenario, though. If the sediment within the holes becomes too thick, sunlight can't reach the bottom. This limits photosynthesis and the rate of decomposition starts to take over.
“All of these dynamics are very dependent on the ice movement and the relief of the ice,” Anesio says. This can change on a day-to-day and season-to-season basis. “Sometimes you have a lot of melting and you redistribute the granules around in thinner layers, or sometimes they accumulate in certain parts of the glacier.”
Anesio’s team will try to address the question of how these holes change over time by sleeping next to them and monitoring their activity day in and day out this summer.The sounds of crampons and rushing water are among the only noises you’ll hear in this environment, says Anesio. (Chris Bellas)
Travel to the opposite end of the world from Anesio's field site, and you’ll find another feature of glaciers that could play an important role in Earth’s climate: massive lakes, buried beneath up to 2.5 miles of Antarctic ice.
These hidden lakes, some comparable in size to North America’s Great Lakes, have caught the attention of researchers like Anesio and Wadham in recent years for several reasons. For one, these lakes contain water that has been trapped for millions of years, harboring extreme life that has never been exposed to human influences.
The lakes may also be storing large volumes of the potent greenhouse gas methane, frozen in a form called methane hydrates. If Antarctica's ice sheets collapse, it would expose these hydrates, inundating them with seawater as the ocean washed over portions of the continent. The destabilized hydrates would turn into methane gas bubbles and warm the atmosphere, Wadham and colleagues reported in a study published in Nature in 2012.
Using airborne radar and satellite imaging, researchers have located more than 400 of these so-called subglacial lakes beneath the Antarctic ice sheet over the past 50 years. But it wasn’t until 2013 that an ambitious, international team of researchers successfully drilled a borehole through nearly half a mile of ice to the surface of one of these lakes for the first time.
They successfully drilled again in 2015 in a nearby location, reaching the grounding zone of an ice sheet for the first time ever. The grounding zone is an area where an ice sheet loses contact with land and floats into the sea.
Sediment and water samples researchers collected from the grounding zone will provide the team with new insights into the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and its potential to increase global sea levels if it collapses. The team will also measure the microbial activity in these sediments to better understand the role of these buried microbes in the global carbon cycle.
Slawek Tulaczyk, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz who was one of the lead scientists in these milestone achievements, describes the tension of waiting for their equipment to arrive at their drill site in 2013, after more than five years of planning with roughly 50 international collaborators.
The researchers arranged for their equipment—cumulatively weighing about 300,000 pounds—to travel within 12 shipping containers across 800 miles of ice sheet to reach the subglacial Lake Whillans in southwest Antarctica. Shallower than other subglacial lakes, Whillans provided researchers with a decent chance for success due to its relative accessibility compared to other lakes buried beneath miles of ice.
It took truck drivers two weeks to haul the equipment—some of it extremely delicate—to the drill site. All the scientists could do was wait back at the McMurdo Research Station and listen as the truck operators called in with their reports.
“We heard some horror stories,” Tulaczyk says, explaining that the drivers called in to report broken items and requesting extra welding supplies. Luckily, most of the damage was isolated to the shipping containers and not their contents.
“When we flew in, what was inside the containers survived well enough for us to use it, but the containers themselves were pretty beat up and looked like they went through a lot,” Tulaczyk says.
Tulaczyk and colleagues rigged up something called a hot water drill to access Lake Whillans. Over the course of 24 hours, the researchers bored a hole about a foot in diameter by pumping hot water forcefully downward and circulating it so that, as it deepened, the hole didn’t freeze in on itself.
Once they successfully reached the surface of the lake, the researchers sent probes down the hole to collect data and samples. But they had to do so carefully and cleanly. If they contaminated any of their equipment, they ran the risk of collecting modern microbes that would confuse their findings and mar an otherwise pristine habitat.
To their excitement and relief, the team found evidence of microbes living in the water, Tulaczyk says. There had been moments along the way that the team worried they had slogged through years of planning and spent millions of dollars in an effort to reach a lifeless void.
Their findings help support the idea that large volumes of microbially derived methane hydrates could sit beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. The microbes could be producing this methane by decomposing ancient forests and other organic material beneath the ice, Wadham, Anesio, Tulaczyk and colleagues proposed in their 2012 Nature report.Researchers studying cryoconite holes must sometimes wear clean suits to prevent contaminating their microbial samples. (Alex Anesio)
Using estimates based on measurements from sediments collected beneath the Greenland ice sheet—a comparable but much thinner analog to the Antarctic ice sheet—the team calculated that there could be as much as 3.9 million imperial tons of methane hidden beneath the Antarctic ice.
Given the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas, this could be a problem for Earth's atmosphere if a large portion of the ice sheet were to melt away. And, according to estimates by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Pennsylvania State University, this could happen by the end of the century.
Martin Siegert, a glaciologist at Imperial College London, was part of the team that described a subglacial lake for the first time in 1996. He says that estimates of how much methane sit beneath the Antarctic ice are theoretically plausible.
However, the researchers would need to measure the microbial activity in wet sediments beneath the ice sheets to firm up their hypothesis, Siegert says. “It’s pretty simple, the type of science you need to do, the difficulty is getting down there and the hot water drilling.”
Even if the estimates of the ice sheet collapsing by the end of the century were correct, however, it would likely take much longer than that for the effect of methane hydrates to become detectable in the atmosphere, says Alexey Portnov, a researcher at the Arctic University of Tromsø in Norway. Portnov studies the remnants of methane hydrates exposed at the end of the last ice age in the Arctic, as well as methane hydrates currently thawing out of Arctic permafrost today. He says that even if methane hydrates were resting beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet, and they became destabilized and started bubbling methane up through the seawater to the surface, it would take hundreds of years for these methane reserves to have a detectable impact on global climate.
“Ice caps are collapsing faster and faster in recent years,” says Portnov. “But still, to get the amount of methane from those gas hydrates to somehow change the climate, it will take quite some time.”
Meanwhile, methane hydrates thawing from permafrost and along shallow seafloor ridges are already releasing this greenhouse gas into the atmosphere at significant rates, Portnov says. Ice sheets are just one of many frozen methane stores that are thawing out.
The next step for the subglacial methane hydrate work will be to secure more funding to embark on another drilling expedition to a deeper lake. Previous efforts — such as the multimillion-dollar effort to drill into Lake Ellsworth in 2012 — have failed. So, before trying to access deeper lakes with existing equipment, researchers and engineers must collaborate to develop new techniques for deeper projects.
“We just have to get there and get the samples,” says Wadham. “That’s one of the challenges of the next two decades.”Large expanses of cryoconite -- or ice dust -- cover the Greenland Ice Sheet and other glaciers around the world, darkening their surfaces and causing them to absorb heat from the sun. (Joseph Cook)
While glaciers and ice sheets may physically plug large stores of buried methane hydrates or pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through millions of small holes, their impacts reach much further than their physical footprint.
For example, when cryoconite holes melt deep enough to drain out the bottom of a glacier, their contents can eventually reach the ocean, flushing nutrients into the marine ecosystem. This can cause large-scale algae blooms that could pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in proportions significantly greater than whatever the microbes in those holes could pull down, Anesio says.
“That would have a much stronger global impact because carbon fixation in the ocean has a tremendous impact on the global carbon cycle,” he says.
Although a complete picture of how glacier microbes affect Earth's climate is years away, Anesio and his fellow polar researchers push onward. Dealing with technological issues and harsh environments often mean their breakthroughs come in fits and starts. But it’s the challenges, both intellectual and physical, that draw the scientists to these frozen landscapes.
“It’s just so beautiful to be there, it’s amazing,” says Anesio. “The dimensions and the scale of things are so big, the rivers and the water and the shape of the ice. I really look forward to going there.”
Cook, at the University of Sheffield, agrees. He finds fields of cryoconite holes as far as the eye can see to be quite a striking image.
“Looking into the cryoconite holes is strangely beautiful,” Cook says. “It’s very serene and it’s incredible to see something that is so simple on the face of it that it sort of belies the incredible complexity of what is going on. It’s sort of hypnotic.”The borehole at Lake Whillans, which required coordinating between about 50 collaborators from around the world. (JT Thomas)
Tuesday July 17, 2006: Day Four on Mount Waddington
My day started at about 7 a.m., well before everyone else's. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and into my clothes. Layering clothes is critical here because you can cool off quickly at night or when a cloud comes by, but the sun can roast you during midday and it is important not to sweat—the easiest way to get hypothermia. I headed over to the cook tent nestled in snow, a dome with just enough room for the five of us on our team to sit and still have space to make a meal. I boiled some water and made myself some tea and oatmeal.
I kind of enjoyed having the mountain to myself in the morning. Doug, Eric, Jeff and Bella worked until 5 a.m. drilling, taking advantage of the cold night air because the drill works better when the ice isn't melting. When we planned this project, we weren't sure how good the conditions would be for drilling and how well the ice at this site would preserve the climate history. We are used to drilling in Antarctica or Greenland, so we expected that the drill might have problems in the warmth of British Columbia. And it did. Our first day drilling we realized we would have to switch to a night schedule.
The night schedule worked well for the drilling, but I didn't like it because my part of this project—using GPS to measure the speed of the glacier and using ice-penetrating radar to look at the interior of the glacier—required me to work when it was light out to travel safely on the glacier. (This radar system sends an electrical pulse into the ice that reflects back and provides information on what is underneath us, somewhat similar to how ultrasound can image the interior of our bodies.) Today, my goal was more radar. Two days ago, we had observed with the radar system a strong reflective layer in the ice about 35 meters (115 feet) deep. We weren't sure what was in the ice to cause that layer: Was it a dust layer? A change in density? Debris from an old avalanche? Or the bottom of the glacier? I set out to see how widespread the layer was around the upper part of the glacier. The radar system took two people to operate. The "brain" of the radar system was set up on an orange, plastic kid's sled, while the antennae that send and receive the signals had to be picked up and moved three feet at a time to get a detailed image—slow traveling.
This morning I wanted to change the system to make it easier and faster to move around. By the time I was ready to get started, Eric and Doug appeared in the cook tent; they found that sleeping in the bright sun during the day is hard, no matter how late they went to bed. Eric offered to help me with the radar system. We quickly realized that the snow was firm enough that we could move the antennae faster simply by dragging them on a blue plastic tarp (high-tech science, of course). Once we figured this out, we set out to take measurements all around the safe (crevasse-free) areas of the upper part of the glacier. Although we kept constant watch on the system and the data we were collecting, this also gave us time to ski around and talk to each other. When the radar system ran out of batteries, around lunchtime, we headed back to camp to charge the batteries and analyze the data.
By then, everyone was awake, and we discussed the plan for the afternoon. Bella, our driller, said there were a few things she wanted to check on the drill to make sure it was working properly and Jeff, our undergraduate student, would help her. We also needed to radio Mike, the helicopter pilot, to arrange for him to pick up the boxes of ice core we had recovered so far and take them to the freezer truck waiting down at the helicopter hangar. We kept the ice core in insulated boxes and covered in snow, but it was warm enough up there that too much time in the sunshine would start to melt our ice, potentially making it unusable. Eric called Mike on the radio, and a plan was set for him to fly up at approximately 7 p.m. and drop off the net we needed to package up the ice cores. He would pick up Jeff and me and take us to Sunny Knob, where we needed to install a temporary GPS base station. Then he would return to take us back to camp, pick up the ice core boxes and head back to the hangar.
After lunch, I took a look at the radar data, which showed this mysterious layer across the whole glacier at about the same depth. This didn't explain everything, but at least it let us know that it probably wasn't old avalanche debris (an avalanche would leave more debris near the source and less or no debris far away from the source) and gave us a few more clues. We became quite excited to see what we would find when we reached that depth with the ice core drilling, which, if everything went well, would be that evening. When we had finished checking on the drill, analyzing the data and putting the radar away for the day, we all went to take naps in our tents to prepare for another long night of drilling.
I was the first to wake up, around 5 p.m., and started preparing dinner. By 6 p.m, everyone was awake and ready to eat. For dessert, Eric brought out a few cans of mandarin oranges as a tribute to Canadian alpine explorers Phyllis and Don Munday, who were the first to attempt to climb to the top of Mount Waddington in 1928. Phyllis had carried mandarin oranges as a treat to help the team's morale during the challenging parts of the climb.
As planned, Mike showed up at 7 p.m. Jeff and I climbed into the helicopter with the equipment we needed and a backpack full of emergency gear in case the weather turned bad and we were stuck at Sunny Knob all night (or even for several days). Eric needed to tell Mike something, but there was some confusion, and with the noise of the helicopter and before we all knew what was happening, we took off and Eric was still with us. The amusing thing about it was that Doug and Bella didn't notice Eric was gone for a long time (they thought he was in our toilet tent or in his sleep tent).
After a five-minute flight down the glacier, Mike dropped Jeff and me off at Sunny Knob, where it was indeed sunny. Eric stayed in the helicopter and flew with Mike to pick up some climbers from another site. We spent about 15 minutes setting up the GPS base station, and then we explored and took photos for an hour, waiting for the helicopter to return. The heather was in bloom, and other alpine plants were abundant, and it was nice to be on solid ground after spending days walking on the snow. We had a beautiful view of the whole valley, which was filled with the Teidemann Glacier, as well as some beautiful peaks around us. We took many photos and enjoyed the moment of green before heading back to the white.
We were a bit sad when Mike returned to pick us up; we decided we needed several days at Sunny Knob to really be able to explore the area. But we had drilling to do. We arrived back at camp close to 9 p.m. Doug and Bella had the ice core boxes in the net ready to fly home as a sling load because they wouldn't fit inside the helicopter. In order to attach the sling, Eric stood on the snow near the boxes and Mike maneuvered the helicopter down on top of him so that he could hook the cable to the bottom of the helicopter. Mike is a great pilot, but that doesn't keep us from being nervous when our precious ice core samples are swinging around underneath the helicopter!
By the time the helicopter took off, the sun was setting, and Bella was finishing up the preparations to start that night's drilling. We really didn't need all five of us to do the drilling–three or maybe four was plenty–but it was a beautiful night and we were just having a good time working, laughing and listening to music.
The drilling went smoothly. Bella lowered the drill into the nearly 20-meter (65-feet)-deep hole and drilled down until she had cut one meter (three feet) of core. Then she broke the core and brought the drill back up with the section of the ice core inside the barrel of the drill. Once the drill was out of the hole, Eric detached the barrel from the drill rig and laid it on its side in the snow. Then Eric gently pushed one end of the ice core section with a long pole until it came out the other end of the barrel to where Doug and I were waiting for it. We were deep enough that the core was solid ice, so it was pretty strong. But we still had to be very careful not to let it slip out of our hands. We laid it carefully on a piece of plastic. Doug measured its length and made note of any unusual layers. I drilled a small hole in the core and placed a thermometer inside it to measure the ice temperature. Meanwhile, Eric and Bella put the drill back together, and she began to lower it down the hole again. Finally, Doug and I packaged up the core in a long, skinny, plastic bag, tagged it with identifying marks and put it in a labeled cardboard tube. Then Jeff put the tube into an insulated core box. The whole process took 10 to 15 minutes, by which time Bella brought up the next core.
If everything is working well, then a rhythm emerges and we can work smoothly for several hours. We have to make sure that everyone stays warm, however, because kneeling in the snow and working with ice can make for cold knees and hands. We often take breaks for a hot drink and some food.
Still not on the nighttime schedule the others were, I had to go to bed around 11 p.m. I awoke at about 2:30 or 3 a.m to some talking and commotion. In a sleepy daze, I fell back to sleep. When I woke in the morning, I found Eric eager to tell me the news of the night. They had indeed reached the bright layer we had seen with the radar: they had brought up a layer of ice that was so warm it was dripping wet—not at all what we expected. This meant a change of plans for the next couple of days. We had to switch to using a drill cutter that could handle wet ice (one that cut by melting the ice rather than with a sharp edge). And we were back to working the day shift. But before we did anything, we wanted to send my video camera down the borehole to see what was really at the bottom of the hole: How wet was it? Was there dirt down there too? Knowing this would help us plan for the next stage of drilling.
It's been a banner year for us at Smithsonian.com, and here are the stories our readers loved the most:
In April, a routine U.S. Coast Guard aircrew patrol crew captured chilling shots of shipwrecks abandoned at the bottom of Lake Michigan. Marissa Fessenden explains why the melting of the lake’s winter ice caused clear enough conditions for these ghostly images to be visible.
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Sometimes, it takes a second pair of eyes to see things clearly. At least that’s what Don McPherson, a materials scientist in Berkeley, California, found when his friend tried on a pair of his glasses that he designed to protect doctors during laser surgery. The friend who borrowed them happened to be colorblind, and when he put them on, he found that he was seeing an orange hue for the first time in his life. Now, McPherson is focused on developing everyday sunglasses for people with color vision deficiencies.
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Researchers drilling through a glacier more than 500 miles from the edge of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf weren’t expecting to find much under 2,428 feet of ice, but then they saw a shadow appear on the camera attached to the underwater vehicle they sent to investigate. The next thing they knew, a bluish-brownish-pinkish creature, the size of a butter knife, came into view. The discovery is a reminder that life can be found even in the most remote of corridors.
For years, students have learned that there are four observable states of matter: solids, liquids, gases and plasma. But thanks to work by physicists from the University of Cambridge and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, science textbooks might need to be updated with a brand-new phase of matter: “quantum spin liquid.”
After decades of searching, the researchers have uncovered the first piece of observable evidence for the elusive state, documented recently in Nature Materials. Here are three things to know about quantum spin liquid:
It’s not really a liquid
The “liquid” in “quantum spin liquid” is almost a misnomer. Unlike familiar liquids like water, here the word actually refers to how electrons behave under certain rare circumstances. All electrons have a property known as spin and can either spin up or down. In general, as a material’s temperature cools, its electrons tend to start spinning in the same direction. However, for materials in a quantum spin liquid state, the electrons never align. In fact, they actually become increasingly disordered, even at temperatures of absolute zero, Fiona MacDonald reports for Science Alert. It's this chaotic, flowing nature that spurred physicists to describe the state as “liquid.”
It makes electrons appear to split apart
Every atom in the universe is made of three particles: protons, electrons and neutrons. While physicists have found that protons and neutrons are composed of even smaller particles called quarks, so far electrons have been found to be indivisible. However, about 40 years ago theoretical physicists hypothesized that under certain circumstances, the electrons of certain materials can appear to split into quasiparticles called “Majorana fermions,” Sophie Bushwick writes for Popular Science.
Now, the electrons don’t actually break apart, they just act as if they do. But what’s really weird about Majorana fermions is that they can interact with each other on the quantum level as if they are actually particles. This odd property is what gives quantum spin liquids their disordered properties, as the interactions between Majorana fermions keep it from settling down into an orderly structure, Bushwick writes.
Unlike how the molecules of water become ordered as it freezes to ice, cooling the quantum spin liquid doesn't lead to any reduction in disorder.
Quantum spin liquids could help develop quantum computers
As powerful as modern computers can be, all of their operations boil down to encoding information as sequences of zeroes and ones. Quantum computers, on the other hand, could theoretically be vastly more powerful by encoding information using subatomic particles that can spin in multiple directions. That could allow quantum computers to run multiple operations at the same time, making them exponentially faster than normal computers. According to the study’s authors, Majorana fermions could one day be used as the building blocks of quantum computers by using the wildly spinning quasiparticles to perform all sorts of rapid calculations. While this is still a very theoretical idea, the possibilities for future experiments are exciting.
We have all seen by now the image of the polar bear, its commanding presence diminished by isolation on a bitterly small fragment of ice, surrounded by a cobalt sea that shouldn’t be there. As a symbolic expression of rapid climate change, it’s undeniably compelling.
But if you really want to get a better understanding of what’s happening in the Arctic and Subarctic, you must admire, instead, an organism far more humble and unfamiliar than the polar bear: the coralline algae of the genus Clathromorphum.
They’re not algae like one typically thinks of, as something rather slimy and green that floats up on the beach or on a pond. Corallines are red algae that have hard shells of calcium carbonate around every cell, and they grow worldwide. Coralline algae of the genus Clathromorphum are specific to the high latitudes and cold waters of the Arctic and Subarctic, and they have critically important stories to tell about their ocean and how it has changed over the centuries.
Scientists say they are also a key archive of information. That’s because algae grow in distinct layers year after year, diligently recording their surroundings in the process.
“There are other marine archives in the Arctic, such as deep-sea sediment cores and shorter-lived bivalves, but coralline algae are the only archives that record surface conditions at seasonal resolutions for hundreds of years,” says Jochen Halfar, an associate professor of geology at the University of Toronto and lead scientist in its Paleoclimate and Paleoecology Research Group. “We have some land-based archives, for example, ice cores from glaciers and ice sheets. But that is not the marine climate, and the red algae now for the first time allow us to reconstruct the marine climate of the high latitudes year-by-year into the past.”
Image by Maggie D. Johnson, NMNH. Coralline algae grow on hard substrate, covering boulders and other structures like a kind of hard-shelled carpeting and sporting the color of a Dolores Umbridge tweed suit. (original image)
Image by Nick Caloyianis. Clathromorphum has become of particular interest to scientists because of where it lives and its ability to thrive a very, very long time—potentially thousands of years. (original image)
Image by Walter Adey. Because they are plants, they photosynthesize sunlight to grow, and as they grow, coraline algae develop a rigid skeletal structure of calcium carbonate that builds up over time. (original image)
Just how far in the past has been the career-long focus of Walter Adey, emeritus research scientist and curator with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. A 1,200-year-old sample of coralline algae that Adey and his team collected off the coast of Labrador in 2013 is one of hundreds of rarely displayed museum specimens on view in the exhibition “Objects of Wonder,” opening March 10, 2017. The show examines the critical role that museum collections play in the scientific quest for knowledge.
By all accounts, Adey is the founding father of coralline study, having been collecting specimens and probing their secrets since he came to the Smithsonian Institution in 1964 (he retired just last year, although that doesn’t mean his study of corallines has slowed down). Largely through his efforts, collecting from the Arctic through the tropics often on vessels that he either built or refitted himself, some 100,000 samples of corallines of various species are housed in the museum’s collection.
Clathromorphum, however, has become of particular interest to scientists because of where it lives and its ability to thrive a very, very long time—potentially thousands of years—while archiving climate information as it grows.
“Coral reefs in the tropics have been used to determine past environments,” Adey says. “But in the Arctic, there are no shallow-water coral reefs. There are extremely deepwater corals, but these are very different from tropical coral reef genera and species, and they have played very little role in determining the past history of the Arctic. So the only real sources of aging and dating past climate, especially temperature, are corallines, and this is relatively new.”
Coralline algae grow on hard substrate, covering boulders and other structures like a kind of hard-shelled carpeting and sporting the color of a Dolores Umbridge tweed suit.
Because they are plants, they photosynthesize sunlight to grow, and as they grow, they develop a rigid skeletal structure of calcium carbonate that builds up over time. Like trees on terra firma, they document their growth in rings or layers—“trees of the sea,” Halfar calls them. Because they grow more when they have more light, scientists can estimate sea ice coverage annually based on the thickness of each year’s ring or layer.Walter Adey (center) with divers Thew Suskiewicz (left) and Mike Fox display a 17 pound specimen of coralline algae found off Kingitok Island, Labrador. (David Belanger)
“If you compare a year when you have the sea ice breaking up very early in the season, when the algae received more light and were able to grow more, versus other years when the sea ice covered more and longer, we can calibrate how long there was sea ice during a specific year based on the width of these layers,” Halfar says.
Scientists are confirming this data with satellite imagery taken since the 1970s showing sea ice coverage. As those values are calibrated, Halfar says, researchers can use the algae to analyze sea ice coverage long before satellite imagery was available. Providing this long-term set of data is a critically important role the algae play in the quest to better understand the effects of human-caused climate change in the Artic and Subarctic.
“We have no other way of reconstructing the surface ocean conditions in the Arctic at an annual resolution into the past few hundred years.” Halfar says. “We have very few observational data from the Arctic because there haven’t been a lot of people living there, taking measurements in very many places. So a lot of it comes from satellite data, and that’s only since the 1970s.”
These huge gaps in data before satellite imagery was available are significant because of the cycling nature of climate patterns. For example, the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation—which affects sea surface temperature and can influence the Atlantic hurricane season, drought in North America, snowfall in the Alps and rainfall in the African Sahel, among other far-flung repercussions—operates on a 50- to 70-year timescale in the high-latitude North Atlantic.
“So you can imagine, if you have 45 years of good observation data [from satellites], you’re only capturing half a cycle,” Halfar says. “We need to put the climate of the Arctic into a longer-term perspective in order to fully understand the climate system, and also to project climate change into the future.”
Surface conditions are only one part of the story corallines tell, however, and as scientists are bringing new technologies to bear, they’re able to ask even more questions.
“Only the top of it is living tissue, but it builds up this mass that’s been recording changes in the environment its entire life,” says Branwen Williams, assistant professor of environmental science with the W.M. Keck Science Department of Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps colleges. “The chemicals they form in their skeletons change depending on what happens in the environment around them. They concentrate more magnesium in their skeletons when the temperature is warmer, and less when it’s colder.”
By analyzing the magnesium content in the layers, scientists can get data on water temperature even down to a six-month timeframe, for instance from spring, when the water warms, to winter. Analyzing barium can help determine salinity. And on the leading edge of coralline research, Williams and a colleague are using boron isotopes to help determine pH, another critical component in water chemistry.
Meanwhile, Adey and his postdoctoral fellow, Merinda Nash from Australia, are using the high-tech instrumentation of the Museum’s department of mineralogy to show that the corallines’ calcified cell walls are extraordinarily complex, with many types of carbonate minerals and microstructures at nanometer scales. This new information will help fine-tune the climatologists’ archives.
While this laboratory work continues to expand our understanding of how much corallines can tell us, finding and gathering Clathromorphum remains a labor-intensive, difficult task, requiring divers to work in frigid water temperatures.
Adey’s initial work with corallines was establishing worldwide diversity. And decades ago, he was able to show massive Caribbean reefs of corallines that were up to 3,000 years old, limited only by sea level. As the questions surrounding climate change became more urgent, particularly in the Arctic, his focus began to shift to finding samples of Clathromorphum that are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.
On three expeditions between 2011 and 2013, Adey and his team of graduate students covered much of the Labrador coast, trying not only to find the oldest specimens of Clathromorphum they could, but also analyzing what environmental conditions provided the best habitat for the algae to grow without being crushed by ice, bored into by clams, or otherwise compromised by natural factors.
They found samples to about 1,800 years old in specialized environments where the corallines could grow much older because hole-boring organisms could not survive. They were also able to map a type of substrate where scientists could expect to find many more of the algae throughout the Arctic in future expeditions.
Halfar, for instance, last summer traveled from Greenland into the Northwest Passage in search of Clathromorphum. His focus is finding samples up to 200 years old in as many locations as possible across the Arctic to create a broad-based set of data from prior to the onset of the Industrial Revolution, when the human carbon footprint began to grow dramatically.
“What appears possible now is to be able to create a network of climate reconstructions going back about 150 years, and even that is a big step ahead from just working from satellite observations from the 1970s,” he says. “Every region is different in terms of sea ice loss. This broad network across the Arctic will let us examine sea ice loss in detail within each area.”
“Objects of Wonder: From the Collections of the National Museum of Natural History” is on view March 10, 2017 through 2019.
Developed as an efficient camera plane in 1927, the Fairchild FC-2 was the production version of Sherman Fairchild's first aircraft, the FC-1. It could cruise for long distances at high altitudes because it had an enclosed cabin to protect the crew and equipment. The basic design was so good that the aircraft's duties rapidly expanded to include airmail delivery, passenger flights, freight hauling, and bush flying.
The Fairchild FC-2 on display above was one of the first aircraft flown by Pan American-Grace Airways (Panagra) in South America. It made the first scheduled passenger flight in Peru, from Lima to Talara on September 13, 1928. It could carry five persons, including the pilot.
The All-Purpose Monoplane’ of Sherman Mills Fairchild, despite its unassuming appearance, was designed for aerial photography. It was such a success that it was also used as a light transport in the Canadian bush country, in the jungles and mountains of South America, and on the Antarctic continent.
Sherman Fairchild was an important designer, builder, and user of aerial cameras in the early 1920s. None of the aircraft then available met the requirements of his work. His criteria for a usable airplane included a wide field of view for the pilot and photographer and stability for high-altitude camera work. The ability to operate out of small, rough fields and the space to accommodate the bulky contemporary cameras were also important.
Norm MacQueen was Fairchild’s engineer. Fred Weymouth, Professor Alexander Klemin, Fairchild chief pilot Dick Depew, and chief photographer F.P. Lott assisted in the design.
The resulting aircraft was the Fairchild FC-1, which first flew on June 14, 1926, for twenty-three minutes. It was powered by the then standard Curtiss OX-5 engine. The airplane had a closed, heated cabin, which was unusual for the time. The fuselage narrowed at the pilot’s window, and Vshaped struts supported a semicantilever wing. An unusual three-longeron structure gave rise to the razor back" nickname; later models with a more conventional four-longeron structure were called "turtle back."
A unique feature of the Fairchild monoplane, however, was that the wings folded for easier storage and road mobility. The folding operation was simple—two men in two minutes could fold the 44-foot span into a 13-foot compact unit. Unfolding took about the same amount of time. A large Yale padlock hung down in clear view of the pilot to show that the wings were locked in place.
The criteria that produced a fine camera plane also produced an aircraft adaptable for a number of other purposes. The FC-1 flew in the Ford Casey Jones, veteran airman and proprietor 01 the Curtiss Flying Service, ordered several Fairchilds for his operation. His interest in the Fairchild was regarded as significant by aircraft buyers.
The first production model of the Fairchild was the FC-2. The Curtiss OX-5 was replaced by the more powerful Wright J-4 engine, which became a major factor in the success of the FC-2.
The first FC-2 off the production line was procured by the U.S. Department of Commerce and was used to accompany Lindbergh on his goodwill tour of the United States in the Spirit of St Louis.
Float-equipped FC-2s were used extensively in the demanding Canadian bush country. In the United States, Colonial Air Transport flew FC-2s.
A number of Fairchilds were used in significant and record-breaking flights. The Fairchild FC-2 La Nina, piloted by Cy CaIdwell, delivered Pan American’s first contract airmail by proxy. The City of New York, piloted by Charles Collyer and carrying J. H. Mears, made an around-the-world trip in 1928. The plane flew over the land areas, but was carried across the oceans by ship. Another FC-2 made the first New York-Miami nonstop flight in January 1928.
The most famous individual Fairchild. however. was the FC-2W Stars and Stripes, which was the first airplane to fly on the continent of Antarctica. It was left in the ice at the end of the first expedition. but was recovered, refurbished and flown four years later by the second expedition. Much of the aircraft was later used to supply parts for other FC2s, but portions of it are now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum.
The museum’s FC-2. NC6853, represents the first service airplane of Pan American-Grace Airways (Panagra) in 1929. Aircraft of this type, possibly the museum specimen, flew the first Peruvian Airway flight from Lima to Talara. Peru, on September 13, 1928. This same plane is also thought to have made the first international airmail and passenger flight between Lima and Guayaquil. Ecuador. It was sent to the National Air and Space Museum in 1949, from Lima, by Panagra.
On May 29, 1951, Capt. Charles F. Blair flew Excalibur III from Norway across the North Pole to Alaska in a record-setting 10½ hours. Using a system of carefully plotted "sun lines" he developed, Blair was able to navigate with precision where conventional magnetic compasses often failed. Four months earlier, he had flown Excalibur III from New York to London in less than 8 hours, breaking the existing mark by over an hour.
Excalibur III first belonged to famed aviator A. Paul Mantz, who added extra fuel tanks for long-distance racing to this standard P-51C fighter. With it Mantz won the 1946 and 1947 Bendix air race and set a transcontinental speed record in 1947 when the airplane was named Blaze of Noon. Blair purchased it from Mantz in 1949 and renamed it Excalibur III, after the Sikorsky VS-44 flying boat he flew for American Export Airlines.
"Nearly every flight that was made by Excalibur III broke some kind of record," according to this Mustang’s last pilot/owner, Capt. Charles F. Blair, Jr. It was Blair who made it possible for this record-setting airplane to become part of the National Aeronautical Collection in 1953.
The World War II operational life of this Mustang was uneventful, and following the war it was sold as surplus property to A. Paul Mantz. A movie stunt and race pilot, Mantz planned to enter the postwar resumption of the cross-country Bendix Air Race from the West Coast to the site of the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio. To eliminate the need for an intermediate stop, he modified the plane, converting the wing into a large fuel tank by sealing the interior. The added fuel capacity of this wetwing" more than doubled the range of the airplane.
This modification had the desired results, for this P-51C came in first in the 1946 and 1947 Bendix Air Races with Mantz at the controls. In 1948 it came in second and in 1949 it finished third, flown by hired pilots Linton Carney and Herman Fish" Salmon respectively. In 1947 Mantz set a coast-to-coast speed record in each direction with this Mustang, then called Blaze of Noon.
Following its last Bendix Race, a challenge of a different nature was in store for this airplane. Charles F. Blair became interested in setting a solo, round-the-world speed record and purchased this Mustang from Mantz. Blair was a very experienced pilot, a captain with Pan American World Airways at the time, and had established his reputation by setting records in flying boats during his numerous crossings of the Atlantic during World War II.
With the eruption of the Korean War, however, Blair had to change his plans, since flying across international borders in a combat plane during wartime would not have been prudent. New plans were set for the plane that Blair had renamed Excalibur Ill, from the Excalibur Flying Boat that he flew for American Export Airlines during World War II. After careful preparations, Blair flew his Mustang from New York to London on January 31, 1951, in 7 hours, 48 minutes, breaking the existing speed record by 1 hour and 7 minutes. This record stands today for reciprocating-engine, propeller-driven airplanes.
In the flight that followed, Blair and Excalibur III established their most noted record. Blair had developed a new method of air navigation in polar regions, where the magnetic compass is unreliable, if not useless. By plotting sunlines at predetermined locations and times, a reliable form of navigation was possible, Blair believed. To prove his theory. he left Bardufoss. Norway, with Excalibur Ill on May 29, 1951. heading north over the ice and snow to Fairbanks, Alaska, via the North Pole. There were no intermediate emergency landing points and no communications or radio navigation aids available to him after departing Norway. Exactly as planned, 10 hours and 27 minutes after takeoff on the other side of the world, Excalibur Ill arrived at Fairbanks. Blair financed the project and was solely responsible for every detail of the flight. For this accomplishment, he was awarded the Harmon International Trophy in 1952 by President Harry Truman. Perhaps even more important. this flight of Exca(ibur Ill changed defense planning for the United States; flights across the northern reaches of the globe by attacking forces were now deemed possible, and steps were taken to prevent them.
This historic flight by Excalibur Ill also carried the first official intercontinental air mail across the North Pole. On the return flight from Fairbanks to New York. another record was set for the first nonstop transcontinental solo crossing of the Alaska-Canadian route from Fairbanks to New York. flown at a leisurely pace in 9½ hours.
For Charlie Blair. there was only one rightful place for this historic airplane and that was the Aeronautical Collection of the Smithsonian Institution. At his suggestion. Pan American purchased the airplane from Blair and donated it to the National Air Museum on November 6. 1953. It was completely restored in 1977.
Poking its nose in our direction to sample the sharp October breeze, a juvenile polar bear—one of the two dozen foraging on the pile of bowhead whale bones on a nearby spit—gingerly steps into the sea. It’s slowly heading our way, so Robert Thompson, a local hunter and guide who’s brought me to see the bears, puts his ATV in reverse, pulls back, and parks facing away from the bear, ready for a quick getaway if we need it. A stone’s throw is as close as I ever want to be, knowing polar bears can run down a horse at a short distance and kill a half-tonne walrus.
With one hand vise-gripping the ATV’s rear rack, I aim my camera with the other, trying to keep it steady. The last time I saw a white bear, on a rafting trip in the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it was four football fields away, snoozing, but my Remington was unsheathed and ready. For Thompson, a portly silver-haired Vietnam vet with eyebrows like bits of black felt, this polar bear encounter is routine business; the only thing ruffled is the wolf trim of his drab army parka. The bear, deciding we are not worth its while, returns to rummaging at the whale ruins.
Akin to the wildlife presence in other Alaskan towns—moose roaming the backyards of Fairbanks and muskoxen prowling the runway in Nome—polar bears haunt the streets of Kaktovik, an Iñupiaq village of about 300 on Barter Island, set against the stark shores of Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. Alerted by barking dogs my first night at Thompson’s B&B, I looked out the bedroom window to see a plump ghost galloping down the main street, chased by the red truck of the community’s polar bear patrol, which orbits Kaktovik all night long, beginning at sunset.
Here, the front doors of houses stay unlocked, allowing escape into an entryway if you are being chased, and it’s good practice to carry a can of bear repellent. The men and women of the bear patrol carry 12-gauge shotguns with beanbag rounds and cracker slugs for deterrence, and, in extreme cases when non-lethal means aren’t effective, they won’t hesitate to shoot an aggressive bear. In this sleepy hamlet, gunfire signals trespassing polar bears, not crime. But these interlopers also signal tourist dollars: As word spreads about the annual layover of these hard-to-see, popular mammals, polar bear viewing is fast becoming a cottage industry.
But at what cost—for the bears and the community?Kaktovik, Alaska, and Churchill, Manitoba, are two of the most popular, and most accessible, places to view polar bears. The bears come ashore when the sea ice breaks up and it becomes too difficult for them to hunt seals. (Illustration by Mark Garrison)
In Kaktovik, as in the far better known Churchill, Manitoba, and elsewhere along the Arctic coast, polar bears become marooned on shore after the sea ice—their preferred platform for seal hunting—breaks up in the summer. They linger on shore in a state of “walking hibernation,” scrounging for food scraps and napping to conserve energy, waiting for freeze-up when the cold once again puts a lid on the vast Arctic Ocean. The area around Kaktovik hosts growing numbers of bears each summer, and, as the Arctic remains ice-free longer and even the winter ice thins, these ursine guests are lengthening their stay.
In 2015, for instance, the sea ice near Kaktovik was gone by July, one month earlier than normal and the earliest ever according to one seasoned Iñupiaq hunter. This, however, was only a portent for 2017, when global sea ice reached a record low.
It’s not surprising then that the lack of ice and a shortened hunting season has affected polar bear populations. Numbers of the southern Beaufort subpopulation, which includes the Kaktovik bears, have dropped substantially, to 900 animals, in the past three decades. (The exact peak number is hard to determine, but is thought to have been as high as 1,200.) According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), in this, the most-studied polar bear population beside Churchill’s—one of 19 that inhabit the Arctic—fewer cubs now survive. Over the years, the agency’s biologists also have noted that the bears’ size has diminished.
Polar bears are used to at least a partial fast during their summer months on land, but for the bears near Kaktovik, survival rations can be found close to town, at the bone pile near the airport hangar—the remains of bowhead whales that locals butcher on shore. Three whales have been taken this fall—the community’s allotted annual quota—keeping families fed. The remains mark the spit -ike carcasses of some extinct race of giants. Scraps of spoiled blubber and muktuk (whale skin) from people’s freezers on occasion augment this cetacean buffet.
An ATV puttering out to the bone pile loaded with such bounty is like a dinner bell ringing. From miles away, bears resting on the barrier islands catch a whiff of the rank deposit and swim or walk to the smorgasbord, where dozens might congregate at one time. There they’ll feast, peaceably as a rule, now spending more time on land and sometimes mingling with grizzlies as the climate changes. Up to 80 furry gourmands can be seen near town during this ursine rush hour.
Even when they don’t drift through people’s backyards or curl up under houses built on stilts, white bear proxies are everywhere in Kaktovik: spray-painted on a rusty, storm-blasted dumpster; emblazoning a sign welcoming you to Beautiful Barter Island; as logos on van doors and sleds and the defunct B & B, Dance With Polar Bear [sic]. Their pigeon-toed tracks stitch the muddy roads, evidence of bear agendas, bear appetites.
The juncture of lingering bears waiting for freeze-up, the windfall of a bone and blubber cache, and a nearby community eager for economic opportunities, has resulted in a burgeoning bear watching industry in Kaktovik. Thompson, one of seven coast guard-certified tour boat captains, makes a good living from the castaways at the bone pile between September and November.
A popular captain who is already fully booked for 2017, he can get so busy that he rushes to work without breakfast, grabbing a fistful of coffee beans to chew on his way out the door. His boat Seanachaí, Irish for storyteller, is aptly named—the man who can see bears making a beeline to the bone pile from his living room chair and who once got charged by a marauding male right on his doorstep regales visitors with tidbits about life in the North. A favorite is the technique for how to prepare a polar bear skin.
“You stuff it through a hole in the ice and let shrimp pick it clean,” he says, adding that he’s also seen bears steal from set fishing nets and once watched one pull a net to shore. Thompson’s porch is a still life of body parts and implements: a pot with chunks of unidentifiable meat chilling in the frigid air; a caribou leg for his dogs; snowmobile parts; a gas tank; and, like a cluster of fallen angels, a brace of unplucked, white-phase ptarmigans. On a driftwood stump near the shed grins a mossy polar bear skull; it’s not a scene for tender romantics.
Overall, this Arctic community has learned remarkably well how to coexist with stranded megafauna and benefit from them. In the past six years, small ecotourism businesses like Thompson’s have sprung up, cashing in on the white bear bonanza. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of USFWS-issued permits for commercial polar bear viewing on waters managed by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge rose from one to 19.
During the same period, the number of people bear watching snowballed from about 50 to roughly 2,500 a year. (Refuge staff does not track visits to the bone pile by van or by truck, as that land belongs to the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation.) They fly into Kaktovik on twin-prop planes, armed with lenses as long as my forearm, lured by the package of whaling culture, auroras, and views of the Brooks Range blue in the distance—but foremost by the thrill of meeting Earth’s largest land predator in its home environment.Kaktovik’s Robert Thompson is one of a handful of local certified guides who take visitors on boat tours to view polar bears and other wildlife. (Photo by Michael Engelhard)
And therein lies a dilemma. Many visitors are hobby photographers who crave the trophy shot to validate the experience and justify the expense—even without the round trip to Fairbanks, a three-day polar bear viewing excursion can set you back thousands of dollars.
In the bid for satisfied customers, rules and ethics the USFWS has been trying to implement are easily compromised. Bears have been fed from the back of tour boats to attract them, and the prescribed distance of 30 yeards (27 meters) that keeps bears from getting stressed and tourists from getting injured or even killed has been breached repeatedly. There is strong pressure from tourists to get closer, and reportedly a few have forsaken boat captains who refuse to do this, traveling instead with those who will. Any interaction with the bears, such as harassment or attempting to draw their attention, is discouraged to keep them from getting habituated.
Still, some people ask their guide to make a bear stand up, hoping for that prize-winning photo. The guides, if caught in any violations, risk losing their license and cabin boats with powerful motors, an investment of $60,000 or more.
Locals fear that outsiders will launch boats of their own in an attempt to muscle in on the state’s latest boom. Already, tour operators from urban Alaska and even the lower forty-eight siphon off a good deal of the profits. They arrange transportation and chaperoning by natural history or photography guides, at best purchasing boat rides or accommodations at one of Kaktovik’s two lodges or its only bed and breakfast. Bruce Inglangasak, a lanky, mustachioed boat captain in a camouflage suit and a watch cap embroidered Get Wild About Nature, expresses his frustration at guides from the south trying to muscle into the business, a sentiment common among his peers: “It’s our God-given right. We live here, and nobody knows these animals and waters like we do.”
In the ramshackle Waldo Arms, some French tourists fuel up on greasy burgers, while others, bent over laptops, edit their polar bear images. Fringed bowhead baleen with scrimshaw designs lies on the pool table, enticing souvenir hunters to leave a few more dollars in the community. DO NOT FEAR THE WIND, shouts graffiti on the message board beneath the felt-tip pen cartoon of a bear. When lunch is done, an old school bus conveys visitors to the boat launch for their afternoon tour. Others pile into the back of a pickup truck, dressed like members of Robert Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition. In their fancy goggles, balaclavas, Gore-Tex pants, and red Canada Goose Arctic Program parkas or cold-water immersion survival suits, these polar bear pilgrims stick out in Kaktovik, where the dress code is decidedly working class.
Tourists here expect a more personal experience than in Churchill, where crowds are trucked in on Polar Rovers (deluxe Humvees on steroids that can hold 50 passengers) and the mobile Great White Bear Tundra Lodge, a fat-tired train of hotel rooms, parks right on the fasting bears’ turf. Dinner smells from the lodge windows magnetize the bears, which, tourists complain, come begging for food rather than exhibit wild behavior. From elevated viewing platforms, the bears are also never encountered at ground level, a drawback for many photographers; the boat decks in Kaktovik bring them face-to-face.
Among photographers who visit Kaktovik, an unofficial ranking as arcane as the Boone and Crockett Club trophy hunting register (which scores animal attributes such as fur color and antler or horn size) rules the blazing cameras competition. Bears grimy from foraging in the bone pile or rolling in the dirt are undesirable, but smeared with blood, they become interesting, living up to their “killer” image. Cubs playing, males fighting, bears swimming, or mother-and-cub motifs are also highly coveted, as are photos with a bear mirrored in the still waters of the lagoon or gazing directly into the camera.
“I got my $7,000 worth right there,” one photographer tells me at Thompson’s B&B, recalling her capture of a mother and cream-white cub in the slanting afternoon sun. Return visitors crave a particular image or get hooked on adrenaline’s rush. A few, such as Shayne “Churchill is so passé” McGuire from California, then become tour guides who finance their passion by bringing like-minded seekers to Kaktovik. “I don’t like to see animals harassed,” McGuire says in a voice thick with emotion, recalling Churchill bears being pestered by flightseeing helicopters. But out on the lagoon, even here in Kaktovik, one can see bears corralled by three or four tour boats.
Not all residents embrace the opportunities ecotourism brings. There is concern that pictures of butchered whales, bearskins or skulls—a normal part of the landscape here—could provoke animal rights groups and environmentalists. Occasionally, locals who need to go to Fairbanks or Anchorage for medical treatment have been unable to get seats on fully booked planes. Tired of the recreational takeover, one old-timer, according to Thompson, angrily tried to chase off bears while tourists were watching, and almost got killed when his ATV did not start up again right away. Envy of those few who are lucky or savvy enough to tap this newfound wealth can also sour the atmosphere in a community where members have always depended on each other; for millennia, they’ve survived by sharing and cooperating.
To counter the negative effects of tourism on the locals—bears and people—the USFWS, in concert with the school, mentors Kaktovik’s youth ambassadors, who greet incoming visitors and try to educate them about Iñupiaq culture and bear viewing etiquette.
Perceptive visitors quickly realize that this paradise comes with pitfalls and thorns. Perhaps the community will balance the presence of tourists and bears in the future, but today they face a different balancing act: the environment that has supported both indigenous people and polar bears for thousands of years is shifting below their feet. As changing pack ice shortens the polar bears’ hunting season, shrinking shore-fast ice inhibits the ability of Iñupiaq hunters to intercept migrating whales. And sea level rises and coastal erosion—worsened by storm-agitated surf—puts low-lying Arctic communities at risk of flooding, and means bears lose their den sites.
Humans stand out as one of the most successful species on Earth, in part because of our adaptability—all Iñupiat are a testament to that. But the highly specialized bears are not so blessed. Locked into more fixed behaviors and bound to evolution’s slow clock, the chances that they’ll weather the changes to their place of origin are slim. Their loss will be ours as well.
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The Budweiser Clydesdales are a familiar sight to anyone who watches the Super Bowl.
Pulling a wagon full of wooden cases of Budweiser, the team of big horses makes regular appearances at the annual football event and also show up at other events throughout the country. What you might not know is how the Clydesdales got their big break. It was thanks to August Anheuser Busch, Junior. He was the grandson and great-grandson of liquor company Anheuser-Busch’s founders.
Busch was a “master showman and irrepressible salesman who turned a small family operation into the world’s largest brewing company,” wrote Robert Thomas Jr. in Busch’s 1989 New York Times obituary. Nowhere are those skills more apparent than in the story of the horses.
But like many, many Americans, the company must have celebrated the end of Prohibition. And Busch caught the mood of the times. He “recalled the draft horses that had once pulled beer wagons in Germany and pre-automotive America,” writes Thomas, “and obtained a team to haul the first case of Budweiser down Pennsylvania Avenue for delivery to President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House.”
The Budweiser Clydesdales were born. Later in his career, Busch would ride behind them into the stadium of his home baseball team, the St. Louis Cardinals, during games. The arrival of the horses would be heralded by the Budweiser jingle “Here Comes the King,” writes Lisa Brown for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The horses, and the song, remain a St. Louis tradition.
The Clydesdale tradition isn’t so different today, although now there are several teams across the country. Raising successive generations of the horses has become an Anheuser-Busch preoccupation. They run a multi-million dollar operation, ABC reports, that includes breeding more than 40 horses every year in hopes of getting ten male horses who can perform. The others are sold.
“We have very, very stringent requirements to be a Budweiser Clydesdale,” farm overseer Jeff Knapper told ABC. “They have to have a white blaze, a black mane and tail, dark bay in color and four white stocking feet.”
The routine that the horses are known for performing—including the difficult "docking maneuver"—has its roots in the same cart-drawn tradition that Busch was invoking when he set the first team up, writes Kimberly Brown for The Horse. “In busy streets prior to and even after automobiles made their appearance, you couldn’t block the roads with your horses while unloading wagons,” she writes. “So, drivers taught teams to back up to the loading dock, then maintain the wagon in place while the entire team swiveled around to be parallel with the road—all without moving the wagon from the dock.”
In 2003, a deadly heat wave struck Europe that would usher in a new era of climate science. In July and August alone, temperatures upward of 115 °F claimed nearly 70,000 lives. However, while average global temperatures have increased at a steady clip since the mid-20th century, strong heat waves had been documented from time to time before then. For climate scientists, that meant that attributing the heat wave to global warming would be next to impossible.
So when a team of British researchers used environmental data and model simulations to establish a statistical link between climate change and the heat wave, they got attention.
Though they couldn’t prove that global warming had “caused” the scorcher, the scientists did assert that warming from human emissions had doubled the risk of extreme weather events. Published in Nature, their first-of-its-kind study launched the new field of “attribution science,” which uses observations and models to tease apart the factors that lead to extreme climatic events.
In the years since, better models and more data have helped climate scientists get much better at predicting extreme weather. But how confidently can scientists attribute these extreme weather events to anthropogenic climate change? Will they ever be able to definitively say that our emissions caused a specific drought, tornado or heat wave?
We put these questions to three experts who use environmental data and modeling techniques to study extreme weather and global climate change.
To be clear, scientists can and do assert that anthropogenic climate change has wide-ranging global effects, from ice caps melting and sea level rise to increased precipitation. “Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate change,” reads a federal climate change report published in draft form in January, and publicized by the New York Times last week.
Thanks to advances in supercomputing and pooling hundreds of climate models developed by researchers across the world, they are also more statistically confident than ever in saying that intense storms, droughts and record-breaking heat waves are occurring with increased frequency because of humans. “Ten years ago we wouldn’t have been able to do so,” says Ken Kunkel, a climate scientist at North Carolina State University who also works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But teasing apart individual weather events is harder. The planet’s history is dotted with unexpected, prolonged heat waves and sudden damaging storms far before humans began pumping out greenhouse gases. “The big challenge is that these kind of extreme events have always happened,” says Kunkel, whose work focuses on heavy storms that cause considerable damage in the U.S. But, he says, “Can you say, ‘This event was caused by global warming? No.'”
The difficulty of isolating a culprit behind extreme weather is a similar to the diagnostic challenge that medical doctors face, says Noah Diffenbaugh, an earth system scientist at Stanford University. Just because one patient recovers from cancer after taking a particular drug, for instance, isn’t enough evidence for doctors to widely prescribe that substance as a cancer cure. Instead, the drug needs to go through hundreds of replicated experiments on multiple populations before doctors are confident enough that it works.
In both medicine and climate science, “the default position is the null hypothesis: that every event occurred by chance," Diffenbaugh says. "We have a very high burden of proof to reject that null hypothesis."
But unlike in medicine, when it comes to Earth, we don’t have the ability to do clinical trials on hundreds or thousands of similar planets to overturn that null hypothesis. We only have one planet, and one timeline. So scientists have had to get creative in finding ways to observe other possible realities.
To conduct planetary experiments—the equivalent of clinical trials in medicine—they use computer models that mimic the variables on Earth, and turn the knobs. “With model simulations, you essentially have large populations you can look at,” Diffenbaugh says. “That’s where the models come in, they allow us to have more Earths to look at.”
A climate model works by dividing the Earth’s atmosphere and surface into a grid, like the the lines of latitude and longitude on a globe. “The model has to break up space into chunks,” says Adam Schlosser, a senior research scientist at the Center for Global Change Science. The smaller the chunks, the more precise the model will be.
These climate models work well when it comes to capturing large-scale patterns. They "are quite good at simulating the global-scale temperature,” Diffenbaugh says. But extreme weather events are more challenging, because they’re rare, localized and brought about by a swirling mixture of environmental factors. Currently, most climate models operate at a fairly coarse scale due to limitations of super computing power, Schlosser says.
This is part of the reason that modeling extreme events like heat waves is easier than modeling, say, individual storms or tornadoes. Heat waves happen over huge geographic regions that coarse models can easily capture. “When you see news about tornado hunters, they’re looking at weather events that are the size of a small town. A climate model can’t get down to that resolution,” Schlosser says.
Not yet, at least. Computers are getting faster, and climate scientists are figuring out ways to crunch more data to strengthen their predictive abilities. “We analyze every variable that we could possibly get our hands on,” Schlosser says. Still, challenges remain when it comes to building enough evidence to make claims of increased probability. As Diffenbaugh puts it: “Science is highly conservative.”
The increasing and sometimes alarming frequency of floods, droughts, heat waves and heavy storms may have a silver lining: They provide troves of data for researchers to plug into their models. In other words, they’re making the connections between the occurrence of localized extreme events and anthropogenic climate change more clear.
Things you hear the meteorologist mention on the nighly news—wind speed, pressure fronts, temperature, humidity, instability in the atmosphere—are all ingredients in the cookbook of extreme weather.
“We can use those telltale signs as a recipe—anytime you see these ingredients come together you’re going to be in an environment for a storm,” Schlosser says. “Those are the sorts of things we’ve been using and they’ve been successful in making a nice leap in our confidence in model concensus in where all this is going in the future.”
Diffenbaugh agrees. When it comes to predicting specific weather events, “we’ve moved really rapidly from saying ‘we don’t do that’ as our public stance, to some bold pioneers trying to do it, to now a number of groups working hard.”
As the recent climate report shows, researchers now have greater confidence when they make assertions about the role of anthropogenic climate change in increasing extreme weather events. “The consensus is getting stronger and stronger,” Schlosser says. “It doesn’t really matter which direction it goes, we just want to be confident about it.”
Yet the challenges of teasing out the causes of something as complex as weather also illustrates the ways in which climate change is unlike any other field of science. “It would be nice to have 100 Earths, so you could turn the knobs and increase this or decrease that and see what happens,” Kunkel says. “We don’t have that. We’re living our experiment.”
He pauses, and adds: “unfortunately.”
There’s a three-block stretch along 24th Street in San Francisco’s Mission District where traditional Latino eateries still thrive. Despite the neighborhood’s recent gentrification, you can still walk into what looks like a hole in the wall and have one of the best carnitas tacos of your life, or stand on a street corner devouring an authentic Mexican huarache — a flip-flop-shaped base of masa topped with salsa, guacamole, queso fresco and a touch of tomatillo sauce — in front of a beloved mexi-catessen that’s been in business for over 50 years. Though these are revered establishments among the local Latino community, many other San Franciscans don’t even know they exist. And similar stories exist across the United States.
Walking tour operators like Chris Milano, who runs Foodie Adventures in San Francisco, are aiming to change that. A sixth-generation San Franciscan (a rarity in itself), Milano has been frequenting many of these establishments since he was a young boy. Milano, a cooking teacher, was shocked when he realized that many of his students hadn’t set foot in the Mission District. “I was just so blown away that folks could live so close and yet be so detached,” Milano tells Smithsonian.com. A business was born — one that Milano says allows students to visit foodie locales that are really “at the foundation of their communities.”
Milano’s business is just one of several food-based, U.S. walking tour companies showcasing long-running food establishments that have helped define local food and culture. In Manhattan, Foods of New York’s Original Greenwich Village Tour focuses on old-school, mom-and-pop eateries and specialty food shops as well as the community’s Italian heritage. Chicago Food Planet hosts walking tours through neighborhoods like Chinatown and Old Town, stopping at family-owned eateries, time-honored specialty stores and newer but still off-the-beaten-path establishments. And Urban Adventures in Los Angeles features an aptly named Ethnic Neighborhoods Food & Culture tour that tastes its way through lesser-known neighborhoods like Thai Town and Little Armenia, dishing up local history and culture along the way.
The draw of these tours isn’t merely about introducing guests to a neighborhood’s most authentic food haunts, but also about acquainting them with places they would likely never go on their own. “Along with highlighting the historical significance of these ethnic communities,” says Summer Davis, manager at LA’s Urban Adventures, “our tours help reduce any trepidation or fears guests might have about visiting them.”
Milano agrees. “Like I always tell people when we get to the La Gallinita butcher shop in The Mission,” he says, “99 percent of the population would look at the sign, which is kind of beat up, look at the bars on the window, poke their head inside and see these day laborers and old timers from the neighborhood and be intimidated.” But once you walk inside and talk to Sal the Butcher, who’s been working there for 55 years, “you fall in love with him, you fall in love with his family, and it helps preserve the business because then you come back.”
Tourists aren’t the only people indulging in tasty culinary walking tours: They’re also filled with locals looking to delve deeper into the culinary history of their city. Once they’re turned on to lesser-known, but well-established businesses, these new local food aficionados help preserve the businesses through their own purchases and old-fashioned word of mouth. In fact, say Milano and Davis, they’re likely to return time and time again to eateries they may never have stepped foot in otherwise.
“We can really get people out of their comfort zones,” says Milano. “For me, that’s the important part: to break stereotypes and change someone’s perception of a neighborhood.” To do so while eating some incredible cuisine is the icing on the cake — or, as Milano might say, the tomatillo sauce atop your huarache.
Swing by one of these iconic spots to get a taste of local food history:
Greenwich Village, New York City: Locals flock to La Lanterna Caffe for its cozy and romantic garden atmosphere, affordable pizzas and hearty calzones stuffed with mozarella, ricotta, and tomato. The small Italian cafe and coffee house has been in business for more than three decades.
Mission Distrct, San Francisco: Established in 1953, La Palma Mexi-catessen is a neighborhood institution. This family-owned Latin market and take-out counter even has its own corn silo, with staff churning out freshly made traditional, blue, and cactus corn tortillas by the thousands. Don’t miss the huaraches and handmade pupusas filled with pork or chicken.
Old Town, Chicago: Second generation candy maker Jim Dattalo founded The Fudge Pot in 1963, and today it’s the city’s oldest chocolate confectioner. Everything here is made on site, including ten types of fudge and their signature butter toffee, made with caramel, chocolate, and nuts.
Glendale, Los Angeles County: Family-run Panos Pastry first got its start in 1950s Beirut. When Panos Zetlian and his wife Alberta relocated to California, they brought their business with them, opening a shop in East Hollywood and eventually in Glendale. Today, only the latter remains. Panos makes what’s perhaps the best baklava (a type of syrupy phyllo pastry) in town. It comes in several different varieties, including walnut, cashew, and pistachio.
Image by Scott Wilson. Ellis Emmett, diving between two continents in Silfra. (original image)
Image by Scott Wilson. Ellis Emmett, diving between two continents in Silfra. (original image)
Image by Scott Wilson. An over-under shot in Silfra (original image)
Image by Scott Wilson. Silfra, as seen from the section known as “the cathedral." (original image)
Image by Scott Wilson. Neon green seaweed clings to rocks in Silfa. (original image)
They come outfitted in thermal undersuits and full-body drysuits, dipping beneath the surface in some of the most frigid water on Earth and risking hypothermia, frozen gear and even death. But for scuba divers willing to brave the 206-foot dive into Iceland’s Silfra fissure, the water temperature isn’t the point; it’s the price of entry. In this crack between the Eurasian and North American continents, divers can touch two continental plates underwater at the same time—an experience that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet.
“It is a place where divers can see right into the earth in a geological sense,” Rüdiger Hahl, operations manager and guide at DIVE.IS, tells Smithsonian.com. “Sometimes the rays of the sun seem like bright light beams entering an area that grows darker and darker with increasing depth.” The view is so stunning that it draws an estimated 20,000 divers each year.
The appeal is easy to understand: Deep in the fissure, the rocky landscape looks otherworldly and the water is some of the clearest and coldest imaginable. Filled with the newest rocks formed on Earth and ice-cold water (roughly 35 degrees year-round) that’s pure enough to drink, the Silfra fissure is part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the longest mountain range in the world.
While most of the ridge is underwater, parts of it push up above sea level to create islands, like Iceland. At Silfra’s point in the range, continental drift forces the two tectonic plates apart by about two centimeters per year. This creates tension on the land itself, which releases with a major earthquake every ten years. As a result, fissures open up along the tectonic ridgeline, forming new rocks at the break and essentially creating new land in the middle of Iceland.
When the fissure first formed, it broke through an underground spring and filled with crystal-clear water from Langjökull, the second largest glacier in Iceland. As the ice melts in the summer, it flows downhill (while nearly 100 feet below ground) about 31 miles through lava field capillaries, through Silfra, and into Thingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in the country. Hahl says that by the time the glacial water reaches the fissure, it’s been traveling for 70 to 100 years.
Diving in glacial water filtered through lava rock for decades is astounding enough—after all, says Hahl, there aren’t many opportunities in life to dive into “a glass of mineral water presented by nature at perfect fridge temperature.” But things get even better for divers who manage to make it down the fissure at exactly the right moment. When visibility is perfect and the sun cooperates, says Hahl, divers can turn on their back and enjoy “a perfect mirror image of the bottom of Silfra.”
Silfra’s surroundings are just as fascinating as the fissure. It’s located in Thingvellir National Park, an UNESCO world heritage area and the site of Iceland’s first parliament, Althingi. The initial meeting, a two-week session in the middle of June in 930, marked the country’s birth. Sessions at the site continued until 1798; the parliament was then superseded by the High Court, until Althingi was reinstated in 1845 (these days, meetings are held in Reykjavik). The site remains one of the most revered in Icelandic history. Ruins of about 50 turf and stone "booths" used during the early sessions are still visible, and more ruins are thought to be underground. Thingvellir is also the land-based extension of the fissure—visitors can walk between the two tectonic plates and touch each at the same time, without the hazards that come with scuba diving in the chilly locale.
Although images of Silfra belie it, aquatic life does exist within the fissure. Scott Wilson, Silfra diver and travel videographer, tells of long, stringy sea grass that glows fluorescent green in the lagoon section of the fissure. In the deeper portion of the dive, arctic char sometimes swim up to say hello. “Normally when you’re swimming around, the bubbles will spook fish off and you can only get so close to them,” he tells Smithsonian.com. These arctic char don’t care at all. They have no idea what you are or that you would even pose a threat to them.”
According to Wilson, the biggest draw for divers isn’t the life in the fissure—it’s the dramatic underwater landscape that dances with sunlight even on a cloudy day. “To be there and physically touch two continents at once is something you can do almost nowhere else on earth,” he says. “You kind of pause and look at it and think, ‘Where the hell is that?’”
Thingvellir park rangers watch diver numbers rise every year, but that popularity could come with a heavy price. This year, the number of divers is expected to be at least four times higher than just five years ago, quickly approaching safety limits for the fissure. As with other underwater environments, the vegetation is extremely delicate and requires extra caution to ensure divers and snorkelers can enjoy the scene for years to come. But for now, the fact that the watery world of Silfra could soon be a thing of the past makes that glimpse into the depths of the changing Earth that much more precious.