‘Postcards’ From Arctic Reveal Thrill of Scientific Expedition

Not many Yale seniors get to answer the ubiquitous question "So, what are you doing after graduation?" with "I'm working as an embedded journalist on an icebreaker oceanographic research vessel in the Arctic Ocean." But that's exactly what Alex Kain '09 did after graduating from Yale last spring.

Not many Yale seniors get to answer the ubiquitous question “So, what are you doing after graduation?” with “I’m working as an embedded journalist on an icebreaker oceanographic research vessel in the Arctic Ocean.” But that’s exactly what Alex Kain ‘09 did after graduating from Yale last spring.

Having no luck lining up a job thanks to the economic downturn, the liberal arts major decided it was time for a change. “I realized this was a time in my life when I had a lot of freedom. I didn’t necessarily need to go and find a job and work at a desk immediately after college,” he recalls.


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Inspired by the science class he was taking in order to fulfill a distribution requirement, Kain approached David Bercovici, his professor and chair of the Department of Geology and Geophysics, and asked whether he knew of any faculty looking for assistance in the field. A few phone calls and less than a week later, Kain got a call from Mary-Louise Timmermans, a new assistant geology professor.

As it turned out, the Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project, a month-long oceanographic research expedition to the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean, was looking for someone to write daily dispatches from onboard the ship as part of its public outreach efforts. With some prior experience in journalism and an interest in writing, Kain jumped at the chance.

It was an entirely new world for Kain, but familiar ground for Timmermans (who Kain interviewed for one of his dispatches: see below). As a physical oceanographer, Timmermans studies the properties of the Arctic Ocean remotely, using autonomous probes that measure the water’s conductivity, temperature and depth down to 800 meters. But it still takes human bodies to deploy and retrieve the probes — something she’s done as part of a half dozen similar expeditions in the past.

“The daily dispatches are a really important part of our expeditions every year,” Timmermans says. “It was a lucky connection, because Alex is interested in writing and also has an interest in photography.”

Each day, Kain followed the 30 scientists and 57 crew members around the ship and learned as much as he could about their jobs and research. And each night, he would write a story — sometimes a summary of the day’s events or profiles of the crew members, other times philosophical musings about being in the middle of the Arctic Ocean — and post them online along with photos he took that day.

Timmermans hopes Kain’s writing will inspire others to learn more about the Arctic climate and the research taking place there. But his dispatches were also a chance for her to experience the Arctic for the first time again, through the eyes of a non-scientist. “He really saw the wonder in everything,” she says.

Here are some excerpts from Kain’s daily dispatches during his 29 days on the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St.-Laurent, from Sept. 17 to Oct. 15, as well as some of the photographs he took during the expedition. For more of his dispatches, visit www.whoi.edu/beaufortgyre/cruise.html.

The Ice Floe Soundeth

Sept. 24, 2009

Sea ice comes in a brilliant spectrum of blue and white hues. Its many forms — sometimes jagged, sometimes smooth — could easily replace Rorschach tests in a psychiatrist’s office. Though different in size and character, one feature of all floes remains consistent. The ice, when colliding with the hull of the Louis, vibrates the ship and resounds.

At times the collisions produce the sustained rumble of rolling thunder. Other times the sensation is more akin to the sudden and violent beating of a kettle drum. The sounds produced by the ice collisions are as varied as the shapes and sizes of the ice floes themselves. …

Though the majority of those on board regard the ice as a nuisance to which you must acclimate in order to stay sane, some find the rocking and crunching to be a comfort. Kris Newhall, a technician with WHOI [Woods Hold Oceanographic Institution], finds the constant crunching soothing. “I’ve never slept better on any other ship,” he says. …

WHOI’s Jim Dunn notices a sharp contrast between the roar of traveling through icy water and the tranquility of still seas. “When you transition from ice cover to open water, you think you’re going to fall off the face of the earth,” he says. “You forget how the ship floats.”

That contrast exemplifies a duality that exists in the Arctic. … It is a place that can sustain frost flowers, the most delicate of natural forms that occur when atmospheric water molecules freeze to each other in flower-like shapes, but also dense, monstrous icebergs that dwarf most suburban office buildings.

As odd and extreme as this ice-covered world is, for some people aboard the ship it brings back memories of home. While describing the intensity of breaking ice, one sailor remarked with a smile, “it’s like the wind howling during a vicious storm … or my wife when she’s angry.”

Refueling in Numbers

Sept. 25, 2009

Today’s refueling evidenced that the Louis is an extremely thirsty ship. She’s already sucked up over one-million liters of fuel, and she’ll continue slurping until tomorrow afternoon. …

The ship’s fuel tank has a capacity of over 4 million liters (1,056,688 gallons). … Every 60 minutes, the barge pumps enough liquid to fill approximately two residential swimming pools. …

Were the volume of fuel pumped into the Louis today to be put into the gas tank of a Toyota Prius, it could travel 40,813,788 kilometers (25,360,512 miles), equivalent to 1,020 trips around the equator or 106 journeys to the moon. This distance is equivalent to four millionths of a light year.

But until the Prius can shatter a floe while going 14 knots, I’m sticking with the Louis.

Deep Blue Beaufort Sea

Oct. 11, 2009

Ask an Arctic oceanographer about their research, and they’ll probably mention projects involving ice and water located in the surface layers of the ocean. These top regions sustain a unique ecosystem, exhibit complex currents, and offer a chance to study the interaction between the atmosphere and the sea. …

[T]he layers closer to the seafloor than the surface hold their own mysteries. Below 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) of depth, the deepest regions of the Arctic Ocean contain a separate world of ocean dynamics, most of which is just beginning to be investigated and understood.

“We’re always thinking about shallow waters in the Arctic, but we don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in the deepest regions,” says Mary-Louise Timmermans, an Arctic oceanographer from Yale University. …

The Beaufort Sea presents a unique area of ocean activity. Its depths contain the saltiest water in the Arctic Ocean. Moreover, scientists believe that these depths have been isolated from shallower waters for at least the past 500 years.

The water’s isolation makes it less subject to seasonal and interannual variability. The deep waters of the Beaufort Sea “may prove to be valuable markers of past climate states and future climate changes,” Timmermans says. …

As for future deep-water studies, Timmermans will continue to monitor the Beaufort Sea, but she also has her eyes set on the warmer waters of the Mediterranean, which exhibit similar ocean dynamics. The seas there are “equally fascinating,” she says. “And also, an expedition to the Med wouldn’t be so bad.”

Expedition in Numbers

Oct. 14, 2009

Science. Between Sept. 17 and Oct. 15, 2009, the CCGS Louis S. St.-Laurent traveled to 43 stations throughout the Beaufort Sea. …

Scientists collected and bottled 1,123 samples of ocean water from Niskin bottles. … These samples allowed scientists to perform 9,654 nutrient and chemical analyses, an average of 333 sample tests per day. …

Distance. The Louis traveled a total of 4,312 nautical miles (7,986 km, 4,962 mi.) over a 29-day expedition period … The ship reached its northernmost point at 79° 19.6’ N, 151° 42.0’ W, roughly 650 nautical miles (1,207 km, 750 mi.) from the North Pole.

Weather. …The warmest temperature occurred at 2 p.m. one day after leaving Kugluktuk on Sept. 18, where the high reached 10.8 °C (51.4 °F). The coldest temperature experienced throughout the expedition occurred on Oct. 7 at 8 p.m., when the air plummeted to -18 °C (-0.4 °F). …

Food. In 29 days, 86 scientists and crewmembers consumed 4,350 eggs, 1,450 lbs. (658 kg) of potatoes, and an average of 30 liters (7.9 gallons) of milk per day. In total, the cooks of the Louis prepared over 10,000 plates of food, offering three meals a day, every day.

Wildlife. Crewmembers and scientists aboard the Louis spotted one pod of whales, a dozen Arctic cod, two Snowy Owls, roughly 10 black-legged kittiwakes [sea­gulls], and three polar bears. …

A Dispatch Writer Reflects

Oct. 15, 2009

I came into this trip expecting a cramped, salty-smelling boat with surly sailors and disgusting canned food. …

What surprised me the most, and I think the memory that will last with me the longest, is how exceptionally happy everyone on the boat seemed, everyone from the captain to the cooks to the scientist running repetitive tests all day. …

I think the main reason people love this environment and do all they can to create a community is because they know, through contrast, how good it is. Everyone on board knows potential alternatives: a dreary suburban office building, commuter trains, friction burns on your neck from uncomfortable starched collared shirts; repetitive tasks performed while sitting at an office chair all day; speaking on phones more than with people; and a complete detachment from the work you are performing that leaves you pressing the snooze button every morning, wondering how many times you’ll press it until you call in sick.

My experience on the Louis will now be a baseline for this contrast. I will always regard my time up north with fondness and a smile.

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Media Contact

Suzanne Taylor Muzzin: suzanne.taylormuzzin@yale.edu, 203-432-8555