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Polar Science and Art Meet in “Vanishing Ice”

"Snow Cottages of the Boothians," nu Sir John Ross, 1835. (Photo: British Library)

“Snow Cottages of the Boothians,” by Sir John Ross, 1835. (Photo: British Library)

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A current exhibit—that I wish I could see for myself—at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Wa. explores my favorite subject: the intersection of art, polar science and the history of exploration. Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art, 1775-2012, is on view through March 2.

“First and foremost, this show is a tribute to the beauty and majesty of ice and its influence on the history of art, science, literature and exploration,” said the museum’s executive director, Patricia Leach, in a press release.

Ice was introduced to the British scientific establishment by William Scoresby. His first major paper, On the Greenland or Polar Ice, was read in three parts before the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1814-1815. The paper, the first scientific analysis of polar ice, describes the appearance and behaviors of glaciers, bergs, floes, fields and other formations from an oceanographic standpoint.

These were no mere cubes clinking in a cocktail glass. This ice was immense, beautiful and malevolent, seductive and dangerous:

“Of the inanimate productions of Greenland, none perhaps excites so much interest and astonishment in a stranger, as the ice in its great abundance and variety. The stupendous masses, known by the name of Ice-Islands, Floating Mountains, or Icebergs, common to Davis’ Straits and sometimes met with here, from their height, various forms, and the depth of water in which they ground, are calculated to strike the beholder with wonder: yet the fields of ice, more peculiar to Greenland, are not less astonishing. Their deficiency in elevation is sufficiently compensated by their amazing extent of surface. Some of them have been observed near a hundred miles in length, and more than half of that breadth; each consisting of a single sheet of ice, having its surface raised in general four or six feet above the level of the water, and its base depressed to the depth of near twenty feet beneath,” he wrote.

Scoresby wrote from experience, having spent more than 10 summers whale-fishing in the Greenland Sea. At one point in the narrative he demonstrates the brutal energy of the ice and ocean currents:

“In the year 1804, I had a good opportunity of witnessing the effects produced by the lesser masses in motion. Passing between two fields of bay-ice, about a foot in thickness, they were observed rapidly to approach each other, and before our ship could pass the strait, they met with a velocity of three or four miles per hour: the one overlaid the other, and presently covered many acres of the surface. The ship proving an obstacle to the course of the ice, it squeezed up on both sides, shaking her in a dreadful manner, and producing a loud grinding, or lengthened acute tremulous noise, accordingly as the degree of pressure was diminished or increased, until it had risen as high as the deck. After about two hours, the velocity was diminished to a state of rest; and soon afterwards, the two sheets of ice receded from each other, nearly as rapidly as they had before advanced. The ship, in this case, did not receive any injury, but had the ice been only half a foot thicker, she would probably have been wrecked.”

Scoresby may have dazzled the Wernerians, but none of his drawings of Spitsbergen’s glaciers or bergs is included in Vanishing Ice. Many of his contemporaries are accounted for, however. One is Sir John Ross, who led the British Admiralty’s first voyage of discovery to the Northwest Passage in 1818—a command Scoresby dearly sought for himself. Ross’ 1835 watercolor drawing, Snow Cottages of the Boothians, depicts the band of friendly Inuit who wintered with Ross’ 1829-1833 voyage to the Arctic. Against a snow-covered outcropping framed by a star-studded night sky, figures in fur suits gather before a cluster of igloos. One figure in a blue jacket and trousers appears to be speaking to the group with hand signals. The scene probably illustrates the “Boothians,” native Canadians living on the Boothia peninsula, who supplied the explorers with fresh meat.

"HMS Hecla in Baffin Bay," by Frederick William Beechey, 1821. (Photo: Linda Hall Library)

“HMS Hecla in Baffin Bay,” by Frederick William Beechey, 1821. (Photo: Linda Hall Library)

Frederick William Beechey, another of Scoresby’s contemporaries, was a naval officer on William Edward Parry’s second Arctic voyage in 1819-1820. His HMS Hecla in Baffin Bay, a pencil drawing published in Parry’s Journal of a Voyage for the Discovery of a Northwest Passage, 1819–20 in His Majesty’s Ships Hecla and Griper, depicts the expedition’s lead ship against a monster iceberg resembling a tiered wedding cake. A seal perched on a floe keeps an eye on the vessel, while the sky is lit with cumulus clouds.

More complex works from the second half of the nineteenth century build on the eyewitness accounts of the early explorers. William Bradford’s 1867 painting, Caught in the Ice Floes, reveals the motion of the ice pack as it encircles a helpless ship. A sealing crew in the foreground unloads the ship’s smaller boats onto tenuous islands of ice. The drama is heightened by the play of light on the sky, a central iceberg and the dark sea between the floes.

Vivid illumination captures the Romantic excitement of the polar regions in paintings by Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church, Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner, just to name a few in this fascinating exhibit.

Vanishing Ice also weaves the theme of climate change into the display. The curators highlight the impact of the polar regions on art and science over the past two centuries, and suggest that we still have a lot to learn from the Arctic and Antarctic. And that time is running out.

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Arctic Report Card: Sixth-Warmest Year on Record

Published on December 30, 2013, by in Commentary.
Tundra vegetation at Sydkap, at Scoresby Sund, Greenland. (Photo: Hannes Grobe)

Tundra vegetation at Sydkap, at Scoresby Sund, Greenland. (Photo: Hannes Grobe)

NOAA released the annual Arctic Report Card in December, revealing that the climate was slightly cooler than the previous year—but that long-term climate warming and changes in the environment persist.

The Arctic Report Card aggregates trends in the atmosphere, sea ice and ocean, marine ecosystems, terrestrial ecosystems and the terrestrial cryosphere (i.e., ice on land). Scientists found cooler temperatures in the summer of 2013 across the central Arctic Ocean, Greenland and northern Canada, which moderated the record sea ice loss and extensive melting that the surface of the Greenland ice sheet experienced last year. But regional extremes continued, including record low May snow cover in Eurasia and record high summer temperatures in Alaska.

“The Arctic caught a bit of a break in 2013 from the recent string of record-breaking warmth and ice melt of the last decade,” said David M. Kennedy, NOAA’s deputy under secretary for operations, during a press briefing today at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in San Francisco. “But the relatively cool year in some parts of the Arctic does little to offset the long-term trend of the last 30 years: the Arctic is warming rapidly, becoming greener and experiencing a variety of changes, affecting people, the physical environment, and marine and land ecosystems.”

A few highlights (or lowlights, so to speak) from the report:

Air temperatures: While Eurasia had spring air temperatures as much as 7°F above normal, central Alaska experienced its coldest April since 1924 with birch and aspen trees budding the latest (May 26) since observations began in 1972. Summer across a broad swath of the Arctic was cooler than the previous six summers, when there had been pronounced retreat of sea ice. But Fairbanks, just below the Arctic Circle in Alaska, experienced a record 36 days with temperatures at or exceeding 80°F.


Snow cover: The snow extent in May and June across the Northern Hemisphere (when snow is mainly located over the Arctic) was below average in 2013. The North American snow cover during this period was the fourth lowest on record. A new record low was reached in May over Eurasia.

Sea ice: Despite a relatively cool summer over the Arctic Ocean, the extent of sea ice in September 2013 was the sixth lowest since observations began in 1979. The seven lowest recorded sea ice extents have occurred in the last seven years.


Ocean temperature and salinity: Sea surface temperatures in August were as much as 7°F higher than the long-term average of 1982-2006 in the Barents and Kara Seas north of Siberia, which can be attributed to an early retreat of sea ice cover and increased solar heating. Twenty-five percent more heat and freshwater is stored in the Beaufort Gyre, a clockwise ocean current circulating north of Alaska and Canada, since the 1970s.

Greenland ice sheet: During a summer when air temperatures were near the long-term average, melting occurred across as much as 44 percent of the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, close to the long-term average but much smaller than the record 97 percent in 2012.

Vegetation: The Arctic is greening as vegetation responds to warmer conditions and a longer growing season. Since observations began in 1982, Arctic-wide tundra vegetation productivity (greenness) has increased, with the growing season length increasing by 9 days each decade.

Wildlife: Large land mammal populations continued trends seen over the last several decades. Musk ox numbers have increased since the 1970s, in part due to conservation and introduction efforts, while caribou and reindeer herds continue to have unusually low numbers.

Marine fishes: The long-term warming trend, including the loss of sea ice and warming of waters, is believed to be contributing to the northward migration into the Arctic of some fish such as Atlantic mackerel, Atlantic cod, capelin, eelpout, sculpin and salmonids.

Black carbon: While black carbon (soot) originating from outside the Arctic has decreased by 55 percent since the early 1990s, primarily due to economic collapse in the former Soviet Union, increasing numbers of wildfires fueled by greater amounts of vegetation in a warmer, drier climate, have the potential to increase atmospheric black carbon in the high latitudes.

Speaking of sea ice cover, “There was more sea ice at the end of summer 2013 than there was at the end of the record-breaking summer of 2012. But, the 2013 minimum ice extent was still 18 percent below the average minimum, and ranked as the 6th smallest ice extent since satellite observations began in 1979,” reported Don Perovich, a research geophysicist at Dartmouth College specializing in Arctic climate changes. “Moreover, the past seven years have had the seven smallest ice extents in the observational record. There is also a continuing shift from older, thicker ice to younger, thinner ice. In March 2013, only 25 percent of the ice cover was more than one year old. The remaining old ice was mainly found in the Western Arctic, adjacent to northernmost Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. In summary, I’d say that 2013 was another year in the new normal of reduced Arctic sea ice.”

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New Push Against Pestilent Plastic

Published on November 13, 2013, by in Commentary.
Plastic garbage washes up on the Hawaiian island of Kaho'olawe. (Photo: NOAA)

Plastic garbage washes up on the Hawaiian island of Kaho’olawe. (Photo: NOAA)

Faithful readers of this blog will surely recognize the sentiment behind this next post. Disposable plastic crap—from drinking straws to shopping bags to flip-flops—bears hideous witness to our callous view of the environment around us. I’ve picked up cubic yards of junk off an otherwise pristine beach in Mexico that had the misfortune of acting as the terminus of an ocean current that carried food wrappers, plastic bottles and nylon rope from South America. That’s why I feel a frisson of hope about this latest push against plastic.

The San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity announced November 6 that the EPA has promised to take steps to curb plastic pollution. Responding to a Center petition filed in August 2012, the EPA will work to reduce plastic pollution in oceans, improve monitoring and conduct a scientific review of the human-health effects of eating fish that have ingested plastics.

“The EPA has a duty to curb plastic pollution in order to protect the biological integrity of our nation’s waters and to ensure that they support beneficial wildlife, fishing, and recreational uses, consistent with the goals of the Clean Water Act,” according to the petition.

The agency also says it will develop national data on the economic costs of ocean trash to local, state and national governments, and will do more to prevent people and businesses from littering in oceans.

“We’re happy to see the EPA taking plastics pollution seriously,” said Emily Jeffers, an oceans attorney at the Center. “Every year bits of discarded plastic kill thousands of seabirds, sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals. Some choke on plastic, and others are poisoned by it. Still more find themselves swimming through vast patches of toxic litter. It’s an international tragedy that needs to be addressed.”

Adorable yet endangered wildlife like Hawaiian monk seals and Pacific loggerhead sea turtles are among the nearly 300 species affected by plastic litter.

Adorable yet endangered wildlife like Hawaiian monk seals (above) and Pacific loggerhead sea turtles are among the nearly 300 species affected by plastic litter. (Photo: NOAA)

To wit: Plastic makes up 50 to 80 percent of all beach litter, floating marine debris, and trash on the ocean floor. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the North Pacific Gyre corrals plastic junk of every description—billions of pounds worth of trash—in vast “garbage patches,” one of which is believed to be twice the size of Texas. A gyre in the North Atlantic also accumulates floating plastic debris in a nonbiodegradable vortex. In the Los Angeles area alone, 20 tons of plastic objects are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day.

Let’s put this in perspective. The amount of plastic produced between 2000 and 2010 exceeds the amount produced during the entire 20th century. And production will only increase.

According to the statement granting the Center’s petition, the EPA said it will develop and provide information on reducing plastic pollution at its source — guidance covering, as the Center requested, plastic-pollution threats, monitoring and measurement, best management practices to reduce that pollution, and direction for states and cities to create regulations to prevent plastic pollution.

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Bowheads May Bear Brunt of Energy Exploration in the Arctic

Balaena mysticetus, or bowhead whale. (Photo: Holmes)

Balaena mysticetus, or bowhead whale. (Photo: Holmes)

The range of the bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus. (Source: WWF)

The range of the bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus. (Source: WWF)

Circumarctic distribution of oil and gas reserves, with leased areas and existing well sites. (Source: WWF)

Circumarctic distribution of oil and gas reserves, with leased areas and existing well sites. (Source: WWF)

Just-published report reveals that oil and gas and shipping activity is on collision course with whale habitat


The World Wildlife Fund (Canada) has published a paper in the journal Marine Policy that reveals the extensive overlap of areas targeted for Arctic energy development with the habitat of the endangered bowhead whale.

Reported by the Iqaluit, Nunavut-based newspaper Nunatsiaq News, the WWF collected data from conservation experts around the world to map the habitat of the year-round Arctic whale species—bowheads, belugas and narwhals. They also collected the latest information about cetacean hang-outs during the Arctic summer, when oil and gas exploration is at its peak. The report shows how some planned and existing oil and gas and shipping projects overlap the places important to the whales’ future survival.

“These ice-adapted Arctic whales are already stressed by rapid climate change,” noted Pete Ewins, an author on the paper and Arctic whale specialist for the WWF. “Killer whales are moving into their territory and preying on them, their food sources are moving, and now on top of that, industry is on their doorstep.”

Off the coast of Nunavut, for example, major hydrocarbon deposits are believed to lie beneath the Baffin Basin. Ewins told Nunatsiaq News that 60 percent of local whale habitat overlaps with energy exploration areas. “Oil and gas exploration is risky business—it’s good for the economy, but it’s bad for the whales,” Ewins added. We have to plan wisely” for energy development in the polar regions.

Besides revealing the alarming proximity of whale habitats to theorized hydrocarbon reserves, the report suggests how conflicts can be reduced in an Arctic with decreasing sea ice cover. The risks of oil spills in icy waters are highlighted as the biggest and most difficult risks to manage or avoid. Other side effects of oil and gas drilling affect cetaceans in particular. Ship strikes are a major problem, as is seismic testing and other underwater noise. And these man-made dangers are just the cherry on the climate change cake.

The WWF offers suggestions for mitigating the harm to struggling whale species while acknowledging the global interest in drilling for oil and natural gas in the frozen zone.

“It’s not only about declaring the most important places”—where whales calve, rear young, rest and feed—“off-limits,” says Ewins. “For instance, in some cases, simply slowing ships when they’re entering these highly sensitive areas could be enough to reduce impacts. In other cases, the whales are only using these areas for a specified time, so it should be possible to just avoid those areas for that period.” The paper also argues for better monitoring of the whales’ responses to disturbance, in order to determine their precise sensitivity to different forms of human activities.

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Lotus in Top Position in National Natural Landmarks Photo Contest

Published on October 31, 2013, by in Commentary, Photos.
Designated a NNL in 1969, the Baker University Wetlands is an example of undisturbed wetland prairie. Over 260 species of birds and over 430 species of plants have been recorded at this site, including the water lily pictured here. (Photo by Kenneth M. Highfill)

Designated a NNL in 1969, the Baker University Wetlands is an example of undisturbed wetland prairie.

Kansas, who knew? Instead of the usual sunflowers, a striking photograph of American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) at dawn in the Great Plains is the top winner in the 2013 National Natural Landmarks Program Photo Contest. The competition is sponsored by the National Natural Landmarks (NNL) Program of the National Park Service, which promotes conservation of sites that contain outstanding biological and geological resources, regardless of landownership type. Nearly 600 sites have been recognized for their outstanding condition, illustrative value, rarity, diversity, and value to science and education.

A vividly colored oval embayment of Lake Tahoe, Emerald Bay was formed by moraines as parallel glaciers receded. Designated a NNL in 1968, the site is an outstanding example of glacial geology.

Designated a NNL in 1968, Emerald Bay was formed by moraines as parallel glaciers receded.

One of those 600 sites is the Baker University Wetlands, designated a National Natural Landmark in 1969 as an example of undisturbed wetland prairie, where Kenneth M. Highfill of Lawrence, Kan. captured the winning image. More than 260 species of birds and more than 430 species of plants have been recorded at the site.

“These stunning photographs highlight the beauty and variety of our nation’s natural landscape,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “They celebrate the great diversity, significance and beauty of our nation’s natural history, and underscore the importance of resource preservation by our partners across the country.”

Located mostly within Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Canaan Valley contains a large aggregation of Pleistocene habitats seldom found in the eastern United States. It is unique as a northern boreal relict community at this latitude by virtue of its size, elevation, and diversity. This site was designated a NNL in 1974.

Canaan Valley contains a large aggregation of Pleistocene habitats rarely found in the eastern US. It is unique as a northern boreal relict community here by virtue of its size, elevation and diversity. This site was designated in 1974.

The 10th annual contest drew 88 images representing 71 different National Natural Landmark sites across 31 states and Puerto Rico. Second place went to Eric Grimm of San Diego, Calif. for his photo of a reflected sunrise at Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe, and third place went to Joseph Henry of Davis, W.V. for his image of the Canaan Valley in northeastern West Virginia. The three winning photos and 10 honorable mentions will be featured in the 2014 National Natural Landmarks calendar.

Where’s your nearest National Natural Landmark? Check the list (current to 2009) here.

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