Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Leaving Nome

May 24th 12:27 AM, Nome, AK

This morning I got a call from Jackie Grebmeier, one of the scientists on the Healy. The call was broken up, but I got the general idea that I should head to the airport to meet the helicopter that will fly me to the Healy. I think she said they were about 70 or 80 miles away.

I checked out of my room at the Aurora Inn and walked outside to wait for the taxi van to the airport. The morning sun (which looks a lot like the late afternoon and late night sun, except from a different direction) was glistening off of the blanket of sea ice covering the Bering Sea, about 30 feet from the Aurora’s front door. The locals tell me this amount of sea ice is pretty normal for May. Last week it snowed in Nome. This week, the high temperature will be in the 50s. That’s also fairly normal for Nome around this time of year, although everyone is calling it a heat wave!

I rode to the airport with a woman and her young son who were heading home to Gambell, a small village on Saint Lawrence Island. It looked like they had been visiting family. They had boxes of blankets and other things, along with a tot-sized bicycle that had recently seen some good mud puddles. Everything travels by plane up here: cats and dogs, bikes, groceries, you name it. The woman said she was glad to be heading home; they had been waiting for the weather to clear for several days to be able to fly to Gambell.

At the airport, I met Annie Feidt, a producer for Alaskan Public Radio who is also heading to the Healy. Then Rebecca and Jim landed in the helicopter, kicking up copious amounts of dirt and foiling my attempt to film the landing. Live and learn. Rebecca is a graduate student studying under Lee Cooper and Jackie Grebmeier. She is shipping coolers of sediment samples back to their lab at the University of Tennessee. The analysis will look for levels of a chemical signpost for the amount of plankton that settles in the benthic, or bottom, soil.
I asked Rebecca about the ice out in the Bering Sea. She said there was pack ice earlier in the month, but it had all retreated north above the Bering Strait at this point. So, the Healy’s thick hull won’t be bashing through thick sheets when I’m aboard. There are some ice floes, but they are melting fast.

Rebecca also said the amount of ice retreat is quite disturbing. She’s been sailing with Lee and Jackie on these Arctic water cruises since 2001. She said she’s seen a change in the bottom-dwelling species they collect. Critters are migrating north as the nutrients in the sediment move north with the ice and cold waters. Most notably, the bivalves (namely clams) collected in 2006 are much smaller than those collected in 2001.

All of the researchers’ observations, plus analyses from sediment and water samples, are all pieces of the climate change puzzle. Each person specializes in a particular area: sea birds, water chemistry, sediment chemistry, ice distribution, etc. Woven together, these individual studies create a mosaic of research that tells the broader story about how climate change is affecting (in this case rearranging) the ecology of the Bering Sea. The broader implications are yet to be discovered, but scientists can see which way the road is heading.