Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

Not a Polar Bear in Sight: Arctic Ocean Diaries No. 11

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 2:19 PM PDT

Polar bear diorama at Anchorage airport: Julia WhittyPolar bear diorama at Anchorage airport: Julia WhittyI'm home from my cruise aboard the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy and its science mission to study the effects of a changing climate on the Arctic Ocean. When I set out a month ago I never imagined that we'd never encounter any sea ice (I wrote more on that here). And that the only polar bears I'd see were these stuffed specimens on display at the Anchorage airport. Naturally I'm disappointed.

But for the bears who couldn't find any sea ice within 500 miles of Alaska, and for the seals who need sea ice to haul out onto for pupping, and for the Arctic foxes who make a living following polar bears across the ice, and for the ivory gulls who do the same, and for the people of the Western Arctic who rely on subsistence hunting, the situation may well have been desperate this year.

As Jeremy Mathis, chemical oceanographer at University of Alaska Fairbanks and one of the principle investigators aboard my Healy cruise, told me: "We fell off a cliff in 2007 when Arctic sea ice extent hit a record low. And we fell of another this year."

2012 Arctic sea ice minimum (top). 1984 Arctic sea ice minimum (bottom): NASA Earth ObservatoryThe 2012 Arctic sea ice minimum (top) compared to the 1984 Arctic sea ice minimum (bottom): NASA Earth ObservatoryThings are changing so rapidly in the Arctic. Yet we have few baseline data with which to understand these changes. Aboard Healy I watched every scientist working as hard as humanly possible just to try and catch up with events racing away from us.

It reminds me of another monumental story I covered: disastrous change, few data, poor understanding, and the need to learn faster than we've ever learned before. That was BP's Deepwater Horizon oil debacle in the Gulf of Mexico.

Deploying a mooring buoy from UCGC icebreaker Healy, Arctic Ocean, October 2012: Julia WhittyScience and Coast Guard crew work to deploy a mooring buoy from USCG icebreaker Healy in the Arctic Ocean, October 2012: Julia WhittyWhat I found most hopeful aboard USCGC Healy was the impressive cooperation between US military personnel—the hardworking Coast Guard crew—and scientists from around the world. They worked different aspects of this science mission. But it was clear they were working the same mission and shared many of the same concerns.

I'll be writing more about this cruise in the coming months, what the data are revealing, and what that might mean for our collective future as Earth's climate continues to warm.

Jeremy Mathis' research aboard Healy is supported by the National Science Foundation, Office of Polar Programs. My personal thanks go out to Jeremy Mathis, to Bob Pickart at WHOI, Principle Investigator aboard, to Captain Beverly Havlik, Commanding Officer of Healy, and to all the science and Coast Guard crew who worked the Healy 1203 mission.

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The Little Glider That Could: Arctic Ocean Diaries No. 10

| Thu Oct. 25, 2012 3:13 AM PDT

Donglai Gong with the Slocum glider on the flight deck of USCG icebreaker Healy.

Editor's note: Julia Whitty is on a three-week-long journey aboard the the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, following a team of scientists who are investigating how a changing climate might be affecting the chemistry of ocean and atmosphere in the Arctic.

One of the more engaging stories on the ship has been that of Donglai Gong, an assistant professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and his Slocum glider, named after the legendary 19th-century sailor Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail single-handedly around the world.

This Slocum is an unmanned robot that can fly underwater for 20 to 30 kilometers a day for weeks to months collecting high-resolution data on temperature, salinity, pressure, and other water qualities.

Plan A was to deploy the glider in the region of Barrow Canyon, a dynamic pathway of Pacific Ocean water into the Arctic Ocean. But due to the bowhead whaling season underway, Plan B in the Chukchi Sea was launched.

Donglai Gong watches the glider launch from the Healy Bridge.  Julia Whitty.]Donglai Gong watches the glider launch from the Healy Bridge. Julia Whitty.

But before Plan B could get started, Donglai needed to perform a buoyancy test on the glider. That was conducted 70 kilometers away from the Plan B launch site. Unfortunately, the glider never surfaced from this test and when the crew on the small boat pulled in the buoy attached to the glider to see what was up, the glider was gone.

Donglai was watching from the Healy Bridge. His excitement—I thought he looked like an expectant father—gave way to shock at the realization that the glider might be lost and his experiment abruptly ended. Worse, the glider wasn't even his own, but on loan to him from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). Ooops.

Donglai with email from the glider. Julia WhittyDonglai with email from the glider. Julia Whitty

But the story wasn't over. An hour and half later Donglai got an email on his iPhone. It was a message from the glider, which had kicked into emergency mode and surfaced to uplink its location to a satellite.

By then night had fallen and recovery wouldn't be possible until the following morning.  Donglai made the risky but scientifically rewarding decision to leave the glider where it was and to ask it to its start its mission right there, 70 km away from the Plan B starting point.

Map of the glider's flight from 12 to 20 October 2012 in the Arctic Ocean. Steve Roberts / National Center for Atmospheric Research.]Map of the glider's flight from 12 to 20 October 2012 in the Arctic Ocean. Steve Roberts / National Center for Atmospheric Research.]

So the little glider that could jumped the starting pistol and took off towards the Beaufort Sea on Amended Plan B.

In the map above you can see the eventual flight path of the glider, here named we04. For eight days it flew roughly 200 nautical miles along the outer edge of the Beaufort shelf where shallower water drops off to deeper water. A current flowing in the same direction helped the glider on its way. Each green point on the map marks where the glider surfaced every ~2.5 hours to upload its data collected roughly every 1 kilometer of distance travelled.

From unintended launch to successful retrieval, Donglai, with assistance from colleagues at WHOI and Rutgers University, kept the glider on its track, flying towards its eventual rendezvous location with Healy last Saturday.

Last night Donglai let me listen in on some of the recordings the glider had captured from its travels across the Beaufort Sea, including calls that sounded to me like bearded seals. Part 2 of his project will be to test using acoustics as a way to communicate with a glider or gliders deployed under the Arctic ice pack. Maybe next year.

Donglai's glider research was conceived on last year's Healy cruise with his (then) postdoc mentor Bob Pickart at WHOI, Principle Investigator on that cruise and on this one too.

Where's the Ice?: Arctic Ocean Diaries No. 9

| Mon Oct. 22, 2012 12:18 PM PDT

Editor's note: Julia Whitty is on a three-week-long journey aboard the the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, following a team of scientists who are investigating how a changing climate might be affecting the chemistry of ocean and atmosphere in the Arctic.

Sea ice in the Western Arctic on 03 October 2012.  Steve Roberts / National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Sea ice in the Western Arctic on 03 October 2012. Steve Roberts / National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)

The big story of this cruise is sea ice. As in, there isn't any. At least not in our part of the Arctic Ocean. This year set a new record for lowest Arctic sea ice extant. So our odds of seeing any at this time of year weren't good to begin with.

Still, almost everyone who set foot on the icebreaker Healy was hoping to encounter some. Sadly we haven't seen any ice aside from what's frozen on the decks and windows of the ship.

But the sea ice is growing fast now. The top map shows sea ice extent in this part of the Arctic on 03 October, the day I arrived in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. This analysis comes from the National Ice Center (NIC). Pink areas suggest ice cover of 80 percent or greater. Yellow marks marginal ice formation.

If you measure from due north of Point Barrow, Alaska, the ice front was roughly 440 nautical miles (506 miles / 815 kilometers) from land on 03 October.

Sea ice extent in the western Arctic as of 20 October 2012. Steve Roberts / National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)Sea ice extent in the western Arctic as of 20 October 2012. Steve Roberts / National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)

This next map shows the sea ice extent as of yesterday, 20 Oct 2012. On that day, according to the NIC analysis, the ice front reached to within ~133 nautical miles (153 miles / 246 kilometers) of Point Barrow.

Averaged out, that out a growth rate of 18 nautical miles (20 miles / 33 kilometers) a day. Though in reality the sea ice advanced more slowly in the early part of the month and is galloping faster now.

The red track line marks Healy's meandering for the past two-plus weeks as we visit mooring stations and CTD lines across the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

The Fabled Northwest Passage: Arctic Ocean Diaries No. 8

| Sat Oct. 20, 2012 3:08 AM PDT

Healy's position in the Beaufort Sea en route to the Amundsen GulfHealy's position in the Beaufort Sea en route to the Amundsen Gulf

We're currently on a long transit of nearly 500 miles (805 kilometers) across the Beaufort Sea. In the map above you can see Healy's position (ship icon) as of 22:32 Universal Time on 16 October.

We've crossed into Canadian waters and are currently about 164 nautical miles (188 miles / 303 km) north of the Mackenzie River Delta. If you look carefully at the map near the ship's position you can see the demarcation line of the US Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Not far away is the Canadian EEZ. Notice how they overlap.

Oh well, even the best of friends can argue.

The Canadians have been kind enough to allow us into their territorial waters to do research on this cruise. Bob Pickart, a physical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Principle Investigator aboard Healy, applied for the permits, both from Canada and from the First Nation communities on the North Slope. In return he has agreed to a timetable for releasing his data to them.

Amundsen Gulf and the entrance to the Northwest PassageAmundsen Gulf and the entrance to the Northwest Passage

We're headed to the mouth of the Amundsen Gulf between Banks Island (center map, top), the southwestern most island of the Canadian Archipelago, and the Canadian mainland. This body of water lies at the western entrance to the fabled Northwest Passage.

Bob wants to deploy a mooring in the mouth of the Gulf—the position is marked by the red triangle at center of map—to collect data for the next 12 months on what type of water is entering there and how quickly it flows.

Oceanographers know that Pacific water enters the Arctic Ocean via the Bering Strait and somehow winds its way across the Arctic to end up in the North Atlantic. There are different possible routes it could take. Bob's question is whether or not any of it beelines east across the Beaufort Shelf into the Northwest Passage via the Amundsen Gulf. This mooring should answer that.

In case you're wondering, the red and yellow in the maps is sea ice. More on that soon.

How Our Vessel Saved Nome: Arctic Ocean Diaries No. 7

| Wed Oct. 17, 2012 9:59 AM PDT

 The Science Conference Lounge. Julia WhittyThe Science Conference Lounge. Julia Whit

Editor's note: Julia Whitty is on a three-week-long journey aboard the the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, following a team of scientists who are investigating how a changing climate might be affecting the chemistry of ocean and atmosphere in the Arctic.

Every other night someone gives a lecture in the Science Conference Lounge at 7pm. First up was Captain Beverly Havlik, Commanding Officer of USCGC Healy. She gave a riveting seafaring description of the Healy's pivotal role in keeping the people of the city of Nome from freezing last winter.

Advance of the sea in in the Bering Sea near Nome from November 9-26, 2011.  Image courtesy of the United States Coast GuardAdvance of the sea in in the Bering Sea near Nome from  09-26 November 2011. Image courtesy of the United States Coast Guard

You might remember the story. An early monster of a storm swept through the Bering Sea 08-10 November 2011, which turned around the tug and barge delivering fuel to Nome. In the wake of the storm, sea ice closed in too fast for the vessels to return. In the maps above you can see how the ice front advanced a whopping 180 nautical miles (207 miles) in only 18 days.

The Russian tanker Renda steaming in the wake of USCGC Healy in the Bering Sea.  Image courtesy of the United States Coast GuardThe Russian tanker Renda steaming in the wake of USCGC Healy in the Bering Sea. Image courtesy of the United States Coast Guard

Since there are no roads connecting Nome to the outside world, the people there rely on sea and air cargo for virtually all of their goods. As Captain Havlik explained, it would be tough for flights to make up the 1.3 million gallons of fuel a tanker ship normally delivers. The equivalent by air would require 270 flight—which are also vulnerable to weather during the Alaskan winter. But what if the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy could lead a tanker ship to Nome? Turns out the only tanker available was the T/V Renda, a Russian ship. So bureaucracies were laid aside. And the crew of Healy, who were looking forward to steaming home to Seattle for the December holidays after an extremely long season in the Arctic, were told they were needed in the north again.

The two ships entered the ice on 06 January (map below), 365 nautical miles (420 miles) from Nome. Healy broke ice and Renda steamed in her wake. When Renda bogged down, Healy performed a variety of icebreaking maneuvers to free her. Though none of it was that easy. Captain Havlik described the many frustrations: translation problems between Russian and American crews; issues of trust (since the icebreaker needed to steam extremely close to Renda to cut her free); extreme cold; the ever-changing pack ice.

Insert image #4: Progress to Nome (1 nautical mile = 1.15 miles) of Healy and Renda, 2012. Image courtesy of the United States Coast GuardProgress to Nome (1 nautical mile = 1.15 miles) of Healy and Renda, 2012. Image courtesy of the United States Coast Guard

In the map above you can see their progress through the ice. Some days were better than others. There were other considerations too. A transit closer to Saint Lawrence Island (center of map) would likely have provided something of a lee shore from winds and ice. But the island is critical winter habitat for the endangered sea ducks known as spectacled eiders, so that was a no go.

Nome, January 2012. The red dotted line shows where the fuel hose connecting T/V Renda to the town was laid. Image courtesy of the United States Coast Guard.Nome, January 2012. The red dotted line shows where the fuel hose connecting T/V Renda to the town was laid. Image courtesy of the United States Coast Guard.

After eight days plowing through a frozen sea, the two ships arrived at the port of Nome. Because the harbor was too shallow for Healy's draft all the fuel had to be offloaded 460 yards from shore. A path was mowed through the pressure ridges in the ice and two hoses were laid out connecting the fuel tanks on Renda with the fuel tanks in Nome. The pumps ran nearly nonstop for the next 60 hours. The citizens of Nome turned out to help. A few Alaskans from other parts of the state flew in to help. The Healy and Renda crews were thanked with batches of cookies and cakes from the people of Nome.

Return progress of Healy and Renda through the ice.  Image courtesy of the United States Coast GuardReturn progress of Healy and Renda through the ice. Image courtesy of the United States Coast Guard

By the time the fuel transfer was complete and the ships started back south the pack ice had grown further and open water was now a daunting 500 nautical miles (575 miles) away. But Healy and Renda had a working system in place. And they were steaming with the wind this time. As you can see from the map above, they made better time.

In-ice mission stats Image courtesy of the United States Coast GuardIn-ice mission stats Image courtesy of the United States Coast Guard

"The crew of Healy was outstanding," said Captain Havlik. And the mission was proof that the US needs more icebreakers. USCGC Healy is currently the only operational icebreaker in the the US fleet—Coast Guard or Navy.

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