A Day in the Life

Posted On February 24, 2008

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If effort were measured in number of fiascos, we knocked ourselves out the last three days! Apparently, in field work, each mistake that can be made, MUST be made, before success can be achieved.

Thursday was our first day to fly a meteorological sonde here. Hereafter called a ‘met sonde’, it is a black plastic box containing instruments which measure wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, and pressure, and altitude (calculated from pressure). We’re using large kites and balloons to fly tethered met sondes, which means they are supposed to return safely to earth. The kites are 2 meter wide hexagonal Rokkaku kites, modelled after the historic Japanese fighting kites. We use them because of their stability.
The ‘balloon’ is actually a helikite, a 3 cubic meter balloon with a kite tail for added lift and stability. The balloon is good for low wind, and the kites for stronger winds. We bought a brand new helikite for this field campaign because the ones we had were riddled with tiny holes made by ice. For shipping to the field, the brand new helikite was packed in a box with some of those curly spikes used to tether dogs. One didn’t have its protective end cover attached… I have repaired the balloon.

The met sonde hangs just under the kite or balloon. It has an external 9V battery in a protective box made of blue insulating foam. The foam box is suspended from the sonde box with a short string, so the weight of the battery isn’t born by its leads. The battery is external to the sonde so that it can be changed quickly, without fumbling in the cold with tiny screws. However, at -26C, things are very brittle! The battery leads on both met sondes have broken during flight three times now. This of course causes the sonde to stop collecting and transmitting data! Yesterday at 69 meters, both leads AND the blue foam battery box snapped off the sonde we were using and flew away into the trees. I have now replaced all battery leads with heavier ones and reinforced the wires all the way from the batteries into the sondes. Cross your fingers.

Today I fell out of a tree. Three times. The day started out well. Despite a howling gale, Sarah (UYork) helped me launch a kite carrying our met sonde. The wind was so strong during our first attempt, it bent the vertical strut until the carbon fiber rod shattered. We replaced the strut and relaunched. This time all went well. A strong but steady wind from the west carried the kite up, up, up. The sonde did its job, the receiver and computer gathered data. FINALLY! I thought. Then, at 130 m, a sudden gust of wind caught the kite and slammed it into the ground. Or tried. There were trees in the way. The kite was impaled in the top of a typical 20 foot pine tree. No amount of tugging, poking, or tree shaking would release it. So, up I went. Problem is, plastic and wires aren’t the only things that are brittle at these temperatures! On the first two attempts, the branches broke and I fell out of the tree before I’d gone 10 feet. Helen and Sarah went off in search of a ladder. Undaunted (and impatient) I took my coat off and tried again. This time I made it to the top and perched there shrieking for Helen and Sarah to forget the ladder and come back. While waiting, I examined the kite and found that it had neatly slipped down over the top of the tree. Removing it would mean cutting the kite string or somehow popping it off the top of the tree. So I grabbed the tree near the tip and jumped. It broke about halfway to the ground. I landed in deep snow and lay there laughing while Helen lamented that she hadn’t videotaped the event. Never, ever, a dull moment.

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Having broken what we could of our atmospheric test equipment, we headed out to the ice to collect a core. Helen is hoping to count and study the diatoms in the sea ice, and I am examining the microstructure of the ice and the location of the diatoms. We have a hand corer, which is 1 meter long, but with handle extensions can collect up to 4 meters of core. All went fine and we got 130 cm of good quality core. We knew the ice was about 140 cm (or 1.4 meters) thick, and we hadn’t reached the base of the ice cover. So we went back in for the last piece. After we drilled another 10 cm, water flooded the hole and began to freeze. The corer got stuck. We worked hard to get it out, but it froze fast within minutes. Later, it had to be cut out of the surrounding ice with an enormous ice drill and an axe.

Here is Helen measuring and cutting the core we collected.

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Just so we don’t feel bad, though, other groups have been breaking things as well. I think I mentioned the (one and only) sledge hammer dropped to the bottom of the bay. Most recently, the circuit breaker housing melted in one of the field labs (containers). Kuujjuarapik-Whapmagoostui doesn’t have a resident electrician, and the electrical supplies at the Inuit store are limited to jumper cables (!), so Helen (an electrician in a former life) was to the rescue! Working at -20 to -30 C at a remote site with limited resources is all part of the fun of field work!

Think I’ll go rest up for tomorrow, all this fun is tiring!

PS We found Gilbert Bear, the puppy, a good home here in Kuujjuarapik-Whapmagoostui. Here he is, before he left, peeking over Stoyka’s chair.

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