Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Arctic In the News

In this Monday Nov. 10, 2014 photo, a dry dock containing the icebreaker USS Polar Star is flooded with water on Mare Island in Vallejo, Calif. The United States' last vessel capable of breaking through the heaviest ice of the Arctic Circle, and resupplying the U.S. polar research station there, is scheduled to leave San Francisco Bay on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014, after repairs meant to help the vessel limp along another few years. While Russia and China have dozens of icebreakers, opposition in Congress to funding means the U.S. has just one heavy-duty one, already a decade past its decommissioning date. Photo: AP/U.S. Coast Guard

The icebreaker USS Polar Star is the United States’ last vessel capable of breaking through the heaviest ice of the Arctic Circle, and resupplying the U.S. polar research station there. Photo: AP/U.S. Coast Guard

Beyond the Arctic chill settling across much of the country, the region has been in the news for other reasons—renewable energy projects, newly discovered insight on the last deglaciation age, ice breakers, and the circadian rhythms of squirrels. Here’s a round up:

Energy systems at Thule

The U.S. Department of Energy announced $5 million in funding for nine projects that will advance the development of combined heat and power (CHP) and renewable energy technologies at facilities across the federal government, and the Arctic Program at Thule Air Base is one of the selected. Operated by the National Science Foundation, the Arctic Program at Thule Air Base will receive a 30 kilowatt CHP system that will serve as a pilot project on options to replace diesel generators. This technology could represent tremendous cost savings for remote stations, as electricity and fuel costs are excessively high in the Arctic, and the maintenance requirements for a microturbine are far less than diesel engines.

Study shows three abrupt CO2 pulses during last deglaciation

Donald Voigt from Penn State looks at an ice core in January 2012 during the WAIS Divide project. Photo:  Gifford Wong, Dartmouth

Donald Voigt from Penn State looks at an ice core in January 2012 during the WAIS Divide project. Photo: Gifford Wong, Dartmouth

A new study published in the journal Nature shows that the increase of atmospheric carbon dixide (CO2) that contributed to the end of the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago occurred in three abrupt pulses. This discovery contradicts previous beliefs that the CO2 increase happened gradually. Scientists are uncertain what caused the three abrupt increases, during which CO2 levels rose about 10 to 15 parts per million—or 5 percent per episode—during a span of one to two centuries. “We used to think that naturally occurring changes in carbon dioxide took place relatively slowly over the 10,000 years it took to move out of the last ice age,” said lead author Shaun Marcott in a press release. “This abrupt, centennial-scale variability of CO2 appears to be a fundamental part of the global carbon cycle.”

Polar Star Forges On

The last U.S. icebreaker capable of crushing through the thickest ice of the Antarctic and Arctic resumed work this week after undergoing repairs to delay its past-due retirement. The 38-year-old Polar Star Icebreaker is bound for the western Antarctic ocean in late January on its key annual mission of breaking through ice for the yearly resupply of U.S. researchers at the McMurdo Research Station and another center at the South Pole. The U.S. Coast Guard has one other icebreaker, a medium-size one, which mainly works in the Arctic. The National Science Foundation has a still-lighter icebreaker for research. The Russian government, by contrast, has 18 icebreakers, including four, nuclear-powered and operational heavy icebreakers.

Sleep Like a Squirrel

Arctic ground squirrels maintain circadian rhythms throughout the Arctic summer. These squirrels don’t emerge from their burrow until mid-morning and are usually home by early evening, even though it's essentially a constant light environment. Photo: Corry Williams, NSF

Arctic ground squirrels maintain circadian rhythms throughout the Arctic summer. These squirrels don’t emerge from their burrow until mid-morning and are usually home by early evening, even though it’s essentially a constant light environment. Photo: Corry Williams, NSF

Loren Buck of the University of Alaska has been in the news for his ongoing research on the Arctic ground squirrel’s highly specialized adaptations to extreme environments, including circadian rhythms (“biological clocks”) that persist throughout the Arctic summer, despite near-constant daylight hours. Buck’s research, which is supported by the National Science Foundation, shows that the animals’ body clocks have evolved to work independent of the day/night cycle. This finding could be significant for other mammals, including humans. Problems with circadian rhythm have been linked to such issues as fertility, obesity and cancer. Buck and his research team conducted their field work at Toolik Field Station in northern Alaska to study the Arctic ground squirrel on its home turf.