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Bogged Down in Alaska

For thousands of years Arctic peat bogs have soaked up atmospheric carbon like a giant sponge. But as the poles warm, the arctic bogs will decay and expel billions of tons of carbon back into the air—or will they? A warmer climate might actually improve growing conditions in the bogs, allowing them to take up more greenhouse gases than before. To look for an answer, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) research professor Jonathan Nichols and Walt Whitman High School science teacher John Karavias traveled to Alaska’s remote North Slope in July 2012.


Hot Tides, Tough Corals

Coral reefs, home to at least 25 percent of marine species, rely on a fragile balance of conditions for life. But those conditions are changing. Tropical oceans have warmed 0.5 degrees Celsius over the past century, resulting in widespread coral bleaching and outbreaks of coral diseases.

But there is some good news. Recent studies suggest some coral reefs may be able to adapt to warmer oceans, and today’s film, “Robot Tide Pools” focuses on some particularly resilient “supercorals” surrounding Ofu Island in American Samoa.

A team led by Stanford’s Steve Palumbi set out to study these corals, which regularly withstand midday summer temperatures of 33 degrees Celsius or higher. The team brought along specially designed prototype instruments—robot tide pools—that help them identify which corals have the right stuff to handle increasing ocean temperatures. “Robot Tide Pools” filmmaker Dan Griffin likens each one to a “personal picnic cooler” and says the tool designed by the Palumbi Lab at Stanford could very well be the tool needed to find the world’s toughest corals.

Check out more of Dan Griffin and Steve Palumbi’s films on the microdocs website.

R.I.P. Lake Ponting: A Supraglacial Lake Disappears in Greenland

Approximately 80 percent of the surface of Greenland is covered by the Greenland Ice Sheet, the world’s second largest body of ice after the Antarctic Ice Sheet. In June 2011, Dr. Marco Tedesco of the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Science, City College of New York (CCNY), led a team of scientists to Greenland to study surface features of the ice sheet and to collect data on solar energy being absorbed by the snow and ice.

One of the most dramatic features of ice sheets is the appearance of supraglacial lakes, pools of meltwater up to a few miles wide and 6 to 8 meters deep that form during the summer. What’s even more dramatic is that these lakes can disappear within hours, completely draining through vertical shafts called moulins that often extend all the way down to the bedrock under the ice. Tedesco captured some astonishing video of just such an event as Lake Ponting, near his campsite, vanished before his eyes. The footage, edited into the above film “meltzone 2011″ is to our knowledge the fist time the death of a supraglacial lake has ever been photographed. Tedesco described the experience in a two-part article for CCNY’s Alumnus magazine:

Standing at the bottom of the former lake right after its drainage was one of the most profound experiences of my fieldwork activities. After the lake had drained, large blocks of ice (up to five meters high and several meters wide that had been literally swirling on the lake like huge ice cubes in a giant cocktail glass while it drained) were spread around the moulin. This was swallowing water rushing from the top of the icy hills surrounding the lake. We could not see the bottom of the moulin but were able to see water heaving up from one of its walls and splashing against the opposite side in an enormously powerful and impressive way.

Studying these supraglacial lakes is important because once they drain, their water can have a lubricating effect on the bottom of the ice, accelerating its slide toward the sea. Tedesco and his team are currently analyzing the data they collected in Greenland to improve our capability to predict the impact of the Greenland ice melt on sea level rise.

Read more about Dr. Marco Tedesco’s work at Follow and share information on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet at

Floating on Top of the World: The International Geophysical Year and Drifting Station Alpha

The International Geophysical Year (IGY) was a coordinated series of global scientific activities spanning the period July 1957 – December 1958. Sixty-seven countries participated in observations of various geophysical phenomena. The United States alone formed panels to study cosmic rays, aurora and airglow, solar activity, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determination, meteorology, oceanography, rocketry, and seismology.

While IGY activities spanned the globe, much of the work was focused on the equatorial and Arctic regions. Today’s film documents life at Drifting Station Alpha in the Arctic Ocean, the first long-term scientific base on Arctic pack ice operated by a Western country. (At the time, Russia had already operated six drifting ice camps, but little information about them had reached the West.)

The film, “International Geophysical Year, 1957 – 1958, Drifting Station Alpha,” was shot with a 16mm Bolex camera by senior scientist Frans van der Hoeven and scientific leader Norbert Untersteiner. Neither Frans nor Norbert knew anything about filming; they just pointed the camera and shot. They captured everything from taking out the trash to a rendezvous with a nuclear sub. More important, they captured the spirit of adventure and scientific discovery (and a bit of the craziness) that permeated the postwar era.

Frans’ and Norbert’s raw footage was edited by a colleague in Vienna, and Norbert lent his voice to the narration. In 2009 the National Snow and Ice Data Center digitized the film, which is the version you see here. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in how we first began to understand the Arctic and its vital role in our planet’s systems.

In addition to the film, shot an interview with Norbert Untersteiner in December 2011, shortly before his passing. John “Mike” Wallace of the University of Washington conducted the interview, available here.

In Conversation: John M. Wallace and Norbert Untersteiner

Norbert Untersteiner was a pioneer in polar geophysics. He founded the modern thermodynamic theory of sea ice, and much of our understanding of the role of the Arctic in global climate change can be traced to him.

Norbert came from the University of Vienna, Austria, to the United States in January 1957 to serve as the scientific leader of Drifting Station Alpha [link to previous post], the first long-term U.S. camp on drifting sea ice in the Arctic. Five years later, he joined the faculty of the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle to continue his work on the physics (specifically, thermodynamics) of sea ice. From 1971 to 1979, he directed the Arctic Ice Dynamics Joint Experiment (AIDJEX). In 1981, his work for a NATO Advanced Study Institute resulted in a comprehensive textbook “The Geophysics of Sea Ice.” He went on to serve as director of the Polar Science Center at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory from 1982 to 1988, and as chair of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences from 1988 until his retirement in 1997. From 1999 to 2005, he held the position of Sydney Chapman Chair at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

In spring of 1992, Norbert became a member of the Environmental Task Force formed by Robert Gates, then Director of Central Intelligence. He continued to bridge the gap between the scientific and intelligence communities in a group known as MEDEA, which according to the New York Times, “sought to discover if intelligence archives and assets could shed light on issues of environmental stewardship” (see full article here). Norbert remained one of the MEDEA leaders through 2011.

Shortly before his passing in March at the age of 86, filmed an interview with Norbert. It was conducted by his friend and colleague at the University of Washington, John M. Wallace, who shared these warm thoughts:

“I’ve had the pleasure of numerous conversations with Norbert over the years, passing the long hours on sleepless nights waiting for connecting flights on trips to distant destinations, carpooling to work in the pre-dawn twilight on our visits to the University of Alaska, talking at length on the telephone expanding on the “quick question” that Norbert had called to ask my “expert opinion” about. He was a keen observer of nature and of people, who loved to share his insights and engage others in conversation about them. He was an accomplished storyteller, drawing on his own remarkably detailed memories of conversations and events from the distant past and embellishing them with his charming sense of humor. These interviews are our last extended conversations, conducted in his and Krystyna’s home on Green Lake in the fading sunlight of a December afternoon. Although the most important thing in Norbert’s life was his family, these conversations are mainly about his work and the relationships with people in his professional life, starting from the time he was a student in Austria and ending with a project that was still ongoing at the time of the interview. Although science and technology have continuously advanced during his lifetime and the people in his stories have aged, Norbert’s reminiscences have a timeless quality about them because they convey his sense of wonder, amusement, and engagement, which remained vibrant until the end of his life.”

For more on Norbert’s distinguished life and career, visit the Physics Today website.

The Story of a Flying HIPPO: The HIAPER Pole-to-Pole Observation Project

Since 2009, the HIAPER Pole-to-Pole Observation (HIPPO) project has conducted a series of global flights to measure atmospheric constituents. The data collected on these flights will be vital for informing policy related to climate and climate change.

On HIPPO’s missions from August 9 to September 9, 2011, provided the scientists and crew with a video camera to document their experiences. The HIPPO team returned with some stunning aerial footage, from the lush jungles of Hawaii to the icy floes of the Arctic Ocean. We took their dramatic images, combined them with post-flight interviews, and created this four-minute film documenting HIPPO’s month-long voyage around the globe.

To learn more about HIPPO, visit: