Thursday, February 26, 2009

Socked in by clouds

We're socked in today - cloudy and snowing, same as yesterday. It was partly clear all day but then started getting icky just in time for us to need a clear sky! We're staying down at the weather station again tonight which means I'll get more sleep, get some work done, but not get to see my family of muskoxen living by the road to the lab.

Yesterday was the Polar Sunrise party to celebrate the polar sunrise (first time of the year that the sun makes it all the way over the horizon), so it was rather convenient that Bernard and I were around for that. There's a Rec Room here with darts, a pool table, a ping pong table, a shuffleboard table (board?) and the Umingmak Bar - it was nice to relax with a few drinks, some games and some company for an evening. There's also a polar bear skin on the wall and some muskox skulls (which somewhat disturbingly have glittery christmas ornaments sitting in the eye sockets) and a WWII era "olive drab" coloured Steinway piano! It's the most northerly Steinway in the world. A few of the keys look as though they've seen better days but there are hammers and strings for most of them so it still makes sounds. I took a minute the other day to read through the small booklet with the piano which details its history. It's a Victory Model built in 1948 in New York, was sold to the War Department and was delivered to their depot in Philadelphia, PA. Apparently, the Victory Uprights were part of Steinway's war effort with production continuing until the Korean war, and most were shipped overseas so no one really has any idea how many of these pianos are left in the world.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I saw a bunny today

And I saw an ozonesonde launch. And that's all the good stuff I saw!

The ozonesonde launch happened right after supper at 6:15 this evening. A bunch of us went out tonight to get some pictures of it as you can see above. The balloon is like a giant plastic bag, and it's in the Helium Shed still in the picture. They fill it about that much with helium, tie on a sonde (looks like a small cubic Styrofoam box about 1ft tall) , then bring the balloon outside and let go. The guy holding the sonde runs around with it under the balloon as it's going up because the sonde drifts as it goes up. Then he lets go too and up it goes. It was really quick. I looked over and thought "Hey they're going to launch it soon" and then it was almost gone by the time I finished thinking it. They do launches of radiosondes twice/day so I should be able to see some more before I leave.

On the way up to the lab today, a bunny ran in front of the truck, and it was FAST! And also really big. Don't worry - we didn't come anywhere near hitting him, but it was a bit startling to see him bolt out accross the road. Bunnies are way faster than I am for sure. No pictures of this speedy creature! I do wonder who would win out of a race between an arctic hare and a muskox. Wolves eat them both.

Let's not talk about how we're getting absolutely no useful data today because our power is sucky (40W) (see - the laser was making fun of us by giving us 58 W two days ago) and it's cloudy and we're running out of Xenon so we turned the laser off. >:-| That is my "we're running out of Xenon and can't replace the tank until tomorrow and it's cloudy anyways but we're still at the lab until the morning" face.

And here is my "I'm looking at the computer in my lab so that Rodica can take a picture of me working" self from a day or two ago. The cylinders of gas are just past the desk (tucked in a bit so you can't see them), and I clean the optics on the table behind me. The desk where I'm sitting has most of the controls for the laser and the data acquisition.

This is me taking the back optic off our laser.

I can only kind of reach so usually Bernard does this and I clean the optic and he puts it back. As you can see, I usually wear my snowpants and hat inside because it's pretty cold in here. It also makes it quicker to get ready when I need to go outside to close the hatch or look at stars. In the picture, the big silver cylinder is where the gas goes and where the lasing happens. The light comes out of there toward the left of the picture, then turns around and goes back through the bottom part of the setup (behind the blue panel) where the Raman cell is. There is a giant window on the end of the top part located conveniently at eye level for optimal optical safety :) They claim the window blocks some UV, and we've always got goggles on when the laser's on, but I still don't look anywhere near there when the thing is running. Of course for me it's about at forehead height, but for the rest of the world...

Sublimation baseball

See me miss the balloon?

This is me pitching to Cristen (who did hit the balloon first try)

Is there an Arctic Alligator in this box? Bernard, Cristen and I seem to be very intent on the box of balloons.

Yesterday was pretty darn fun. We played sublimation baseball! For those of you who have not been hearing me go on about how much I have wanted to try this for the past year or so, sublimation baseball involves batting a balloon of hot water with a baseball bat. When you hit it, the balloon breaks, and because the water's hot and it's freezing cold outside (-44C yesterday I think) the water doesn't even hit the ground, and it just makes a giant poof of steam!

At least that's the plan.

Too bad my balloons were too durable. It was pretty funny because no matter how hard we hit them, the balloons wouldn't break! We ended up running around jumping on them because we all tried batting them, but they just ended up bouncing everywhere. We'll have to try again with some lower quality dollar store balloons later.

So that was about the best part of yesterday. After that Bernard and I had to go back up to the lab. We spent 2.5 hours NOT at the lab that day because we came down just in time for supper (after waking up at the lab), sublimation baseball was after that and then it was straight back up the hill! It was worth it though, because it was another great night. We got 8.5 hours of good data, and spent some time on the roof stargazing. That was the second best part of today, although it's not as dark here as you might think. Better than right in a city, but not by any stretch of the imagination the best seeing I've seen. Anyways last night I tried looking for comet Lulin which should have been somewhere near Regulus last night. Couldn't find it though. Apparently with very dark skies, it was visible to the naked eye. I wasn't that hopeful but figured with my little binoculars I might have a shot. No luck though. And yes, I did try looking through my binocs through ski goggles through my glasses and found out quite quickly that it wasn't going to work, and ditched the goggles. It was still nice to be out for a while. There was no wind so I stayed on the roof on my back looking up for a while. That's the first bit of cold I've felt with my snowpants and parka on. Seriously, they are amazing. Standing up, nothing gets through it, but my back felt mildly cool while lying down.

The only downside of 8.5 hours of data means that it's 6am before I go to bed, and then we ended up getting picked up just after 8am to go back to the station where I went straight back to bed for the day.

2 days ago

I've been having a few issues getting posts uploaded in reasonable amounts of time, so here are catch-up posts for the past few days.

Two days ago we had a fantastic night of data collecting - 8 hours of a beautiful clear starry night. It was our best day for power too - my magical mix gave us 58 W somehow. The highest we've gotten previously (this year anyways) was around 53 or 54 W. Not too sure at the time why it was working so well that day. Turns out the laser was building up to laughing at us today when we are stuck here at the lab under clouds (read this as: Not taking any data above about 2km so we turned off the laser) for another 8 hours minimum not doing anything until the day shift comes to take us back down. Anyways, the 2-days-ago night was fantastic. The other thing to make it fantastic was that Bernard (from EC, on nights with me) had ordered the final one of the ozonesondes that we get to decide when to send it for that night. There are other O3 sondes starting again today, but they've been only on Wednesdays until today). This gives us something to compare our data with.

At supper (which is my breakfast time which explains why I hadn't heard the news) the next day, here's how things went:
"Hey so Emily, Bernard told you what happened to your last sonde, right?"
"Uh... nope. What happened?"
"The data's gone. There's no data."
"Really? Not joking?"
"Nope. The computer that takes all the data from the sonde crashed at the end and lost the file with your data in it". I found out later that this apparently happens fairly often.
"Oh." Then there were sad faces. Our perfect night of data had no sonde to go with it :( I guess we were the last to find that out because we have to sleep all day. I spent lots of time that day wondering how it makes any sense at all to send a thousand dollars worth of balloon+sonde up in the air (which by the way aren't recovered because it's too expensive to go and find them as they drift really far) and then have a computer at the lab that is prone to crashing be the problem so that you end up with zero data.

The fun part of this day was that I finally got to try the hot water thing! That's what the picture is from. Cristen, Felicia, Rodica (all from UofT) and I went to play outside and tried it. In -40C or so weather you can take a cup with a bit of hot water in it, and toss the water out of the cup. All the water evaporates and never hits the ground - it's really cool and looks like you've gone up in a puff of smoke! Pretty awesome. I've been wanting to try that ever since I knew I'd be coming up here.

We had good news again that night in the truck on the way back to the lab when Bec radioed to say that they'd managed to recover our ozonesonde data file from the computer!

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Not a great night at the lidar last night. We had to blow snow off the mirror every 15 minutes or so which meant our signal was not great, and before that, parts of the detector were making funny sounds for a bit, and then did okay. Still, we got some hours of data and we got picked up and brought back to the weather station in time for brunch this morning!

Unrelated note: the drinking water here is purified by reverse osmosis, and they soften it. It tastes okay when it's really cold, but kind of salty when it's not. Even when it's made into tea. Lemon tea works out okay though if you steep it long enough and if you drink it while it's still hot enough.

Polar sunrise was supposed to have happened around the 20th, and usually there's a big party here to celebrate. Sad thing is, it's been to hazy/cloudy ever since then to see the sun at all! A few days before sunrise they saw a bit of the sun before it came over the horizon (the light from the sun is refracted enough you can see it before it's up), but not much since! We get very pretty sunrise scenery, but not much sun yet.

No muskox sightings this morning.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Just some pictures

One from the drive to the lab.

Tourist shot!

Friday, February 20, 2009

My day at the lab

Today was like most of my other days so far at the lab. Here's what we do:
Bernard (from EC) and I are the only two on night shift at PEARL. Constantine and Yann from U Sherbrooke are also on night shift, but their instrument is down at 0pal, right beside the weather station.

Bernard and I get driven up from the weather station around 6:30pm either by Matt or Pierre. The lab is about 20km away and 600m up a ridge, so it's a nice drive when you're able to see anything (which we could not today as it was night and hazy). As soon as we get in, we turn a small space heater on to warm up the pump which is used to pump all the old gas out of the laser. It won't turn on until it's warm. The other things we do right away are open the hatch on the roof over the telescope so that the scope can cool down to ambient temperature, and turn on all of our electronics. We wait a while until the pump decides it's going to work. While doing that we double check that we've got last night's data on another computer and backed up, and then we delete the files off the lab computers (They're both the trendy Pentium 386, complete with snazzy screensaver of what I choose to think are stars but which might just be dots). Once the pump is warm we turn it on, open the gas cylinders (these are just like helium tanks but they have HCl, Xe, Ne, air, etc in them), and pump all the old gas out of the laser. This part takes forever - about an hour. This shouldn't really be surprising seeing as we have to pump over 4000 mbar of pressure down to 35, which is a vaccuum. We wait for that. Once there's a vaccuum in the laser then we can start adding the new gasses. There's a recipe for how much of each to put in. Then we have to clean the optics. The main complicated part of the laser is a tube which has a mirror on the back end and a lense at the front. Both of these get dirty after only one day of running the laser, so we have to take them off, clean them carefully with methanol, and put them back on. Then we push a button to tell the laser we've put the optics back, and it thinks for awhile, then flushes some gas through, and after waiting for all that we can start the laser. Our laser puts out 2 wavelengths of light: 308 and 353 nm. The laser itself puts out 308 and directs some of that through a "Raman Cell" which is a long tube of Helium gas at 4atm which shifts the wavelength to 353 nm. At this point, we have to wear laser goggles which let most light through, but no UV light in the range that our laser runs. This is so we don't go blind. We start up the laser and the data acquisition programs, and align the laser. For Blessing, Andy, Paul and others who've had the pleasure (ha!) of aligning the PCL lidar in London, in the freezing cold, in the dark, doing the day to day alignment up here is rediculously simple. You watch counts come in on a screen, and push a button to jog one of the profiles up or down until it is on top of the other one. No need to even go outside for that! We do check the telescope again to make sure it isn't getting snowed on (and if it is, blow the snow off with some air), and then leave the laser well enough alone for the next 7.5 or so hours. We take turns checking on the alignment (which we usually don't need to adjust) and the telescope every half hour or so. And that's it!

As you can see, there is lots of waiting for the laser to do things, which means we also get a lot of other work done in the meantime. Usually the laser is going on its own by 9pm, and so we sit in one of the offices (there are plenty of desks here for us to use) and while Bernard looks at Ozone data (comparing it to Ozone sondes which are instruments carried up on weather balloons - side note: our data from two days ago compares quite nicely, which makes us happy), I work on Picon, the analysis code the PCL crew uses for lidar data. I'm making our code work with the Eureka data I'm getting, and writing some new routines for a kind of analysis our lab has not done in several years. Usually we work until about 1 or 2am or whenever we've both got brains that are refusing to think any more that day, and then watch a movie until it's time to shut down the lidar sometime around 4:30 or 5:30 am.

Then it's time for sleeping. Yes, we sleep at the lab. Who would want to come pick us up at 4:30 in the morning? That's right - no one. There's a room with a few sets of bunkbeds which are good for both sleeping in the morning until the truck will come get you and bring you back to the weather station, but also in case you get stranded at the lab for a few days because of weather (like Andy had the pleasure of experiencing last year, but I have not so far!) . We get anywhere between 4 and 6 hours of sleep, and then when the morning shift is driven up to the lab, we get driven back down, getting there usually just before lunch at 12 noon. That is hard decision time: Go straight upstairs and back to sleep, or eat the delicious lunch that is on the way? Invariably I cave and eat lunch, then an hour later go back to bed for the afternoon. I wake up around 4pm in time for supper, and off we go again for another night of measurements!

Of course there are always snags in the plan, so 2 days ago (which I think was the 18th to the 19th) we ended up at the lab for about 24 hours, just coming home with the day shift when they were done for the day. And then it snowed yesterday so we did not go at all. We're back up here tonight (it's 2:40 am right now), so we'll probably run for a few more hours before packing it in.

My fingers hurt, and then turned numb

... but not from frostbite. It's really dry up here, and really cold so I've been wearing wool sweaters and fleece blankets, which makes for perfect conditions for static electricity, and terrible conditions for my fingers which have been averaging about one zap every 5 minutes today. Sometimes they're only little zaps that you hear but don't really feel when opening a door, but they go all the way up to the two that made me yelp today - one a while ago shot blue sparks and the right half of my right index finger is still numb! I'm just trying to remember to ground myself on something metal before touching my computer so that I don't fry it...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I saw muskoxen for real this time, and stories of other creatures including the mysterious Lidar

These are the muskoxen that I saw on the way back from the lab yesterday morning at the end of my shift. I saw them again this morning. They're so funny, and they're my favourite arctic creature. I'm amazed how something that large can survive all winter in the middle of the arctic desert eating nothing but blades of grass that it digs for under the snow. Plus they're funny when they run because they're so big and their legs look so small in comparison.

The other animal I saw yesterday was an arctic fox. He (she?) lives at the weather station or somewhere nearby, and there are paw prints all around. You can often see the fox out the kitchen window (but don't worry because they don't feed him), so I stepped out the door to have a look, somehow magically not dying of frostbite in the process. The fox is tiny. It's about a foot long, has a tiny head, a tail that looks too skinny, and tiny legs, but his middle is very wide, with tons of white fur sticking straight out around his body. It makes him look way out of proportion. Apparently he eats bunnies. Now I didn't find this strange at all, for a fox to want to eat rabbits, until I saw how small he is (he's definitely smaller than a wiener dog without his fur), and heard just how massive arctic hares are. Al, the station manager here told me that the foxes just chase the bunnies until they're too tired to run away any more, but I'm still amazed that the tiny creature could handle a giant hare!

Aside from spotting cool animals, I've been having a productive time doing work too. My code is alternating between progressing by leaps and bounds, and making me hate Matlab. I've been spending lots of hours on it which means I've experienced lots of hours of both, so things are moving along well. We've been getting great long data sets with the lidar as well. This is great that we're getting such good data at the beginning of the campaign because later on the sun will stay up for more and more of the day, to the point that by the middle of March when I go home we might be getting only around 4 hours/day of data.

The creature I'm most acquainted with here is our instrument, the LIDAR. This stands for LIght Detection And Ranging, and it works kind of like a radar or a sonar, but with light instead. How it works is that we shine a laser straight up at the night sky, the light gets absorbed by molecules in the atmosphere, then they spit the energy from the light back out (either at the same frequency or at a shifted one if they keep some of the energy). This light that the molecules emit can go in any direction, so some of it travels back down to where we have a telescope. Basically by counting how much light we put out with the laser and comparing that to how much light we get back, we can get a profile of the atmosphere in terms of density, temperature, etc. every few minutes for the whole night. We can only run the Lidar at night because we want to catch the very small amounts of backscattered light, and during the day the sunlight would overwhelm the signal.

The temperature went down past -49 C without windchill yesterday, but I tried using my ski goggles when opening the hatch on the roof and found that my glasses did not fog/frost up at all and that I could actually see! This is great considering that the "hatches" on the roof are basically holes that you can fall into once you open them. I'm happier if I don't fall through any this trip.

Right now I'm back at the lab after sleeping part of the day, ready for another night of work. We're waiting for the laser to "pump down", or vent all of the old gas from yesterday out to the atmosphere. Bernard is having a look at yesterday's data and will hand that over to me in a few minutes. Stacy from Dal is up here also (unusual because she usually works day shift). She's up here to pull an old instrument out of the lab, pack it up and ship it back to Dal with her where she'll upgrade/rewrite software for/automate the instrument. Currently she's out in the hall playing with power tools building a box out of plywood around it, and trying to get it all packed up so that nothing can break in time to catch her plane out of Eureka 2 days from now. Pierre is up here also helping with that among all the other stuff Pierre does up here, which seems to be a lot. He and Matt (the Operator who is up here too right now, doing something to fix/help the internet) don't seem to ever have nothing to do. -40s weather makes everything break pretty often.

That's it for now - my fingers are freezing! (Ok it's not that cold in here, I'm just always freezing, but the nice thing about being here and freezing is that everyone else is too or thinks that it's reasonable to be cold in a 20 C room just because it's -50 outside).

Monday, February 16, 2009

My first night shift

As alluded to in the previous post, I am doing my first night shift with the lidar tonight. Bernard (from EC) and I were dropped off at PEARL (big red lab up on the ridge) by Matt and Pierre. It's about 20 km from the weather station where we sleep, and there were 2 darkish blobs out the window on the way that Pierre claims were muskox! Maybe one day soon I'll actually see them and know what they are at the same time as I'm looking at them.

The lidar I'm working with is an Eximer lidar which means that instead of having a pink crystal in the laser (like the one at the Purple Crow Lidar in London), there's a big tank filled with a mixture of Helium, Neon and Xenon gases. So it's a different kind of laser than what I'm used to, but pretty neat. It's in the UV so you can't see the beam pointing up in the sky either.

I got to go up on the roof first thing when we got there to open the hatch (it just slides off sideways) over the telescope room where there's a 1M Newtonian telescope. Long story short is that I could not see a single thing and had to be careful walking back down the stairs because not only did my glasses fog up, but they froze up. There was frost on them, and I could see nothing through them. Did I mention it is -56 C with the windchill? I think I'll bring my ski goggles up tomorrow!

With this laser it takes over an hour to get the whole thing up and running, but once it's on then there's not much to do with it. You have to check on it every half hour or so but that's it.

We made it to Eureka!

Here we are getting on the charter flight from Yellowknife to Eureka yesterday. It took about 7 hours, with a 10 minute refueling stop in Resolute Bay. The weather was good on the way, and there were no major delays - just one at the start when our lunch did not make it to the flight on time. Turns out that there was a hockey game that morning and the people at the restaurant forgot that we had ordered subs! A Tim Horton's run solved that and we took off not too much later than we had planned.

We arrived in Eureka in the evening, so it was dark out. It was very clear and I saw tons of stars. Polaris really was almost right overhead! Kind of neat to see. Another thing that I saw for the first time yesterday was ice crystals as a form of precipitation. It wasn't snowing, just sparkling, and it was quite nice.

After unloading the plane onto the trucks, we went to the weather station (where we sleep and eat but not where the lidar is), were fed supper (which was yummy and I was happy to see after the long plane ride where I was afraid to drink my juice because there is no real bathroom on the plane although we did throw a port-o-potty in the back with the boxes), then given the grand tour and safety briefing before bed.

Today I got up for breakfast, worked on Picon (analysis code) for the morning and then slept all afternoon in preparation for starting to work the night shift, which is where I am right now.

Made it to Yellowknife!

We arrived in Yellowknife yesterday after a (very) long day of flying. My morning started at 1:30 am catching the Airporter from London to Toronto where I met up with Cristen, Pierre and Stacy. We then flew to Calgary and on to Yellowknife. We got in during the afternoon when it was still bright and sunny. I had expected it to be dark by the time we got there, but it was not, so there was time to go for a walk. We went downtown, then towards old town, and then up a big hill so that we could look out over the whole area and see the last of our sunshine for awhile. It's really pretty here, and there are lots of trees. In fact, it reminds me a lot of the drive from the Halifax airport into the city with the rolling hills and the pines.

We popped into some galleries and art shops on the way back and saw lots of stone carvings and guilt-free local Canadian diamonds. My nose was numb by the time we got back into town for supper, but thanks to my -100 C boots, my toes were still warm!

After supper (delicious sushi) we walked back to the hotel and on the way, saw some aurora! Very green and very pretty. I'd been a bit worried that since I was only going to be in Yellowknife for one night that I would miss it, but I'm glad to say that I got to see it.