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).


  1. Have you seen any clothing (like scarfs) made from the musk ox wool (qiviut, Very expensive but the softest scarf you every imagined. These creatures "litter" the landscape in the Fairbanks area.

    And watch out for the downside for scientists with the crazy Arctic foxes: they have a taste for power cables and will sometimes dig just to chew them up. Don't know if they have had any big problems with that lately up there.

    (have you thrown a pan of water up in the air yet with the temperatures cold yet?)

  2. this is a question i need for my assignment. what time did it get light in the artic?