First of all, an apology that our daily blog is late but so much happened in the past couple of days.
We sailed in towards Herschel Island from Barter Island in fog. As we got closer the fog lifted and we could see a green island with large cliffs that looked like rows of mud slides. We later learned that these were retrogressive thaw slumps, only we didn’t know their significance yet.
We anchored in the little cove and quickly got ready to paddle ashore to explore the buildings extending out onto the land slip that hugged the cove. To the children’s delight a dog came running to greet us the minute we stepped on land. He was followed by the parks biologist Cameron. He gave us a quick introduction to the island. Herschel island was the first territorial park in the Yukon, which means the park aims to protect both the cultural aspects and the wildlife within its boundaries. The park is on the list to become a UNESCO world heritage site. He explained there were two research teams and two park rangers in the camp. One research team from Germany, part of the Alfred-Wegner Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), and the other from the University of Edinburgh.
Soon Cameron had organized a presentation by Professor Hugues Lantuit from the AWI. Hugues first visited Herschel in 2003 and has been there yearly during the summer since 2006. He began to tell us all about permafrost. 34% of the planets coasts are held together by permafrost. Herschel is frozen down to 600m below the earth’s surface, in Siberia it can be frozen down to 1.5km. The AWI looking at how the decrease in permafrost due to warmer temperatures is affecting coastal erosion. The average rate of coastal erosion is 0.5m per year. In Herschel it is 0.8m per year. The highest rates in the world mark loses of up to 30m per year and Herschel and the Yukon are one of the most affected areas. Herschel island has some of the largest retrogressive thaw slumps in the world. Retrogressive thaw slumps are these areas of large coastal erosion due to decline in permafrost caused by global warming. The samples from these slumps are taken using chains saws to cut into the still frozenlayers and analyze the composition of the layers. He tells us the thawed parts can be tricky to walk on and inexperienced people that step in the wrong place are sometimes stuck for up to an hour until they are dug out of this dense sediment.
One of the open questions is how this effects marine life and food chains in these areas. Not only the sediment from the coastal erosion ends up in the sea but with it micro-organisms. These can both have an effect on the local fish and from there on the whole food web. The sediment for example makes the water more turbid.
Hugues also explained how the island was formed. During the last ice age the glaciers extended until where Herschel lies. This was point was the end moraine of the glacier and all the sediment was pushed forward and up from under the ice, which raised what is the island today above the later sea level. This is why even today shells can be found on the hill tops.
After the presentation we go to go into the field and see how and where water samples were taken. On the way we stopped to look at the last standing ice cellar the whalers had used a hundred years ago. Apparently, to make them the whalers had used explosives to blow a hole into the frozen ground. The camps had used them until 2 years ago. They are little mounds of earth with a wooden door in them. After airing it out, we climbed through the door and and down an icy ladder. Down below we found ourselves in a room with ice crystals coating all the walls and the ceiling. The ice crystals were beautiful. This was a natural freezer and until the permafrost had started to thaw the ground causing the caves to collapse one by one, they had been made good use of.
Then we went on to study site. The water samples are being taken to analyze how the reduction in permafrost due to climate change is affecting the sediment flow in rivers and ultimately into the sea. Briefly summarized, there are two things that may be happening:
Firstly, there may be more and more sediment coming into the river due to it no longer being held together by the permafrost. This would cause the water to become more turbid.
Or, the water is getting clearer. This would be because, even though there is a thicker layer of earth at the surface no longer frozen, increased plant growth has been recorded. The roots of these larger plants may decrease the erosion by holding the sediment, which is no longer frozen, together. So in some sense replacing the permafrost’ she function. The water samples being taken twice daily by a machine in the river, they hope will give them a better idea of whether the water is changing and then maybe why or why not.
10th August 2016 — Noé summarizes the day:
We woke up and it was before eight in the morning. And then we saw many whales and after that we saw a polar bear 30ft away. After that we wanted to anchor but it wasn’t very deep and we would have had to paddle far. So we sailed on instead and we saw 4 bowhead whales. And then one whale came up really really close to the boat it was humongous, I was the only one that saw it though.
What a day! For me, it all started with Andri waking me up saying: “Meret, there are whales.” Most of the adults hadn’t gotten much sleep last night because the autopilot failed and they had to hand steer. I really didn’t want to get out of my warm sleeping bag. Should I have told the children to wake me up if they saw cool wildlife? Had they really seen whales? Turns out they had, but Andri’s second call was what got me out of bed instantly. I ran straight on deck in my pajamas forgetting even my slippers. “Meret, POLAR BEAR!” And sure enough as I came on deck the head of a polar bear floated past Pachamama not 10 meters away. Our first polar bear sighting!!!
While everyone had been on the starboard side looking at the whales, Christina had noticed what she thought was a buoy on the port side. She was worried we were about to hit it and sail into a net, she couldn’t quite believe her eyes when she realized what the supposed buoy was. “En Eisbär!!!”
Behind the general excitement our feeling were mixed. Most of us were a little nervous having a polar bear so close but we were also concerned. Was it ok for a polar bear to be so far out in the ocean? Christina was all but ready to go save or help the polar bear. Afterwards we read in our ‘Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska’ (Wynne, 2012) that they are ‘Usually within 180 mi of shore.’ Did that mean on the ice or that they could swim that far? Alegra’s German book about polar bears said they can easily swim a few hours or up to 100km. Being about 25 miles offshore our bear may have been fine but if it was looking for ice it was swimming in the wrong direction. It was swimming parallel to the icepack. This brings us to a general problem polar bears are facing. When they swim out looking for ice, they can no longer just swim or anywhere and get to pack ice. The ice is further and further offshore and the chances that they will find it and that it is also thick enough for them are ever smaller. If the ice was at the latitude it was around Point Barrow then it still had far swim.
We had planned to anchor off Barter Island and spend a few hours on shores. However, once we got there it got shallow a lot further out than expected. The charts showed a meter more than we were reading on our depth sounder and we knew the bay was known for shifting shoals. With roughly a kilometer to paddle to get to shore in icy cold water and the wind picking up against us for the paddle back, we decided we’d sail on and wait till Hershel Island to have firm ground under our feet.
On the way we saw 4 whales. They were quite a distances away but we think they were bowhead whales. Some seals also popped their heads up near us.
As we sailed on the winds were light and there wasn’t much swell or waves, we took this chance to empty out, clean and rearrange the actor locker. We had also lost a screw there in Nome and were keen to have another good look for it. We cleaned out all the sand and dirt using toothbrushes and cloths but the screw didn’t show up. We also applied some antirust formula to the pipe of the front heads.
Since the two windows in the heads were still leaking, Dario and Sabine put another layer of silicone around the seals. If this still, doesn’t work we’ll have to thin of a new approach for fixing the leak.
We have our spinnaker up. This light weight sail is ideal for covering decent distances in light winds. We had around 6-9 knots of wind and were going around 4 knots.
9th August continued by Meret:
Even though the day was colder and wetter than any so far, it was an important day. It marked the first collection of our microplastic samples. We are collecting water samples for an organization called Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC). We will send the samples to a lab in Maine, where Abby Barrows, whom Meret briefly met, will analyze them. Our samples will become part of their world wide study of microplastic in the oceans and rivers. These will be the first samples they have from the NW-Passage. In order to be part of the study and qualify for taking the samples, we had to follow a strict protocol, which we (Salina, Andri & Meret) had been tested on prior to our departure from Nome. This required us to diligently wash out all the bottles, label them in a set manner and rinse the bucket to avoid contamination of the sample. Part of the protocol also required us to wash our hands, which is not a problem in warmer waters but here in the Beaufort Sea .
We bathed our hands in -2.6 degrees Celsius. Needless to say it was cold!! The whole process while fun, did leave us a little frozen and in need of a hot chocolate to warm up. But we were very happy. There in a green recycled Schwepps bottle we had our first ever microplastic sample – 1 liter of icy cold water from the NW-Passage! Even though it is just our first sample, we are super excited to hear the results of the analysis a few months down the line.
As it gets a little dim, the only thing that reminds us there isn’t 24 hour daylight every where else, the rain stops and the horizon clears up a little. Instantly, it feels a little less damp and cold. We are sailing along towards Barter Island, where we plan to stop tomorrow, before continuing to Hershel Island, Canada. Just before midnight Meret spots a boat that isn’t visible on the AIS, unusual. Turns out it’s the US Coast Guard. They call us and ask Dario all sorts of formal questions about who is on board, our last and next port of call, etc. The only info he repeats is: “Please, confirm there are 5 children aged 8 months to 11 years of age on board.”, he sounds a little surprised. “Yes, that is correct.”, Dario replies with a smile and goes on to ask them for weather and ice conditions. Winds between 5-15 knots and mostly ice clear to the Canadian border.
9th August 2016
Lat/Long.–Sea state–Wind speed and direction–Water temp.–Pressure–
N71.03/ W149.44– 1 to 2 — NE17 — -3deg. C — 1011 —
Cloud coverage–Magnetic deviation–air temp.–24h distance covered–wildlife
100%– 55– 4deg. C — Arctic tern, seals, a whale — 141nm
We are making good way. It’s pretty calm but we have decent wind most of the time (10-20 knots from N / NE). It’s raining. We are deciding whether we should push on and try to make it to Hershel Island before we get too much headwind or if we should pass by the … Island, where we were told there are polar bears.
The autopilot stopped working briefly but Dario knows what to look for now so we had it fixed in no time.
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Today, I did school like every morning they woke me up but I was so tired. I wished I could have slept all day. Meret saw a whale today.Yesterday we saw ice. They were all different shapes and sizes. One was shaped like a sea bird and one was shaped like a wall with a little ship sailing in front of it. Some of the, were really big. Christina and Meret and Mum saw a seal.
Today is very wet and grey, we haven’t seen any ice. The weather forecast was for the wind. It’s really grey, we can’t see anything but our books inside.
I’m trying to make a question game in school but it is very hard. I have to write so many questions. During break we ate one slice of apple and half a sandwich, it was very good. I’m in 4th grade now, it’s not hard yet.
Every lunch I need to draw our current location on the paper chart. Yesterday, I was the cook and made our favorite swiss food: ‘Älplermacaroni’ It’s a dish of pasta, onions, cream, bacon and cheese. I put in a lot of cheese!
Yesterday, it was my turn to draw in our logbook for the day. I drew the coast of point Barrow. Dad said, I should become a cartographer.
I went outside in just a jumper, trousers and slippers, it was not so cold but still my hands got really really cold.
Dario reports on the 8.8.2016 @ N71.27 W154.36:
We are just E of Cape Barrow. It snows and there is fog and there are shallows and ice. Attached ice chart from NOAA shows the limits of the pack ice.
Luckily we made a bow protection in Nome in case we crash into ice. So we attached it and we will see if it does the job?
Cape Barrow is the most Northern point of Alaska. Coming from the West into the Northwest Passage has the advantage, that Cape Barrow is normally much earlier ice free than the East entrance. Like that, you make it through the passage early enough to avoid autumn storms going South exiting the passage.
Tough, this year it is just the opposite: The pack ice at Cape Barrow was blocking for weeks. Not because of colder temperatures- the ice retreated in the Arctic to new records this summer – more because frequent Northerly winds shifted the ice against the coast, where Southerlies would open a passage between the coast and the ice.
For us, this Northerly winds needed a lot of tacking since Nome, so much more work. That’s why we were super happy we made it. But now we have to speed up, so that we got out before storms, darker nights and colder temperatures…