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Expedition Report: Herschel Island, Swimming in the Arctic, Noe turns 7!

12.-15.82016, continuation from last report:

 

12.-15.82016, continuation from last report:

On our walk in the hills, the children found the leg bones of a caribou and we got to see the snowy owl, a white spot in the distance, that has been hanging around one particular valley .

Communication between the various groups on the island happens via handheld VHF radios. So took ours with us too and as we were enjoying our lunch looking down over the village, we got some very exciting news. The Rangers were getting wood and water to heat the sauna for us! We had all just accepted the fact that wet wipes and freezing cold water would have to do, if we wanted to be minimally cleaner. Sabine had braved the cold water the day before we got to Herschel but the rest of us hadn’t dared yet. Now, we knew a warm sauna would be waiting for us after we got back to camp.

Paden, one of the park rangers, had shot a snow goose, and showed the kids how to remove the feathers, gut and prepare it for cooking. It turned into a whole biology lesson looking at the intestines, which are as long as Pachamama, and how the gizzard, essentially the teeth, of the goose works. The gizzard is filled with stones that grind against the food and thereby mash it, before it goes into the stomach to be fully digested.

Then with high expectations we headed to the sauna. And it certainly did not disappoint! We all worked up a good sweat for half an hour and then ran in to the -0.6 degrees Celsius warm Arctic sea for a dip. Our first swim in the Arctic Ocean didn’t last long and soon we were all back in the warmth of the wood heated sauna, only to repeat the whole process. It was a wonderful way to get clean and relax after the crossing from Nome. It also ended up being some bonding time in a completely different setting with the people we had shared the same couple of square meters with for the last week.

Noé always manages to have his birthday party in the most spectacular places and once again this year did not disappoint. We had decided to do a surprise birthday party for Noé, since we weren’t sure we’d be able to go on shore for his actual birthday on the 15th. And so it came, that he celebrated his birthday with wonderful people in the oldest house in the Yukon. The community house on Herschel was built in 1893 and still looks the same as when it was first built.
Fresh and like new from the sauna shower, we returned to the community house to cook a feast of Älplermacaroni for all the people of the island. The others brought pizza, the snow goose from the morning and fish. It was a delicious and merry meal. A yummy chocolate cake and the story, of how Noé came to be who he is today, followed. Even a pile of cards and presents found their way in front of him. He got puzzles, goodies, a really good bird book, that will certainly be used by all on board and frequently, and most impressively of all a 14000 to 15000 year old part of a mammoth tusk. Thank you to everyone for their wonderful presents and making this last minute surprise party for Noé such a success! He certainly won’t ever forget his seventh birthday party any time soon.
Afterwards, a presentation by Dario, music by the children and games followed, making us instantly adopt Herschel time: going to bed at 4am and getting up after noon.

The next day, we got to talk to Team Shrub, from the University of Edinburgh, a little more and learn all about the research they are doing. They are using drones to look at plots of vegetation and how the tundra on the island is changing in response to the warmer temperatures. In these plots they look at what plants grow and how or whether this composition is changing, how much the plants are growing and when their growing season is. They have been seeing the plants get taller and start their growing season earlier in the year, though they are not growing longer at the end of the season. They are not sure why this earlier growing is happening yet, whether it is the later on set of freezing temperatures, which means the ground doesn’t freeze as far down and could mean there are more nutrients available when spring comes or earlier springs in general. As mentioned yesterday there may also be links between vegetation and erosion rates.
An earlier study done on Herschel island shows that not only plant but also animal communities are changing.

The study looked at how red foxes have been expanding their range further and further north in response to the warming temperatures. The red foxes are larger than the Arctic foxes and have been known to displace them when present in the same areas. At the moment they are co-existing but the researchers are not sure how much longer this will be the case. Usually, the red foxes dominate once well enough established. The Arctic foxes are faced by a challenge, as they can’t endlessly expand north. How they will respond will be seen in the near future. Whether they are displaced due to competition in prey or something else is currently unknown, but interestingly the red foxes seem to be larger the further north they are (The New Northwest Passage, Dueck, 2012).

In the afternoon, we got a tour from park rangers Sam and Paden, who told us all about the history of the island. It had been a very important hunting ground for the Inuvialuit, a lot of valuable furs such as the soft white Arctic fox pelt, muskrat and much more were sold from there. They told us as many as 2000 people had lived there, before the whalers came in. They mainly hunted bowhead and right whales and caused dramatic declines in their populations. The whalers initially wanted the blubber to make oil, which was used for example in burning lamps. Later, the baleen, used for corsets in Victorian Europe, was in high demand. Some of their shacks coated in tin are still standing and as we wrote yesterday, one last freezer is still there.

Many of their graves can be seen further along the beach in Pauline Cove. They are all white and stand out in stark contrast to the green tundra. Most of the whalers died young in their early twenties from some sort of a flue. Herschel had also been used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to breed sled dogs, their enclosures are still there abandoned since 1964. In 1987, the 116km2 of Herschel Island became the first territorial park on the Yukon. This means the local Inuvialuit can still hunt and fish there. Any houses built on the island must have the exact same size and be in the exact spot of a former house to insure it stays true to its history. Sam’s granny was the last to live on the island year round, she had also raised her children there. Her house has been left abandoned since her passing in 2012.

As we were about to leave all the groups came with boxes of left over food for us. Bagels, cheese, frozen fruits and veggies, butter milk, meat and so much more are now stored away. Who said you can’t get any good food in the Arctic?! Thanks, to all of them we have been eating like kings and queens for the last few days!

We really cannot put into words how incredible the short 40 hour stop on Herschel was but it certainly refilled our batteries ready for the next part of the passage. It was amazing to be so warmly welcomed and taken in by everyone there and to hear about all the interesting things they are doing to understand and document climate change.
You all gave us two wonderful days filled with joy and happiness!
A small token of our gratitude is shown by the signed wooden paddle and the TOPtoTOP Victorinox knife we left in the community house. The paddle was made by Noé two years ago in a camp we visited for Alaska native children to learn their cultural heritage. The other way we tried to say thank you was by taking 8 of the scientists and rangers out for a sail out of Pauline Cove, our anchorage.

After dropping of our extra crew and saying many goodbyes, we set off once again on our journey eastward. We had little wind at first but it has picked up since. Fixing our autopilot has has occupied the majority of our time since we left. After almost a day (24hrs) of efforts by Dario and Sabine, we have decided to let it rest in peace for now. This means we are constantly helming once again and quite exhausted by that already. The children are the only ones that aren’t lacking from severe lack of sleep. On top of it all Dario is now also ill.

There has been a lot of fog. When it cleared at some point yesterday we saw many seals. One, maybe a bearded seal, was particularly noisy and came to within 5 meters of the boat.
Today, was Noé’s 7th birthday and we celebrated with many presents, a cake, and delicious Pachamama hamburgers. The carefully decorated cake reflected our passage so far on it with polar bears, seals and ice bergs. We wish him the very best for the next year of his life. We all feel incredibly lucky to have him with us and hope he has an exciting year filled with many adventures and answers to his many questions! May his smile spread joy wherever he goes.

Expedition Report: Herschel

 

Meret reports:
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.

Salina’s Expedition Reports: August 5th & 6th

5th August, 2016
Salina reports:

The autopilot stopped working early this morning, which put the ones with watches back behind the helming, an increasingly familiar position.
After school Noé and Alegra helped Dario fix the autopilot but mid afternoon it changed its mind about working again. Dario not one to give up hope, went about fixing it once more and after dinner and since we have been spared the coldness of helming.

Yesterday and today we have been sailing across a very significant historic land bridge. ‘Beringia’, the lost land of Bering, is a shallow sea and counterintuitively is more dangerous than a deep sea. ‘Why?’, you might ask. The fact that it’s so shallow mean that very short steep waves can form, that can be tricky. But anyway back to Beringia… Some 20 plus thousand years ago dry cold wind sucked up the water from the ocean and deposited the water in the form of snow and rain on the land masses of the continents as we know them today. This went on and on year after year until this process had caused our oceans to sink by up to 90 meters. As you now know the Bering Sea is shallow and so it came about that the continents of Asia and North America were connected. This ‘bridge’ opened up a route for both humans and animals to pass to North America. Large historic elephants known as mastodons and saber tooth tigers were some of the first to pass. Animals now characteristic for North America, such as beavers, caribou and bison, all crossed this bridge to Alaska. But what many may not be aware of is, that some animals also went in the olther direction; for example camels and horses came to Asia this way. For camels this was a blessing as they soon went extinct in their homeland but thrived in their new location.
One animal that crossed the bridge thrived in the harsh Arctic climate of Alaska, the mammoth. Overtime this lite elephant-like creature developed to be supremely adapted its climate. With smaller ears than elephants, to reduce heat loss and a thick hairy woolly coat. Its main activity was eating, it would eat 70 kilos of mosses, lichens, twigs and gras a day.
Salina reports on life on board:
Our hammock is still filled with food. We have a lot of wind. It is 10 degrees Celsius and our basil plant from San Diego is still alive. We saw a lot of guillemots, razorbills, Arctic Skuas and gulls today. We pass our time with doing a lot of school. I waste a lot of time with reading books, writing in my diary, when it is not too wavy, and sleeping.

6th August, 2016
Salina reports:

Today, in the morning we were by Point Hope and we saw a lot of birds that used their wings to try to get out of the water and fly. We sailed right through a flock of them, they were all around us.

Then we did some school work and in the break we went out to breath in and it was so fresh we couldn’t believe it. Its because there are not a lot of humans  up in the Arctic.
The ocean was really flat and mirror-like but we could see the jellyfish hanging in the Arctic water, which is 4.8 degrees Celsius. Eventually, we had to do more school work and at 12 o’clock we ate noodles and, astoundingly, some salad… In the Arctic! Salad! Isn’t that weird?! Arctic salad does not fit!
When we ate lunch we talked about if there would be a fire, what elements would make it grow and what you could do to stop it from burning. All fires need air, material and heat to burn. Once you know what kind of fire it is you can decide how to fight it. Water is not always the best solution. For oil a fire blanket is best. Then we also talked about getting water out of the boat using buckets or bilge pumps.
Afterwards, we looked at the charts of where we are in the world. We put a dot on the map of exactly where we are. You need to know quite a bit of maths to know where you are in the world.
Then suddenly Meret shouted there is some ice on the horizon and everybody came running outside. We were so excited to finally sees one ice but mum and dad weren’t because if there is already ice here’s hat means there is so much more up there and we can’t go through the NW-passage. But when dad looked closer with the binoculars he said with a smile: “That’s not ice, it’s a mirage, an optical illusion!” What? Even the pictures we took look like there is ice there. This mirage forms when the ocean is so flat that it mirrors the clouds and this can look like big icebergs.  We laughed at how excited we had been and how nature had tricked us so convincingly.
Then I went and did homework. I had some interesting homework about how the polar regions formed and what lives in them. I had to write an article about it all.
For dinner we ate delicious curry. It felt good because it was hot.

What do you think, how many families have sailed through the NW-passage?