Sunday, November 29, 2009

My Year (and a month) with Environment Canada

In a few days I’ll put a piece on here about my upcoming job, however, now is a good time to look back at the year that was and the position that inspired the “Arctic” part of this blog’s URL. Last summer, during the Phoenix Mission, I was in a bit of a bind: looking for a job on short notice while working 24hour 39 minute days. Since I had already defended my PhD, my time at the University of Arizona was drawing to a close. But with the job market upset, my options for postdoctoral work were few. Through contacts, I was introduced to Jan Bottenheim at Environment Canada.

[ Our fearless leader, Dr. Jan Bottenheim. Photo by Spencer Brown retrieved from spencerbrownphoto.com]

Jan explained to me that the Ocean-Atmosphere-Sea Ice-Snowpack (OASIS) section of the International Polar Year (IPY) team at EC was looking for some assistance with their planned expedition up to Barrow, Alaska that winter. It sounded exciting, and presented a chance to experience one of the most similar environments on Earth to the Mars Chamber in my lab. Since I had already been placed on the VF list by NSERC it was merely a formality to join up and I started work in November to prepare for the March Field Study.

[The Arctic Ocean, seen from the North Coast of Alaska, is not so different from the Martian vistas I am used to. The cloud in the distance is a constant feature of the open lead whose temperature, -1.8°C, is far warmer then the surroundings. Also, the bright star seen is Venus. Photo by the Author ]

Aside from myself and Jan, the team featured several experienced Arctic Scientists and Technicians. Stoyka Netcheva brought spectroscopic expertise working with MAX-DOAS systems and with Environment Canada’s heavily instrumented sled which would go Out-Over-The-Ice, named OOTI. Sandy Steffen, an expert in atmospheric mercury, would be in charge of a mercury speciation experiment and several Tekran monitors. Ralf Staebler would study data collected by sonic anemometers, a fast-ozone instrument, and atmospheric structure as revealed by a powerful sodar (audible day and night near the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium Facilities). Meanwhile Patrick Lee and Andrew Sheppard helped us strive to keep everything working smoothly. As broad as this suite of specialities is, we were a small part of a larger international effort at Barrow drawing on Arctic researchers the world over.

[ My compadres in Barrow. Clockwise from Paul Shepson (Purdue University) in Green: Ralf Staebler, Stoyka Netcheva, Jan Bottenheim and Sandy Steffen. Photo by Spencer Brown retrieved from spencerbrownphoto.com]

As for myself, I would lend assistance where it was needed and use my experience with the GARDIS mercury instruments to analyze the data to be collected by the OOTI sled. However, in the months leading up to the expedition in March, I had also been working with Jan and Paul Shepson’s group at Purdue University to develop a mobile version of their Bromine Oxide (BrO) collection apparatus. In its benchtop form, this was a system that weighed several hundred kilograms, required more then a kilowatt of power and constant liquid nitrogen to run down. By trimming this down to the bare essentials, we hoped to be able to make measurements out on extremely thin ice in the midst of frost flowers.

[ Frost flower pan: the ice here, several miles from shore, is less then an inch thick and only a few hours old. The spindly structures are called frost flowers and are suspected to be active sites for Arctic atmospheric chemistry. A pressure ridge is visible in the distance. Photo by the Author. ]

Despite some shipping snafus, almost everything arrived in close to working order. After a bit of last-minute McGuyvering, (including the transformation of Teflon snow-scoop into a high-pressure gasket using a hunting knife, amongst other adventures) we were ready to go.

Barrow, Alaska is the most northerly land in the United States. The northernmost point, located at the border between the Beaufort and Chuckchi Seas, is at latitude of 71°21’N. This far enough north that mid-winter sees a single 80-day long night. By the time we landed in late Febuary, however, polar sunrise had already occurred and the days were lengthening by ten minutes each and every day – an appreciable amount. Much of the illumination was twilight rather then direct sunshine: by the time I left to return to Toronto in mid-March, it was light enough outside to see until just before midnight.

We had chosen Barrow for this field study due to the presence of an ocean current-driven perennial open lead which guaranteed access to exposed sea water (an area known as a polynya) as well as pans of fresh first-year sea ice (called a nilas) created almost daily. These areas are of specific interest to researchers since they are especially active in the chemistry of trace gasses, in particular Ozone and Mercury. These gasses in the near-surface atmosphere play an important role in deleterious biotic processes and may enter the food chain.

As the arctic warms, periodic and puzzling “depletion episodes” are being observed in which these gasses disappear from the atmosphere. These events are increasing in frequency. Thus, for the health of the arctic bio system, it is important to determine where these gasses are disappearing to and what forms they take. OOTI would sample these gasses directly and determine the vertical flux (rate of adsorption into the frozen surface, or out of it). As well, some clues as to what is happening, chemically are offered by BrO, hence the presence of my experiment on our study.

[ Science out on the Ice. I unload the BrO Equipment on a frost flower pan. Photo by Spencer Brown. ]

Even with a warming arctic, for now, it is still plenty cold in March. On several days, windchill values at the warmest part of the day exceeded -60°C and even the shortest trips out into the field required extensive preparation. The clothing required to sustain human life out on the Arctic Ocean may well be the closest I will come to wearing a space suit.

[ Dr. Stoyka Netcheva models our expedition gear on the Elson Lagoon near Barrow, AK. The Instrumented sled in the image is OOTI. Photo by the Author ]

Initially, we stayed close to our base of operations. But over time we gained confidence and took longer snowmachine treks with the OOTI sled, leaving it overnight on the relatively protected Elson Lagoon and eventually out on the frozen sea past a hundred-foot tall pressure ridge within spitting distance of open water. We were also able to collect a full suite of BrO samples on a nila less then 1-inch thick, several miles from shore on sea ice only a few hours old.

[ Our Inupiat guide and Polar Bear Guard, Carl Kippi, keeps watch with me on top of a pressure ridge out on the Arctic Ocean. Photo by the Author. ]

Later on, over the summer and into the fall, I worked to develop a process for analyzing the samples we had collected. While we didn’t get hard and fast values in the end, we did show that the process was viable and the experiment was a success. I spoke a little of this at AGU in late May. While the lab work was satisfying, I have found that my thoughts often return to the field study, through the toil of the rest of the year.

There is a certain harsh beauty to the arctic, especially the frozen artic ocean in winter. Many researchers even compared it to the “Magnificent Desolation” of the Moon. Of course, to the trained planetary scientist’s eye, the imprint left by the wind upon the landscape is more reminiscent of Martian structures, but this is a minor quibble. It is certainly a place where the elemental in nature is front and center. Contrasting with the monochromatic world of snow and ice and cold is the explosion of colour that is the Aurora Borealis. Never before have I seen such displays; titanic energies glowing, dancing and changing colour and form in the arctic night.

[ A Swirling Aurora near the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC), photo by the Author ]

There are also rudimentary signs and vignettes of life all around, if you look closely enough. Polar Bear paw prints out on the ocean (with frozen spittle and chewed intake lines on the OOTI!). Caribou out on the tundra breaking through the crust of snow to feed on previous summer’s grasses, preserved beneath. Innupiat peoples hunting seals in the open lead. Still the canvass of ice is not that different from the austere beauty of the rocky shores of Newfoundland where I grew up, or the deserts of Arizona where I studied. Each has a story to tell. All these landscapes are a part of me now, and as I move forward to new challenges, I thank Jan for allowing me to add one more to my experience.

[ The Polar Desert. Photo by the Author. ]

Author's note: Images for this post have been obtained, in part, from Spencer Brown, a professional photographer who accompanied us out on the ice. His photography, not only of the Arctic, is spectacular and his portfolio www.spencerbrownphoto.com , is definately worth a visit. For more information on OASIS, please visit our website and blog at http://oasishome.net/blog/index.php?p=1.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Phoenix Phone Home?

Now that we're finally coming out of the harsh and deep Martian arctic winter, the engineers at JPL will soon be making an attempt to contact the Phoenix Lander. Sometime in January or February (at the time of writing) the Goldstone 70-m antenna will be trained skyward to tune into the Deep Space Network, hoping for a signal relayed off of the Mars Odyssey or Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). But how likely is a successful contact? And even if contact is successful, what then?

The big question on everyone's mind is whether or not the lander even survived the winter. In the Martian arctic, just like in the arctic here on earth, winter is greeted with increasingly short days and eventually the long night of the solstice. And on Mars, the winter lasts almost twice as long as on the Earth. As a consequence, winter temperatures above 60 degrees of latitude plummet to below the frost point of Carbon Dioxide. Since the bulk of the martian atmosphere is composed of this gas, it condenses out into a layer up to several meters thick. This layer is called the Seasonal Polar Cap and contrasts with the permanent or perennial polar cap which is made of water ice. You can see the progression in this series of HST images: http://www.nasaimages.org/luna/servlet/detail/nasaNAS~4~4~16147~119568:Seasonal-Changes-in-Mars--North-Pol.

This seasonal cap is thought to be made up partly of a fluffy frost, but also contains thick slab ice in places. Such a deposit could mechanically damage parts of the lander, especially in more delicate places like the solar panels. Furthermore, deprived of so-called keep-alive heating in the long, dark polar night, most of the electrical components will have dropped far below their temperature design tolerances. Optical components are particularly vulnerable, as are electrical connections not rated for this degree of cold.

But this is not the worst that slab ice can do. This transparent layer can also cause severe disruptions in the underlying bed. By trapping incoming solar radiation which is readily absorbed by the dark regolith, evaporation can occur at the base. The resulting high pressure layer of carbon dioxide gas is unstable and eventually will cause the overlying ice to buckle and crack explosively. This geyser-like eruption of gas and entrained regolith is called a sublimation spider (http://hirise.lpl.arizona.edu/PSP_003114_0930) and if one formed near the lander it would be bad news. The lander could be mechanically disrupted, or the resulting regolith streak could cover the solar panels, leaving a till that would prevent them from capturing solar radiation once the ice sublimated away.

Our current state of understanding of the lander's condition is sketchy. While the HiRISE camera on MRO has recently obtained some imagery of the lander and area (http://hirise.lpl.arizona.edu/ESP_014393_2485), the contrast is still insufficient to tell if Phoenix is mechanically sound. We also won't know much more for several weeks, since MRO has been chasing a computer bug which has prevented science operations since late August.

But let's, for argument's sake, assume that the solar panels are intact and still generating power come January. What can we expect? For starters, the spacecraft will likely be hurting. Many of the instruments may be damaged, some fatally. The SSI and RAC optics may be cracked, allowing dust into their interiors. The LIDAR may also be internally damaged and unable to produce a beam or analyze the results. The Robotic Arm Joints may no longer function. MECA and TEGA may be more robust, but most of their cells are already used up, and they probably would require more power to be run then will be available in the spacecraft's weakened state. Remember that when the lander ceased communications in 2008 after 152 sols, it was not yet even northern equinox. Still, power levels and temperatures had already fallen below what was sustainable for a solar-powered mission.

Additionally, the spacecraft will be highly confused. With the cold and lack of power, it is likely that the on-board computers have rebooted countless times. Thus it is unlikely that the spacecraft has any idea what the time or date will be. Since Phoenix was the first interplanetary spacecraft designed without a dedicated direct-to-earth connection, it must rely on orbiter overflights for communicating with Earth. Each of these lasts only a few minutes every couple of hours. But since the lander has no idea where and when it is, Phoenix will not know when these overflights will occur. Thus it will start transmitting in a search pattern, saving up enough battery power to transmit, trying for contact, and then shutting back down. To make matters worse, given the high latitude of the lander, not all overflights present a good communications opportunity. Often, the orbiters barely rise above the horizon.

In the best of cases, we will make contact. But do not expect a return to science operations. While I am available, I don't expect a call from Pasadena to take up my strategic science planner's job on Phoenix again. However, that simple beep of recognition is a valuable sign, and if that's all we get, it will still be greeted by smiles and celebration. It shows that it is possible for a spacecraft to hunker down and survive at high latitudes on Mars. That information alone opens up new possibilities for exploration.

If we are extraordinarily lucky, it might be possible to get some data on the state of health, or even some SSI images. These simple command sequences, called "runouts" can be run with modest manpower as there will not be time to assemble many people before winter closes in again. Thus this represents the absolute best we can hope for. We've got our fingers crossed: here's to hoping that our baby made it through.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What Matters in Academic Job Hunting

One of the most difficult things to deal with when looking for work is dealing with the uncertainty of not knowing where or when your next lead will come from. With rejection letters piling up, interviews few and far between and the clock counting down to the end of fixed-term employment, things can get a bit tense. Unless you have superhuman confidence, eventually you can't help but start to doubt yourself and your abilities.

The situation is doubly worse in the midst of the so-called "great recession." Funding is tight across the board. Many public institutions in the US have been hit with double-digit budget cuts, my Alma Mater, the University of Arizona included. U of A is dealing with a reduction of 13% this year compared to last and they are far from being the worst-off (look here for a full chart: http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2009/11/01/education/01data-edlife.html). When I left at the end of 2008, the University was in the midst of a massive re-organization to save funds. Whole departments were being shuffled, shuttered, disbanded and combined to focus on core strengths and save on administration costs.

In Canada, things don't seem much better. Last fall, York University canceled a search for a junior planetary scientist. Within days, a job board for academic appointments which typically sported 50-100 entries fell to single digits where it remains (Note: as this was posted, midway through the fall hiring "busy season," there was exactly 1 ad posted on the York U site - http://webapps.yorku.ca/academichiringviewer/listpositions.jsp?page=1 ; Also in the interests of full disclosure, I am an unpaid visiting scholar at York).

So what's a young scientist to do? My advice: stay connected to the field, seek out opportunities to grow your craft and remember your passion.

One of the most difficult things is to remain connected to the community. Without a travel budget or student status (for grants), you may not be able to go to conferences. If you have your own money to spend here - that's great. But for those of us without that luxury, you can still participate by reaching out to other professionals, keeping up with the trade news, and especially watching the twitter posts of role models. These people have the pulse of the industry and can help direct you. This blog is, for me, a part of this process of staying connected.

Secondly, if you live near a University take the opportunity to use your PhD to gain experience. Offer to help on a field study, or at an Observatory, or in a lab pro-bono. Your high level of experience and low cost can be major selling points. Give a guest lecture or two or three! If nothing else you can get more comfortable in front of a crowd and figure out if you want to teach.

Third, go back to your roots and remember why you got into this business in the first place. Few people complete a doctorate without passion. Rediscover it. For me, this was exploring my stop and start interest in astronomical observing. If you find that fountainhead it will help give you the strength to carry on. If you don't, then perhaps it's a signal that it's time to change course.

Lastly remember that these things are cyclic. The longer slow hiring goes on, the greater the backlog of positions in need of filling will become. It's just like with the auto industry, people may be currently buying cars at a replacement rate of one per 30 years, but it won't stay that way for long since the cars they currently own can't achieve that longevity. Eventually, funding will rebound, the retirement accounts will improve for the professors who want to retire and jobs will be offered again. We may even be approaching that time with LPL recently announcing a search for three positions, amongst others.

And how you stack up against your peers for the competition lying at the end of the wait will depend on what you were able to accomplish in the interim.

As for myself, I admit that I was pretty down in the dumps earlier in the summer, but as I went through the steps above, I was able to recenter myself and focus on what mattered. Today I sit here writing as I consider my first concrete offer in my field. It didn't come from the 22 applications I completed this year, but instead I learned of it through the actions I spoke of above. And while it's not a permanent position, it would give me an opportunity to do good work and that's what matters at this point in my career. I've not yet decided if I will accept, but I hope to be able to tell you all about it next week.

Monday, November 2, 2009

330 Minutes in Montreal

Another interview and another fleeting journey, this time staying within Canada! I do have to hand it to the timing gods, however, there was just enough time to get in on the first train of the morning (leaving on the first subway to get to Union) and head out on the last train of the evening back to Toronto. Even a few taxi hijinks on the 112 only reduced me to being on-time. I even had the chance to pick my wife up her favourite picante truffle from Premier Moisson.

I've now had four interviews, and I am definitely getting to see a complete spread in hiring practices. I've done all day long marathon interviews, and 45-minute panels. I've flown over oceans to extol my qualifications, and answered questions over Skype. I've been greeted with completely free-form questioning (i.e. "let's talk about a subject") and very structured formats. The behavioral ones are always a bit tricky, and I have to wonder how much of this other scientists have seen.

Still, I hope that I have acquitted myself well. I've received some good feedback and I'm grateful to all of those who have given it to me. I've also received a first offer to consider - but that's a topic for another post.

P.S. I've fallen off the wagon a bit recently in terms of updating, but I've been stockpiling some good ideas. Now that I have some more time to devote I hope to catch up, so look for some more essays in the coming days and weeks!