Friday, October 14, 2011

Arctic First-Timer

Hey everyone! My name is Rachel Bobby and I’m an undergraduate chemistry major at Villanova University. This fall I am in my junior year at Villanova, but I met Dr. Grannas as a college freshman. After having her for a professor in my first analytical course, I learned that she was involved in environmental research. I thought this was pretty cool, so the summer after my sophomore year I began doing research in her lab.

When Dr. Grannas first asked if I wanted to venture into Alaska to continue my summer research, I thought, "Awesome! The arctic! I’ve never been there!" I was so excited to have a new experience and possibly even get to see some new culture. I had the stereotypical presumptions about what Alaska would be like: snow, glaciers, polar bears, and Eskimos. Boy, was I wrong.

Soon after I agreed to go on this trip, I learned that I wouldn’t be traveling to a common tourist city (Anchorage, Fairbanks...) but that I’d be spending a week in Barrow, Alaska. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Barrow, it’s about as far North as you can get, without actually being in the Arctic Ocean. Needless to say, I became a little less enthused at this thought, but still agreed to go.

When we arrived at the Barrow, Alaska airport I was immediately in shock. One – it was about 30° colder than Philadelphia at this time of year, and two- the airport was a single room consisting of a baggage claim belt, a metal detector/security station, and a few rows of chairs. Where had I landed that didn’t even have a proper airport!? At first glance, the town of Barrow seemed just as small and sparse, with wooden houses, metal "huts", a single grocery store, and a handful of restaurants. Little did I know that by the end of the week Barrow would grow on me.

Many people who visit Barrow might have the same thoughts and judgments that I first had on my arrival. A small, dreary town that was covered in snow and ice would not seem appealing to some. However, Barrow has its own kind of charm. The people living in this community rely on each other and help one another out in a way that most “down south” have forgotten how to do. This small town of about 4,000 people collectively contributes to each family’s food supply and general well being, ensuring that all will make it through the tough Alaskan winters with enough to eat and neighbors who truly care. When a crew catches a whale in Barrow, the meat is divided up evenly and distributed to each family. Never before had I experienced such a sense of community.

With respect to the town itself, Barrow has many hidden treasures that I was not anticipating to find. Restaurants like Pepe’s North of the Border serves awesome Mexican food… as well as Italian, American, and probably whatever else you are craving! The restaurant itself is a little Mexican oasis – yellow, red, and green decorations cover the walls and sombreros hang from the ceiling, and after eating there for the first time you receive your official "Arctic Circle Club: North of the Border" certificate. Osaka, a Japanese restaurant, serves some of the best sushi I have ever tasted, and a trip to the AC grocery store put in perspective for me how outrageous a simple gallon of milk is in Alaska - $10. Wow.

My trip to Barrow is an experience that I will never forget. The welcoming community and the Eskimo culture definitely broadened my horizons and made me step outside the small world of Villanova’s campus. I can honestly say that I was pleasantly surprised by this small Alaskan town and hope in the future that my research will bring me back again! :)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Back to Barrow

Hi again everyone! It has been a while, but we are back in Barrow!

We (myself and an undergraduate student, Rachel) arrived on Saturday evening. As I turned my phone on after we got off the plane (yes, we get cell phone reception up here) I received a text from a friend saying that two whales were caught that day ... one by our good friend (and logistics support manager from 2008 and 2009) Lewis Brower's whaling crew. Needless to say, I was quite happy to hear this. We quickly headed for the beach...Not to sunbathe, but to watch them bring in the whale. It took quite the effort to bring the 41 ft behemoth up onto land. It took a bulldozer and a loader to get the job done. But it finally made it, and the crew and community got to work cutting and dividing the shares.

Whaling is an integral part of life in Barrow, as most community members rely on subsistence living practices to survive. Steaks from the grocery store are not part of day to day living around here ... but whale steaks are quite tasty! There are two whaling seasons each year, and the International Whaling Commission sets quotas for each community that cannot be exceeded. This fall season, Barrow is allowed 13 "strikes". So they can bring in a maximum of 13 whales. However, a whale that is harpooned but lost also counts as a "strike". Because of the careful hunting practices and consideration of population dynamics, the arctic whale population is thriving and this subsistence hunting practice is in no way curtailing the whale population.

The whale caught by Lewis Brower's crew was harpooned around 1 pm and was then towed back to the beach from 24 miles out. This took several hours. By 9 pm it was up on solid ground and completely divided up by 4 am. Shares go to each member of the crew, as well as to those who help cut it up. The rest goes back to the whaling captain's home, where many hours are spent the following day cutting up the various pieces into what will be distributed to the community. Rachel and I went to Lewis' house on Sunday to help with this. We worked on cutting muktuk (the blubber with skin attached) and also some of the internal organs (heart, kidneys, etc). Below is Rachel working on this ...

We are here in Barrow for several reasons this time around. 1.) I will be giving a talk to the local community updating them on our research and "reporting back" our results to the local community. 2.) Philadelphia area high school teacher, Dr. Bill Smith, is also here (he arrived on Monday) to do "remote" classes to his students back at Bristol Borough High School. He started the first of these today and will continue these on Thursday and Friday. 3.) We are sampling snow to isolate natural organic matter which we will take back to our Villanova lab to characterize, which means filtering lots of snow. As I type this blog, Rachel and I are babysitting our filters. Ah, the joys of science!

Rachel plans to post something tomorrow on her first "Arctic experience", so stay tuned for that!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Long Overdue Update

In case anyone is still keeping track ... it has been a while since we have had an update on the blog ... mainly because our major fieldwork efforts concluded in 2009. But, a few of our goals have been realized from a science standpoint ... a few papers have been published based on our fieldwork, and three more are currently in review. We also gathered a wealth of information that is now serving as the basis for continuing lab experiments and student thesis projects.

For those science geeks out there like us ... here are the citations for our published work based on Barrow fieldwork results:

Photochemical processing of aldrin and dieldrin in frozen aqueous solutions under Arctic field conditions. GA Rowland, AR Bausch, and AM Grannas. Environmental Pollution, 159, 1076-1084, 2011.

A solid-phase chemical actinometer film for measurement of solar UV penetration into snowpack. GA Rowland and AM Grannas. Cold Regions Science and Technology, 66, 75-83, 2011.

We'll have a few more updates coming this fall ... I (Dr. G) will be returning to Barrow in October to do some outreach/service work, accompanied by a Philadelphia area high school teacher as well as an undergraduate research student. We will be there about a week, and plan to post updates and info here on the blog.

Thanks for keeping tabs on us!

Friday, May 14, 2010

New Group Website

Hi all ...

Just a quick update - for anyone who might be interested, we have migrated our Villanova Research Group website to Google. Although I certainly love Villanova, they don't make managing your website an easy matter ... so I took things into my own hands and simply moved to a place that does!

Check us out at:

We'll be updating the site quite a bit over the next few weeks, including new pics (our group pic is a bit old) and videos. We will be making videos using a great tool I was introduced to called Animoto! Check out the inaugural video on the Welcome page!

Happy blogging!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

In the Spotlight

Well, since we're not in the field at the moment, updates are few and far between. But, please take the time to check out another site: The site is being developed by Peter Lourie (an author and storyteller extraordinaire) and contains all sorts of information, videos, pics, stories and science related to the Arctic.

If you click on the "videos" link, there are a number of videos from people who live and do research in the Arctic ... from Inupiaq hunters, to wildlife biologists, to atmospheric scientists. Not to self-promote ... but I'm in there too, under the science link. :)

We continue chugging away at sample analysis and are (almost) done with that, at which point I'll get another update posted asap. So in the meantime, peruse the Arctic stories at

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Barrow Fieldwork Photos

Everyone is back from Barrow now ... back in the lab, busily processing samples and analyzing data taken in the field. I've managed to compile a lot of pictures taken by the team into a slideshow. Check it out at the youtube link below!!!

Most of the photos were taken by Chun-mei Chiu and Simon Filhol. A few others were contributed by Glenn Rowland and me ... Thanks everyone for sharing your pics and letting me post them here for the world to see!!!!


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Snowmelt on the Tundra

See our newest YouTube video! This is a series of photos taken from the same vantage point at our research site on the tundra outside of Barrow, Alaska. You can watch in about 2 minutes what took a few weeks to happen ...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Joe "The Waterman" Shults' Museum

Joe Shults is a well-known face around Barrow. For years he delivered water to residents, one house at a time, with his tanker truck/water service business. Perhaps even more interestingly, he was known to do this in the dead of winter in a short-sleeve t-shirt. His knicknames include Joe "The Waterman" and "T-shirt Joe". Now 54, he has retired from the water delivery business, and focuses on helping out at Pepe's "North of the Border" Mexican restaurant, which his mom (Fran Tate) owns. He also has his own museum, located in his home, which he opens up to visitors at 10 pm (after he gets off work). All you need to do is make an appointment and he's happy to have you come by any day of the week to see his rare, vast collection.

Joe has spent the past 30 years or so collecting all sorts of old, rare, wonderful and strange items. Some of the things he has purchased himself (like many of the taxidermy pieces), many more have been donated to him, and some items he finds when storms wash in artifacts to the beach that have been on the ocean floor. He's also been known to go out in his boat after the ice breaks up and look for items ... recovering things like whaling guns, tools, etc.

His collection has garnered the attention of the Smithsonian ... they have wanted to borrow pieces for study, but he has a strict policy that nothing from his museum is sold (and offers for some pieces have been high), and nothing leaves the premises. He cherishes the items too much to risk having them lost or damaged. He has however let the experts set up camp at his house and several times they have spent a few days studying pieces on his back porch.

Joe makes sure everyone has a chance to see his collection. There is no entry fee, although donations are appreciated. But, if you're broke, he won't deny entry ... he has even had people bring empty beer/liquor bottles as their donation ... proof of why they are broke!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Tundra Wildlife

Here are a few pictures snapped over the course of the past couple weeks. Most of these pics were taken by Chun-mei Chiu, a Purdue University grad student working on the team (studying hydrology). Although she herself is quite camera shy, she takes great pictures and manages to capture some wonderful moments on film (well, okay, a digital card to be exact). I'm sure the blog will be featuring more of her photography before all is said and done!

Our illustrious photographer, Chun-Mei!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Barrow: Round Two

So, we're back in Barrow!!! After a brief hiatus in the warmer climes of the lower 48, we are in the midst of our second trip to Barrow for 2009. This time, team members include Dr. Glenn Rowland (a Villanova postdoctoral researcher, who blog fans will recognize from last year) and me (Dr. Amanda Grannas). We are up here this time working with Matthew Sturm and Tom Douglas' groups ... they are graciously providing us space at their field site to do our work. We are in the middle of the tundra southeast of Barrow, about 2-3 miles from the nearest road. Glenn has been here since mid-May and at the beginning one was able to reach the site by snowmachine. Alas, enough melting has occurred to make that impossible. So the trip has been made on foot since Sunday. Several miles over wet, soggy tundra is a little like Arctic boot camp (or maybe that should be called Arctic hip-wader camp).

The long walk ... (sampling buckets in hand)...

Unfortunately, Glenn is leaving us tomorrow. I am his replacement - I arrived May 31 and will continue work until departing on June 19. I didn't get here in time for the snowmachining, and am a bit bummed about that! Here's a pic from Glenn taking one of his last snow samples.

The overall goal of the entire group is to better understand just what happens up here in the Arctic at snowmelt. This is from both the perspective of the snow as well as the chemicals within the snow. Hydrologists and chemists are teaming up to track the snowmelt, following where the water goes, how fast it gets there and what happens to the chemicals in the snow during that melt period. We're measuring all sorts of things like ions, organic matter, mercury and organic contaminants (which is specifically the Villanova contribution).

It takes a lot of work to figure out just what is going on, including a lot of measurements (both with fancy instrumentation and also human observations and measurements) and a lot of sampling. We sample every day for ions and mercury (those samples get shipped away for analysis) and every other day for organic contaminants (those samples have to get processed on site - which takes a day itself).

So that's the general picture of what we are up to this time around ... now here are some pics that might better illustrate the things I've mentioned above!

A view of our "Conestoga", or covered sled that we use for shelter and to make the field work just a bit more civilized ...
Here's the civilized part ... a first rate sample pumping station in the middle of the tundra!!!!
Not everyone needs fancy equipment ... see here the use of a run of the mill caulking gun for sample filtering. We draw water up into a syringe, then screw a filter onto the end. We push the water out of the syringe, through the filter, then into the collection bottle. Problem is, the particulate matter in the water clogs our filters rather easily, making it VERY difficult to get the water through with just your hands ... so a caulking gun adds the extra "oomph" we need to get the job done.
Maybe we should get some sponsorship from Home Depot?