In The Field

On board the Amundsen: Radars and wizards

“The scatterometer is purring like a kitten“, Randy Scharien proudly told the sea ice team when we came back from the ice today, just in time for lunch (Tuna Salad, Italian Sausages with Rosée Sauce, Queen Elizabeth Cake – have I mentioned that Jacques Beaudet, our chef cook from Shawinigan, Québec, is a true wizard?)

Randy, Mukesh and I had set out onto the ice after breakfast to troubleshoot the radar scatterometer, which is supposed to take time series of the physical surface properties of the sea ice.

The generator-driven machine had stopped runing at some point early in the morning. I rolled my eyes when I saw the complicated set-up. But Randy hooked up a keyboard to the console that controls the radar, hit a few keys, and got the radar running again in less than a minute. “Just a software glitch,” he said. “No big deal, fortunately."


At a spot nearby, Mukesh has installed a prototype laser device with which he measures surface roughness over a melt pond (as an indicator for turbulence at the air-water interface). Besides being awfully skilled mechanics, computer programmers and mathematicians, Mukesh and Randy remote sensing experts. The reason why they are interested in the physical properties of ice and melt water – their electrical conductivity, resistance, and permeability to microwaves – is because this information helps the interprete and calibrate satellite data, such as images from NASA’s ICESAT and Canada’s Radarsat missions.

Satellite sensors cannot easily distinguish different surface features of the frozen ocean – ice, melt ponds, and the transition zones between the two – which all have very different properties, for example in terms of how they reflect the incoming sunlight. ‘Ground-truthing’, as scientists call it, is therefore necessary for getting the best out of satellite data, and ultimately for improving the predictive skills of sea ice models.


A note:

The daily sampling, data collection, repair work, and what not, is being done regardless of weather and light conditions. Right now it is bright and unusually warm , so warm actually that one doesn’t even need to wear gloves outside.

But this is exceptional. At more extreme temperatures, turning knobs, using laptop computers, untying knots, twisting a piece of wire, or just taking notes, gets very challenging. Just bear in mind that during most of the Arctic winter one cannot work without gloves on for more than a few seconds without risking serious frostbite. This aspect of polar research is not always appreciated.

Quirin Schiermeier


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