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2 September, 2004

Summer in the Arctic - Present and Past

It is official - the school year has started at Narragansett Pier Middle School and I am still on summer vacation. Today was the first staff day back at school, technically a Professional Development Day. I suppose I could really look at each day that I have been here on the ACEX expedition as part of my own professional development program. I am really back in the role of student as I learn more each day from the scientists aboard the Oden. I am learning new concepts in micropaleontology and geology and expanding my knowledge in disciplines more familiar to me such as microbiology. All the same, I felt the need to connect with my colleagues at school so I used my Iridium satellite phone to call the school at a time I expected that they would be breaking for lunch. I called a bit too soon but did get to speak to Jo-Ann in the office and my Red Team-mate, Pat Boynton. I could envision the NPS teachers in the workshop, tanned and in summer clothing while I stood on the helideck in my fleece and Gore-Tex in a dusting of new fallen snow. By the time I finished the call my gloved hands were so cold I could hardly push the button to end the call. So this is summer?

It sure hasn't felt like summer here lately, but we are finding evidence that the Arctic was not always this ice-covered and cold.

Erik and I continue to spend some of our days, talking to the various scientists on board and videotaping them discussing their backgrounds and expertise. I was especially keen to talk to Henk Brinkhuis, from Utrecht University, about his work. Henk enthusiastically explained his work to us in a way that so clearly shows the excitement of scientific discovery. He has recently identified microfossils of the spores of a fresh-water fern called Azolla; this plant is known more commonly as duckweed. What this means is that the Arctic Ocean was at some point a fresh-water body, a lake or part of a series of lakes!

What an experience for me to look at these ancient spores! As I gaze through the microscope I imagine my students and hope they will be just as excited - it is like looking back at a dinosaur.

Other observations from the expedition suggest the idea that this place on top of the world was once a much warmer place than today - that surface ocean temperatures were subtropical and close to 200C (680F). How can an observation like this be made? Henk and his fellow dino-specialist, Jens Matthiessen from the Alfred Wegener Institute, have uncovered evidence that would lead to this idea; they have found in the sediments the presence of a subtropical species of dinoflagellate (a one-celled microorganism), one certainly not associated with Arctic conditions. There is much more scientific evaluation that must take place before this is substantiated, but the implications for Arctic climate history are just amazing.

Calling the Narragansett Pier Middle School on an Iridium satellite phone

Jens Matthiessen examining sediments in the Oden main lab

A summer day in the Arctic 2004

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