7 August, 2002
Today (6 August, 2002 – I am posting this a day late) is my first field experience and journal entry as a TEA team member. Our “destination” is a guided tour of the CRREL building in Hanover, New Hampshire.
It is cool, breezy, pleasant, in the low 70s and slightly overcast. A long spell of muggy weather has been interrupted by gusts of chill. I am told that a cold front is pushing Arctic air across Canada and down into the northeastern US. The cool wind reminds me of my pending Arctic journey.
Where Are We Now?
The temperature was –20 F., and the air smelled like cold steel. I could feel my denim jeans begin to stiffen as the coldness seeped through my clothes. It was so dry that I could not see anyone’s exhaled breath, but I could feel all the moisture being pulled from my pores. Where was I?
In Hanover, New Hampshire, at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab. I am here with 11 other TEA teachers as part of our orientation and preparation for our Arctic and Antarctic trips. Our tour guide is Marie Darling, the Public Affairs Specialist for this site
CRREL is the US Army Corps of Engineers Engineering and Development Center for Cold Weather Research. Other Corps sites include Topographical Engineering, Environmental, Information Technology, Coastal and Hydraulics, and Geotechnical Centers located around the country.
There are approximately 300 scientists and workers at CRREL who are involved in basic and applied research focusing specifically on polar climates. Projects vary from finding and cleaning polar contamination to studying the behavior of materials under extreme weather field conditions. “Support for the soldier in the field, research, and civil works is the focus of CRREL,” according to Ms. Darling. In addition to maintaining a comprehensive research library and database sets, CRREL has an extensive website that includes reports and fact sheets that may be accessed and downloaded
Scientists at Work – What’s Going On At CRREL?
Just walking down the hallways was fascinating. Informational posters about everything from polar aviation to ice chemistry, GIS, snowmelt modeling, and stratigraphy, for example, lined the walls. Each topic captured my attention, and I wanted to say, “I want to work on this project!” at each stop. Here is the most compelling of them:
The Cold Room
Our first stop was in a “cold room” – a storage facility for ice core samples. My preconceived ideas of “cold” quickly vanished upon entering this room
The ice core samples were stored in long metal tubes arranged in floor-to-ceiling racks. Each tube was marked to indicate the collecting depth (in meters) and the origin of the sample.
As we left the cold room, the previously chilly hallway now seemed very warm.
The South Pole Tunneling System
Utility corridors must be constructed under the snow pack. Temperatures of –120 to –124 F. at the snow surface combined with fierce wind makes it impossible to house sensitive scientific equipment directly on the surface of the snow. The unique tunneling system developed at CRREL allows engineers to build sub-surface utility corridors in adverse conditions.
Ms. Darling described the South Pole Tunneling System as a “bobcat excavator” system. A bobcat bulldozer equipped with a special device chips away at hard pack snow. This chipper device digs at an angle until it reaches a vertical depth of 42 feet, and then proceeds to chip out a tunnel 400 feet long. The chipped snow, which is very dry, is then pulled back out of the tunnel by the wind suction and is blown away. No muss, no fuss. It seems to be a very efficient system.
Environmental Aspects – Eagle River Flats Project
The environmental division of CRREL focuses on three main areas: 1) protection and remediation of contamination sites, 2) vegetation research and application in training lands, and 3) bio-remediation. Chemists are actively involved in finding better ways to clean up oil spills and other forms of pollution in sensitive polar environments. Other scientists are investigating species of plants that are resistant to trampling by troops and equipment during training exercises and that will re-grow quickly after artillery damage. Bio-remediation research projects often involve investigating plants that may be used to neutralize contaminants such as oil and industrial toxins.
The Eagle River Flats Project was of parcticular interest to me. Eagle River Flats is a saltwater marsh area that was used as a munitions ground. White phosphorus, a munitions explosion by-product, settled in the marsh and was ingested by native ducks. The phosphorus caused paralysis, and the ducks would drown. When hunters began to become alarmed, an investigation was launched, and the white phosphorus residue was identified as the cause of paralysis and subsequent duck deaths. CRREL researchers decided to divide the marsh into sections and let one section at a time dry out. Once exposed to the air, the white phosphorus vaporized. This is a 5-phase project, and three of the phases have been completed. As a result of the Eagle River Flats Project and remediation, the firing of white phosphorus munitions has been halted.
Questions for later: 1) What exactly is white phosphorus, and why is it used in munitions? 2) How does white phosphorus trigger paralysis in ducks, and what is the nature of the paralysis?
Our tour of CRREL gave me a more clear understanding of the variety and scope of the projects carried out at this facility. I now have a greater appreciation of the amount of work that goes into the support of polar research and programs.
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