Adventures in the Field – The High Arctic

Field work – what scientists do to study a certain phenomenon in its natural environment. For geology and paleontology, this means going out and crawling over the ground to find the necessary fossils or rocks.

One of the great mysteries of what I do as a paleontologist is the concept of field work. Last summer, I blogged about my field experiences as they were happening. I did this throughout last year’s 25-day field season. You can look at those posts here.

Now, I’d like to summarize ten days of field work I did in the High Arctic of Canada in 2012. What it’s like. What we’re trying to learn. This will be mostly through pictures.

Where do you work?

This fabulous field experience took place on Axel Heiberg Island, at about 79° North latitude.

Axel Heiberg Island (in red). Credit: Connormah CC 3.0 By-SA

 

Why do you work there?

The original reason to go to Axel Heiberg (before I joined the project) was to study the Earth’s magnetic field.

The axis of the magnetic field and the ‘true’ North Pole (the rotational axis of the Earth) are offset somewhat.

The difference between the geographic poles of the earth (green circle), where the rotation axis (blue dashed line) exits the Earth, and the magnetic poles of the Earth (red dashed lines). Credit: JrPol CC 3.0 By-SA

Axel Heiberg Island is near where the magnetic North pole emerges from the Earth.

Positions of the north magnetic pole over the last couple of centuries. The tip of the pie is the north geographic pole. Notice how the magnetic pole has moved around. Credit: Tentotwo CC By-SA

But even as long as 90 million years ago, Axel Heiberg was at high latitudes, as seen in this reconstruction of the continents.

Paleogeography of the Earth 90 million years ago. Credit: Maky CC 3.0 By-SA

So if we wanted to learn something about the magnetic field 90 million years ago (as it is preserved in rocks), Axel Heiberg is a good place to go for that too.

But the reason why I was there is this:

Where all those people are gathered is a fossil quarry, which has yielded all sorts of marine critters, including Champsosaurs, turtles (including a new species called Aurorachelys), and fish.

Fossil Quarry - 3

How do you live?

We have a little camp set up essentially in the middle of nowhere. It’s not too far from where the fossil locality is.

Camp - 3

How do you get there?

It is a little remote in the High Arctic, so it takes a while to get to the camp site.

First, there’s the commercial flight to Resolute Bay.

Then there’s the Twin Otter flight to the little ‘air strip.’

Getting the luggage to the twin otter.
Getting the luggage to the twin otter.
Boarding the twin otter.
Boarding the twin otter.
Packed and ready.
Packed and ready.
Oddly, no in-flight service.
Oddly, no in-flight service.

To call it an air strip is being generous. We only got the twin otter a little stuck.

Those are the tire marks from our landing. A little close there...
Those are the tire marks from our landing. A little close there…

The twin otter left us behind.

Really, that's an air strip. I promise.
Really, that’s an air strip. I promise.

But then our next ride came.

The most common mode of transport.
The most common mode of transport.

It took several trips, with much of our gear hung in a net below the helicopter.

On the day we left the camp site.
On the day we left the camp site.
Bye-bye gear.
Bye-bye gear.

 

What do you see?

The best part of the whole trip was all the amazing things we got to see.

Like flowers

Arctic flowers - 13 Arctic Flowers - 3A little wild life

Arctic FaunaGlaciers

Glaciers - 6 Glacier and Moraine - 5Waterfalls

Waterfall - 2

I got to see some geomorphic features I’ve only ever lectured about.

Polygonal ground - a feature of permafrost.
Polygonal ground – a feature of permafrost.
Solifluction - another feature of permafrost
Solifluction – another feature of permafrost

I wound up in some pretty amazing places, and see some things that few will ever see, courtesy of our helicopter pilot!

High peak helicopter
Honestly am amazed that the helicopter pilot managed to land there!
A bit lower down, the pilot needed to refeuel the helicopter.
A bit lower down, the pilot needed to refeuel the helicopter.

 

How do you know what age the rocks are?

We actually don’t exactly know the age, so that’s why we’re up there working.

 

How do you find fossils?

Sometimes you just fall over them. That’s how this locality was originally found.

Fossil Quarry - 1Sometimes the fossils are just sitting there on a cliff face. Here’s a giant clam:

One big clamSome fossils aren’t body fossils. Here are some traces left by the burrowing of worms!

Traces

 

How do you collect rocks?

Collecting rocks isn’t necessarily pretty. Most of the time it requires a hammer.

Collecting rocks for isotopic analysis.
Collecting rocks for isotopic analysis.
Taking notes. There's a lot of that.
Taking notes. There’s a lot of that.
Here's a quarry that requires sledgehammers and chisels to collect rocks (in this case, rocks loaded with fossils).
Here’s a quarry that requires sledgehammers and chisels to collect rocks (in this case, rocks loaded with fossils).

When all is said and done, the rocks are loaded into crates and flown home.

Precious cargo

 

Do you have any fun?

Well, I was smiling during the trip…

Me - Day 8 - 1And I was still smiling at the end of the trip, on the long flight home.

Coming home

Published by paleololigo

Scientist (Paleontology, Geochemistry, Geology); Writer (Speculative and Science Fiction, plus technical and non-technical Science); Mom to great boy on the Autism spectrum; possessor of too many hobbies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: