An Arctic “miracle“: Icebreaker salvages lost recordings of Beluga whales

A helicopter from the Swedish icebreaker Oden lands on an ice floe to pick up crew members involved in the retrieval of a scientific acoustic recorder containing valuable data on Arctic marine life movements in the Canadian Arctic July 25, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. (REUTERS)
Updated 03 August 2019

An Arctic “miracle“: Icebreaker salvages lost recordings of Beluga whales

  • Loose was speaking in video footage transmitted from the Oden to his university and shared with Reuters

KIRUNA, Sweden: A year-long recording of the songs of Beluga whales has been salvaged from the Arctic after the crew of a Swedish icebreaker chanced upon a research buoy adrift in hazardous pack ice.
A team tracking the device from California said they had almost given it up for lost when a “miracle” run of events allowed the vessel, the Oden, to stage an impromptu rescue while navigating through a channel in the far north of Canada.
“We were watching it drift away via satellite and it happened to drift past the Oden. It’s great, amazing luck,” said Josh Jones, a graduate student researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.
“Because it was stuck in heavy pack ice, it would have been only a matter of time before it would have been torn apart,” Jones told Reuters by telephone.
Scripps began deploying the buoy for year-long stints on the seabed in the Barrow Strait in the Canadian Arctic in 2013, aiming to use the sounds it registered to better understand the impact of climate change on the region’s marine life.
The buoy would record ambient ocean noises, from the whir of passing ships’ propellers or the vibrations of distant offshore oil drilling, to the high-pitched clicks of Beluga whales. The sounds — inaudible to humans — have earned the gregarious species the nickname “canaries of the sea.”
The eerie music of narwhals, known for their long “tusks,” and the sounds made by bowhead whales and bearded seals were also captured by the sensitive underwater equipment.
But two consecutive summers of heavy pack ice have prevented Jones and Randy Nungaq, a resident of Resolute Bay, from conducting their annual boat trip to maintain the buoy since 2017. The instrument only resurfaced in mid-July when a passing iceberg appears to have dragged it up from the seafloor.

MENACED BY ICE
Jones said he monitored the buoy as it drifted loose for about 10 days, fearing all the while that massive ice sheets would crush the device like a “trash compactor.”
It was pure chance that the Oden was passing nearby, carrying US and Canadian scientists on a 2,000-nautical mile voyage through the Northwest Passage to raise awareness of the risks fast-melting sea ice pose to Earth’s climate.
The Oden, operated by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat, scrambled a helicopter to pinpoint the buoy.
The crew initially tried to retrieve the instrument using a small boat, but then resorted to the riskier option of using the Oden’s thrusters and reinforced prow to prise it from an ice floe on July 25.
Two men were hoisted over fast-flowing water by a crane then lowered to the level of the ice, where one of them crouched down to hack through the buoy’s mooring with a knife.
“I think it’s groundbreaking because it’s basically mapping the passage of whales and other marine mammals through these really important passageways between the Pacific and the Atlantic,” said Brice Loose, the chief scientist for the Oden expedition, known as the Northwest Passage Project.
“So really more than the loss of the instrument, it’s the loss of the data if we weren’t able to recover this, and so that’s why we’re here,” said Loose, a professor at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.
Loose was speaking in video footage transmitted from the Oden to his university and shared with Reuters.
The Northwest Passage Project, which groups various academic institutions, has staged three live broadcasts from the Oden via social media and dozens of public events in the United States.
The icebreaker cast off from Thule, Greenland on July 18 and has conducted a series of experiments with the help of students on board. The vessel is due to return to Thule on Sunday. 


At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

In this Monday, Jan. 20, 2020 image, Lizzie Chimiugak looks on at her home in Toksook Bay, Alaska. (AP)
Updated 22 January 2020

At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

  • The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867

TOKSOOK BAY, Alaska: Lizzie Chimiugak has lived for 90 years in the windswept western wilds of Alaska, born to a nomadic family who lived in mud homes and followed where the good hunting and fishing led.
Her home now is an outpost on the Bering Sea, Toksook Bay, and on Tuesday she became the first person counted in the US Census, taken every 10 years to apportion representation in Congress and federal money.
“Elders that were before me, if they didn’t die too early, I wouldn’t have been the first person counted,” Lizzie Chimiugak said, speaking Yup’ik language of Yugtun, with family members serving as interpreters. “Right now, they’re considering me as an elder, and they’re asking me questions I’m trying my best to give answers to, or to talk about what it means to be an elder.”
The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867. The ground is still frozen, which allows easier access before the spring melt makes many areas inaccessible to travel and residents scatter to subsistence hunting and fishing grounds. The mail service is spotty in rural Alaska and the Internet connectivity unreliable, which makes door-to-door surveying important.
The rest of the nation, including more urban areas of Alaska, begin the census in mid-March.
On Tuesday, Steven Dillingham, director of the census bureau, conducted the first interview after riding on the back of a snowmobile from the airport to Chimiugak’s home.
“The 2020 Census has begun,” he told reporters after conducting the first interview with Chimiugak, a process that lasted about five minutes. “Toksook Bay isn’t the easiest place to get to, and the temperature is cold. And while people are in the village, we want to make sure everyone is counted.”
Dillingham was hours late getting to Toksook Bay because weather delayed his flight from the hub community of Bethel, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) away. Conditions didn’t improve, and he spent only about an hour in the community before being rushed back to the airport.
After the count, a celebration took place at Nelson Island School and included the Nelson Island High School Dancers, an Alaska Native drum and dance group. Later, the community took over the commons area of the high school with a potluck of Alaska Native foods, including seal, moose and goose soups, herring roe served with seal oil and baked salmon.
Robert Pitka, tribal administrator for Nunakauyak Traditional Council, hopes the takeaway message for the rest of the nation is of Yup’ik pride.
“We are Yup’ik people and that the world will see that we are very strong in our culture and our traditions and that our Yup’ik language is very strong,” he said.
For Chimiugak, she has concerns about climate change and what it might do to future generations of subsistence hunters and fishers in the community, and what it will do to the fish and animals. She talked about it with others at the celebration.
“She’s sad about the future,” he eldest son Paul said.
Chimiugak was born just after the start of the Great Depression in the middle of nowhere in western Alaska, her daughter Katie Schwartz of Springfield, Missouri, said. Lizzie was one of 10 siblings born to her parents, who lived a nomadic lifestyle and traveled with two or three other families that would migrate together, her son said.
Lizzie and her 101-year-old sister from Nightmute, Alaska, survive.
In 1947 Lizzie married George Chimiugak, and they eventually settled in Toksook Bay after the town was founded in 1964 by residents of nearby Nightmute. There are five surviving children.
He worked maintenance at the airport. She did janitorial work at the old medical clinic and babysat.
Like other wives, she cleaned fish, tanned hides and even rendered seal oil after her husband came home from fishing or hunting. Her husband died about 30 years ago.
She is also a woman of strong Catholic faith, and told her son that she saved his life by praying over him after he contracted polio.
For her own hobbies, she weaved baskets from grass and remains a member of the Alaska Native dance group that performed Tuesday. She dances in her wheelchair.
She taught children manners and responsibility and continued the oral tradition of telling them stories with a storyknife.
Chimiugak used a knife in the mud to illustrate her stories to schoolchildren. She drew figures for people or homes. At the end of the story, she’d use the knife to wipe away the pictures and start the next story with a clean slate of mud.
“She’s a great teacher, you know, giving us reminders of how we’re supposed to be, taking care of subsistence and taking care of our family and respecting our parents,” her granddaughter Alice Tulik said. “That’s how she would give us advice.”