Research Updates, Plus, It's not gay if it's week 3

Chris: "Jason, did you change the names on your blog to protect the innocent?"

Jason: "There are no innocent in Deadhorse. Only Victims."

Rawhide! Probably cause when it is 70 below zero, your ass gets chapped.

Read the name of the outhouse.

You might want to skip down to the funny stories at the bottom if you don't give a crap about research.


Our plane

Our plane broke. There was damage to the propeller. It looks like we are losing 4 days of potential research because of that. It kinda sucks, cause we need that time to get more data. We should be back up on Sunday. But it is getting cold, and the ground is freezing. This means the ground will stop emitting stuff, and we pack up and head home.

Bernie was getting too close to the moose.

The airplane threw part of the propeller. Look at the topmost tip

The weather here is not friendly for flying an airplane 30 feet off the ground. There is always fog in the morning. We get out in some afternoons. There is a lot of time tweaking instruments.

For hot weather, like VA, we have a radiator with a cooling loop on a pump. We have a weight-limit issue on the airplane. We want to have two pumps, but we need that radiator to keep the pump cool. Since it is cold here, we took off the radiator and use ambient air to cool the pump. So we gained 80 lbs. of weight capacity, and installed the 2nd pump. Now we can do pressure control on both our flux cells independently, greatly increasing the precision, accuracy, and speed of our data.

I used to call the instrument the Carbon Centipede cause the outlet of each pump was tied to the inlet of the next one.

We went from 3 instruments and one pump to 3 instruments and two pumps.

The Good News

Our instrument is kicking ass. The CO2 detection axis is behaving nicely. It shows consistent performance over a wide range of temperatures. Most of the time, the thing samples ambient air from the front of the plane. Every 20 minutes we shut down this flow and begin with a calibration gas that we carry onboard. The instrument is rock-solid and gives the same answer from the cal gas throughout the flight.

(2017 update: The instrument did not behave as nicely as we thought, with some pretty serious temperature regulation issues).

What's special about this? It is a brand new instrument. It is one of the only CO2 instruments in the world that flushes and refreshes the air samples in it 30 times per second. It is precise to nearly 0.5 parts per million (1-σ, 1 second). That means if it samples two million particles in one second, it counts the number of CO2 particles pretty much exactly. It pretty much kicks ass.

Building in the Field

Our methane instrument got a steroid treatment, thanks to Mark Witinski at EOS Photonics (they are hiring infrared laser engineers and semiconductor physicists, in case you are wondering).

A week before departing, Mark let us burrow a fancy piece of equipment that he thought might be better than ours. It was about 10x better. Which is sufficient to make our methane instrument hands-down the best methane spectroscopy instrument. So of course we needed to re-design the entire detector side of the instrument, in the field, and then get parts machined and shipped, then assemble it here. There were a few errors, so we had to file, chip, and cut at the metal to make everything fit. But we built fully a third of an instrument in the field. Now we have so much signal that we literally need to attenuate it to record it. Luckily the noise and signal are attenuated by the same amount. So we just got a 10x reduction in noise. Thanks, Mark!

It's Getting Hot in Here

It's sometimes near freezing when the plane flies.

Wait, it's always near freezing when the plane flies. It's fucking cold up here.

Somehow two of our three lasers keep overheating anyways. You might guess that lasers have a tendency to do that. We have augmented both systems by doubling their cooling capacities. Also, all our systems have really badass wrapping of flame-proof Nomex (worn by fire-fighters and also our instruments) clad in a type of tape call Kapton (stable to 400C, or 752 degrees fahrenheit. Note that paper does not burn this hot). It takes a lot of cutting and measuring and such to makes these wrapping. We call them clothes, cause you have to cut holes for all the cables. Kinda like arm sleeves.

Anyways, it was too hot in their, so they took off all their clothes (heh, sorry.)

Research, Summing it Up

We have a tower set up to measure methane and CO2 emissions. Where it is measuring is emitting 10x the methane of a marsh in Virginia, and 25% more than has ever been measured from a tower in the Arctic. NOAA set up and manages this tower. These tower measurements are standard and considered reliable.

Our instruments are kicking butt. We are going to compare our airplane flux measurements to the tower measurements. We anticipate that they will agree. If they do, then our airplane flux measurements of methane works. Did I mention that our methane instrument has a precision of about 4 parts per billion? Airplane flux measurements will make it so we can measure a larger area of the Arctic and find out what the region is doing.

Now we only need the weather to cooperate.

It's Not Gay if it's Week 3

"It's not gay if it's week 3." -Everyone in Deadhorse.

Week 3 has come and gone with no major incidents except for everyone deciding that I am a giant teddy bear.

Some funny things:

We were watching Hercules in New York. For some reason around then I had referred to Chris as Testosterone. Claire decided after watching Hercules that we should instead give Chris the nickname of Testicles, pronounced like Hercules (testi-cleez). We were sober at the time (Remember, no drinking at MagTec).

"Jason, your blog has really gone downhill." -Testicles (remember to pronounce it right!)

In another event, we have plumbing to do as part of our research. We move lots of air through our instrument to measure the methane and CO2. So we plumb lines together to pull the air through. At one point, I needed to connect two tubes together. They were both tubes with a 1" inner diameter. The connector is called a quick-flange to nipple connector. Yep, the thing you put in a tube to connect it to other things is called a nipple. Stay with me here. Anyways, we were missing 2 of them. I was looking all over for them. Finally, I spotted them. I joyfully yell out, "I finally found the one inch nipples I was looking for!" Claire starts laughing. Then I realize that David, a post-doc in our group, had walked by just as I was pointing and yelling about having found one-inch nipples. It looked like I was pointing at him. It didn't exactly go over well.

These are some of the more tame stories and comments. When I get back, ask me about the joke about spicy food.

Upcoming in life

By my next post (which will come later than on Sunday), I will be home in Cambridge. I haven't seen the moon, stars, or the night sky in over a month. I miss trees and clear blue sky. I haven't had reliable internet in the same amount of time. It will be nice to get back and see my friends and my room-mate.

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

Deadhorse 2: A Descent Towards Impropriety

"How come the only time I hear poop jokes is when I am with the Harvard team?" -Our airplane mechanic.

Caribou with a drill rig in the background

Caribou with a drill rig in the background


Imagine working 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week, in a place where the sun never sets. You lose track of which day it is, how long you have been here, how long you have left here. People here work 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off. More than that and it gets weird. Oil workers work 3 weeks on, 3 weeks off. Their motto? "It's not gay if it's week 3!"

When I first arrived in deadhorse, it was more like this:

Apparently at third week, everyone gets confused and it starts to look like this:

We are here for a little over 4 weeks. How's this affecting our group? We are making awful jokes. We've all started making 3 week jokes around the oil and other workers. Recently I was hanging out playing Magic: The Gathering (yep) with some random people I met here. Chris comes down to make fun of me a bit, starts walking towards the cafeteria, and asks if I want anything. I say, "From you? It's not week 3 yet." Laughter all around. Literally every single person here enjoys a good 3-week joke.

I found out that Deadhorse has almost no real permanent residents. There are a very small number of people that enjoy working here and don't like society. They stay for 13 weeks, and are forced to take a week off. They make more than $10k a month and have no expenditures (all food and such is provided), and they have done this for 20 years. In short, they are millionaires and just don't want to be anywhere else. Outside of this, everyone leaves Deadhorse.



As you can see from the caribou photo above, this place really is just oil and wilderness. It is all dirt roads, and there is no car wash. Check out this bus!

Dirty bus! There is no pavement here, and there are no car washes.

Dirty bus! There is no pavement here, and there are no car washes.

Slope Wives

I had to take a day trip to Anchorage to pick up a vital piece of equipment. While there, I went out to a bar and talked with a ton of random locals. I heard about a phenomenon called the Slope Wife. It's been said here that when you go to the slope, you don't lose your wife/girlfriend, you just lose your place in line. I thought this was an exaggeration. It's not. Everyone I ran into in Anchorage said that if a woman has a husband on the slope, she is highly likely to cheat on him. They are in effect "open season" at the bar. I don't like this. I was happy to return to my team on the North Slope after a night in Anchorage.


We live in a man-camp called Mag-Tec. It's really great here. The food here is amazing. 3 really great meals a day in a cafeteria. On one of my first days here I walked into the cafeteria and Charles, the cook, yells to me "How do you like your steak?" I thought he was kidding. And then I saw a giant pile of steaks. It's some of the best steak I have eaten. On Sunday nights, they have prime rib. In 4 more hours, I get to eat some excellent prime rib. You know when else I have been able to have prime rib? Pretty much never. This place is great in that respect.

Rooms are off a hallway with shared bathrooms. We can't lock the rooms during the day. The place is like a dorm. We hang out in our rooms at night. A bunch of 30 and 40 year olds sitting in a tiny dorm room, interpreting data and making awful jokes. It's like something out of a Saturday Night Live skit.

Prime rib and shrimp. We get this every Sunday.

Prime rib and shrimp. We get this every Sunday.


We are kicking ass up here. More on that next week. For now, here is a photo of our plane flying low over ground.

Bernie flying low with wings perpendicular to the ground


Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

Deadhorse 1

It was  below 0C in August in my first two days here.

The North Slope of Alaska is flat and has lots of lakes and running water

The North Slope of Alaska is flat and has lots of lakes and running water

Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay, AK, is different from most other places. Deadhorse is practically devoid of women, and has zero children. I asked a friend who works here on the oil rigs what dating was like: "The same as working everywhere in Alaska. Get in line and wait your turn."

Deadhorse is a dry town. You can't buy alcohol here. If someone working here is found with alcohol, they are fired or kicked out. The workers here will occasionally buy cool-aid, throw some champagne yeast in, and brew their own awful alcohol that way.

There are no hotels here. Instead there are Man-Camps. There are no restaurants in Deadhorse, and no place to buy real food to cook. You eat at a mancamp. There was an outbreak of the flu here a few weeks back, and an entire camp was quarantined. From then on, every camp requires that you use hand sanitizer upon entrance, and you use disposable plastic gloves on top of that when you get your food. All the hangar facilities here also have hand sanitizer everywhere.

This is not a town, it's a construction site.

This is not a town, it's a construction site.

There is no pavement. Dirt roads lead everywhere. You get dust and mud on your boots (you don't wear shoes). Upon entering a camp, you rub your shoes on some aggressive mud-and-dust removing blocks. After that you are required to put fabric booties over your boots. You are not allowed to walk around in camps in sandals or barefoot. Everyone has big manly boots with fabric booties over them.

Bears roam freely through town. I wanted to take a picture of one, but I have been assured that a grizzly does not look majestic while rummaging through a dumpster, emerging with an ice cream wrapper stuck to its head.

The only passenger vehicle used here is a 4WD king cab diesel pickup. All trucks have heating blocks in them, because it is so cold in the winter that the oil in the engine would turn to a gel if left unheated. In every single parking lot there are dozens upon dozens of plugs for these trucks to keep warm during the forever night of an Arctic winter.

Every truck needs to be plugged in during the winter, or it won't start again.

Every truck needs to be plugged in during the winter, or it won't start again.


Because of the bears, we are required to keep our keys in the trucks and the trucks unlocked. If someone is walking along, they need the safety of a heavy truck to dive into immediately, and be able to drive off.

No one is worried about theft here. We don't get keys to our hotel rooms. They are left unlocked when we leave. There is no black market here, so what would someone do with something they stole? We freely leave most of our possessions out, knowing that no one will touch them.


Our plane has arrived. We had to make repairs to the cooling of the Laser Pressure Vessel (it is an airplane, so as it flies higher, the ambient air pressure decreases. A pressure vessel holds the instrument at one pressure to keep everything precise) on the methane detection instrument.


I forgot my boots at lab. My advisor is flying out on 8/8. He is putting them in his luggage. That's right, my advisor thinks nothing of carrying my hiking boots across the country for field work. He's pretty cool that way. Would your PhD advisor do that?


We flew!


We had some heat control issues with the laser system, and two of our three instrument overheated.

That's all for now. Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

My Research - Climate Change and the Arctic

I am in Deadhorse, AK. It is as lovely as it sounds. The area of Prudhoe Bay is here because there is oil on the North Slope. Everything looks like a huge, permanent construction site with the sole goal of pulling oil out of the ground. But that isn't why I am here.

Before that, some housekeeping.

I have been awful at keeping up with my posting. While I am finding it difficult to write interesting posts on the same topic iteratively, the more pressing reason for my consistent delays is this trip to the Arctic Circle for all of August to do research. My team has been working their asses off in Cambridge and in Manassas, VA, to get our instrument and our plane ready. You are going to see a lot of posts about how things are going up here.

Soon, my random rantings and musings will take over this blog, and the energy topics will be fewer and far between.

Back to Prudhoe Bay. My research.

Prudhoe Bay and the Melting Arctic

I stand now in eternal sunshine. That isn't some deep metaphor. The sun doesn't go down during the summer when we are this far north. I am here to measure CO2 and methane emissions from the melting Arctic. This has nothing to do with sunlight, and has everything to do with global warming.

It is difficult to sleep like this

The Arctic is Melting

Ice volume in the Arctic is dropping. I have covered this in a prior post. We also mentioned that the Arctic will experience more amplification of heating than most other parts of the world. The direct response of the Arctic is to melt deeper every year into the permafrost that underlies the topsoil, where all the remnant CO2 from millenia of photosynthesis is kept.

How did Millenia of Carbon get Stored in Arctic Soil? 

Let's start by thinking about a tree. Trees grow leaves. The leaves store CO2. They pull it out of the atmosphere and store it as mass in the leaves. In the fall the leaves fall from the trees. Bacteria consume the leaves, turning it back into CO2 (or maybe a rabbit eats the leaf and turns it into CO2).

What happens when the leaf falls but doesn't get eaten? Most of the time it gets buried by snow or a bit of dirt and that CO2 is out of the atmosphere til Spring, when it warms up and the bacteria/rabbits get active again.

(This paragraph is skippable. Let's replace "leaves" here with all types of organic matter. Sometimes those "leaves" end up in anoxic environments, like the bottom of marshes, and there is nothing that can efficiently eat them. Or they get buried really deep really quickly by something, and get stores for a long long time. Then that CO2 is permanently removed from the atmosphere. Unless epochs later we dig it up and burn it as fossil fuel).

In the Arctic Circle, there are no trees. At some depth, maybe about 6 feet, the ground is permanently frozen. So tree roots can't go here. Moss and leaves grow here. But it is too cold for it to all get digested and eaten. Some of it pretty much sticks around forever. There are 300,000 years of undigested carbon in the first few meters of soil. Now it is warming up, and they that carbon might be ready to go.

Thermokarsting. IE giant chucks of Earth falling and collapsing.

Thermokarsting. IE giant chucks of Earth falling and collapsing.

Hastening this is a process called thermokarsting. In short, the ice in the soil (sometimes as much as 75% of the mass of the soil) melts. This ice held the soil together. Without it, the soil starts folding and collapsing, much like a riverbank does during a flood. Except it happens constantly in the warm days. This churning exposes tons of soil to the atmosphere. And this soil has carbon in it that can be eaten and turned into CO2 (This is a gross oversimplication, but the real details will only interest a few readers. Email me if you actually want more detail). In a bit of a slower process, underground bacteria can just eat the carbon at depth. In a more nefarious process, in anoxic environments the carbon can be converted to methane. Which is 23x stronger than CO2 on a 100 year timescale. The video below shows that these things produce enough methane so that the lakes can be lit on fire.

There are millions of lakes in Northern Alaska. If they convert even .05% of the carbon in the soil to methane, it will be more GHGs than all of mankind currently produces in a year. Same thing if 1% of the carbon in the soil is converted to just CO2. This is unlikely to happen in a short time period. It is quite possible in a long time period. And the scientific community doesn't have any data on it.

My team is measuring this. We are developing brand new technology to do this, and later teams will use similar or improved technology to continue the measurements. We are here to prove that it can be measured and that the technology works. Others will monitor the situation once we have proven that it can be monitored.

What we are doing is pretty neat. Direct from our webpage:

[Our system] has the capability to deliver to the Arctic research community a first-ever carbon isotopologue flux system that combines state-of-the art technologies in spectroscopy, infrared lasers, electronics and computing, advanced global navigation systems, high-performance airborne vertical wind speed measurements, and a state-of-the-art, high efficiency aircraft that provides regional coverage with disciplined costs.


The airplane with instruments in it plus some of my team

The airplane with instruments in it plus some of my team

That's all for now. Look forward to more pictures from Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay, alongside what we are doing here.

Thanks for reading.

-Jason Munster