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Temperature

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In these early days, there’s a limit to how much scientific research we can conduct at Inian Islands Institute.  After all, notwithstanding the excitement of our purchase agreement and palpable momentum towards buying the Hobbit Hole, this place remains the home of the Howe Family.  Building our science laboratory, hosting visiting researchers all summer, and mooring our electric boat at the dock will have to wait until the sale is done, lest we impinge too greatly on this gracious family’s lives and livelihoods.

And so, like all remote field stations, we begin our science modestly: a bird count here, a tree core there, a note of early-blooming salmonberries on this record-warm El Niño year.  And plenty of visualizing what can and will be done – from plotting the location of lab benches where students will soon peer at plankton through microscopes, to scouting the best spots for oceanographic moorings – all in the effort of training young minds and generating long-term datasets serving as baselines and sentinels of change in one of the world’s richest living laboratories.

Caretaking at the Hobbit Hole this January in the quiet of the Wilderness, I seized the opportunity for another modest addition to our young science program: deploying a series of temperature sensors.  Temperature is perhaps the key variable in the environmental sciences.  In all or in part, it determines species distributions, precipitation and evaporation, air humidity, seawater density (and hence, the movement of ocean currents), timing of biological events, growth rates, speed of decomposition, freeze and thaw of land, lakes, oceans and glaciers, and so much more.  This is why global climate change is such a concern: when you change temperature, you change everything, and when you change it fast as we are now doing, biological systems that cannot keep pace may collapse.  Virtually every study conducted in the coming decades at Inian Islands Institute will benefit from the context of long-term temperature records – and the sooner we start them, the better.

The first step was to calibrate these inconspicuous sensors, to ensure they report the correct temperature.  Ever wonder how we know what temperature it is outside?  Easy – just look at the thermometer, right?  But how do we know the thermometer is correct?  Shall we check it against another thermometer?  How do we know that one is correct?  At some point we need an absolute standard to judge from, and for this, I employed an ice bath.

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State of Alaska Temperature Anomalies, 1949-2015, showing a pronounced warming trend.  Figure courtesy of University of Alaska Fairbanks.

I spent the day freezing ice cubes and placing them in liquid water in a cooler, which was itself outside in the cool air (to minimize temperature gradients and heat exchange).  In time, with a few stirs now and then, the solid and liquid water came to equilibrium at precisely the freezing temperature of water: zero degrees Celsius.  Is that what our temperature sensors told us when placed them in the icebath?  Pretty darn close!  Every sensor read within half a degree of 0ºC.  By recording these tiny offsets (for example, sensor 10620616 read 0.23ºC), and adding them to the data once collected, we know they’re reading true.

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Deploying a temperature logger off the outer dock, with classic Alaskan footwear.

Now that the sensors were calibrated and ready, where to deploy them?  It is impossible to predict exactly what questions will confront us in the future, and where data collection will be most fruitful — so I hedged my bets, opting to cover as much territory as possible: in the surface ocean, in the creek, and tacked on trees on the shoreline, in deepest forest, and on up the slope of the island.

It is gratifying to think of those sensors out there at this very moment, capturing temperature once an hour – day and night, whether in windstorms or blizzards or bluebird days. The world is warming, and warming all the faster the closer you get to the poles. How will that drama play out on these rainy islands at the precipice of the continent?

 

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