July 10, 2009

Room With a Boat

Assistant Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Science at City College

REYKJAVIK, Iceland | Well, the boat finally showed up. After its useless trip to the Arctic, we’re leaving nothing to chance. We’re keeping the boat with us in our hotel room.

Tomorrow we fly to Ilulissat, Greenland. We were supposed to go hiking on a
glacier today but I only arrived this morning instead of yesterday because of the saga of the lost boat. And it’s not over. We’re still not sure if we’ll be able to check the boat onto the plane.

This experience has meant a lot so far. I have been doing theoretical
electromagnetic modeling for half my career and became interested
in operational application of satellites data later. Since I moved to
CCNY I have decided to get my hands dirty and do field work. This
is because I fully believe that both theoretical and experimental
knowledge are necessary to get a broad view of the things I am
studying, in this case snow and ice (and let us speak honestly because
fieldwork can be very funny). Satellite data can tell you what is
happening over the entire world, they give you the broad picture but
cannot look at the snow under a tree, at the ice buried under a
snowpack. Satellite and ground data complement each other and
theoretical models are one of the connecting dots.

Doing research in the field is a completely different story than
crunching numbers with your computer. Do not misunderstand, I love
both, but differently. The preparation of the fieldwork is extenuating:
everything needs to be prepared in advance, and very carefully. All items must
be purchased on time, listed, checked, cross-checked and in those
cases, like mine, where there is no CVS or hardware store to
buy a screw or a piece of bread within 100 miles range, you want to
have doubles of whatever you can.

Of course, budget is a constraint. One of my instruments costs about $10,000 and I cannot
afford to have a copy of it. Also the boat: We made so many changes
from the original model, in terms of design and mechanics, that we
cannot afford another one. However, things like fuses,
screws, cables and so on can and must have doubles. Plus, there is
the shipping factor, which, as I experienced on my own skin, can be
dramatic (and excruciating). Obviously, behind the excitement and above all there
is the more general process of having an idea, thinking how to perform
it, checking its feasibility, getting the material and tools together
and achieving the vision. This process also happens when working with
the satellite data, but it is extremely different in style, more
comfortable, less demanding physically and differently sophisticated. Your tools are not snow axes and crampons here, but computers and web
connection; you do not set up your instrument but rather download your
data; you do not collect your data on ground but write the codes for
performing your analysis.
But that’s for later. For now, it’s off to snow and ice. Let’s pray the boat comes with us.