Video Transcript

Hi, my name is Rachel Tilling and I'm a research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. I use satellite observations to study sea ice, and I also am very lucky in the sense that I have to go to the polar regions to validate the measurements that I make with these satellites. For me, the moment on fieldwork when I always first think, whoa, I'm actually here is as soon as I see the sea ice. Sea ice is frozen seawater that forms as the Arctic or the Antarctic Ocean starts to freeze just under freezing around -1.8 degrees C in polar winter.

Some of it will melt away entirely over the summer season and some of it sticks around and becomes older, thicker, what we call multiyear ice. And that is the stuff that we tend to actually do our field work on because it's the stuff that is considered a little more safe to stand on and drag around equipment on. So when you really first see the ice, especially if you're going by boat, you see these really small pancakes, they really do look like breakfast almost floating around on the ocean surface.

And you are waiting on the boat for days and days before you actually get to the edge of the sea ice pack. And it's always such an awesome moment when you've reached the sea ice for the first time and everyone on board is getting really excited and it feels almost silly because it is just these really small little bits of ice and then gradually you start to get kind of deeper and deeper into the pack and feel a lot more remote and secluded.

I don't know if that feeling ever really goes away.

Even now, when I think about it, I still feel the same excitement reminiscing about seeing sea ice for the first time. And actually whenever I go on fieldwork, every time feels like the first time. It's never not exciting seeing this thing that you study and base your entire career around just being incredibly beautiful and remote.

The senses are really dependent on what's happening on a particular day and whether or not you're working, whether or not you're having a bit of downtime, what the weather's doing. Some days the only thing you can hear is just the wind. It's just absolutely relentless and you can feel the icy snow almost burning your face and struggling to see and struggling to hear anything at all, really.

Other days, especially when you're working, it's not actually that peaceful at all because a lot of the instruments that we use rely on a generator. So you imagine this really pristine environment in the Arctic, and the Antarctic, but a lot of the time it's just this constant hum of the generator and a faint smell of gas, which is counterintuitive to what you'd expect, and also a juxtaposition to the extreme environment that we're really trying to understand and to protect, which is why it's crucial to develop new instrumentation and new science instruments that are more efficient and lighter for us to take to these regions.

One of the questions is what were you wearing or what will you wear to protect yourself from the elements and where do you sleep? And the reason I found that funny is because I actually I'm not sure I should admit to this because it's a bit gross, but I think when I was on a sea ice camp, so you'll you fly out and you just get dropped on the sea ice and you camp there for days.

I didn't get changed. It was so cold that I didn't even want to. I didn't want to take my socks off because it burnt even in the tent. So I was wearing layers on layers and layers, even when I was sleeping, I think in three sleeping bags and just kind of dreaded getting out of that the tent every morning because it was so cold. So I wore layers all the time and did not dare to take them off except that for obviously at some point you have to go to the bathroom and that is not the most fun thing to do when you're on polar fieldwork, especially on the sea ice camp where you're just in the elements.

One of the things that surprised me that I hadn't really thought about before I went to the polar regions for the first time was the sunburn. Because it was so cold and freezing, you don't think that you're going to get sunburn. Which looking back on it now, is really kind of silly because the snow is so, so bright that the sun reflects so strongly.

You are lathering on the sunscreen all the time. It's kind of freezing to your face, but you still need that protection. And then you've got a balaclava and various scarves. And the main thing that I learned was if you don't protect your nose, that can get very painful very quickly because you breathe in through your nose and that freezes the inside of your nostrils.

And then at the same time you've got this bright sun kind of reflecting up and you up your nose. And that was the lasting thing was nose burn after getting back from field work. Nose burn and finger burn that lasts for weeks afterwards. For me, the most impressionable thing that I will never forget is the sound of complete silence on really, really calm days when you're camping on the sea ice hundreds of kilometers from land and nothing is moving. The complete lack of sound can be really eerie and overwhelming and almost deafening in a way.

And that's something that has stayed with me for a very long time. I haven't experienced it anywhere other than in the polar regions, and it's a really real surreal and kind of spooky feeling. Oh, I just thought of another sound that is one of my favorites. Again, this is when you're on the on a sea ice camp and you're trying to sleep at night and these big floes, they're the blocks of sea ice that are floating around freely on the Arctic or the Antarctic Ocean.

They come together and they creak and make this really squeaky sound, almost like a door opening or something, a door that needs to be oiled as they come together and collide. And, you know, in some places that sea ice is going to be pulling apart. And you just really, really hope that it's not falling apart directly under your tent because that is kilometers of freezing ocean underneath you on a ship.

It's not quite as scary when you're sleeping because you don't have to deal with the idea of just falling into the sea. But a lot of the cabins on ships are on the lower deck of the ship, so at the waterline, which means when you're breaking through ice, you get this constant squeak, creak and various white noise of the ice brushing up against the side of your cabin and against your porthole.

It's a little unsettling at first, but eventually you get so used to it that the white noise is almost relaxing. And there's a couple of times when I've been been on a ship that I've woken up in the middle of the night and realized it's because the sound has stopped. And I'm so used to hearing it that when that sound stops and there is no noise anymore, it almost jolts you awake and makes you remember where you actually are.

For me, the sky does look different, especially in the Arctic. We were there in March, so the sun never really set. And that's a really odd thing to feel because you just completely lose sense of time. It's not like you have slightly warmer moments where you think, Oh, the sun's up and cooler moments when you know it's time to go to bed because it is just cold and almost twilight the entire time.

And I think that could be kind of eerie. But for me, it has this almost magical sense to it. And it's not like anywhere else I've ever been. It's almost addictive and I just can't wait to go back to my favorite sound.

That is a really that's a really tricky one. One of them has to be the sound of ice breaking when you're on a ship just standing on the bow of the ship and looking down and seeing the ice breaking and almost feeling it breaking.

And then just hearing this kind of constant slash and creak and crack of the ice and the various sounds that it makes as the ice is thicker or thinner or softer or older, you can really you start to almost get a sense of the type of ice that you're breaking through if you've been there a long time. I'm a bit of a plane nerd, so I love hearing all the various planes and helicopters just landing and taking off on sea ice.

It's the coolest thing to watch, watching a twin otter, this small plane with skis actually landing on something that is only a couple of meters thick that is floating around on the ocean.

We did get to see penguins in Antarctica. Yes. The emperor penguins usually develop their colonies on sea ice. So they were the ones that we saw most of.

And they loved it. We have a sledge that we drag a radar around on. And I don't know what it is about the sledge, but penguins seem to think maybe it's another penguin or something because they will just follow you around for hours when you're trying to take measurements. We also were really lucky to get to go to a penguin colony on Sydney Island on our way back from Antarctica to the Falklands.

And I, I didn't realize how gross penguins are. The colonies smell disgusting. They look gross. And yeah, it definitely wasn't as peaceful and beautiful as I was imagining, but I still absolutely loved it. And penguins are still really cute. I've always had this fascination with the ocean, and when I was younger, I think I watched a lot of different programs that were focused in the polar regions as it was becoming more of an interest globally in terms of our changing climate and the impacts that would have on the polar regions.

So what I do now is this perfect combination of all the things that I loved the physics, the ocean and the climate protection all come together and I ended up here at NASA.

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