World Federation of Science Journalists

Amundsen - Aalok Mehta

Aalok Mehta
Writer/Editor, National Geographic News
United States



Aalok Mehta works at National Geographic News, the daily online news site of the National Geographic Society, where he writes, edits, and helps plan overall coverage on the latest developments in science, nature, technology, archaeology, and culture. He has previously worked as an overnight news producer at the and as a writer and production editor for Chemical and Engineering News, the weekly news magazine of the American Chemical Society. He received a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and in philosophy in 2001 from Rice University.


Food for the Mind
June 17, 2008

Napoleon Bonaparte once famously quipped, "an army marches on its stomach." So too, apparently, does a research ship.

Three times a day like clockwork, the ship's chefs dish out lavish meals in the Amundsen's cafeteria - the highlight of many a visitor's trip.

"This food here is amazing," said Claire Evans, a virologist from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea, while eating a lunch of "leguminous salad." "The Quebec cooks really know what they are doing. And the desserts - I want to photograph them, not eat them."

A typical meal consists of a soup and traditional French entree, served with sides of vegetables and potatoes (the tubers are apparently indispensable on the Amundsen - there is a whole room on the main deck dedicated to their storage). And every dining experience seems to end with a sumptuous pastry, cake, or pie.

"I've been on other ships," said David Barber, the ship's chief scientist, one night over a dinner of veal with tartare sauce and French fries. "This is by far the best."

But make no mistake - none of this is frivolous. "It's no small thing," Barber said. "It's an issue of morale."

People are away from their friends and families for extended periods of time, he pointed out - usually six weeks, but sometimes longer. The seasonal cycle makes things even more difficult; constant darkness during the winter saps motivation and complicates field work, while with the midnight sun in the summer, it's easy to lose track of time and work 18- or even 20-hour days.

And the research is not easy. At its worst, the cold complicates even the simplest of tasks - gloves hamper anything requiring manual dexterity, such as writing with a pen or opening a bottle to store samples; electronics need heaters to keep from freezing up; and batteries go dead within minutes.

No one can head onto the ice without a trained sharpshooter in the group, because of the danger of polar bears. Violent storms can sweep through the area, tough ice can lock the ship in place despite its icebreaking hull, and fog can reduce visibility to nil, stopping work for days at a time.

But on the Amundsen, elaborate meals are just one of a number of amenities designed to make the ship feel more like a home away from home than a vessel exploring this bleak and desolate landscape.

Everyone onboard has 24-hour access to coffee, cereal, sandwiches, and snacks, including fresh-baked cookies. A TV in each cabin offers a limited selection of channels from the ship's satellite feed and pipes in views from onboard cameras, letting people see what's happening on the ship without ever having to leave bed.

Anyone can have a served meal in the officer's dining room. A pair of lounges lets passengers watch soccer on a big screen, play darts, or watch a movie complete with surround sound. There are occasional bar nights, and a more formal Sunday dinner offers the chance to indulge in a little wine. And satellite phones and a pair of common-use Internet terminals provide a link to the mainland, though the connections are finicky and sometimes go down if the ship is pointed in the wrong direction.

All of which helps when things get their most frustrating.

For Evans, who had a break of only seven days between a two-and-a-half month stint on the German icebreaker Polarstern, currently in the Antarctic, and her leg on the Amundsen, homesickness is starting to settle in. But the amenities keep her from getting too caught up in the minutiae and forgetting just how productive and eye-opening these research expeditions can be.

"Life at sea is amazing. You get to see something landlubbers couldn't begin to conceive it," she said. "All the little hardships and things are worth it. Just to be here - it's truly amazing."


Any Way the Wind Blows
June 14, 2008

After two days of madcap activity aboard the research icebreaker Amundsen, I know only one thing for certain - on this ship, nothing is certain.

Canada's high Arctic is subject to extreme temperatures, unpredictable weather, and changing ice conditions, turning every activity into an exercise in adapting to constantly fluctuating circumstances.

That's compounded by an ambitious research program looking at things no one has ever studied before, in places no one has ever looked before, using instruments no one has ever used like this before - all in a location changing rapidly in response to climate change. Research plans morph on an almost daily basis to best suit the project's goals and take advantage of anything interesting that pops up unexpectedly.

"You have to deal with a lot of unknowns," said Dan Nguyen, a master's student at the University of Montreal studying the role of microbes in the Arctic's carbon cycle. "We have to be able to adapt to any situation."

For example, when I arrived, the Amundsen was conducting an extended study of melting fast ice - ice tethered to the shore, relatively unaffected by currents or winds - in an area of the Northwest Territories known as Darnley Bay. But on my first full day on the ship, what had been a relatively straightforward plan for the following day's research activities took a sudden shift around noon after lead scientist David Barber reviewed the results of a helicopter survey of beluga whales.

An unusual preponderance of the animals in nearby Franklin Bay prompted Barber to draw up a hasty plan to head there overnight, then study multiple sites both parallel and perpendicular to the edge of the area's fast ice in order to determine what was drawing the animals and how the ocean was changing in response to drifting sediments from a neighboring river. It was something the scientist complement had never done before.

By evening, the complicated task of organizing this completely new type of research program was almost complete, with Barber planning to take the Amundsen's helicopter out in the morning to locate a beluga-rich site from which to begin the survey.

Or so he thought.

After the night of sailing, however, the Arctic failed to cooperate. It had become too foggy for helicopter flight, so the study site had to be picked based on satellite photos and previous survey data. And the water was full of floating ice chunks, forcing Amundsen captain Lise Marchand to take a significant amount of time to find a suitable location to break into the ice.

So by noon, out of necessity the plan had been rewritten again to adjust for the unexpected difficulties. With about four hours of research time lost, the number of experiments was cut. The large amount of mobile ice also meant it was too dangerous for the time being to study sites parallel to the ice edge. And the delays meant that the ship would be in Franklin Bay at least two full days, increasing the chance that the study site in Darnley will melt completely before the Amundsen can return.

Amundsen scientists tell me it's something everyone on board the ship gets used to.

"It's very common. This is nothing," said Mukesh Gupta, a Ph.D. student studying the physical properties of the ocean. "Everything changes rapidly around here, and without notice."


I'll Have Fries With That
June 13, 2008

It was before I had taken a single step aboard the C.C.G.S. Amundsen that I learned my first lesson about the trials and travails that come with running a research icebreaker in the Arctic.

I was traveling aboard a chartered Twin Otter aircraft on the penultimate step in the two-and-a-half day journey from Washington, D.C., to the ship, located in Darnley Bay high in Canada's Northwest Territories.

It wasn't the most glamorous accomodation: My travel companion - another journalist - and me were relegated to two seats up against the rear of the plane's main compartment, separated from the cockpit by hundreds of pounds of strapped-down cargo bearing Amundsen destination tags. (Though the view outside was spectacular.)

As I would soon be made keenly aware, that's because these flights are pretty much the only lines of supply for a ship so far removed from the safety net of modern civilization. Because the journeys are so rare and expensive - used mostly for rotating crew and scientific personnel - the ship's operators go to great lengths to take maximum advantage of each one.

In this case, we were sharing space mostly with what I would later be told were scientific instruments called moorings. Shaped like large yellow spheres, these devices sit submerged in open water for a year, collecting data on ocean conditions, before being recollected and analyzed. In addition, there were a few boxes of other supplies, including frozen French fries, which had crew members used mostly to nonperishable food rejoicing as "a real treat."

It wasn't a one-sided trade either. As the Twin Otter landed at Cape Parry - a desolate stretch of runway that had once served as a Distant Early Warning (DEW) station on the watch for possible Soviet attack "over the Pole" - we were greeted by the Amundsen's fully laden MBB 105 helicopter. The Twin Otter's cargo was quickly and efficiently exchanged for boxes headed for the mainland, while several crewmembers and the moorings remained behind for pickup later during a second chopper flight.

These days, with an unusual abundance of clear weather suitable for helicopter flights, it's a fairly typical exchange for the Amundsen. Without this link to the mainland, scientists can't offload collected samples for detailed analysis or store backup copies of their data until the ship returns to port in four months. These flights are also the sole way to get additional equipment, fresh foods, and even basic sundries to the vessel, which otherwise can rely only on what was stashed away before leaving dock some 11 months ago.

The resupply flights are not completely necessary - the Amundsen is generally self-sufficient, David Barber, the ship's chief scientist, told me after I came on board. But they help significantly with the already difficult logistics of planning research operations under the extreme weather conditions of the Arctic, using only a single ship's limited lab space, communications bandwidth, and electrical power.

That become highly relevant earlier this year, when a regularly forming ice bridge failed to appear, forcing the ship to scrap plans to winter near a semi-permanent research base with an airstrip, Barber added. Without an easy way to transfer cargo, the Amundsen's researchers had to make do as best they could during the constant darkness and bitter cold.


Application essay

As an editor and writer for National Geographic News, the daily news Web site of the National Geographic Society, I believe that winning a week-long trip aboard the Amundsen icebreaker would provide me and my team with valuable firsthand insights about global warming in the Arctic so that we can better serve our more then two million monthly readers.

Over the past two years I have seen a dramatic rise in public interest in global warming issues, as evidenced by ever growing reader interest in our coverage of the topic. In addition to the variety of other science topics we cover regularly, we now report on aspects of climate change on an almost daily basis. I also noticed the trend towards more interest - and more coverage - at my previous position, a news producer for the Web site of the Washington Post.

Global warming is especially important to National Geographic readers, as it is greatly affecting many of the things for which the society is best known. Habitat destruction and rising temperatures are threatening a number of iconic animal species, while many famously photographed landscapes are being severely damaged. And global warming is expected to have its most devastating effects on humans in Africa, with which National Geographic has always had a special relationship.

But news about global warming can be difficult to cover, because it's largely the story of abstract studies, computer models, and historical analyses. As journalists based in Washington, D.C., our team's knowledge of the effects of global warming comes primarily from reading what experts and scientists predict in these reports.
That's why the Amundsen icebreaker trip presents a unique opportunity: giving firsthand accounts of how global warming is having very real effects. Supported by the enormous expertise and resources of National Geographic, I could use this trip to show just how much global warming has done to alter the face of the Arctic - the kind of hands-on journalism that is the hallmark of the society.

Those stories are especially important to tell in the United States, a country that remains reluctant to accept global warming or to take steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions. National Geographic News, with readers primarily in the U.S. but also broadly around the world, is an ideal vehicle for this. The site covers a broad range of topics, allowing us to address global warming issues from almost any angle, from scientific aspects to impacts on animals to the effects on local cultures.

I also believe I am especially well suited for this opportunity. Because of the fast pace and daily deadlines of my work, I have extensive experience writing and developing both breaking news and in-depth feature stories. These include a number of climate change pieces, dealing with, for example, melting of Arctic ice and global temperatures reaching record highs. I have also researched and edited dozens of additional stories on global warming.

In addition to my journalistic credentials, I also have a strong background in research science, in particular biology - including both extensive lab experience and participation in a number of ecological field expeditions. This ensures both that I can contribute to the Amundsen's research mission and that I can clearly communicate aspects of the voyage in a way that will appeal to a broad audience.
Finally, the icebreaker trip would allow me to satisfy my own personal desire to see how global warming is affecting the world. My work as a journalist has led me to believe that climate change is the one of the greatest challenges we face - and that unless steps are taken now, the toll both on the environment and on human life will be devastating.
Thank you for this opportunity, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.