The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Sailing

How Long-Dead Arctic Explorers Are Helping to Improve Climate Science

Corwin1907The Revenue Cutter Thomas Corwin, in which John Muir sailed as part of an Arctic research trip. Photo: Frank H. Nowell

In July 1879, 33 Navy men set sail for the North Pole aboard the U.S.S. Jeannette Arctic expedition. That fall the ship became mired in ice off southern Alaska and drifted for three years. Its hull was later crushed and the crew abandoned the ship, pulling smaller crafts over the ice, searching for open water. In the end, only 11 men survived. But the logbook, in which the ship's crew wrote detailed weather and sea ice observations, also survived.

Climate scientists are hoping the data inside that and many other Naval and Coast Guard ships, dating back to the mid 1800s, will improve climate science and boost the accuracy of modeling for future weather patterns. Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) began digitizing these logbooks. Now,, a collaboration between a number of academic, government and citizen science research organizations, is spearheading the Arctic Rediscovery Project, an effort to transcribe this massive amount of data, a vital first step in the data analysis process.

Last month, sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean fell to the lowest extent in the existing records, which extend back to 1979, when satellite-based data first became available. This was an alarming discovery, especially given the absence of extreme weather that has precipitated ice loss in years past. But the Arctic Rediscovery Project could greatly improve climate scientists' understanding of Arctic sea ice by extending the archives of scientific sea ice data by more than 100 years.

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A Tsunami of Plastic

Tsunami_debrisTsunami debris. Photo: Stiv Wilson

By Stiv Wilson, 5 Gyres Institute

Out across a plastic stratified strand, two surfers, silhouetted in the failing light, are finishing a session. A year and half ago, this wasn’t a surf spot. A tsunami destroyed everything around here, shifting the coast enough to create virgin waves. Above the beach there is nothing but houseless foundations and the hum of heavy machinery trying to dig out. But the tsunami had another effect, too: the world finally woke up to the everyday pollution our oceans endure as the plastic zeitgeist of convenience we seemingly can’t avoid flows unchecked from every stream, river and sewer outfall in the world.

The mission of 5 Gyres Institute, the organization I helped kick start with co-founders Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, is to bring attention to the plight of plastic in our oceans by reinventing at-sea science research. By taking ordinary citizens, who have a vested interest in this issue, on our research excursions, we hope to inject more science into advocacy, dispel garbage patch myths and raise global awareness of the problem. By adding the cool factor of an epic and often brutal sailing adventure, we create fact-based communication tools for societal change, that traditional academia struggles to convey.

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The Top 10 Destinations for Enjoying Healthy Oceans

Sea_turtle_ellenboganSea turtle hatchling, Baguan Island, Philippines. Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

Examples of poor ocean health are too easy—unfortunately—to find in many parts of the world, especially along densely populated coastlines or in the midst of ocean gyres filled with plastic pollution. But what is the global state of ocean health? A group of marine scientists spent three years devising the Ocean Health Index, a new tool that provides some answers.

More than 60 scientists, researchers and organizations collaborated on the index, which was officially released on Wednesday. The index was designed to provide a framework and benchmark to measure the health of the oceans so that policy makers will have a point of reference to use in shaping future laws and regulations. Basically, it is intended to help us determine to what degree humans can continue to exploit the world’s oceans for food, products and tourism without diminishing their ability to sustain themselves. It sets the bar accordingly.

"A healthy ocean is not a pristine one," says Ben Halpern, the index’s lead author and a research scientist for the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS). "A pristine ocean is not a practical goal. To strive for that is a futile effort and never achievable at global scale."

The index is based on 10 indicators, or "goals," such as tourism/recreation or biodiversity, that set various lenses through which to view ocean health. These 10 goals can be viewed at the global scale or per country, with 171 coastal countries included in the index. The United States rates horribly in the tourism/recreation goal, scoring just one out of 100. I asked Halpern what gives.

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Alaska Tested: New Gear From Helly Hansen, MSR, Boreas

Field testing gear in real-world conditions is the only way to know which pieces are exceptional and which are run of the mill. So, immediately after the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt lake City wrapped, I hopped on a plane bound for Anchorage, Alaska, with Helly Hansen, Cascade Designs and Hayter PR to test select gear slated for a spring 2013 release.

For five days, we camped, fished, sailed, hiked, ice climbed and watched bears gobble salmon out of Alaskan streams. We took stoves, bags and apparel into the elements and put them through their paces. Here's what rose to the top:


Helly designers changed how they knit the inner layer of HellyTech three-ply, the company's own waterproof breathable membrane, to make this 14-ounce three-layer jacket. It's the most breathable waterproof jacket Helly has ever built. The circle knit inner layer is slippery against other layers of clothing, so whether hiking, climbing or backcountry skiing, you won't ever feel restricted by your clothing layers binding.

Helly builds all of their technical gear to handle Perfect Storm-like conditions, whether you're on the side of the mountain or at sea. So even though it's light and very breathable, there is no compromise in this jacket's waterproofness. The Guiding Light is not flashy or gimmicky—just highly functional and well made. Available spring 2013, $460;

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68,000 Free Maps for iPad, Kindle Fire and Android Tablets


Want to look at maps on your tablet instead of your phone so that they're bigger and easier to comprehend? Trimble Outdoors just released its MyTopo Maps app for the Kindle Fire and other Android-powered tablets. Now you can plot your next outdoor adventure on the big screen. The app gives any tablet user access to over 68,000 detailed topographical maps of the United States and Canada in addition to aerial photos, street maps, terrain maps and hybrid maps.

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