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A Hardy Species: Arctic Scientists

Now I know what it feels like to be a scientist in the Arctic, out on the sea ice in a biting wind. As German sea-ice researcher Chris Petrich, puts it, “it’s really cool”.
If you’re like him, a northern type, who doesn’t like getting too hot – perfect. From the observer’s point of view – you really need to have a calling to work outside in these conditions. To quote one of the students: “I’d go mental if I had to do this in these temperatures all the time”.

Chris was undoubtedly the hero of the day. He works at Fairbanks Uni and comes up to Barrow at least once a month to monitor the development of the sea ice and the snow covering it. Current climate change models have various problem areas – one of them is the “albedo effect”. Snow reflects heat back up away from the earth. Melting snow leaves darkish puddles, which absorb the heat, thus exacerbating the warming further. But it’s a complex phenomenon to calculate. And there’s a need for more data.
Today, the climate ambassadors were detailed to help Chris with his measurements, drilling holes into the snow (with hand drills, great for keeping warm) and measuring the depth. “Full Arctic gear” was required, “take what you think you need and add an extra layer” was Chris’ advice. I was comfortable with five, almost full-face balaclava and the parka hood. Once my sunglasses had frozen over, I knew why they provided us with snow goggles.

We headed off at one, with Erika, one of the CC students who studied in the US, driving us in the BASC (Barrow Arctic Science Centre) van to the “end of the road“. (They’re a versatile bunch.)The trouble was, it was hard to tell whether the road had ended or not, since it’s all covered in snow anyway. Then we changed into the preferred mode of transport out across the snowy desert that is the frozen Arctic: snow machines, or skidoos, towing long wooden sledges, two on the “doo”, the rest sitting as flat as possible on the sledge. We had 3 armed eskimo “bear guides” with us, keeping watch throughout, as polar bears are common here. Chris has encountered them several times – close encounters fortunately of the brief and “mostly harmless” kind. At the moment, my guide tells me, they’re more likely to be further out, finishing off the carcasses of two recently “harvested” bowhead whales.

Chris was happy to be able to measure on a windy day to compare with yesterday, when the weather was calmer. So at least one person was happy about the wind-chill factor. The measurements took around four hours. The “trainee scientists” worked hard and successfully handed in their measurements. “Spread the word about climate change and the importance of polar research” were Chris’s parting words. That’s our mission Chris, and thanks for an exciting and informative day on the ice.
Great website with animated charts of sea ice – and the daily measurements
And another one on combining Inupiaq and western ice science:Barrow Ice Trails
Simon sent in a question about the insulation of houses, which I’d just like to touch on before I close.
Iglu is an eskimo word for dwelling, not necessarily the ice-house we tend to think of. Traditionally, people built to keep the cold out. I’ve talked to one of our bear guides and he tells me they have thick walls and thick roof insulation – but still need a lot of heat in the winter.


May 2, 2008 | 8:19 am



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