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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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Meeting the Inupiat (the Tale of the Whale)

We left our overnight stop in Anchorage at 4am after two and a half hours of sleep, bound for Barrow, 330 miles above the Arctic Circle, northernmost point in the USA and home to the ancient Inupiaq culture.

The Inupiaq name is Ukpiagvik, which means “place to hunt the snowy owls”. The locals themselves say this is probably one of the harshest locations in the Arctic.
All about Barrow
The plane to Barrow stops at Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, “the oil place”. I was sandwiched between two oil-workers, the one in dungares and baseball cap, the other in his parka and woolly hat – all the way to Prudhoe Bay. We had to get de-iced in between, there was some snow in the air – and of course plenty on the ground. Outside the air was prickling with ice crystals – inside the cabin, with steadily rising excitement in our small group of Europeans. Airfields with snow-ploughs and tiny terminal buildings. A taste of travel in Arctic Alaska. There is no road to Barrow. The air connection is the lifeline.
We were met by Alice, coordinator at BASC, the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, which is hosting us and providing our accommodation. She’s a real character and one of the most welcoming and hospitable people I’ve ever come across. In her informal, chatty way, as she drives us from the airport, she is teaching us a lot about her Eskimo heritage – and the role it still plays in everyday life in Barrow.
The Barrow Arctic Science Consortium
This is whale-hunting country – difficult for a lot of us, concerned as we are to “save the whales”. One of the Eskimos joked “is this the Greenpeace lot”? Of course we understand the difference between subsistence whaling as part of the indigenous culture and commercial whaling. And we’ve learned a lot about the Inupiat culture today and just how central the “harvesting” of a limited quota of bowhead whales is to it. Still, I found it hard to stomach all the details of the hunt – let alone the result. And that was definitely the dish of the day. In the Heritage Centre, we learned all about it. Then, at short notice, Alice told us we were invited to a feast.

When the “whaling captain”’s family has finished preparing and cooking up the whale meat, blubber and innards, the whole village is invited to come and eat and take away bags for the family. All generations were collected in the “Captain”’s kitchen. It’s clearly a very special – and very social – occasion. We didn’t want to intrude for too long, but had some interesting conversations in the house and outside, besides some of the bloody remains of the whale. From Jenny, a tough lady, to Kayan, a modern young man complete with ear stud, the people I talked to all had tales to tell of climate change.

The sea freezing later in the year than before, thinner ice, changes in the species of wildlife in the region. Everybody is concerned. This is clearly an issue here. But when it comes to awareness of the need to reduce emissions, the price of petrol is clearly a higher incentive than worry about global warming. In this icy, harsh climate, in an area as remote as you can find, heating and fuel are not a luxury. “Alternative energy man? Sure, give me a solar-powered snow-machine and I’ll use it” – Kayan laughs and heads off for some whalemeat.


May 1, 2008 | 6:34 pm



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