On Frozen Ground

January 27, 2010

Dr. Vladimir Romanovsky, director of the Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, conducts permafrost research on the North Slope of Alaska. Photo: courtesy Dr. Romanovsky

By Marcy Davis

Scientists have long known the importance of permafrost, a layer of frozen soil in circumpolar regions that is one of the first victims of a warming climate. For more than 50 years, researchers have dropped temperature sensors into boreholes at various depths all around the world to track the state of the permafrost. But much of this data remains isolated and unpublished, inaccessible to anyone hoping to track global temperature change.

But if Dr. Vladimir Romanovsky, director of the Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Geophysical Institute, has his way, an international collaboration between the United States and Russia could produce the first international permafrost network. Call it the Cold Cooperation, the scientific opposite of the Cold War.

Linked In

As one of 35 National Science Foundation-supported Arctic Observing Network (AON) projects, Romanovsky’s work will integrate 80 Alaskan borehole sites—locations where researchers study permafrost, with about 160 Russian borehole sites. This initial step will provide the baseline temperature estimates necessary to evaluate future rates of change, according to Romanovsky.

“Permafrost data is beneficial to any ecological or carbon cycle study,” said Romanovsky. “Providing our data to other studies is important. In turn, we want to know about ecosystems, and have to be able to take into account hydrology and vegetation changes. Establishing this network will facilitate better communication and data sharing.”

Improved Modeling

In addition, the network will make permafrost data more available to climate modelers, which should improve researchers’ abilities to predict and understand the interaction between permafrost and climate.


Permafrost, defined as any earth material at or below 0°C for two or more consecutive years typically forms in the Arctic, subarctic, Antarctica, and in high alpine regions. It can vary in extent and thickness, and the largest area of continuous permafrost underlies the Tibetan Plateau in China with an area totaling 2.5 million square kilometers, more than twice the size of Alaska. Eastern Siberia holds the record for thickest permafrost at 1400 meters.

Domestically, permafrost in the Rocky Mountains of North America is laterally discontinuous, or patchy, with thicknesses ranging from less than one to several meters. Where temperatures are consistently colder, the permafrost is thicker.

Along Alaska’s North Slope, permafrost is continuous except under big lakes and rivers, which do not freeze completely to the bottom in winter; water acts as a source of heat to the ground below. At Prudhoe Bay, permafrost is 660 m thick. In Alaska’s interior, permafrost is discontinuous, found mostly in stands of black spruce and in low valleys where moss and peat are prevalent; Aspen groves and south-facing slopes rarely have permafrost.

Changes To Frozen Ground

Romanovsky has observed temperature changes in Alaskan permafrost, but added that interpreting those changes is difficult. Natural oscillations that last multiple decades show the same patterns; researchers need more time to understand whether or not their results result from longer-term, global climate change.

“The cycle seems on an upward trend,” he said. “What we see could be global warming, or could just be a longer natural oscillation. What are interesting are the hemispherical similarities between Alaska and Russia. Models can help explain past temperatures and future projections regionally and globally. So, we need to keep making measurements.”

Threats To Permafrost

One of the biggest concerns about warming permafrost is that greenhouse gases such as methane now sequestered in permafrost may be released back into the atmosphere, thereby creating a positive feedback for future climate warming. Another worry stems from the potential impacts of thawing permafrost on the communities, which could include localized but important changes in ecosystems and infrastructure.

Romanovsky says, “We are seeing changes in permafrost, but they are slowly evolving changes. There could be dangers for people who live in permafrost regions so they should be aware of the problem, but should not panic. Instead, we need to focus on mitigation, and working together. We have some ways to tackle these problems, but it takes time and money.”

There Comes the Sun

January 26, 2010

Crescent Moon over Summit Station. Photo: Bill McCormick

January 25, 2010

Kip Rithner wrote:

Hello Summiteers,
Exciting times! I hope everyone’s doing well on the world’s roof—I imagine you’re looking forward to sunshine and getting out of Summit after the Phase III team arrives around February 2.

Speaking of sun, I hope you’ll keep the field notes blog in mind when you enjoy the sunrise on January 27th. I’d love to post a picture of you enjoying the spectacle. This time always makes me think of the Beatles song. What do you think of?

Summit manager wrote:

Hi Kip,

Yes, we’ll surely be taking photos if the weather allows.  Here’s the forecast that we just received:

“Thursday:  Cloudy and maybe light snow at times. Still risk of fog and southwesterly winds about 05-15kt and temperatures unchanged or slightly warmer.”

Karl Newyear
Summit Station Manager
Winter 2009-10 Phase II

Kip Rithner wrote:

Booooo!  Maybe it’ll clear a bit, though.

Summit Manager wrote:

Hi Kip,

This is the best forecast we’ve seen in weeks!

The Arctic Food Chain: Mercury and Polar Bears

January 26, 2010

A recent study found that polar bears predating 1950 that ate a phytoplankton-based diet have higher concentrations of mercury in their systems than bears that eat diets based from the ice algae food web. Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki

The looming threat of melting sea ice has raised awareness about climate change’s impact on polar bears, an endangered species. Also relevant—and less studied—is how changes to the earth—and melting sea ice—could affect the species’ diet. 

Which may be why a recent study in the December issue of the journal Polar Research that establishes two different primary food webs for polar bears and documents surprisingly higher mercury levels in bears that eat from one specific web garnered interest from both the scientific community and science journalists. 

Mercury concentrations can be poisonous to humans and other members of the food chain; currently scientists do not know what levels of mercury are dangerous to polar bears. 

(Note: mercury is not a greenhouse gas, nor is it associated directly with global warming. However, high concentrations of mercury in polar bears is significant to scientists for complex reasons outlined below.) 

Diet Details 

 The study confirmed that polar bears got their food from two primary food webs: 

Phytoplankton-based, which begins with single-celled plants inhabiting the top layer of the ocean 

Ice algae-based, which begins with microscopic plants living within and below the sea ice 

The research went further, analyzing mercury concentrations in the bears’ fur. 

They found that polar bears chowing down on the phytoplankton-based food chain, which originates in the open ocean in the absence of sea ice, had greater concentrations of mercury in their bodies than bears whose diet traced back to the ice algae. 

Dr. Joel Blum, principal investigator, collects snow samples to test for mercury concentrations near Barrow, AK. Photo: Joel Blum

Mercury Investigations 

One of the study’s authors, Joel Blum, the John D MacArthur Professor of Geological Sciences, and Professor of Ecology at the University of Michigan, said the findings are significant as scientists strive to learn more about mercury, an inorganic element whose presence in the atmosphere has tripled since the industrial revolution. 

“Very little is known about how mercury moves around the globe,” said Blum. “But we know humans have increased the amount of mercury in the environment.” 

Mercury can stay in the atmosphere for up to a year and travel to far reaches of the globe, and scientists have documented a considerable amount of mercury deposited in the Arctic. Studying the bears provides important background data on earlier mercury levels, Blum said. 

Factory emissions are a major source of mercury pollution. Photo: courtesy Air Resources Laboratory, NOAA

Museum Bears 

Blum and his colleagues analyzed mercury concentrations in polar bears that predated 1950, before the major influx of mercury from coal-burning power plants and other industrial activities that send mercury into the atmosphere. 

Specifically, they analyzed the late-19th- and early-20th-century polar bear hair for the chemical signatures of nitrogen isotopes, carbon isotopes, and mercury concentrations, looking back in time to a period before man-caused mercury emissions escalated. 

“We know that due to human inputs mercury distribution in the Arctic is currently heterogeneous (multi-faceted and complex), so we decided to take a step back and understand the fundamental processes, pre-1950,” said Blum. 

Phytoplankton Diets = High Mercury Concentrations 

 The discovery that bears that eat on the phytoplankton food chain have significantly higher mercury concentrations suggests that as sea ice melts and bears eat more phytoplankton-based diets, their mercury concentrations could increase, said Blum. 

Moving Through The Food Web 

 And, he added, if concentrations of mercury are increasing in polar bears, which are at the top of the food chain, “this is an indication that they are also increasing lower in the arctic food chain.” 

That means human populations that rely on subsistence hunting could also be experiencing an increase of mercury exposure as well. 

How Mercury Becomes Poison 

 Relatively harmless in its inorganic state, mercury becomes extremely poisonous to humans when it is converted into methylmercury and passed up the food chain. 

Mercury in its methylated state is considered by many to be “public enemy number one,” said Blum. Its prevalence in the Arctic and potential to spread through the food chain is a very real concern and could be exacerbated by climate change. 

Recent discoveries about mercury’s biochemical properties have unlocked mysteries about the element and enabled scientists to probe deeper into the question of how a relatively inert element (mercury) can transform into a menacing poison. 

Scientists know that at times there can be extremely high concentrations of mercury in the Arctic snow pack and are working to understand where it is coming from and what unique chemical reactions take place in the Arctic that lead to rapid deposition of mercury from the atmosphere to the snowpack. 

Next Steps 


Sunrise on the flats near Barrow. Blum and his colleagues hope to better understand how mercury travels to and deposits in the Arctic. Photo: Joel Blum

Now that his team better understands the Arctic food web, pre-1950, the logical next step would be to examine mercury levels and nitrogen and carbon isotopes in bears from 1950 to present day, he said. 

In addition, much remains to be understood regarding mercury in the Arctic. Specifically, scientists want to better understand where it comes from, how it travels to northern latitudes, what mechanisms cause it to be deposited, and where it is converted to methylmercury. 

“We want to better understand what’s going on in the arctic mercury cycle, to see if we can help mitigate the problem,” said Blum.  —Rachel Walker

Arctic Stories: New Multi-Media Web site

January 21, 2010

Not your typical office. A research building at Barrow, AK. Photo courtesy Arctic Stories

We’re pleased to welcome Arctic Stories, the brainchild of Purdue University atmospheric chemist Paul Shepson, to the online effort to educate and inform people about arctic research and life. (In 2009, we supported Shepson and others working at Barrow, Alaska, on an international study called OASIS. Shepson headed an NSF-funded study of halogen chemistry.)

With children’s book author Peter Lourie, Shepson has built a multi-faceted Web site with NSF funding to present information on the science, wildlife, climate, and people of the Arctic.

The site features video interviews with natives and researchers like polar bear researcher Steven C. Amstrup of the USGS. It also showcases compelling photographs, and links to science institutions. In short, it’s another fantastic resource for following the ongoing work in the Arctic.

This is helpful as the public strives to understand the myriad messages about climate change, research, and more. With news stories reporting that the Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the planet, that sea ice is melting, and that species are losing habitat and nourishment, sites like Arctic Ice and ours aim to inform readers about the efforts being made to understand the science behind the phenomena.

The science is complex, designed to measure and help us understand changes in the atmosphere, land, plants and animals, human societies and water in the Arctic. To advance these goals, scientists conduct fieldwork in some of the most extreme environments on Earth–and their experiences are often as compelling as their data.

We encourage readers to check out Arctic Ice as they follow their curiosity about work in the far north.

Surviving the Break-up

January 19, 2010

Scientific and traditional expertise find mutual benefit in sea-ice study

By Marcy Davis

Walk on water: PI Hajo Eicken at the Barrow sea ice mass balance site in June 2008, during the melt season. All photos courtesy Matt Druckenmiller

Unlike most other solids on Earth, ice floats. As water freezes, it expands to include lots of airy pockets, which means that ice is less dense as a solid than as a liquid. Fresh water ice is relatively dense and impervious while sea ice, ice that freezes directly from mineral-rich ocean water, develops interconnected sand-to-finger-sized channels that help control its decay during warm months. Through the Seasonal Ice Zone Observing Network (SIZONET), one of about 35 National Science Foundation-funded projects in the Arctic Observing Network, Hajo Eicken, research associate Chris Petrich, and graduate student Matthew Druckenmiller (all from University of Alaska, Fairbanks, UAF), study the small-scale properties contributing to the formation and disintegration of arctic coastal sea ice. In addition to gaining a better understanding of the role of sea ice in the global climate system, Eicken’s team hopes to help coastal communities which rely on sea ice–like Barrow, Alaska–by forecasting break-up, the time of year when seasonal ice begins to melt.

Off the village of Barrow, BASC employee Michael Donovan navigates a boat to a grounded ice foe in July 2008 so that Matt Druckenmiller can take an ice core.

Off the village of Barrow, BASC employee Michael Donovan navigates a boat to a grounded ice foe in July 2008 so that Matt Druckenmiller can take an ice core.

“Sea ice provides many animals, humans included, a surface on which to live, travel, and hunt. We want to understand how sea ice decays from a materials perspective,” explains Eicken. “We also want this information to be useful to local communities for whom break-up is important for hunting and whaling. We spend time trying to understand how people in Barrow use the sea ice in their daily life so that we can define and redefine our models and projections for how the ice will behave.”

Eicken’s group studies the seasonal sea-ice zone, which includes land-fast ice (ice that freezes to the coastal shoreline) and drift ice (ice that floats on the water surface). In contrast to multiyear ice, which does not melt in the summer, seasonal ice builds up during winter months and melts in summer months. This means that seasonal ice is far less stable. From a human perspective, then, break-up can be dangerous because how the ice melts varies from year to year and progresses over the season.

UAF sea ice team conducting ice thickness measurements and ridge surveys in the landfast ice near Barrow in June 2007.

Break-up begins with melting on the sea-ice surface. If the meltwater is retained, it pools on the surface. Because of the darker color, the ice surface ponds absorb heat and create a positive feedback for even more melting.

“We study seasonal ice rather than multiyear ice because we understand far less about seasonal ice. The forces which control breakup are highly variable – sunshine and warmer temperatures, tides, and storms all contribute, but to what degree remains less clear. But from a Search and Rescue perspective, it is very important to the Barrow community to have as much information as possible during break-up, especially since the coastal land-fast ice and ice drifts have become much more unstable over the last 20 years,” Eicken says.

Chris Petrich and BASC Bear Guard Herman Ahsoak measuring level ice thickness near a grounded ridge in June 2007.

Eicken, Petrich and Druckenmiller use satellite data to map ice conditions along the coastline near Barrow where locals use established ice trails for hunting and whaling during break-up. Although satellite data provides a decent regional picture, the relatively low resolution equates to substantial real-life discrepancy. In addition to field campaigns aimed at measuring temperature and albedo of ice surface ponds and ice thickness, indigenous ice expert and ex whaling captain Joe Levitt provides daily ice observations to help integrate and ground-truth satellite and field data or break-up forecasts.

These are especially useful to local communities during spring whaling season, when hunters establish camps on the sea ice. “Matt [Druckenmiller] created maps showing ice thickness along whaling trails on the land-fast ice off Barrow. These maps have proven useful for the community who might have as many as 200 people spread out over a 20-mile area or more during whaling season. This is a big safety issue for them,” says Eicken. “We’re posting satellite and radar images along with sea ice trail maps on the Internet and holding workshops with folks in Barrow both to educate them about how to use these data as well as to help us refine our forecasting models.”

The sea ice trail maps give Barrow-area whalers important information about ice thickness around their sea-ice trails.

Changing Climate, Changing Patterns: An Occasional Series on the Impacts of Warming Temperatures

January 15, 2010

Arctic Ground Squirrels

A male arctic ground squirrel emerges from his den in the spring near Alaska's Toolik Field Station after a long and cold hibernation. All photos courtesy Loren Buck

To the naked eye, the abundant arctic ground squirrels near Toolik Field Station, Alaska, simply disappear as the summer slips away. They burrow into nests a meter deep and settle in for a long, cold “sleep” entombed in a virtual ice cave.

Yet their ability to survive such extreme temperatures has long fascinated scientists, and a team of collaborators with NSF funds is studying how hibernating arctic squirrels regulate their temperature and what they use to fuel their bodies (i.e. fats, proteins, carbohydrates).

Using advanced genetic analysis, which will be conducted on captive squirrels in labs at the universities of Fairbanks and Anchorage, the team aims to understand which genes are activated during hibernation in response to temperature changes.

“We already know that hibernating squirrels switch metabolic fuels they draw from based on the ambient temperature,” said Loren Buck, principal investigator and associate professor of biology at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. “Now we want to see how this is accomplished by analyzing which genes are regulated at different stages of hibernation.”

What Genes Tell Us

Made of strands of DNA, genes provide instructions for making proteins, large and complex molecules that perform a number of functions. Proteins provide cell structure, carry out almost all of the cell’s chemical reactions, and act as cell messengers.

Buck’s work with arctic squirrels seeks to understand—at specificity previously not possible because the genetic technology didn’t exist—how the body responds genetically to extreme temperatures.

Buck said the research results could have important biomedical implications. Scientists have long used data on hibernating animals in models for cerebral ischemia (reduced blood flow to the brain), traumatic head injury and hypothermia, and his results could yield important information.

“We have already established that the squirrels switch metabolic fuels in response to changes in ambient temperatures,” said Buck. “Now the question is to understand the mechanism by which they adjust and alter their metabolism.”

In The Lab

In the lab, Buck and his team have a group of squirrels in simulated hibernating conditions with varying temperatures. They monitor the animals’ core body temperatures and the amount of work the hibernating squirrels have to do to keep from freezing.

Not surprisingly, when it isn’t extremely cold, the squirrels work less. For instance, at 2+ degrees C the squirrel body temperature is also about +2 degrees C. However, when the temperature plummets to – 10 degrees C, the animals become “thermogenic” (heat producing) to maintain a core body temp of -2.9 degrees C.

The researchers use genetic analysis known as quantitative real time PCR to identify which reserves (proteins, carbohydrates, etc.) the squirrels rely on at those extreme temperatures.

When the animals are at torpor, a stage of hibernation, their core temperature is the same as the ambient temperature. For instance, when the ground temp is 0 degrees C, so is the squirrels’ core temperature. At this phase, the squirrels rely on fats to fuel their metabolism.

But when ambient temperatures decrease below the level at which squirrels can survive (-2.9 degrees C), the bodies rely on proteins and carbohydrates to keep from freezing.

To analyze the genetic information, researchers euthanize squirrels at various points of their hibernation to study which genes are expressed.

In The Field

Well before hibernation, Buck and a graduate student set up a trapping grid near Toolik Field Station to capture squirrels for lab experiments.

Buck and his team spend time in the field monitoring the squirrels and capturing animals for the labs. They collect data that can be correlated with the genetic experiments.

Temperature loggers have been in place at the squirrel hibernating sites near Toolik since 1993, providing a 17-year picture of ground temperatures. Buck said data from the metabolic study can be correlated with temperature data to study a potential link between environmental temperature and overwinter body mass.

Squirrels as Study Subjects

In addition to the ground temperature loggers, he and his crew have implanted about 100 loggers into squirrels on the North Slope to better understand the biological response to the environment.

“As we collected these data, there was more emphasis on climate change and the need to investigate its impacts on vertebrates,” said Buck. “To get the physiological data it takes a cooperative species with a short enough life span.”

Arctic squirrels are ideal because they don’t move around a lot, are large enough to carry implanted loggers (unlike, say, voles), don’t migrate out of the Arctic when conditions get bad, and are easy to recapture, which allows scientists to retrieve almost 80 percent of the data loggers each year.

Lab members Oivind Toien, Robert Fridinger, and Fanziska Kohl take a break after placing a telemetry receiving station to track tagged squirrels near Toolik Field Station.

Interdisciplinary Studies

Finally, this National Science Foundation-supported research provides an opportunity to train undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in arctic biology and climate change biology, said Buck. Many of his graduate students would be unlikely to leave the lab bench in normal conditions.

However their ventures into the field provide them with more experience and a better understanding of climate science, he said. This insight has been emphasized recently among universities and the NSF in an effort to coordinate research efforts with academics who have a variety of skills.

“The researchers of tomorrow must be far more interdisciplinary in scope, and these types of research projects provide great opportunities,” he said. —Rachel Walker

For the Gearheads Amongst Us

January 12, 2010

10 a.m.
Dear Tracy,
If I posted one or two of these pictures on our blog, would people who are mechanically inclined find them interesting? If so, which pictures tell the best story, in your opinion? I know I’m looking at the Case Quadtrac tractor–one of the GrIT monsters–and I know Larry Levin and Russ Howes are up in Thule overhauling the axle housing.  But dude, what am I really looking at.

All photos: Larry Levin

10:15 a.m.

This rather extensive bit of work is really just to get at an oil leak that is buried well back in the drive train of the machine. It may simply be that the bolts need to be re-torqued, but first you’ve got to get to them – some disassembly required. Not only do we need to address it to ensure reliable operation, but we cannot be dripping oil out on the ice cap for reasons of environmental stewardship.

However, rather than dwell on some obscure mechanical detail that no one would really care about, I would emphasize four points of greater general interest:

1. It’s a big tractor with big components. Note that the boys are using a forklift to move the track and carrier assembly in/out. This is NOT like working on your compact car – nor even a big truck. This is HEAVY equipment.

2. The work is being done SAFELY. There is a primary lift point as well as two redundant jack stands. This is important on a 60,000 lb machine. If it were to fall, Larry and Russ would be just two more oil stains on the floor.

3. They are working inside the heated, well-lit garage at Thule, courtesy of the US Air Force and Greenland Contractors. Both entities have been very accommodating in supporting GrIT and other projects. This COOPERATION should get some recognition.

4. Don’t try this at home. Our people are PROFESSIONALS. Between them, Russ and Larry probably have in excess of 50 years of experience as mechanics. That they both have numerous other job responsibilities but can also get down in the trenches to get their hands greasy as needs dictate is a distinguishing characteristic of many PFS staff, and perhaps not always adequately recognized.

I don’t know if CH2 safety folks or the entities in Thule will see the blog post, but if so, it will make their hearts swell with pride. That’s my take.
With generous support from the US Air Force  and Greenland Contractors, the GrIT team will head out from Thule Air Base in March. Bound for NEEM and Summit with a load of fuel, they will continue sled configuration and snow strength experiments as they seek the perfect Greenland inland traverse configuration. Stay tuned!

Polar Careers: Tracy Dahl, Polar Field Services’ Renewable Energy Specialist

January 12, 2010

Self portrait: Tracy Dahl documents a rare sunny day on the Alaskan tundra. All photos courtesy Tracy Dahl.

Like many who work at the poles, Polar Field Services’  (PFS) Tracy Dahl has taken a circuitous path to arrive at his current position. As PFS’s technical specialist in renewable energy, Dahl has circled the globe, consulted myriad experts and books, designed and built renewable energy contraptions in his work shop and then installed them in the world’s harshest outdoor laboratories.

The Fossil Fuel Dilemma

Throughout his career, he’s been driven by a passion to help ease human reliance on fossil fuels, which he blames for creating a major disconnect between humans and the environment. But rather than bemoan the status quo (a fossil fuel economy), Dahl strives to change it—one photo voltaic array at a time.

“Renewable energy is about manipulating the environment, or at least learning how to harvest it,” says Dahl. “It’s about learning how to adapt to the environment and use what the world has to offer in a benign way, rather than imposing a resource-intensive system upon it.”

Dahl spends much of the field season in Alaska and Greenland installing generators that run off of wind and sun in remote study plots. These systems allow scientists to  run long-term mechanical equipment without contributing to pollution. This keeps their sites clean and, given the longevity of the systems, cuts down on the number of trips scientists need to make to their plots. This reduces emissions and saves money.

Home Life

At home, Dahl strives to live a low-impact life. He grows his own food at his off-the-grid abode in southern Colorado’s mountains at 8,200 feet, works from a home office, rarely drives and powers his life with energy from the sun.

“I checked my carbon footprint online, and my house was nothing, driving was minimal,” says Dahl. “But when I do commute, I go a long way.”

He says he’s never felt compelled to conform to social norms and has been happier pursuing his own interests. These include collecting rainwater to irrigate high-alpine gardens, building the straw-bale home he shares with his wife, Amy, or camping on the ice or tundra.

"Why I Work." Dahl says of his wife Amy (here with family dog, Lars): "Not only is Amy far more photogenic than I, she is also a former PFS employee and polar explorer. She's wisely decided to hang up her mukluks to concentrate on developing our homestead."

Life Choices

His passion for finding renewable energy solutions has led the wanderlust traveller on an adventurous path with stints as a motorcycle mechanic and jobs in remote field camps in Antarctica and the Arctic. As he’s carved out a niche, he’s also learned essential survival skills like how to stay warm and well fed in temperatures that plunge below zero degrees. Forgoing the comforts of fossil fuels does not mean suffering, says Dahl.

“Independence is important to me,” says Dahl. “I have always felt like I should be able to take care of myself. I like that I can go into a polar environment and not just survive but live comfortably.”

Heading South

Dahl got his start at the South Pole in 1994 when he was hired as a snowmobile mechanic at a research station in Antarctica. Although he had only ridden a snowmobile once previously, his experience as a motorcycle mechanic convinced the hiring manager Dahl could do the job. After several seasons, Dahl worked his way up to running the Mechanical Equipment Center until he was offered a job as the first antarctic renewable energy specialist in the 1999/2000 season. It was a dream assignment.

Abundant Resources

“The first year I went to Antarctica, I got off the plane, and there was a brilliant sun in the sky reflecting off the brilliant snow,” says Dahl. “The wind was howling, and I thought, ‘why aren’t there solar panels and wind turbines everywhere? What is wrong with this picture?'”

Back then, polar researchers only had a choice of what size engine generator they wanted for their field sites. Dahl found it incongruous to use expensive fossil fuel (in some places the cost of hauling in fuel translates into roughly $25 per gallon) that had to be stored and polluted the environment.

“It just didn’t make sense, and the more I saw it, the more it drove me crazy,” he says.

Arctic Bound

After a year doing renewable energy in Antarctica, Dahl decided to freelance and join his former colleagues at Polar Field Services. For the next three seasons he and Amy did stints with the company, and Dahl decided to join PFS full time in 2003.

The first year of contracting with PFS was the most challenging. It began with Dahl and Amy running the two-person Raven Camp in Greenland during the summer and then spending the winter at Summit—for a total of 13 months on the ice. Summit was “like a mission to Mars,” says Dahl.

“You are completely out there on your own,” he says. “You are completely dependent on mechanical life support. If the generators go down you better be good at fixing them.”

Cabin Fever

At Summit, the couple holed up for the winter with several others, braving the dark and cold while they kept the station functional. The irony, he noted, was being trapped indoors with his wife and three others for nine months, when all of them had equally self-reliant personalities.

“Polar programs tend to attract people who are outdoorsy, rugged individualists. Then you get gigs like that where you are stuck inside with others all winter,” says Dahl. “It is psychologically challenging to say the least.”

New Technologies

Still, he appreciated the experience enough to sign on, and today Dahl’s job entails designing, building, and installing power systems that won’t pollute the pristine environment they’re built for.

Dahl built and installed this solar and wind-powered power station at Imnavait Creek.

But don’t expect to hear him bragging about his accomplishments, even though system designs have been published in trade journals.

“The field of polar renewable energy is very, very small,” says Dahl. “Sure I have had a modest influence, but it is less because of any engineering brilliance and more so because I write. I document what I do. I have written a lot more words on the subject than most of my peers.”

(Learn more about polar renewable energy technology at www.polarpower.org.)

In The Beginning

Dahl’s interesting career path is all the more unusual considering he was an English major who graduated from college 12 years after matriculating. Rather than study renewable energy in school (“30 years ago there weren’t schools that specialized in this; everyone was self-taught”), Dahl studied literature while working as a motorcycle mechanic to pay his bills. However, his fascination with renewable energy had begun long before he went to college.

“I was interested since I first heard about it as a little kid,” says Dahl. “Solar panels that produce electricity without moving parts? How cool is that? I guess I started off nerdy.”

Then his interest evolved.

“I wanted to live out in the middle of nowhere and renewable energy was an obvious application for that. I had a keen interest and background in renewables before I stepped foot in Antarctica.”

Challenges for Polar Renewables

Dahl's field camp in nice weather, Alaska, 2007.

Adopting renewable technology came slowly and required the support of researchers and the National Science Foundation, which today funds significant renewable energy development projects.

Renewable energy has become more widespread and attitudes toward it have become measurably more accepting, says Dahl. Yet the technology is not without problems. At both poles, a seasonal dichotomy provides a fantastic solar resource in the summer and no solar resource in the winter.

“That’s a problem to overcome,” says Dahl. “So you need a back up. Wind is an option. Hydroelectric is problematic because the water freezes in the winter.” Often the best solution is a hybrid approach utilizing renewable energy as the primary power source with an engine generator or other “on-demand” power source for the times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Cost  Benefit Analysis

And initial infrastructure costs can sometimes seem prohibitive. Yet when compared to regular fuel costs, renewables are more cost-effective in the long-run, says Dahl.

“Renewable energy offers an operational cost stability you can’t get with fossil fuel with its fluctuating prices,” he says. “Extractive energy sources, be they coal, natural gas or petroleum, can be owned and the supply controlled. That is perhaps the main impediment to large-scale renewable energy development. The powers that be are reluctant to give up such a great business position, regardless of the now clearly identified cost to the environment. Nobody owns the wind, nobody owns the sun, and so your energy source is free. You just have to pay for the infrastructure required to harvest this environmental energy.”

You also have to train technicians to maintain the sometimes quite complex hybrid systems that are bruised and battered by the elements during extreme, long winters.

“There are obstacles in the way, sure, but they can be overcome,” says Dahl.

Creature Comforts

Along the way, Dahl is determined to enjoy himself. That means preparing for long trips in the field so he is comfortable, warm, and dry. Dahl sums up his job requirements as: 33% technical expertise, 33% writing, and 33% field savvy.

“You better have everything pretty well planned out because when you get dropped off by the bush plane, you’ve got what you’ve got,” says Dahl. “I’ve made enough mistakes now that I know how to do it right. That’s how you learn. Make enough mistakes and have enough miserable camping experiences where you know how not to repeat those.”

Dahl's work takes him to beautiful places, like this spot in Alaska.

As for why this lifestyle so appeals to him, Dahl turns more philosophical.

“Why would someone want to go backpacking and then climb a 14,000 foot mountain?” he asks. “For most people that would be hard to understand but for me that’s where I am supposed to be.”

It’s not always easy, he says.

“There are times I am out in the field and am being sucked dry by mosquitoes or sitting out a blizzard and it’s terrible,” says Dahl. “But by and large, I am a person who is far more comfortable in the wilderness than I am in the city. So you find something that resonates and works for you, and so, why not?  Due to the communications revolution, functionally it makes no difference whether I’m sitting in a cubicle in Denver or working from my solar-powered mountaintop home in southern Colorado (“PFS-South,” Dahl jokes). Given the choice, I’m going for the mountain top.”  —Rachel Walker

Around Summit Station

January 11, 2010

Deep freeze: Mark Melcon (CMDR) works on the cargo berm. The sky has been getting lighter since the winter solstice on December 21. Photo: Karl Newyear

The new year brought a brighter sky to Summit Station. As station manager Karl Newyear wrote last week, ” Things are moving along here at Summit.  The workload doesn’t vary much from day to day but the increasing daylight makes it feel like progress.  The next crew is scheduled to arrive here [around 2 February] so yes, like the physical horizon, this time horizon is starting to come into view.”

Inside the Temporary Atmospheric Watch Observatory (TAWO). Why so dressed up? "On this particular day Glenn had only about 10 minutes' work inside TAWO and so he left his outdoor clothing on. The science technicians check the operation of the various instruments daily and ensure the data looks good," Karl wrote. Karl joined Glenn on his rounds to observe (for safety reasons) while Glenn cleared rime from meteorological instruments mounted on a 50-meter tower outside. Photo: Karl Newyear

There's always something to do at Summit. Here, Karl (left) and CMDR install some shelves in a barn-like building originally used to test the WAIS drill now working its way down to bedrock in West Antarctica. Photo: Katie Koster

Of course, today, Karl’s weekly report tells a different story. “The weather this week has been, in a word, windy.  A storm system slowly moved across our area bringing a low barometric reading of 650 mb and winds of over 20 knots sustained for 4 days, 30 knots for 2 days, and topping out over 40 knots for nearly 12 hours.  We are currently experiencing reduced winds, though it’s unclear whether this is temporary or a trend. . . . Blowing snow and generally poor visibility have prevented us from enjoying the increasing daylight around mid-day which occurred earlier in the week, prior to the storm’s arrival.” 

The wind storms have played havoc with the landscape around the station, creating huge drifts that reform the minute the staff put down their shovels. For now, Summiteers are letting the wind win the battle.

As they blow toward the end of their time tending the science experiments continually operating at the National Science Foundation-managed research outpost way out in the middle of Greenland’s ice blanket, the team has started dreaming of the Twin Otter, which will arrive packed with replacement staff and “freshies” (fruits and veggies) in a matter of weeks.  Beyond that Twin Otter: the next adventure (for some) or the homeward journey (for others).

For more on Summit Station, visit www.Summitcamp.org.

In The News

January 8, 2010

Sea Ice Loss Impacts Polar Bear Habitat

Data from a long-term study finds more polar bears in open water or on land, likely as a result of diminishing sea ice. Photo: National Snow and Ice Data Center

Science Daily reports that a long-term study from 1979 to 2005 shows that polar bears today are found more frequently on land and open water than on ice in the fall, increasing the opportunity for human/bear interactions. Published in the December issue of Arctic, the journal of the Arctic Institute of North America, the study documents significant polar bear habitat changes in response to differing ice conditions. Between 1979 and 1987, 12 percent of bear sightings were associated with no ice, according to the study. Between 1997 and 2005, 90 percent of bear sightings were associated with no ice. The number of bears sighted also increased during the study’s duration from 138 bears in the period of 1979 to 1987, 271 bears between 1988 and 1996, and finally to 468 bears between 1997 and 2005. NSF-funded and CPS-supported scientists like University of Wyoming’s Hank Harlow among others, are conducting polar bear research in part to better understand climate change’s impact on the creatures. Scientists studying sea ice extent have identified a decline in fall freeze since the late 1970s, a trend they suggest is related to climate change.

Spies Like Us

A satellite image of the East Siberian Sea from 1999-2008. This image has been degraded to hide the satellite’s true capabilities. Photo: New York Times.

The New York Times reports that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is sharing data with climate science after resuming a collaboration that had been cancelled by the Bush administration. The two disparate groups seek to “assess the hidden complexities of environmental change … and insights from natural phenomena like clouds and glaciers, deserts and tropical forests,” according to the article. Last year the collaborators studied reconnaissance satellite images of Arctic sea ice to identify summer melts from climate trends. In addition, the CIA has declassified images of the ice pack to speed the scientific analysis.

Filmmaker To Stop at Seattle Boat Show

The 57-foot Nordhavn Bagan will be on display at the Seattle Boat Show. Filmmaker Sprague Theobald piloted this vessel through the Northwest Passage last year during the making of a documentary. Photo: Northwest Passage Film

If, like us, you have been waiting to get a glimpse of more detailed footage from Emmy Award winning filmmaker Sprague Theobald’s 2009, five-month journey through the Northwest Passage, look no further than the 2010 Seattle Boat Show January 29-February 6, 2010. Theobald will show unreleased footage and give tours of his 57′ Nordhavn Bagan, which transported him and a small crew stocked with family members from Rhode Island to Washington State, via the Arctic.

In Out of The Cold

While much of the northern hemisphere is experiencing unusually bitter cold temperatures, climes in the far north are much warmer than usual. According to a report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), the December average air temperatures over the Arctic Ocean region, eastern Siberia and northwestern North America ranged between 2 to 7 degrees Celsius. According to the report, Arctic Oscillation (AO) is likely causing the temperature disparities. Scientists refer to the current trend as a “negative phase” of AO, defined by high pressure systems in the Arctic and lower-than-normal pressures in middle latitudes.

The image below shows air temperature anomalies for December 2009, at the 925 millibar level (roughly 1,000 meters [3,000 feet] above the surface) for the region north of 30 degrees N.  Warmer-than-usual temperatures over the Arctic Ocean and cooler-than-normal temperatures over central Eurasia, the United States and southwestern Canada are documented here. Areas in orange and red correspond to strong positive (warm) anomalies. Areas in blue and purple correspond to negative (cool) anomalies.

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center, courtesy NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division

Arctic Studies Pioneer Dies

Arctic studies pioneer and philanthropist Evelyn Steffannson Nef died on Dec. 9, 2009, at 96. Founder of Dartmouth College's arctic studies program, Nef also published two books on the Arctic. Photo: Courtesy news.uchicago.edu

Evelyn Stefansson Nef died Dec. 9, 2009 in her Washington D.C. home at the age of 96. Nef was an author and philanthropist, and along with her husband, she helped found the first arctic studies program at Dartmouth College. Nef’s first two books, published in 1943 and 1946 respectively, were about Alaska and the Arctic. The University of Alaska granted Nef an honorary doctorate in 1998 for her foundational role in the early days of the field of arctic studies. Read more about Nef’s life here.

—Rachel Walker