“Apun” is No Joke in the Arctic

February 28, 2010

Snow expert and science champion Matthew Sturm. Photo: Chris Hiemstra, Colorado State University

We’ve been meaning to catch up with Matthew Sturm for weeks now, since we know that he is about to make trail on a snowmachine adventure for science. He recently received an NSF grant to bring his snow research to Alaska’s school kids. In March he and a small team will ride from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s north coast, travelling, sometimes on historic explorer trails, through some of the most gorgeous and remote areas of Alaska. They’ll meet with school children in the communities they pass through to share their passion for science and to teach essential concepts of physics and chemistry using snow. They also will talk about the importance of snow cover in the Arctic, and how it is changing. Stay tuned for more on this adventure.  

To go with these talks, Matthew has a new children’s book: “Apun: The Arctic Snow,” which he will present to the students. Ned Rozell recently spoke with Matthew about his new book. Here is Ned’s recent piece on Matthew and “Apun” for the Alaska Science Forum.

The "Apun" book cover. Image courtesy of University of Alaska Press.

“Apun” is a celebration of snow

By Ned Rozell

Born in Florida and raised in New Mexico, Matthew Sturm somehow became an expert on snow. During the past 30 years, he has traveled thousands of miles on the substance, counted how many grains it takes to cover a football field to a depth of two feet (1 trillion), and has spent so much time lying on his side and squinting through a hand lens that he swears he has seen molecules of water moving through the snowpack.

Now, he has written and illustrated a children’s book on snow.

“Apun:  The Arctic Snow” and its accompanying teacher’s guide are Sturm’s attempt to “bring snow to the kids.”  He works at the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory on Fort Wainwright.

A few years ago, he rode a snowmachine from Fairbanks to Hudson Bay, studying snow along the way. While working with editors at the University of Alaska Press for a book of essays about that journey, he proposed an idea that had long tugged at his heart–a book for kids about snow, with a nod to the Inupiaq culture of northern Alaska.

“I had written so many scientific papers that got read by just a handful of experts,” Sturm said. “A kid’s book is going to have as much of an impact as any scholarly paper I’ll write.”

Text on the book’s back cover suggests that Sturm wrote “Apun” (an Inupiaq word for the arctic snow cover) for third graders on up, but the book is a good use of time for anyone who wants to learn more about the amazing, ever-changing ground cover that’s so much a part of northern life.

“The color of the Arctic, and a lot of the subarctic, is white,” Sturm said by phone from Anchorage, where he was about to speak with a group of grade-schoolers about snow. “Snowcover is the normal state of affairs for Alaska; (Summer) is the unusual season.”

Sturm makes snow’s complexities interesting. In the teacher’s guide for “Apun,” he describes the process of sintering, during which snow–unlike sand or any other substance somewhat like snow–magically sets up from powder to concrete slab after being disturbed.

“Many of the parts in a cell phone are produced through sintering,” he writes. “Pulverized metal is packed into a mold, heated, but not hot enough to melt it, then allowed to cool. When removed from the mold, the metal will have bonded into a single mass. Snow does the same thing . . . Immediately after the winds stops blowing, the drifted snow is soft and easy to shovel, soft enough for a boot to sink into it several inches. But twenty-four hours later, after the sintering is complete, the same snow will be so hard that it is impossible to make a mark on the snow with a boot heel.”

Sturm’s book began with his own pen-and-ink sketches of weasels, snowmachines, and snow crystals.

One of Matthew Sturm's illustrations for “Apun,” this one showing the insulating value of snow. Image courtesy Matthew Sturm.

“I grew up drawing, and had to drop it as I became a professional scientist,” he said. “I joke that I wrote a kid’s book so I could be an illustrator.”

He also calls himself an “amateur linguist,” who spent many hours with Barrow elders walking outside and teasing out the complete meanings for their 70 terms for snow.

“We [Sturm and Barrow elders, including Arnold Brower Sr.] added five or six words to the list of terms for snow,” Sturm said.  He includes an Inupiaq glossary at the end of the book that informs the reader that “masallak” is best for making snowballs.

Sturm hopes his book and its teacher’s guide find their way into classrooms throughout this land of winter.

“Snow’s all around the classrooms of kids in Alaska, Canada and much of the U.S.,” Sturm said. “I’d like to think teachers wherever there is snow would find the book useful, and help them use snow right outside their classrooms to make their teaching better and more interesting.”


50 is the new Young

February 24, 2010
Miz Kathy Young, that is

Forever Kathy Young

Long-time Summit Station Skipper turned Kangerlussuaq Queen, the transcendent Kathy Young, celebrated the big L last weekend, and several of us from PFS travelled to Prescott to witness and document the achievement.  

Kathy began her celebration in the morning with 50 sun salutations.  

Yep, 50. Sun salutations. That's Roman numeral L.

The party had many Young touches. The honoree wrote thank you notes to her guests ahead of time, not for presents, but for the gift of their presence in her life.  


Partygoers grazed on homemade sushi and danced. They viewed a photo display showing Kathy’s career supporting NSF science at the ends of the earth and shared many a favorite Kathy story.

Kathy and "bi-polar" friends Anne Vick, Kelly Nevins Lawson, Andrea Isgro-James

PFSers Robin Abbott and Kyli Olson

And they wore feather boas, of course:

Kathy and Kyli

The party may now be over, but you can still send Kathy birthday greetings. Click here.

As for us at field notes, we think the occasion calls for some Bob Dylan lyrics:

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young

(‘Course, the Joan Baez cover is best, no offense)


A Sense of Place

February 22, 2010

Erosion and flooding in Shishmaref threatens both infrastructure and lives. Photo: Tony Weyiouanna

For centuries, peoples of the circumpolar North lived in semi-nomadic communities, moving from place to place as food availability shifted with the changing seasons.  People relied on their surrounding environment for food and other materials through hunting, fishing, and gathering, their fortunes closely tied to the seasonal changes in the seemingly barren landscape around them. It was not often an easy life, but it was one deep-rooted in ecological knowledge and traditional life ways. 

Community-based whale hunt in the Chukchi Sea (off Chukotka, Russian Federation). Photo: Tobias Holzlehner

About a hundred years ago, many of these semi-nomadic communities began to be pressured into settling in permanent locations under state-induced policies that sought to stabilize the economy and mainstream the native population. The United States, Canada, Greenland, and, to a lesser extent, Finland and Scandinavia, attempted to assimilate native communities into the mainstream population by forcing an immobile lifestyle in which native families were required to send their children to state-run schools. Established communities were sometimes relocated again at the whim of far-off policy changes.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, the Soviet Union relocated hundreds of small indigenous Siberian communities in order to make the administration of these places more convenient, reasoning that it would be easier to control the birth rate if peoples’ whereabouts were known, particularly if they had come to rely upon government rations and services.

What were the impacts of these government-sponsored relocations?

“Moved by the State: Perspectives on Relocation and Resettlement in the Circumpolar North” (MOVE) is an international project within the BOREAS scheme of the European Science Foundation.  Peter Schweitzer, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF), leads the overall MOVE project as well as the U.S. portion funded by NSF and housed at UAF. He and his team of post-docs and graduate students are working to answer the question raised above. They study the physical, psychological, and economic consequences of state-induced relocation in 20th century Chukotka, Russia, and Alaska.

Contemporary hunting base next to the former settlement of Nuniamo (Chukotka, Russian Federation), which was forcibly closed in the 1970s. Photo: Tobias Holzlehner

But they are not just looking back. By documenting experiences of indigenous peoples in Alaska and Russia, the MOVE team hopes to assist coastal communities in Alaska and elsewhere to cope with pending relocations resulting from climate change.

Post-doctoral research fellow Tobias Holzlehner, who has worked in Chukotka since the 1990s, is documenting historical relocations there by collecting sometimes heartbreaking narratives and by travelling to and studying abandoned settlements, an easier feat following the disbanding of the Soviet Union. Schweitzer attended the Beringia Days conference in Andyr last September. While there, he focused on reestablishing relationships with indigenous elders and government officials, who are cautious but helpful because they realize that his project has relevance to their lives.

Schweitzer says recording stories of historical relocations while keeping current with Chukotkan representatives are goals “imperative to understanding the bigger picture. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the government abandoned the region. Suddenly, there was no one providing rations, so many people were on the brink of starvation as they tried to eek out a subsistence lifestyle.” What we are seeing now is a re-appropriation of space. People are starting to reoccupy old settlements since the state is no longer creating new opportunities and they must fend for themselves again.”

Coastal Alaskan communities have a long tradition of being adaptable to changing environmental conditions–a good thing given the state of the coastline. The State of Alaska currently monitors more than 30 communities identified as potential candidates for relocation. Neither the state nor these communities want the move (an important contrast to Chukotka), but relocation may become necessary for many as beach erosion and thawing permafrost intensify with climate warming. The problem, says Schweitzer, is that unlike a hundred years ago, native Alaskans are now stuck in an “infrastructure trap” with their reliance on many modern conveniences as well as a strong sense of place.

Ph.D. student Elizabeth Marino works in the community of Shishmaref, one of several Alaskan villages the MOVE project works with; Shishmaref clings tenuously to the northern coast of the Beringia Land Bridge National Preserve. On a sand and permafrost barrier island three-miles long and only about a thousand feet wide at its narrowest point, Shishmaref is highly susceptible to beach-front erosion. Although people made camps on the island 4,000 years ago, no permanent settlements existed until the turn of the century with the opening of a post office in 1901.

Sarichef Island, where the village of Shishmaref sits, is three miles long and only half a mile wide. Photo: Elizabeth Marino

Since 1969, more than 200 feet of sand has eroded from the north shore–large storms in the Chukchi Sea create dangerous conditions for people and property alike. As a proactive measure, the city government along with the Indian Reorganization Act Council and the Shishmaref Native Corporation Board formed the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition in an effort to take action. In July, 2002, Shishmaref residents voted to relocate their community of 600 people to the mainland across the Shishmaref Inlet. The MOVE team hopes that understanding this contemporary relocation in a longer historical context will give light to how vulnerability is constructed, and how to decrease these vulnerabilities in the future.–Marcy Davis

For more information, please contact Peter Schweitzer: ppschweitzerATalaska.edu

In the Media

February 18, 2010
Waking the Dead

Reconstruction of the prehistoric man Inuk. Drawing: Nuka Godfredtsen

Scientists from the University of Copenhagen have recreated the genome of a 4000-year-old Greenlandic man from genetic material found in tufts of his hair. They are the first to reconstruct the genome of an extinct human being.  

The innovative technique can be applied to museum materials and ancient remains found in nature and may help scientists reconstruct human traits from extinct cultures where only limited remains have been recovered. Scientists also may use the technique to explain ancient human expansions and migration; it also may improve understanding of heredity and the disease risk passed down from our ancestors. The study is published in the upcoming issue of Nature

P-p-p-poker Flat, P-p-p-poker Flat 

Launch season got underway at Poker Flat Research Range near Fairbanks, Alaska, this week, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported on Tuesday. “The 2010 launch season began when a two-stage Terrier Orion rocket carrying 16 vials of trimethyl alumimum [sic] was fired into the upper atmosphere at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. Twelve of the vials were released, causing colorful, glowing streaks in the atmospheric winds about 70 miles above northern Alaska.” 

CPS team member, SRI's Todd Valentic, took this picture of a rocket launch at Poker Flat in 2007. With NSF funding, SRI developed a next-generation radar system at the site, which can be used to collect information from the rocket soundings. For more on SRI's cutting edge radars, click on the picture.

Scientists at Poker Flat, Toolik Field Station, and Fort Yukon collected ground-based information from the tracers streaking the sky after the rocket fired its vials. 

The rocket range, owned by the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute, allows scientists to study the middle and upper atmosphere, especially the aurora. Dartmouth’s James LaBelle leads the rocket-borne experiments. 

Ned Rozell wrote about the Poker Flat launches a while back. Read his piece to understand what it takes—and why scientists love the rockets.

Polarpower in Solar

Tracy Dahl’s white paper on photovoltaic power options in cold climes has been published in the new journal Solar. Tracy originally published the piece on the CPS sustainable power technology Web site, polarpower.org. Congratulations, Tracy!

Global Darkening 

We really enjoyed Jon Stewart’s send-up of the flap over last week’s snowstorms by climate-change deniers. 


On a related note, see this New York Times opinion piece by Thomas Friedman.

Yukon Quest: Iditarod on Steroids

February 15, 2010

Ken Anderson and his team from Fox, Alaska, at the Start Line in Fairbanks on February 6. Photo: Yukon Quest

As we put this up, dog-sled racers are dashing toward the finish line in the 1000-mile race across the northern wilderness between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, known as the 2010 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Every February since 1984, up to 50 teams, each with one human ‘musher’ and 14 canine competitors, set off in (ahem!) cold and unpredictable weather in wild and rugged terrain, following turn-of-the-century Gold Rush and Mail Delivery dog sled routes. The Yukon Quest Champion receives a $35,000 purse.
The Yukon Quest race follows the old highway of the north — the Yukon River, a historical route followed by prospectors to reach the Klondike gold fields. In contrast to its more famous sister race, the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest is more challenging: with half as many checkpoints, an earlier start, and more rugged, higher-elevation terrain.

Teams brave 10-16 days of Arctic winter where temperatures can plummet to minus 40, wind can howl at a hundred miles an hour, and ice and open water conditions can be less than favorable. Quest sled dog teams are on their own most of the race. At checkpoints (spaced more than 200 miles apart) volunteer veterinarians who are well-versed in the issues particular to sled dogs, check the health of each animal. Between stations, mushers carry required equipment, food, and supplies. They act as cook, coach and vet, rubbing ointment on abraded paws and massaging sore doggy muscles.

Sam Deltour, a rookie YQ competitor from Sint-Kruis, Belgium, feeds his team at the Circle City checkpoint. Photo: Yukon Quest

Most of the Quest’s canine athletes are mixed breed “Alaskan Huskies,” descendants of northern breeds, including the Siberian husky. These dogs are lean animals bred from stock that flourished during the Klondike Gold Rush when dog sleds were the primary (and most reliable) means of transportation. With airplanes taking over the mail routes in the 1920s and 1930s, the sled dog’s role decreased.

These dogs are fit and boy, can they run! Overcoats that stave off the buildup of snow and ice, an insulating undercoat, and sturdy feet (protected by snow booties), their characteristic toughness and endurance are testimonial to their ancestry. Sled dogs come in many sizes and colors, but are generally between 35 and 70 pounds. Mushers choose their teams to balance size and stride to achieve greatest efficiency within the team. Of course, they also look for dogs who love to run in harness!

Resting like a professional at the Circle City checkpoint. Photo: Yukon Quest

This year, most of the twenty-four mushers are from Alaska, but Montana, Saskatchewan, Switzerland, and Belgium are also represented. About half are rookies, and six are women. Mushers must be at least 18 years old and have demonstrated their ability to complete a 200-mile and 300-mile race.  All teams receive $1000 in honor of attempting the 1000 miles.

Race legend Lance Mackey was in the number 2 spot heading down the home stretch. Photo: Yukon Quest

For race updates via the Live Tracker, photographs, video, and audio visit the Yukon Quest Website

-Marcy Davis

Summit Station Staff Turnover

February 11, 2010
The Sun Rises, the Snow Flies

Summiteers practice snow sampling in a one-meter pit. Some experiments require pristine samples, and so staff wear clean suits and masks. L-R: Summit science manager Katrine Gorham, and Phase III science technicians Sonja Wolters and Christina Hammock. Photos provided by Katrine Gorham

For almost a week now, Summit has been in transition–the staff of five that saw the National Science Foundation’s science facility through the winter night has been slowly handing the job over to the team that will guide it through the spring dawn.  

Actually, there’s nothing slow about this transition. Summiteers have about two weeks to explain and learn everything about running the station. Ongoing technical activities in support of continuous measurements keep two of the five personnel busy full-time collecting air and snow samples, monitoring instruments, measuring snow accumulation, launching ozonesonde balloons, etc. Infrastructure upkeep is another big effort:  for example, it takes a lot of effort and a giant pink pig to make water at the station, believe it or not. There are safety and environmental concerns, and communications concerns as well. So the turnover period is packed with show and tell and do. 

The new team practices on the Iridium phone. Pictured L-R: Sonja Wolters (NOAA science technician), Ken Keenan (manager), Luke Nordby (mechanic), and Geoff Miller (equipment operator). Photo: Katrine Gorham

People arriving at Summit usually huff a bit for a day or two adjusting to the climate.  The station sits at ~10,000 feet and atmospheric conditions can make it feel even higher.

For this transition period, after the first calm (and cold) day or two, the wind picked up, and when we talked with Russ Howes yesterday (our Summit maintenance lead is checking a few things and helping with the transition), he reported 30-40 knot winds had been blowing for the past three or so days. There’s a lot of snow in the air, which means there’ll be a lot of shoveling to come. “But, on the plus side, when the wind picks up it typically gets warmer,” Katrine wrote in an email.

Wind storms can make a science technician's job a bit of a challenge. Here, the technicians carry snow samples back to the Green House.

Fairbanks Airport Hosts THE Antonov An-225 Mriya

February 10, 2010

What logistics geeks do for fun  

From left: Matt Irinaga, Dana Moudra Truffer, Christie Haupert, Marin Kuizenga, Erik Lund and Dana Coda meet the world's biggest plane. Photo: Marin Kuizenga

Fairbanks-based logisticons (L-R) Eric Lund, Matt Irinaga, Marin Kuizenga, Christie Haupert, and Dana Moudra Truffer in front of the Antonov 225. Photo: Random Kid lining the chain link fence with our team

 Some of us in the Fairbanks office found ourselves out at the airport yesterday just in time for the landing of the Antonov An-225 Mriya, the largest airplane in the world, and the only one of its kind now in service.  Originally built to carry the Russian space shuttle, the Antonov is a giant cargo-carrying workhorse these days. 

Reported PFS’ Alaska lead, Marin Kuizenga, “Many residents of Fairbanks, including the Fairbanks team and dog, lined the chain link fence to watch the Antonov 225’s arrival. According to the Fairbanks Daily News Miner, ‘The plane is . . . bound for Haiti, by way of Miami. It is flying from Tokyo, the State Department of Transportation said, with 250,000 pounds of earthquake relief equipment.’

The Antonov's six jet engines provide 300,000 pounds of thrust to get her airborne. Photo courtesy of http://www.aviationexplorer.com. Click the picture for more information on the An-225.

 We’ve been at this a while, so there’s not much about logistics that can blow our hair back, but dude! The plane can carry more than 10 times what the NSF’s C-130s can carry up to Greenland or down to Antarctica. Imagine!  

No wonder it has 32 wheels (four in the front, and two sets of 14 in back).  

 Marin later sent a link to this graphic that compares the An-225 with the world’s other flying hulks: 

From Wikipedia: “A size comparison between four of the largest aircraft, the An-225 (green), the Hughes H-4 Hercules (gold), the Boeing 747-8 (blue), and the Airbus A380-800 (pink).” Click the picture to visit the Wiki site.

 It’s gotta be like flying around in a football field.  For more on the An-225, enjoy this video: