Polar Careers: Ned Rozell, Alaska Science Forum

April 19, 2010

By Emily Stone  

Journalist/Adventurer Ned Rozell takes a break from a grueling race in his tent during last year's 100-plus mile Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic race. Photo by Michael Gibson

Ned Rozell came to Alaska the first time by chance.  

The upstate New York native was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base for a year and a half in the early 80s. While there, he noticed the way Alaskans accept people who choose to live simply in small, wood-heated cabins tucked away from big cities.  

“It was the way a lot of people lived up here and didn’t live in a lot of other places. There’s a real sense of freedom,” he said. Plus, “there’s a lot of opportunities job-wise and adventure-wise.”  These impressions intrigued Rozell enough to lure him back in 1986 after the Air Force to attend college at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Twenty-four years later, he’s still there and has found an ideal combination of job and adventure as the science writer for the university’s Geophysical Institute. In addition to spending time in the field with scientists trekking atop glaciers or snowmobiling frozen rivers, he combines writing with his own trips into the wilderness, such as in the book he wrote about his 800-mile hike along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline with his dog, Jane.  

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Rozell, now 47, worked seasonal jobs, including stints as a firefighter and National Park ranger. In 1994 he noticed a job posting for the science writer position. He was familiar with it because the writer is responsible for weekly newspaper columns about research conducted by the institute’s 70 scientists, columns Rozell frequently read.  

In the 700-plus columns he’s written, Rozell has covered everything from volcanic eruptions to dinosaur teeth. The engaging and accessible stories titled “Alaska Science Forum” run in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the Anchorage Daily News and smaller papers around the state. He likes biology columns the best, he said, and they’re also the ones that draw the most reader response. Any time he writes about black-capped chickadees, which weigh as much as a handful of paperclips, or ravens that swoop and play in the wind, he hears from readers who like that neither species abandons Alaska for warmer climes during the long, cold months.  

“People see them as partners toughing out the winter,” he said.  

For his part, Rozell likes that winter scares off most people, too.  

“I like the cold,” he said. “Maybe it’s because most people don’t like it; it’s that frontier feel you get in extremely cold places.” 

Rozell is an avid ski racer. Here he's in Skolai Pass during 2009's Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic race. Photo: Michael Gibson

Ecologist Knut Kielland has been the subject of five of Rozell’s columns over the years. He describes Rozell as a low-key, quiet observer in the field who always has his notebook out and eyes and ears open. He quickly grasps the big picture questions being addressed in the research as well as getting the nit-picky details right, Kielland said. 

Scientists are eager to have good stories about their research distributed to the general public, Kielland said. Rozell makes the process easy. 

“We just do our regular research and he comes around and chats with us in the field and writes his cool synopsis,” Kielland said. 

Rozell’s friend John Arntz, who has known Rozell since college, said his friend’s two loves — science and getting out into nature — come from the same place. “He likes time outside, and knowing what’s going on around him adds to his interest,” Arntz said.

Rozell visited the advancing Hubbard Glacier while on assignment for his job as a science writer for the University of Alaska Fairbank's Geophysical Institute. Photo: Martin Truffer

Arntz joined Rozell for 200 miles of his pipeline hike in 1997 and helped shuttle supplies at other points during the four-month trip. On the trail, Rozell was his normal quiet, contemplative self, said Arntz, who is now the director of elections in San Francisco. Rozell would often note things of scientific interest along the route, pointing out species of trees that fare well in the far north or mentioning the migration habits of white crowned sparrows as they flew overhead. 

“He lived that part, the science as well as the adventure,” Arntz said. 

Rozell, who was prepared to quit his job to take the trip if his bosses didn’t want him away so long, ended up filing columns during the hike, timing them to coincide with his location. He figured if he got enough good fodder en route, he could turn the trip into a book, which he did in “Walking My Dog, Jane.” It focuses more on the interesting people he met along the way, including pipeline workers, fellow hikers, and readers who were tracking his progress and set out to meet him, as well as incorporating the natural history of the places he passed through. 

His other epic adventure was a 27-day, 700-mile cross-country ski trip he did in 2001 with his friend Andy Sterns. Sterns came up with the route. It followed the path of a 1925 serum run when Alaskans teamed up to shuttle diphtheria medicine from the closest train depot to Nome, which was experiencing a deadly epidemic. 

Sterns describes his friend as a steady presence in the wilderness, who remains even-keeled no matter how hard the trail or bad the weather. 

“It’s good to be out on a trip with someone you know you can count on no matter what,” he said from his home in Fairbanks.

In addition to his weekly columns, Rozell is finishing up a biography of University of Alaska scientist Kenji Yoshikawa. Rozell said he was drawn to the permafrost researcher because he’s both a scientist and an adventurer, having skied to the South Pole, hiked across the Sahara, and sailed from his native Japan to Alaska. 

“He’s kind of a kindred soul,” he said. 

Rozell’s next big outdoor trip is a week-long canoeing and camping trip he and his wife are taking with their 3-year-old daughter. They’re eager to see how she does sleeping along the banks of the Yukon River, battling Alaska’s notorious mosquitoes. 

“It’ll be a different speed,” he said, but no doubt an adventure. 

Ned Rozell spent time at Katmai Caldera in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes while doing research for his column, "Alaska Science Forum." Photo: Volcanologist John Eichelberger

Emily Stone is a freelance writer from Chicago, Illinois. She spent a week at Toolik Field Station in 2009 as an MBL journalism fellow.

“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.”

In the Media

August 14, 2009


The map of sea level pressure (in millibars) from July 1 to 31, 2009, shows a strong high-pressure cell over the Beaufort Sea. In 2007, a similar high-pressure cell, combined with unusually low pressure over eastern Siberia, contributed to the record melt. Source: NSIDC

The map of sea level pressure (in millibars) from July 1 to 31, 2009, shows a strong high-pressure cell over the Beaufort Sea. In 2007, a similar high-pressure cell, combined with unusually low pressure over eastern Siberia, contributed to the record melt. Source: NSIDC

A strong high-pressure system bringing abundant sunshine in July helped to shrink arctic sea-ice extent at roughly the same rate as was seen in 2007, says the National Snow and Ice Data Center in its latest news release.

Visit polar bears in Kaktovik, Alaska, with Richard Nelson (whose one-man show on Alaska Public Radio, Encounters,  receives NSF funding). This Men’s Journal article will take you there.

For a Canadian perspective on the joint CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent and USCGC Healy mapping expedition, read a series of reports by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Watson, who is aboard the Louis.

Ned Rozell is going to ‘Monster Island’ next week!  Details in his latest Alaska Science Forum piece.

That 13-mile-long, hairy, gelatinous, black goo found floating by subsistence hunters in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s North Slope earlier this summer? An oil slick? No. A monster? No. An algae bloom.

In the media

June 16, 2009
  • Read this Ned Rozell account of the harrowing encounter between a graduate student on his first arctic field trip and a polar bear.
The broken window of the Kinnvika research station at Svalbard. A polar bear, body partially visible in the background, broke the window. Photo: Bob McNabb

The broken window of the Kinnvika research station at Svalbard. A polar bear, body partially visible in the background, broke the window. Photo: Bob McNabb

  • When a poplar decision is a popular decision: U Alaska Fairbanks Chancellor Brian Rogers gave NSF-funded biologist Matt Olson permission to proceed with planting and fencing-in 2500 poplar saplings in a six-acre plot at the top of a research field on the Fairbanks university campus, a field ringed by a popular cross-country skiing trail. The site selection was protested by a few skiers and the president of the university’s trails club, who objected to the visual disruption created by the fence needed to keep moose from eating the tender plants. Olson’s long-term study will focus on the genetic adaptations these trees, cloned from samples collected over a swath of Alaska and Canada, make in response to changing climate.
  • Congratulations to the village of Point Lay, Alaska, which this spring landed its first whale in more than 70 years.
Point Lay community members celebrate the successful bowhead hunt.

Point Lay community members celebrate the successful bowhead hunt. Photo: Chad Bernick

  • Old bugs on Mars? Tiny microbes found living in Greenland ice estimated to be 120,000 years old may offer new insight into how cells survive in extreme environments—on this planet and possibly others. The NSF-funded Penn State research team led by Jean Brenchley made the discovery.