Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » Richard “Chico” Perales Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 Welcome to the Top of the World Mon, 02 Jun 2008 00:18:09 +0000 Richard "Chico" Perales BARROW, ALASKA– It is late April and I have finally made it to Barrow, Alaska. A place as intriguing as it is far north of everywhere else. This is the fourth consecutive year that I have come to this part of the North Slope Arctic to work with scientists on the BEO (Barrow Environmental Observatory)Hydrology Manipulation Project. It is a government funded research project focusing on the manipulation of a large wetland by sectioning off into three distinct areas of tundra and pumping water between them to simulate various Arctic conditions.

The Barrow Biocomplexity Environmental Observatory Hydrology Project in late summer and located near where the edge of where the Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas meet.

As I looked out the window of the Alaska Airlines plane minutes before landing, I couldn’t believe the amount of snow on the ground. It seemed that someone had forgotten to tell Barrow that winter is over. There was snow everywhere, and lots of it. From the look on the faces of most of the people getting off the plane with me, others must have been thinking the same thing. Outside in Barrow the ambient air temperature was 12°F so I thought that surely not much could be going on around town. Forget the coke machine– where can I get a hot chocolate and a fireplace?

Coping with Cold

Man it was cold. Or so it seemed to me…but apparently not to anyone else that lives here. On the ride through this Iñupiaq Eskimo village to my final destination– a research facility just outside of Barrow that was once a naval base– it was apparent that to the Iñupiaq, the native people of the Alaskan Arctic, cold days are as common as droughts are in the Western United States.

The NARL (Naval Arctic Research Laboratory) sleeping accommodations set up for scientists and support personnel.

As we passed a school playground, kids wearing parkas screamed at the top of their lungs and shrieked with laughter while jetting down a slide. The cold temperature seemed to make little difference to them. Their enthusiasm and energy captivated me until I noticed some movement nearby. We stopped to get out and take a look. It was a large pen with a dozen or so white dogs. It turned out to be the home of a dog sled team. As I watched them watch me, it dawned on me that the dogs and the kids were oblivious to each other. Now I ask you: When was the last time you saw kids and a pack of dogs not going crazy trying to get each other’s attention?

A dog sled team relaxes in their compound while ignoring the kids playing in the playground behind them.

One thing one quickly notices soon after arriving in Barrow is that people there wear parkas like people in cities carry cell phones. Even during the summer or when they are inside, people wear them. (That should give you an idea of just how warm Barrow gets.) The weather can be deceiving. The sun may be out 24 hours a day, seven days a week and it may seem warm outside, but if you stay out long enough, sooner or later the cold starts moving in. Mr. Cold meet Mr. Shiver.

An Iñupiaq boy out riding his bike with the temperature at 12°F.

Iñupiaq elders enjoy watching traditional dancing during the Nanulateq festival that celebrates successful whale hunts.

Local children play with sleds in the snow.

An interesting thing about all these parkas is that a good majority of them are just plain white. They have no other markings on them. No patches. No slogans. No pictures. The fur ruff on the hood that keeps snow away from the face and from getting inside the sleeves is usually dark, but otherwise the parkas are just white. You wonder why no one wears those popular bright parkas made with a variety of colors that one sees on ski slopes? It all makes sense after you find out why. (I will explain later.)


The factors distinguishing Barrow from other places are not limited to just clothing or people, though– they continue to other topics. Even Barrow’s traditional name of Ukpeagvik stands apart from the others. It translates from Iñupiaq into “Place where snowy owls are hunted.”

That was then. Now they are protected with conservation measures practiced and enforced to ensure their survival. Snowy owls are beautiful, majestic predator birds that construct nests in the late May and early June. The males are typically all white, with the females and younger ones having darker feathers. Once you get away from bustling Barrow, it is not uncommon to see up to a half dozen Snowy nests scattered amongst the tundra at one time.

A female Snowy Owl watches for her next meal.

A Snowy out on the tundra.

Seven snowy owl chicks.

Houses and Settling

Look around and you will see even more things differentiating Barrow from other places. How residents build their homes is yet another illustration. For thousands of years the Inuit were able to cope with living in the Arctic by making mounds into the ground. This provided insulation that protected them from the brutal wind-chills and extreme cold temperatures. Although they now live in typical modern-style homes, they still have to face some of the same challenges that their ancestors did.

Now the Iñupiaq build their homes on wooden pilings just like you would see on beach homes along the coastlines of the United Sates. But unlike those, which are designed to withstand rising sea waters and storm surges, the ones on the North Slope are built that way because of the type of ground they have to deal with. In the Arctic, the ground cover that thaws and re-freezes with the seasons is called the active layer. In Barrow the depth of this layer averages about 30 centimeters. After that is the permafrost which is ground that stays frozen for at least two straight years. The permafrost in Barrow is over 900 feet thick. The holes for setting the pilings have to be augured deep enough so that they do not heave as they settle into the ground and the active layer thaws. For this reason most pilings are set between 5 and 10 feet. The pilings are left alone for a year or two, and then are cut so that they are all on the same level. A house is then built or placed on them.

Wooden pilings are set into the ground for a couple of years to allow them to settle into the tundra.

Life at the ‘Office’

Going to work in the morning in Barrow is just another example of how different it is from other places of the United States. For me it’s assisting the scientists on the research project that I am involved in. During the cold months, that means having to put on layer after layer of cold weather clothing. You have so many clothes on that if you fall over while tying your shoes you may not ever get up.

The daily ritual for getting ready continues with getting a snow machine to drive to the research site. Then warming it up so it doesn’t conk out while you are driving in the middle of nowhere. Then checking the oil, the fuel, the body, and listening to the sound of the engine. Two thumbs up and now you’re ready to take a shotgun or a ‘bear guard’ guide with you.

A ‘bear guard’ guide stands watch while a scientist conducts his research.

Either one come in handy when encountering a dangerous animal at the wrong time and place. In the winter and the spring it seems to be the polar bear that everyone watches out for. In the summer the occasional grizzly bear visits the area. In between are the rabid foxes.

The normal work day doesn’t end there. Whiteouts and blizzards occur as frequently as bad hair days. Hypothermia lurks nearby if you’re not careful. When the day is over, the night begins. In the winter the day never starts because it is night most of the time and dusk when it isn’t. In the summer it is so bright that you can burn your eyes by not wearing sunglasses at midnight.

Polar bear tracks remind you of the dangers of working outside.

The Top of the World

Barrow truly is a remarkable place. No one is there by accident. Everyone who is not from there goes there for a reason. You don’t just pass through, run out of gas and find yourself stuck. It is far from anywhere else and as high north as you can go on land in the United States before hitting water. Like a lot of remote Alaska, there are no roads that connect it to anywhere else. Travel is year-round and only by plane although in the summer when the frozen sea has broken up and gone out to the open ocean, a barge brings supplies to the town. Schools have no temperature cut-off so they rarely close because of cold weather.

For a town with no movie theatres, no bowling alleys, no fast food chains, no mall, and no parks, people in Barrow definitely don’t let the weather and lack of so-called ‘quality of life services’ keep them from going outside and doing something. Even the dogs seem to relish the cold temperatures. Everything seems to point to one thing: Welcome to Barrow.

A Siberian husky takes watching the house to a new level.
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Outfitting the Adventure Wed, 14 May 2008 16:03:27 +0000 Richard "Chico" Perales FAIRBANKS, ALASKA– Scientists that travel to the Arctic to conduct their research have learned that proper planning can be the difference between having a successful season and one where pulling your own wisdom tooth would have been easier and more fun.

Which is what brings me to my scheduled stopover in Fairbanks. Capital of polar field support, Fairbanks is located near the middle of the state. It is the second largest city with a population of only about 32,000 residents. (That’s less people than there are at some college basketball games.)

Fairbanks, AK, image by Seth Ilys
Fairbanks, Alaska.

The Alaska office of Polar Field Services, the company I work for, is located here in Fairbanks. (The home office is in Denver, Colorado.) The company specializes in providing science support to individuals and/or groups in the Arctic and the Antarctic, with the majority of the work involving projects in Alaska and Greenland. In other words, we plan and put into place the tasks needed to help polar scientists achieve their goals. The what, where, when and how depends on many factors including funds allocated, destination, labor, risks, constraints involved, etc.

Transportation is a good example of the kind of logistical support we provide. Let’s suppose there is no road to the lake where a group of researchers are planning to collect water samples. The scientists provide a proposal with their requests and their plan objective. Some of the questions that would help in planning this project would be: How long are you going to be there? Can you hike to it or do you need a helicopter or small plane to get there? What time of year are you planning on going? Do you need some kind of bear protection? How about fuel for cooking, and what about water?

Ivotuk camp
Ivotuk camp in the North Slope interior where the only way in or out is via small aircraft or helicopter.

Or maybe the researchers are requesting a building to house scientific equipment and keep warm. Later, they might decide to have a webcam and a communication tower so they can measure the snow accumulation at the site with real-time data transmissions.

The Control Shed at the Barrow Environmental Observatory with a web cam watching everything in the area.

The requests vary from project to project. A team of biologists may need a more permanent camp that requires a bigger space than just tents so they can set up a lab. They may also need snow machines, satellite radios, food, a paramedic and fishing equipment to help tag fish. Of course, not all requests are a given. Requesting a recliner and a satellite television so you won’t miss an episode of American Idol will probably get you on the next bus out of Alaska.

On some occasions, engineers have to design a specialized piece of equipment and then get it built, sent to Alaska, and installed in the field.

BEO System
Infrastructure installed at the Barrow BEO that supports the tram instrumentation riding up and down a track system.

Fairbanks works well for supporting Alaskan projects because it is home to the University of Alaska and is strategically located near the center of the state and the state’s main highway system. In Alaska, most groups that venture out have a lot of their own gear, but the warehouse still holds enough general supplies to replace lost, damaged, or forgotten items.

Tents, polar boots, parkas, and other items along the walls of the Fairbanks office.

The Fairbanks office is also the first stop for many of the scientists who travel to Toolik Station to conduct their studies. This large science research station sits along the route to Prudhoe Bay on stunning foothills overlooking the Brooks Mountain Range. It provides sleeping and dining facilities that enable scientists to spend more time on their research and less time on chores.

One of the great bonuses of traveling to Toolik Station is that it is very common to see wildlife along the route. Bears, moose, wolves, caribou, and musk oxen are some of the wildlife that frequent this vast territory. It is also not rare to see someone riding a bicycle or a scooter on the Dalton Highway. As hard as it may be to believe, this is a fact. I would not be surprised if the wildlife stop everything they are doing to sit by with amusement and a bag of popcorn as these characters pass by.

Caribou are often seen above the Arctic Circle and along the Dalton Highway.

A porcupine struts along quietly, unafraid of anyone.

In Greenland, logistical support is more challenging because it’s a different country and even more remote than Alaska is to the rest of the United States.

Greenland map, by Cleve Lander
Greenland is highlighted in green.

The major warehouse is in Kangerlussuaq, a small town located on the south-eastern part of the country. Most of the researchers and support personnel that go Greenland use gear that is provided there. The warehouse is huge and probably has enough gear to outfit a small army of boy scouts.

Kangerlussuaq, Photo by Swirl
The main buildings at Kangerlussuaq, Greenland where the sciences support office and warehouse is located.

As interesting as all these places are, my next stop is one place unlike any other on the face of this earth. It is Barrow, Alaska, a whaling community composed mainly of Inupiaq Inuits, in the largest village on the North Slope. I am looking forward to getting there.

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Land of the Midnight Sun Tue, 13 May 2008 23:31:16 +0000 Richard "Chico" Perales FAIRBANKS, ALASKA– The adventure of working in the Arctic supporting scientific research has begun. After a long day of connecting flights I finally made it to Alaska, land of the midnight sun and home to animals that are as majestic as they are legendary.

A grizzly bear near the North Fork River in eastern Alaska.
Musk Ox
A small herd of musk oxen with calves near Teller, Alaska.

This place is so much different from where the journey all started for me– West Texas, with its regular scenery of cacti, sandstorms and tumbleweeds. Back in my hometown of El Paso, the temperature was reaching 90 degrees and climbing when I left. As the plane entered Alaska and I looked out the window to see all those snow-covered mountains as far as the eye could see, I was quickly reminded that I won’t have to worry about getting heat stroke anytime soon.

Considering that Alaska is bigger than twice the size of Texas, it’s hard to believe how few people live here. It is as remote as it is spectacular.

Brooks Range
A researcher carries his scientific equipment north of the Brooks Range.

The majority of the state’s residents live in the south-eastern part. As one ventures further north or west, the towns and villages become fewer and more remote.

One House
By the time you get all the way up to Barrow, buildings are sparse indeed.

Alaska is so different from the rest of the United States that first-time visitors might wonder if they are in another country. Reindeers replace cows in ranches and the moon goes on summer vacation just like a lot of people do– but it doesn’t come back until in the fall.

Reindeer Meat
Reindeer meat replaces beef at the grocery store in Barrow.
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The Arctic Journey Begins Sun, 11 May 2008 23:22:01 +0000 Richard "Chico" Perales EL PASO, TEXAS– “You have got to be kidding me.”

That is what goes through your mind when you literally have to go to the top of the world to go to work. What may seem crazy and abnormal to the majority of people who live and work in the cities is quite common to those involved in polar research in the Arctic. Habits there differ from those in cities like day and night. We check on the weather like other people check their phone messages. Or experience signs of hypothermia like others experience bad haircuts. As the saying goes, “You have to see it to believe it.”

King Island
One of my past Arctic work locations, King Island is located on the Bering Sea between Alaska and Siberia, just south of the Bering Strait. This is the village of King Island as seen from the helicopter.

Conducting polar research in the Arctic and the Antarctic is very challenging. Not only is the cold environment hard on people and equipment, the remote locations and long distances require a lot of advanced planning and preparation. Just going from your home to the actual field research location is not as simple as it may seem. To prove this, I challenge you to take this test to see if you would even be allowed to board the plane, the first step on the long journey to where the research all begins.

Let’s pretend that in a few days you will be traveling to the Arctic to work in the same general area that I do, the Inuit village of Barrow, Alaska. Like the other North Slope villages, you will have to fly there because there are no roads in or out of it. Getting in by ship is not an option except in the summer or fall because the Chuckchi Sea, the body of water off its shoreline, is frozen.

Frozen Barrow
Barrow, Alaska off the Chuckchi Sea on April 23, 2008.

Let’s say that you have been hired to assist scientists studying polar bears. Or snow. Or carbon dioxide released by thawing permafrost. It doesn’t really matter which; they are all important.

Arctic egg weigh
Perhaps you’re weighing Arctic tern eggs, like ornithologist George Divoki and his assistant Heather, here on Cooper Island.

Now think about everything you may need to take with you to help you make it through the rest of the spring and summer seasons as easily as possible. But here is the catch: You have to be careful of what you take. You can only bring two bags with you on the flight, and both must be under 45 pounds. Above the Arctic Circle post offices are few and far between, but if you are near a village you may be able to mail packages to yourself. Of course there is the risk of the parcel getting lost or damaged, or arriving later rather than sooner. Not to mention the cost of air freight as fuel prices rise. But even if you could ship extra items, where would you put them? At many of the remote research locations, your entire personal space and sleeping area is a tent.

Greenland tents
Summit Camp on top of the Greenland plateau.

You are almost ready to start packing. Before you can begin, you need to get a bathroom scale to make sure that the total weight of the items you are taking stay within the allotted limit. First figure in 25 to 35 pounds (depending on your body size) for the standard cold-weather clothing you will need to protect you from the freezing and sometimes wet (sleet) climate. These items are extremely important for your health and life, so they must take priority in your baggage. They include a heavy parka, snow boots, polar fleece pants and pullover/jacket, top and bottom thermal underwear, outer pant shell, snow cap and gloves, heavy socks, snow goggles and a neck gaiter. Include the bag all those items will go into on the scale.

Typical layers of cold weather clothing worn in the spring while out in the field.

Typically, if you were going in the early spring or late fall seasons you would include an additional 10 to 25 pounds on top of that for extra cold-weather clothing. The temperature is colder then, requiring you to have thicker and/or additional layers of clothing to stay warmer outside for longer periods of time.

Working in the cold outside: me setting flags to help identify buried equipment and infrastructure near Barrow, Alaska.

Now subtract the total weight of the cold-weather clothing you will be taking from the allotted 90 pounds. Whatever number is left is the total weight you now have for anything else you think you may need.

Unloading Cargo
We all travel light. (Here, archeologist Matt Ganley helps the science support crew load a helicopter.)

It is time now to make different piles of the remaining items and set them aside. In cold climates, when you come back inside from the cold you usually want to take everything off and put on more comfortable clothing. Keeping in mind that you cannot take your whole closet with you, make a pile with items that may include t-shirts, light jackets, sweatshirts, socks, underwear, jeans, jogging shoes, your shirt that says “If I Look Lost It’s Because I Am”, etc.

Scientists watch football
Time off in our indoor clothing. Scientists from various countries and visitors from Russia join college students and others to watch the 2006 World Cup final at a nearby college.

Next is a pile for your toiletry items. These would be your toothbrush, toothpaste, hair spray, shampoo, hairbrush, mascara, body lotion, deodorant, hair gel and so forth. Quite often there is no village nearby to buy refills or replacements if anything runs out or gets lost or damaged, so you should add in extras. Also, in the Arctic prices are very expensive because most items have to be flown in. A gallon of milk costs around nine dollars. A liter of coke is about four.

Milk $
The price of one gallon of milk in Barrow on April 26, 2008.

It’s also a good idea to take one or two items that will help you pass the time when you have some time to pass. Maybe you would like to take your guitar with you. That’s cool. Unfortunately it weighs a few pounds so you may have to leave some things behind to make room for it. Perhaps you are thinking that if you don’t take other clothing, you will ensure taking your guitar. Sure, why not? But don’t be surprised if someone gets tired of smelling you and then decorates your head with the guitar. The point is that it is ok to take items such as a guitar because some people do, but be wise on what you eliminate to make room for it.

Guitar time
Favorite Things: Ander with guitar, John Algood and I arriving on King Island. (The gun was a necessity because of the possibility of encountering rabid foxes or wandering polar bears.)

Note that books and magazines are like a failed diet that equals more pounds, so avoid the urge to take your collection of People Magazines and instead take one or two if you absolutely must. Pens, pencils, calculators, notebooks, etc will go in the same pile with literature.

Reading pic

Reading the time away: John Algood of Polar Field Services waits out bad weather on top of King Island.

The next pile is that with all the high-tech objects (headphones, video games, play stations, laptops and so on) without which your life will cease to exist. Put all of those items in a plastic bag with desiccant to help keep them dry from the temperature changes in the cargo bay– as the plane heads north, then unloads all cargo into the warm baggage area on arrival.

Greenland cargo
Not all have warm baggage areas. Here, researchers and cargo arrive at Summit Camp, Greenland.

Last is a pile with your multi-vitamins, insomnia pills, prescription medicine and so forth. Put these in a bag as well.

Now look at all of these items and double-check to make sure nothing has been left out. If that indeed is it, weigh all the piles– with the exception of your cold weather clothing that you must take with you. Is the total number of pounds over the limit? Go back and take items out on a priority basis until the scale gives you a passing grade.

You will soon realize what you think is most important for you and your well being. Making the right decisions on what to take or leave behind will eliminate unnecessary stress that could have been avoided. Good luck trying to get everything to the set weight limit, and if you don’t get it all figured out by midnight, don’t worry, get some sleep and continue in the morning.

If, on the other hand, you are able to get the two bags to the allotted weight limit, congratulations. You are now ready to get on the plane and head to the Arctic.

Frozen Beaufort
Inupiaq hunters on the frozen Beaufort Sea passing by on snowmobiles.
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