Ice Stories
Exploratorium Home

The Arctic Journey Begins

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.

2 Responses »

  1. Fajna stronka, bede tu wpadal czesciej, pozdro

    [Great site, i'm going to drop in here more often, cheers]

  2. if you were taking ipod, video games etc how would you charge them?