Editor’s Note: Vienna, Austria-based science writer Chelsea Wald is taking part in a two-week Marine Biological Laboratory journalism fellowship at Toolik Field Station, an environmental research post inside the Arctic circle. To see the current conditions in Toolik, check out the Webcam.
VIENNA, AUSTRIA, June 14, 2010—It just dawned on me that in two days I’ll be on my way to one of the most remote places on Earth: Toolik Field Station, an environmental research station on the North Slope of Alaska. To get there, I have to fly almost 17 hours from Vienna to Fairbanks (and that doesn’t include layover times), and then travel by van some 12 hours north on rough roads. Once there, I will have to endure swarms of mosquitoes and infrequent bathing opportunities. A box of crucial items (sleeping bag, fleece, rain pants) that I sent ahead of me may have gotten lost in the mail—a nearly unthinkable eventuality.
But man, I’m psyched.
I’m one of nine science and environment reporters who have been selected by the Marine Biological Laboratory for the rare opportunity of visiting Toolik to learn about polar research in situ. And compared to the challenges the first researchers at Toolik endured, the hardships I’ll be facing seem minor.
In the mid-1970s, when John Hobbie (now senior scholar at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.) and a few colleagues founded Toolik Field Station, thousands of workers were in the area building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. "The pipeline working crews and even the camps, they provided enough food that they were an ecological magnet for the grizzly bears. And so our first two or three years, we often had to have a bear watch," Hobbie told me when I called him last week to learn a little more about the history of Toolik. The bear watcher would sit in a truck, hand poised on the horn to scare off any ursine that came into camp.
But that wasn’t always effective. "One of the graduate students at the University of Alaska had to kill a bear who came through a door to get inside a trailer," Hobbie said. On another occasion, he recalled, "one bear tried to come inside a tent and someone was sleeping in there. I was in the tent right next door to this woman, who’s now a quite well-known scientist. She started screaming. I sort of incorporated this scream into my dream, so I didn’t even wake up. Everyone else was running around trying to figure out what was happening."
Luckily, no one ever got seriously hurt, and the grizzly visits died down once the pipeline workers left. "Now, 30 years later, we don’t even see any bears around camp anymore," Hobbie said.
Come to think of it, I don’t mind a few mosquitoes.
Another "hardship" that came along with the nearby pipeline construction included constant flat tires due to the scrap metal that would fall off of the trucks. "Every one of these [pipeline] camps had a shop just for fixing tires," Hobbie said. And then there were the temptations of civilization. "Some of our people went up there and took ice cream cones from their freezer," Hobbie recalled. And, "of course, some of the students would get carried away and spend too much time up there partying."
Although the pipeline was in some ways a nuisance, Toolik Field Station would never have existed without it. It was for the pipeline that the Dalton Highway, along which Toolik lies, got built. And the pipeline workers gave the first Toolik scientists a place to camp out ("an old, abandoned airstrip"), emergency radio and telephone, and sewage removal. I suppose someone might see irony in that: One of the world’s great polar ecology research stations—one whose work focuses largely on climate change—exists thanks to an oil pipeline.
And, of course, the vision of a few pioneering researchers.
Toolik Field Station, now owned by the University of Alaska Fairbanks has come a long way since the 1970s, when it was often home to no more than five or six scientists. Now it houses about a hundred researchers at a time every summer. I will meet them soon, and it is my hope to bring you a few of their fascinating stories. I’m eager to know what you, the readers of this blog, would like to learn about Toolik. If you let me know—through this blog, my Web site, Twitter (@chelseawald), Friendfeed (chelseawald), or any other way you can manage to get in touch with me—I’ll do my very best to address your questions in future posts.
Photo: Toolik camp, 1980. Courtesy of John Hobbie