Living and working in the high Arctic at this time of year is full of challenges. From the small everyday stuff like sleeping, washing and using the toilet, to the bigger issues that affect our science such as icing up of instruments, freezing of your water samples and keeping a hole in the ice open when the air temperature is -37oC. Every day we put our collective minds together and solve problems; up here you don’t just put your scientific knowledge to use but also your life skills.
Sewing, carpentry, electronics, igloo building and engineering, these are all talents that we put to use every day. Taking care of yourself is the most important task, as small issues can become compounded if not given attention.
The single biggest issue for most of us is sleeping. There are not that many people crazy enough to sleep outside in unheated tents when the air temperature is -37oC. Everyone has their own system for getting into and out of their sleeping bag. It has taken me the first week to become truly comfortable during the nightime.
I start with 2 hot water bottles, filled up from the snow melter just as I am ready to leave for my tent. Once in my tent I take off my down trousers and slip my legs into my inner vapour barrier bag, it is at this point that I take off my socks! I know this goes against all you might expect, but it is actually warmer without socks on as the vapour barrier traps your body sweat and keeps you quite toasty.
Then the jacket comes off, my fleece sweater I bundle up into the hood of my bag to help keep my head warm, my down booties and gloves go between the inner and outer bag to stay warm for the morning.
Now I wiggle down into the bag and close up the hood so only a small opening remains for me to breathe through, finally I tighten up the shoulder ruff around my neck; this is definitely not for the claustrophobic amongst us.
Now I listen to the sounds of snoring from my colleagues and the wind on the tent until I fall asleep. With a good nights sleep the challenges of the next day seem more approachable.
We have spent the first week at camp figuring out a system for collecting water samples, drilling ice cores and deploying instruments. The first obstacle to overcome is keeping a hole in the ice open to sample through.
After spending a whole day digging through almost 2 meters of ice we were left with a beautiful hole through to the dark water underneath. If left uncovered this hole would freeze up within a day or two. The first solution is to cover the hole with a tent, then the hole is covered with plyboard when not in use, finally a heater is installed in the tent which keeps the temperature about 10 to 20 degrees above the outside air temperature.
Despite all this we still have to spend 30 minutes each morning chipping and scooping the ice out of the hole before sampling. The first time we tried to collect a water sample from the below the ice, the spout on the bottle froze solid before we could collect our sample.
After talking at breakfast the next day we found a solution, to build another tent within the first tent and use the heater and coleman lamps to warm it to -5oC, just enough to keep the spout unfrozen. Our samples are kept in coolers which we warm with hot water bottles to stop them from freezing before we can complete our analysis.
With all these issues solved we are a roll with our data collection and our days start to run smoothly. I remember at last why I was so anxious to return to the Arctic, the beauty of this region is stunning and the challenges we face here is one of the reasons why so many of us keep returning.
Photo credits: The Catlin Arctic Survey, Copyright Martin Harley.
Editor's Note: The Catlin Arctic Survey is a unique collaboration among polar explorers and scientists to gather data on the impacts of climate and environmental change in the Arctic.
This 10-week international scientific expedition will travel to the farthest reaches of the Arctic to research the impact of melting ice caps on the world's oceans and weather systems. In recent years, the surface area of Arctic ice has declined to levels that were not expected until 2070. The Catlin Arctic team will seek to understand how climate and environmental changes affect ocean currents, which have a major impact on weather patterns throughout North America. Scientists are predicting that climate-related changes in the way that ocean currents circulate could result in a dramatic increase in the frequency and intensity of storms and cause extensive flooding, coastal erosion and damage to crops, homes and cities across the U.S. and around the world. The scientific team will be based at a unique research station located on sea ice in the Canadian Arctic shelf.
Simultaneously, a team of polar explorers will undertake two separate Arctic missions: the first across the Prince Gustav Adolf Sea, and the second from the North Geographic Pole toward Greenland.
Victoria Hill is research professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va.