Discovering the meaning of attitude in Arctic science

I’m not really a hard-core outdoorsman like many environmental scientist are. I’m more what true field scientists make fun of (politely behind our backs) - a modeler. Nonetheless, in March of 2019 I found my bags packed for a month-long fieldwork expedition to the remote wilderness of Arctic Alaska.
Arctic researchers work in challenging conditions
Photo: Pertti Ala-aho.

During this time I was to take part in week-long snow mobile traverse with winter camping, a sampling road trip along the infamous “Haul road” highway all the way up to the Arctic ocean, and flying on small aircraft to measurement sites inside the majestic Brooks Range mountains. I would definitely have soiled myself, but the soil there was frozen hundreds of meters deep.

“Let’s keep moving, said grandmother in snow” (Finnish proverb)

The US National Science Foundation funded collaborative research project I joined in Alaska studies nutrition of arctic caribou – an animal important for both the Arctic ecosystem and the people living there. To my non-biologist eyes caribou looked pretty much like reindeer. My expertise is in snow hydrology, and I was part of a crew working to understand how snow conditions influence the caribou winter habitat and migration. If the snow is either very deep or very hard, it will make it difficult for the animal to walk in the area or access nutrition buried underneath. Just imagine looking for your breakfast, lunch, and dinner under a meter of snow! Mapping the snow conditions requires doing measurements where no-one else is doing measurements: the nearly inaccessible Northern Alaska during winter.

The field campaign was led by postdoctoral scientist Stine Højlund Pedersen, with support from senior scientist Glen Liston, Jeffrey Welker, Kelly Elder, and Matthew Sturm. The crew combined had way over hundred years of experience in doing field science in the most challenging winter conditions - and that experience showed. I could go on about all the technical things I learned about snow measurements and outdoorsman skills in the harsh Arctic environment. However, the most eye-opening lesson was not on how to do field work, but how set one’s state of mind when doing field work.

Feel the warmth of handlebars, see the gas bubbles trapped in ice, taste the structure of snow

In my previous field work I have aspired to make the most efficient use of the time when going out. Typically this has meant doing as many measurements and taking as many samples as possible in the time available. The outcome of all this is being exhausted at the end of any field campaign. That’s all good in getting data collected and boasting like you’ve achieved something. But. Rush in doing measurements can lead to mistakes and tuck away one important part of science: having fun.

Working with the crew in Alaska meant long and hard days in challenging conditions, but haste had no part in it. Objectives of the field expedition (in the order of priority) were to (1) come back unharmed, (2) come back as friends and (3) come back with data. We could take spontaneous breaks to discuss the measurement techniques, research questions, or the weather. Morning coffee in was a holy thirty-minute ritual where discussion bounced from proper blanket sheets to global politics.

All and all, it was the combination of relentless attitude, playfulness, and curiosity of the crew that struck me the most. At the respectable age of sixty or so, the senior scientists would walk (plow) through the snow, falling in chest-deep every other step. Or park their snow mobiles in the freezing wind to climb a big “ice blister”, and two-meter high fully transparent mound in river ice, and use it as a slide. Multiple times, head in first. Or stop and marvel at the beauty of a snow crystals, and read the direction of vapor flow in the snowpack from how the crystals are oriented.

What made it possible to enjoy the freezing arctic, alongside with doing high-quality snow measurements? Quoting Glen Liston, the trips “have evolved from 24/7 survival expeditions decades ago to something where there is time in the day to do science”. All things seemed easy and effortless, because we had all things we needed but nothing more. The attention to detail in both camp living and in science was amazing. Example: tie an additional piece of rope to a zipper, so it is easy to open with gloves on. Countless examples alike.

What did I take home from Arctic Alaska?

It is safe to say the field expedition was a career-changing experience. Firstly, I got reminded that in the middle of the academic pressures in getting published and funded, science is all about discovery and enjoying what you are doing. Being really out there, immersed in the beauty, wilderness and roughness of the Arctic landscape for a long period, allowed me to take it all in and live the moment. I did not hear anyone say once: “wish I could read my emails just now”.

Secondly, I was humbled by the experience and dedication of the scientist I worked with. They have made huge effort to enable snow science expeditions in the Arctic where very few souls dare to endeavor. Knowing exactly what is needed for the coming day when you wake up in a tent at -27 °C is no piece of cake. Then taking your time to do it, and enjoying it all the way is what I call Arctic attitude! Hope some of that rubbed on me.

Finally, I built ever-increasing appreciation and love for my wife who was alone taking care of our 1-year old son during our six weeks apart. She had the hard job, while I was on an adventure of a lifetime playing in snow.

Pertti Ala-aho’s research focuses on snow hydrology and the importance of snowmelt water to the Northern environment. His scientific objective for the field work in Alaska was to study the origin of snow, and the fate of snowmelt water by sampling the snowpack for stable water isotopes. Isotope composition of a water molecule provides a “fingerprinting” tool, which Ala-aho and collaborators in University of Oulu and University of Alaska Anchorage use to: (1) backtrack the origin of snowstorms, which provides information on how warmer climate and the loss sea ice influences the large scale Arctic water circulation, and (2) study where the snowmelt water ends up and how it sustains the Northern ecosystems.

The field work in Arctic Alaska was a part of a project “Nutritional landscapes of Artic Caribou” funded by the US National Science Foundation, led by prof. J. Welker. The research visit and collaboration is an integral part of Ala-aho’s Academy of Finland funded postdoctoral fellowship, and the trip was generously supported by the “Arctic interactions” -research program at University of Oulu, and “Maa- ja vesitekniikan tuki” Foundation.