Arctic Research: Carhartts, Polar Bears, and Duct Tape

What does a modern Arctic explorer wear to work? And what does the modern explorer (mature male) do if he has to pee?

Barrow Arctic Science Consortium is the center for research in the area and has all the facilities of a modern research center, most of it coming from the wealthy Iñupiat corporation. Getting funding from the National Science Foundation was sometimes problematic so BASC is cheerfully independent, although it does get some NSF funds. Most of the visiting researchers are housed in Quonset huts, mostly left over from when the facilities were run by the U.S. Navy, or in cottages, like 171. Our cottage had four bedrooms, a full kitchen and bathroom—and on this visit—a bad smell. Fortunately, BASC shares a large H-shaped building with Ilisagvik Community College, also Iñupiat-run, which has a decent cafeteria.

Alaska is the most-wired state in the U.S., and the facilities in Barrow are hooked by satellite to the Internet. The satellite dishes are pointed almost horizontally to connect to equatorial satellites but the facilities and all the homes in Barrow have Internet and television. Researchers at BASC are plugged in.

Measuring the ice is what Hajo Eicken does.

Eicken, a sea-ice geophysicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, is part of an international project to measure the recession of sea ice in the Arctic. No one doubts the sea ice is receding. Aerial photos, pictures from space and measurements on the ground established that thirty years ago. How much it is receding and the mechanism involved, is what the international project is measuring. Eicken, a tall, thin, bearded associate professor, born and educated in northernmost Germany, is a frequent visitor to Barrow and BASC, usually with his graduate students. He has three in tow this time and the goal, as usual, is to go out onto the frozen sea and plant instruments that measure both the ice and the snow on top of the ice throughout the season. The data is then compared to data from previous years to measure the trend. He uses what he measures to gauge the effects of the recession on the local, coastal environment and, in macro, the earth’s climate.

Eicken has six hours of daylight in which to work when he arrived in Barrow in March. Three weeks earlier, he would have had none. The sun didn’t rise until January 23. Along with an armed Iñupiat guard (you don’t leave Barrow without one), we depart shortly after 10:30 a.m. on three snow machines. Two of them are pulling long wooden sleds filled with gear. I stand on the back of one of the sleds, instructed to lean against any tilt to help keep the sled upright, which turns out to be the least of my worries. This position, the most exposed, is traditional for newcomers, particularly the nonproductive kind. The wind-chill is negative forty. We are going to plant instruments on the ice.

What does a modern Arctic explorer wear to work? The secrets to keeping warm in temperatures cold enough to alter the molecular structure of steel (minus forty, by the way) are layers and wool. After serious consultation, I am wearing two-layered woolen thermal underwear, flannel padded jeans and Carhartt1⁠ canvas and fleece snow pants, a quilted woolen shirt, a polyester liner and a Siberian-made parka, certified to negative forty. The boots are Canadian Sorels, also certified to forty below, with woolen socks. Note all the wool. Cotton can kill you here because cotton loses the ability to keep you warm once it gets wet and perspiration (or falling through the ice) makes it wet. Wool keeps on keeping you warm. No artificial fabric is as good.  I have a woolen balaclava and a wool and polyester neck warmer. I have three layers of gloves, and an extra set hung on a cord around my neck I can plunge my hands into if they get cold. Everyone else is dressed approximately the same. Most of us have ski goggles. One serious problem: once you put the mask on—and you will put the mask on—eye glasses fog up and the moisture instantly freezes, rendering you effectively blind. No one has yet invented a solution to that problem so you are faced with a choice of skipping the glasses, or wearing them and looking at the world through a sheet of ice. Contact lenses are the only way to go. I have none.

And speaking of problems: what does the modern explorer (mature male) do if he has to pee? If you are a male explorer over the age of fifty, this is not an inconsequential consideration. The answer usually given is to turn your back to the wind and work as fast as you can. This is not easy with four layers, two zippers, and gloves. The real answer is not to worry: The air is so dry it sucks moisture out of your body and you will go all day without peeing. I found that to be true.

Defecation, however, is out of the question.

A problem for which I was unprepared is photography. Most batteries quit when the temperature gets below negative twenty and, unless they have spent about a half hour in a warm room, remain useless. Lithium batteries, which I didn’t have, work best in very cold weather. You can stuff the camera in your parka, but you have to be quick. The other thing I learned is that to do anything with your hands you usually have to take your gloves off (mittens actually, because they are more efficient in keeping your hands warm) and in that cold, it hurts quickly. A few minutes in the mittens—if they are good enough mittens—will fix that, but a few minutes later, off they come again because you have to fiddle with something else, usually involving clothing. Finally, despite zippers, clasps, and Velcro, the cold will find any opening between garments, including some you never suspected you had. When we started lurching over the ice I had the feeling someone had stuck a sharp icicle up my sleeve. I chased down the opening and snapped it shut with Velcro.

Preparing the sleds.

The expedition followed the road east, toward Barrow Point, running on the snow that covered the Chukchi beach. Just parallel to the end of the road, we came to a halt. Four polar bears were at the dump about 200 yards before us, a female, two cubs and what the guard thought was a young male. Maybe the stupidest thing any sentient creature can do is get near a mother polar bear protecting her cubs. Bears also don’t like large groups of humans on noisy machines and were taking their time searching for snacks. (“I’m a polar bear and I’ll move when I damned well please.”) Polar bears can weigh 1,600 pounds and stand almost 10-feet tall when they rear on their rear legs, although none of these bears were near that size. They were between us and the sea ice so we waited until they moved on, about ten minutes. When they finally sauntered off, we resumed the trip, finally curving off the beach onto the frozen sea. My instructions were to not only try to keep the sled upright but to turn my face away from the direction we were traveling if the wind got too bad. With the balaclava, the goggles and the parka collar, not much wind got to my face and it was not unbearable. I needed to see where we were going to anticipate the bumps. I was told to keep my knees flexed to absorb the shocks, and I did it successfully all but once. I wasn’t paying attention for one bump and felt the shock particularly where my spine meets my neck. Eicken, who was driving the snow machine pulling my sled, could see obstacles and bumps and slowed when the ice got particularly ragged. The ice is rarely flat or smooth. There are occasional cracks, but mostly there are pressure ridges caused by the motion of the ice, partly reacting to tidal pressure and waves. Hunks, blocks, and ridges glistening in the sunlight, their shadows a grey blue, were tumbled across the ice. This was fast ice. On top of the ice was several months’ accumulation of bone-dry snow.  Snowball fights are impossible here; the snow will not form balls. It was not clear when we passed from the snow covering the beach and the snow covering the ice and water.

Eicken located the site he wanted using GPS positioning. It was a relatively flat section of ice with a pressure ridge about four feet high a couple of hundred yards to the west. The bear guard put up a tent with a gas heater, and Eicken’s team began unloading the equipment and setting up their stations.

Base camp.

Essentially, the UAF team was studying three things: the thickness of the snow, the thickness of the ice below the snow, and the depth of the water beneath the ice. They were setting up automatic stations that would transmit readings back to Barrow and would be able to track the data from the Internet in Fairbanks until “melt” in the end of May. The equipment was powered by two car batteries, which like all batteries, suffer in the cold. They transmitted their condition back to shore and someone from BASC would go out and recharge or replace them when they ebbed.

Connections protected from foxes.

The main instrument was erected on a scaffold-like structure with cables leading to holes bored in the ice. The cables were protected by metal coverings because Arctic foxes love to play with scientific equipment, particularly if electricity is involved. Electricity turns them on. “If we come back tomorrow, we will probably find a fox turd on the box,” one of the grad students said. Another student walked along the pressure ridge with an instrument measuring snow depth.

Occasionally, a breeze would pick up and you would understand just how truly awful it could be. Soon, our faces were entirely covered with frost, our eye lashes froze, and ice hung from our eyebrows. We were lucky it wasn’t much worse.

The ice was about three feet thick over twenty-two feet of almost frozen Chukchi Sea water. About six inches of snow covered the ice. The snow was weird. The sound you made walking on it was a metallic hollow sound, not what you want to hear when you are standing over twenty-two feet of really cold water. We eventually got all the instruments in (I was of no use). Eicken decided to go back before the students finished the last of the instruments, and I rode back on the backseat of his snow machine.

I quickly decided that if I were going to die on the ice, it would be on this ride. We flew. We bounced. We tilted. We roared. I held on to two handholds behind me until I lost all feelings in the hands.  I could see a little through my goggles (I gave up on the glasses early on) and tried to anticipate when I needed to hold on for dear life or when I just needed to keep attached to the machine. Moreover, earlier I had been in the warm-up tent adjusting my clothing and I brushed my right arm against the gas heater. This melted the outer layer of my Russian parka. I didn’t notice. When I got on the snowmobile I began to stream Siberian goose feathers behind. We eventually got back to BASC, and I ran into the warm equipment room, still leaving a trail of feathers. The arm was patched with duct tape, which true Alaskans will tell you, is what really holds Alaska civilization together.

The next morning we found out that a bear had knocked over the equipment and the UAF team had to go out again.

All this was when the weather was relatively good. In April, one of the graduate students was caught in a whiteout which was potentially life-threatening. He had to wait until he could move.

Eicken’s measurements are crucial to understanding what is happening in Alaska and why it affects what will happen to the rest of the world because of it.

Carhartt is a Kentucky company that makes sturdy canvas and wool-lined clothing that are the work uniform of the Alaska oil fields. Wearing new Carhartt jackets marks you as a newcomer to Alaska, a cheechako, a greenhorn, because it is so stiff and clean. Alaskans claim they put the jackets on the road and drive over them several times to get the local look. I sent mine through the washer-dryer cycle twice to get the same effect. Nonetheless, they will keep you warm to minus twenty, will not tear and rip without massive force and could probably stop a bullet. People have been known to hand them down to their children.

From The Tides of Newtok, text and photographs copyright 2012 by Joel N. Shurkin. All rights reserved.

Meet the Writer

About Joel N. Shurkin

Joel N. Shurkin is a Baltimore-based writer. He is author of multiple books and taught journalism at Stanford University, UC Santa Cruz, and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.