Science team studies Arctic snow, climate

Posted: Monday, April 22, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A six-person team is traveling from Nome to Barrow by snowmobile this month, hauling a compact computer lab on skis, as part of a scientific investigation of snow cover, climate change and Arctic haze pollutants.

The SnowSTAR 2002 traverse includes a middle school teacher from North Carolina and researchers from the U.S. Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab in Fairbanks. The team will measure the snow at more than 75 locations during its 700-mile trek across the Seward Peninsula, the Brooks Range and the North Slope.

''We're trying to catch the broad regional trends of the snow -- how it varies -- and that's why it takes us so long,'' expedition leader Matthew Sturm, of the Cold Regions lab, said during a phone interview from Selawik. ''We've been taking samples all along the way. We go no more than 10 miles, and we stop.''

The expedition set out from Nome on March 22 and has passed through White Mountain, Council, Buckland, Selawik and Ambler. After crossing the Brooks Range, the team expects to reach the village of Atqasak on Tuesday.

Supported by the National Science Foundation, the project is part of a larger research effort into Arctic climate change, under the foundation's Office of Polar Programs.

Building on previous research by Sturm and others, the team will measure depth, density and layering with a battery of sophisticated instruments. One test uses fiber optics and sensors to detect how much light filters through the snowpack.

''The team is documenting how depth corresponds to geography,'' Sturm said. ''We're trying to find out where the moisture comes from. We're particularly interested in whether the storms that produce snow south of the Brooks Range are related to the storms that produce snow north of the Brooks Range.''

Knowing the source of storms and snow could help address other questions about the changing Arctic climate, Sturm said.

Other tests involve collection of samples for lab analysis to track pollutants that may have drifted into Alaska from sources in Asia, a phenomenon known as Arctic haze. Gathering such detailed information about snow along a 700-mile traverse in a single season will ultimately give scientists base-line data for gauging climate change.

Along with taking hundreds of precise measurements, the team has been visiting schoolchildren and talking to villagers as it passes through.

The caravan includes at least 10 sleds, generators, satellite phones, various instruments and a heated contraption containing computers, so it attracts lots of attention.

''We raise eyebrows when we come into villages because we're not what they're used to seeing,'' Sturm said.

Eighth-grade science teacher April Cheuvront of Morganton, N.C., joined the expedition as one of the science foundation's Teachers Experiencing the Antarctic and the Arctic. She meets with students, helps out with the science and keeps a detailed journal of the trip online.

On April 4, Cheuvront reported that the team had reached a shelter cabin north of Selawik and bivouacked for two days while conducting tests and celebrating a team member's 42nd birthday with steaks, cheesecake and ice cream.

''A feeling of home has set in on the cabin,'' she wrote. ''The day was a long, hard, cold, day for testing. ... (Detailed) chemical samples were taken today. This procedure requires four hours of work in Tyvek suits, respirators, and latex gloves. However, after a long day of work, there is celebration in the air!''

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