6 May, 2002
I learned some important lessons about the Arctic today. Lesson one was that no matter how strong the winds are, they can always get stronger. Yesterday I tried to describe the howling winds of the North Slope. I was impressed with the strength and the consistency of the winds blowing through the camp. Last night, those winds got even stronger. There were several times during the night that it was impossible to sleep due to both the sound and the constant battering of the dorm trailer. This morning, the winds were so strong that I found it extremely difficult just to shut the door to my room. As challenging as the winds are, some are their side effects create even more treacherous conditions. The blowing snow stings your eyes and face and finds its way into every little gap in your clothing. Near the road, the winds create drifts several feet deep where the road had just been cleared only hours and sometimes minutes before. Our departure to our second collecting site was delayed for about an hour this morning while we waited for the road out of the camp to be cleared. The winds blew continuously until about 1 o'clock this afternoon when they just abruptly stopped. The ensuing silence was almost as disturbing as the winds had been. Where minutes before there had been a deafening howling, we suddenly could hear the saws of the kitchen construction crew. I would not be disappointed to forego any more experience with the Arctic wind.
My second lesson of the day came as we were heading out to the second collection site. I learned that when traveling in the Arctic, pacing oneself is extremely important. Trudging through deep snow is a very physically demanding experience. Often you must travel while breaking through three or more feet of snow with every step. Breaking through the snow as you step is known as post-holing. I was often post-holing in snow past my knees. Perhaps due to my desire to get out of the wind or simply because I was not paying attention, I began to move much too quickly through the snow. Within 10-15 minutes my legs were noticeably fatigued and I was sweating heavily under my parka and Carhartt overalls. Being sweaty and fatigued is a very dangerous thing in the Arctic. I stopped to wait for the rest of my group and immediately the wind found its way under my parka. Luckily the temperatures are a bit warmer today or I could have easily become hypothermic. It was good timing to learn an extremely important lesson.
Our collection site for today was on an exposed ridge about three miles south of Toolik. The lack of shelter meant that the ground was frozen completely solid. Recovering the cans required the use of a chisel and a hammer to chip away at the frozen soil. Breaking through to recover the cans was very similar to chipping away rock or concrete. The beetles within the soil seem to protect themselves somewhat by snuggling up close to a small rock or pebble. This way, they are not completely frozen into the soil around them. Having now recovered the test cans from both sites, the next several days will be spent testing the beetles in the lab trailer and searching the rocky ridges and outcroppings for other concentrations of Arctic insects.
One nice result of the heavy winds has been the exposure of large areas of ground. When we arrived, everything was covered with snow. By this afternoon, large areas of tundra were exposed so that we could see the plant life underneath. From a distance, the tundra right now looks dark with hues of brown and gray. In fact, from much closer, the plants have a great deal of color. Reds, yellows, and many shades of green have been hidden under the snow all winter. As the plants begin to grow with the spring thaw, those colors will cover the bare ground create a landscape rich in many different hues.
Over the next few days, I will hopefully see many of the early spring changes of the tundra.
Communications are still a big problem, so I will try to get journals out first and photos as I am able.
PS. I want to wish the best of luck to the Sycamore High School Envirothon teams for their regional competition tomorrow.
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