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18 March, 2004


Aerosonde: Barrow, Spring 2004 Mission Update

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From 6:30 a.m. to 9:40 a.m. I experienced a fifty seven degree change in temperature as I travewled from Anchorage (+21F) to Fairbanks (+7F), and then on to Barrow (-26F).

The arctic sun was just beginning its long, flat path across the sky as we left Anchorage. The airplanecontinued northward after a brief stop in Fairbanks. Soon we approached the jagged peaks of the Brooks Range, which first appeared in the distance as a soft glow of pink and turquoise. On the other side of the Brooks lay the tundra of the high Arctic. It was solid white – none of the patchy-brown polygons and melt ponds that I saw last summer. No roads, no landmarks, no sign of human influence – nothing but white. As the airplane approached Barrow and dropped in altitude I could see wind patterns on the ground and the snow driven up against the wooden slats of the snow fences. I spotted the satellite farm on the outskirts of town, the dishes resembling white mushrooms tilted toward the sun. The gas pipeline appeared as a stray red string on a white quilt. It pointed the way to the heart of Barrow.

The slap of the icy air commanded my attention as I stepped off the airplane. The cold literally snatched my breath away – I have never experienced cold like this. Scott Oyagak, from BASC, picked me up at the airport and took me to the NARL Hotel where I settled in Room 10. Last summer the NARL was surrounded by mushy gravel, short sparse grass, and mud. Its sides were constantly spattered with dirt shot from the wheels of the vehicles spinning around the parking area. In the clear morning light, with the sun brightly shining on its cream-colored exterior and blue trim, the NARL looked like an ornament balanced atop a heavily frosted white cake.

I walked over to the BASC building to speak with old friends and to meet up with the Aerosonde crew. By this time the temperature had risen to -19F, but even a 10-second walk across the road from NARL to BASC was an awakening experience. My nose hairs froze and frost formed on my eyelashes before I reached the BASC door, only 50 feet away. The air smelled like ice, and I could feel the cold knifing its way through my jeans and flannel leggings. The reflection of sunhine off the snow was dazzling; I must remember to carry my sunglasses with me. I found Lollie Hopson, Glenn Sheehan (BASC director), and Dennis Hipperson of Aerosonde. Dennis drove me out to the runway to join the rest of the crew (Daniel Fowler, team leader, Brenda Mulac, mission planner and groundbase, Brett Solanov, manual pilot and technical, and Dennis Hipperson, technical).

All familiar landmarks were gone, covered by snow and ice. Last summer, the Chukchi Sea always greeted me at the end of the road, but today I could not begin to tell where the beach ended and the ocean began. There was ice as far as I could see. It looked more like a rocky landscape; I was expecting smooth, even ice (I have never seen sea ice, or even a frozen lake). There were ridges and bumps, some of them quite large – they looked like lumpy pyramids and misplaced pillars. As we turned and drove out to the runway I remembered that the sea was to my left and the tundra and lagoon were to my right. My untrained eyes saw only a flat, white expanse. How can anyone find their way around in this? A few recognizable forms popped out at me – the duck camp, the dirt-burning building, the old military buildings – but the topographical references were gone. Suddenly, Dennis turned onto what looked like a crude path in the snow and we were on the runway, quickly heading for the hut. I would have gone right past it. The rest of the crew were working on readying an aircraft and were trying to get the propane heaters going. Apparently, the gas heaters kept cutting off and finally quit altogether. The electric space heaters were no competition for the extreme cold, so the crew decided to move back to the workshop at the NARL facility. Since they were getting ready for an important flight tomorrow, the decision was made to return to the shop and try to resolve the problems in a more comfortable environment. We piled into the truck, took off down the snow path and joined Dennis’s lovely wife Marion for lunch at the Ilisagvik College cafeteria. After lunch, Daniel and Brenda worked on setting up a type of relay system in order to fly the airplane from one of the labs at the BASC facility instead of having to stay out in an unheated hut for hours. The airplane would still be launched and flown manually from the runway, but as soon as the pilot (Brett) hands control over to the groundbase flyer (Brenda), the airplane could be flown from BASC. The team is also preparing for tomorrow to do a remote hand-off and demonstration for the US military. Everything must be working properly. When the Aerosonde team is busy it's best that I just stand back and watch for a while. I will get up to speed over the next few days. For the remote demonstration for the USMC the aircraft will launch from Barrow and control will be handed over to an Aerosonde engineer in California. It's pretty amazing when you think about it -- an RAV headed for the north pole controlled by an Australian in California. Aerosondes were designed to flown from any point on the globe, but it is pretty amazing to me to actually witness it. They have been setting up a relay-type system for flying the aircraft -- linking the computers/antennas to an inside, warm facility instead of having to stay out in an unheated runway hut for hours. After some initial problems with cable mismatches, Brenda and Daniel got everything working and set for tomorrow’s mission.

There are two TEA teachers here from California (San Diego), accompanied by graduate student Kim Davis. I met Kim last summer in Barrow when she was working on a project for Dr. Walt Oechel (San Diego State University) and doctoral candidate Hyojon Kwan. They have been visiting elementary schools in Barrow and at Atqasuk. Cece Vevoda is a third grade teacher and Sally Fox teaches fifth grade. They have been posting pictures and have been in communication with their students. Some of the questions from the kids are great, and the pictures are spectacular. Check out their website at GCRG. There are links for scientists that they have interviewed, lesson plans about climate change, and other climate change research sites.

This evening I had dinner at Glenn Sheehan’s house with Glenn, his wife Anne Jensen, daughter Justine, Kim Davis, the two teachers visiting via TEA, and Jill Exe, a middle school teacher in Barrow. Jill and I met last summer. It was good to see her again, and I hope to visit with her students while I am here. Upon returning to NARL about 11 p.m. I found a note from Brenda. We are having an early start tomorrow (6:30 am!).

Flying over the tundra. Photo by Kim Davis

Barrow Photo by Kim Davis

The NARL Hotel at BASC

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