"The first half of the trip was in the forest and the second half on the tundra. The difference that those ecosystems imposed on the snow cover was beautifully manifest," Matthew Sturm reminisces. He's referencing a long snowmobile journey from Fairbanks, Alaska to Hudson Bay in Canada, chronicled in his book Finding the Arctic (University of Alaska Press, 2012).
But where you or I might notice the old gnarled trees of the forest or the howling wind over vast open spaces, Sturm – geophysicist and University of Alaska professor – focuses on the snow itself.
Taiga snow cover is found in the vast boreal forests that ring the Arctic. In the trees there is little or no wind, which allows a fluffy snow cover to pile up. Metamorphism in the layers near the forest floor driven by heat and moisture in the soil forms large crystals called depth hoar, a favorite for small creatures like lemmings which live in tunnels they dig in the snow. "All through the taiga we saw this beautiful porous crystalline substance (snow) that provides a very good subnivean environment."
Sturm was struck by both the differences and similarities between the snow cover of the two regions. "Taiga forest or tundra. They both get about the same amount of snow, but one, the taiga forest, tends to be quite windless. That snowfall – once it's on the ground – stays there. On the tundra we get a lot of wind. It sounds like a very minor difference but it results in absolutely diametrically different snow covers."
Sturm describes Tundra snow cover as "A dense hard windpack." It is a snow cover that is composed of slabs of wind-blown snow and thin layers of depth hoar. "In places it was so hard you could barely make a dent in it with a steel shovel," Sturm confides.
The quality of snow cover in the Arctic is a defining feature of the environment. "The differences in properties, depths, and hardness have hugely different ecological impacts," Sturm points out. The snow cover has an "Enormous impact on the permafrost beneath the snow and all the animals, whether they live under the snow, or walk through it like the caribou."
Locating Arctic life
"I always find it fascinating to pick up a modern map of the Arctic, the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic, and look at where the villages and town are and think about why are they there and not some place else," Sturm relates. In Alaska, some settlements were developed for strategic reasons during World War II; others were developed as mining towns and gold rush towns. But the traditional places where Native peoples lived in the Arctic were largely determined by food resources. "You can learn a lot about the history of the Arctic and what subsistence cultures had to do just by asking: where do you live?"
"Where the Native people live has always had a lot to do with where were they able to make a living – in other words: where were they able to hunt and fish." Rivers provided fishing opportunities, while the Arctic coastal regions were settled because they offered the opportunity to hunt fat-rich marine creatures.
Sturm explains: "That maps speaks in many ways to cultures that really adapted to these systems in ways that would allow them to survive."
In contrast there are "Great huge blanks on the map," where travel is difficult and resources are few. Sturm calls them barren lands. "When you travel through, it doesn't take you long to realize (particularly if you are doing a snow track survey as an animal census, which we've done often) there are vast areas where we see no tracks at all. In other areas we see a lot. There are hot spots where you might be able to make a living subsistence hunting. But there are vast areas where starvation would be the only answer."
Finding game was, and continues to be, essential for Native subsistence hunters.
As Sturm points out, snow tends to define what animals thrive where. Long ago there were massive muskox herds which favored tundra habitat. Today, caribou herds roam the tundra. Meanwhile moose linger mainly in the forested regions. When Sturm speaks of Arctic wildlife he notes the interlinkage between snowfall, plant life, and prey and predator.
"The same sort of snow regimes that we were looking at translate in many ways to ecological regimes both for flora and fauna."
When asked why he undertook such a long and arduous trip, Sturm answered: "The journey granted continent-spanning insights. When you pull back to that big scale, yet you are still traversing through it in a very intimate way, you get to see these larger patterns as well as the small scale local ones that you would see at a single site experiment." Sturm says "That's the beauty and the driver of the science behind a big traverse; you get both the local and the large scale."
Rivers as highways
"The natural highways have always been the rivers. In the summer you can boat on them, when they are frozen up and covered with snow, you can ski, snowshoe or snowmobile on them."
Sturm relates that rivers are essential pathways through remote Arctic forests. "In the forested regions of the Arctic – called taiga, or boreal forests – if there is no trail, the forest is so thick and tight you can't just drive a snowmobile through it."
"Trying to go through the forest is a nightmare." And you can tell Sturm speaks from experience. He describes an unsuccessful effort to reach a special spot: "Confluences. These are where whole degree latitude and longitude lines cross, and it is a bit of a sport trying to reach a confluence. There was a confluence less than a mile off the Yukon River. We were driving on this great broad river with no brush, then we were supposed to turn and travel a mile through the forest. We tried, but didn't make it. So we can travel thousands of miles on the river, but we can barely travel a mile through a forest without a trail," Sturm laughs.
Sturm and his six companions (Jon Holmgren, Glen Liston, Dan Solie, Henry Huntington, Arvids Silis and Chris Derksen) had to work with the natural routes provided by the Arctic landscape in order to make headway during their long journey. "The rivers are our main source of traveling when we are in the forested region. Once we get into the tundra where there are no trees, then things change and we travel on lakes or on the tundra itself."
The Mackenzie River, the largest North-flowing river in North America, provided the travelers with one of those highways. "In places it was more than a mile wide," Sturm recalls. "The river bends were miles long. You'd start turning the bend and an hour later you were still driving around the same bend. The scale was overwhelming."
Fall freeze-up can leave the center of the river a jumble of blocks of ice hiding dangerous pits. This jumble happens when dropping water levels no longer support the weight of ice above them and the ice falls into the flowing water and jams. In contrast, ice connected to the shore tends to retain a smoother surface. "The shelf ice that's on the two sides of the river remains good traveling because it's grounded, but it slopes. So you've got shelf ice, and it's a nice highway along the edge but it's a tipped highway. And the entire time you are on the west side of the Mackenzie it's dipping east and you are driving tipped. It does not seem like a bad thing for a day, but after three days, it's just: 'I don't want to be on this tipped highway anymore. Could we at least switch to the other side?'"
A tilted path is far from the only hazard Arctic travelers face. "Ice can erode from below, so you have to be fairly vigilant about open water when you are traveling on the rivers," Sturm says. "You are not wrestling with brush on a river, but you are on a surface that can be changing from below where you can't see it. You are constantly thinking about where is the ice safe, and where are you. There have been many incidents of snowmobiles breaking through the ice on a river and that's a bad situation."
Tools and efficiency
The Arctic poses myriad challenges to field scientists. Logistics become more important than ever.
"On our long trip," (one of dozens Sturm has led) "We were striving for a graceful expedition. We know we probably will never achieve true grace, but we hoped we might get close, and that's all. Grace perhaps means making the expedition look effortless. That would be the highest compliment to one of our expeditions: 'You guys made it look easy.'"
The team used innovative way to speed up snow data gathering. "We have developed quite a few time-saving gadgets. We have one that is GPS-mated to a thing that looks like a ski pole, so we can collect snow depth measurements very quickly. Everything is geared toward efficiency, safety and ease of use in the cold."
"Anything that shaves a few minutes off or solves some difficulty we like. The colder it gets on one of these expeditions, the harder it is; the more of these little tricks we have the better we seem to do." The travelers prepare lanyards on latches and zippers to help mittened hands. They keep supplies in waterproofed boxes, and forego matches for propane trigger torches when lighting stoves and lanterns. They put studs on the tracks of their snowmobile tread, and have special footwear. "All of these little innovations help. The hood that will actually secure over your face, the nose muff that will keep your nose from getting frostbitten in the right pocket at the right time so you can get to it quick if the wind comes up. All these things matter. And there is no time to be innovating right when the wind does comes up, you have to have done that months in advance." Sturm describes another side of the coin: "The other thing is to have enough experience under your belt that you know to make the right decision: for example, maybe if the wind is freshening, the smarter thing to do is to just stay in camp. Sometimes that's the best thing, so you don't end up battling it out with the wind."
"We don't want adventure. So we pride ourselves on these trips in that there isn't any adventure. On our big trip nobody's life hung in the balance, you know, there was no sort of cliffhanger. The outcome was always known: everyone would come home safe, and not frostbitten, and friends still."
The unassuming claim is somewhat belied by adventures detailed in Sturm's book Finding the Arctic. In one of my favorites we learn the importance of pebbles.
"In a solid whiteout, it is virtually impossible to tell a flat piece of snow from a cornice with a fifty-foot drop, so the lead driver stops and gets off the machine. Gingerly, he edges forward, sometimes even dropping to his hands and knees to crawl. If he still cannot tell what is ahead, he takes a pebble from his pocket and throws it into the void." ~Finding the Arctic
What's a whiteout?
"White clouds above, white snow below, blowing snow filling the space in between. No horizon, no shadows, no definition. Nothing."
"You don't see a whiteout; you feel it. Like an out-of-body experience, you float in a white world. At times vertigo sweeps over you. Always, your eyes strain to see something…anything, and soon they do. They see black arcs, hills that aren't there, and other strange illusions." ~Finding the Arctic
Caught driving in a whiteout, Sturm sent his snowmobile over an unknown ridge edged in snow, and dropped ten feet down to solid earth.
"I had just driven a seven-hundred-pound snowmobile towing two sleds weighing close to a thousand pounds over a cornice. I was falling." ~Finding the Arctic
Sturm had been leading the way. One by one, his companions followed, each avoiding disaster only through skillful handling of their machines.
"We all gathered at the bottom and looked back at the cornice that could have been our ruin. At the very next patch of rocks, I filled my pockets with pebbles." ~Finding the Arctic
See also: ✧ Matthew Sturm – insight into the Arctic
Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond
Finding The Arctic project