I’ve now been in Thule for two weeks, and we’ve battled pretty nasty weather the majority of the days. According to the meteorologist on base, the “Polar Vortex” has parked itself right above Thule and is refusing to budge. This means that we’ve been inundated with thick fog, wind, cold temperatures, and a delightful mix of horizontal rain, sleet, and snow. From a scientific perspective, this has been a bit of a bummer since it’s limited the amount of work we can accomplish in the field.
Attempting to sample boulders in 60-knot winds and heavy sleet. Note the angle that Everett has to stand at in order to avoid getting blown off the moraine.
However, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned this summer is that bad weather can also open up a lot of other possibilities. Being grounded on base has forced us to shift our focus away from our own work, and has given us the opportunity to interact more with other scientists and military personnel.
During our stay here, we’ve learned a huge amount from a group from Alaska, who is studying the effects of changing climate on tundra vegetation. We even got the opportunity to visit their study site on one very rainy afternoon. What a cool experiment this crew is running! The team of tundra gurus is attempting to simulate what climate conditions in Thule may be like in the future, and study how these conditions impact the vegetation. They have tundra plots that receive no treatment (these are the control experiments), plots that receive additional heat (to simulate a warmer Arctic), plots that receive additional water (to simulate a wetter Arctic), and plots that receive both additional heat and water. Their team is interested in quantifying how warmer and/or wetter conditions could impact tundra plant communities, and in particular whether this changing tundra vegetation would be either a source or a sink for carbon dioxide. I’ve really enjoyed following their work, visiting their site, and thinking more about where unique ecosystems like the one in Thule may be headed over the coming decades.
A rainy visit to the vegetation plots. Here, Zach and Michele demonstrate the carbon dioxide measurements they make every day.
We’ve also had the chance to get to know base better, and learn more about base operations. Thule Air Base has a very interesting history, and has been an important player in US defense since the 50s. One of its primary roles throughout history has been to house and support the 12th Space Warning Squadron’s radar system. Last week, we were fortunate enough to tour the radar system, and spent a very educational afternoon “geeking out” over all their neat electronic and scientific gear. I was amazed to learn that they track hundreds of thousands of objects in space. Their primary role is to provide early warning about ballistic missiles headed for North America, should such an event occur. However, they also monitor many of our orbiting satellites, and keep them safe from colliding with each other and with other objects in space. What a cool tour, and it certainly gave me a much different appreciation for the significance of Thule Air Base.
So, despite the poor weather conditions, this field season has been hugely beneficial in terms of the intangibles. I’ve gotten to meet other scientists, learn about their work, meet various military personnel, and learn more about Thule’s role in US defense. This just scratches the surface of the experiences we’ve had on base over the past few weeks. My conclusion: if the Polar Vortex gives you storms, make “storm-aid” and take the chance to learn from all the smart, interesting, dedicated people around you.