3/13/2015 2:52:52 PM

Alaskan Heat Wave

Packing for projects in northern Alaska for February and March is typically very straightforward: lots of warm clothes, including two pairs of long john bottoms, five insulated top layers, a pile of socks, Inuit-style mittens, two balaclavas, the biggest boots available, and a 12-pound Canada Goose Parka.  

This list of clothing helps protects us from the harsh climate when we are studying polar bear mothers and cubs at their den sites. Temperatures dipping to -40°F with wind chill on top are not uncommon. Our team also must be prepared to stay outside all day—and even overnight if an emergency situation arises. 

But this year has been very different. When I checked the long-range forecast before my departure, I was surprised to see abnormal temperatures well above zero F (-18°C) and almost approaching freezing. Knowing what the weather could do but seeing what the weather was doing made packing difficult. Erring on the side of caution, I packed as I normally would, but threw in a few extra light layers to prepare for the predicted conditions.

For the first time in my short seven years on the project, we encountered no hint of subzero weather when we arrived in northern Alaska. What a change from previous years, when the first few moments outside meant frozen nostrils and eyelids! As we began unpacking and preparing our gear, we found it very easy to work in the absence of extreme cold. Just starting the snow machines was a breeze in these balmy conditions.

The ease was accompanied by some stress as well. Most of our travels to polar bear den sites take us across the frozen sea ice and in some places over frozen braided river channels. My colleague, Wes Larson, and I were concerned about the effects above-zero temps would have on the very surface we needed to travel on. During our flight north, we heard reports about large cracks developing in the sea ice. When traveling after dark, before sunrise, or during times when the visibility is obscured by blowing snow, we learned to look very hard at the snowpack ahead, searching for any signs of danger.

In one instance Wes and I were waiting to cross a busy bridge on our way to visit a den when I looked over and caught the sight of open water in the river below. I said, "I think I see open water." After pulling a few feet forward, it became very obvious that indeed the river had opened up. Then, moments later, large amount of fresh water began flooding over the entire river on top of the existing ice and snow. Such melts happens in the spring, but rarely in February. As we witnessed the flooding, all Wes and I could think about were the two river channels we had yet to cross on our snow mobiles and the large stretch of open sea ice, too. 

In the end, we did not encounter any dangerous conditions, but the earlier sighting of water did make us more aware of the changing environment in northern Alaska. For us, weather like this can make some work easier and some much more difficult. For the polar bears, warm temperatures during the period when moms and cubs are emerging from their dens could pose risks as families try to navigate melting ice.

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