BJ Kirschhoffer sits on the ice during a camera recovery mission. © Jay Olson

5/10/2013 2:47:35 PM

An Arctic Spring

Alaska's North Slope is an amazing place. It lies at a latitude of 70° north, only 1° (70 miles) south of the most northern place in the United States.

The entire Arctic is a place of extremes in every sense of the word, and the North Slope is no exception. In the same 365-day calendar year that we experience in the south with our four seasons, the Arctic goes from 24 hours of darkness and bitterly cold temperatures in winter to 24 hours of sunlight and fairly moderate temperatures in summer.

This spring, I had the chance to experience the height of this change. The day before we arrived the ambient temperatures was -22°F (-30°C). But in a few days, the forecast is expected to rise above zero into the upper 20s (-3°C). The amount of daylight is changing at an amazing rate. From now until the North Slope experiences 24 hours of daylight in summer, it will be gain about 13 minutes of daylight each day. Every four days another hour of daylight is added to the day.

This is the latest I have ever been in northern Alaska, so the changes are fascinating to experience. As I type this, it is 9:29 p.m. local time and the sun is still very bright. Long shadows stretch across the snow and the light is warm and comforting. Typically I am here in February and March where the air can be well below -30°F and darkens covers the landscape for much of the day.

The warmer weather is very comforting. When I step outside, I don't feel a sense of panic overcoming my body or have an automatic reaction to turn back in toward the heat.

Because of the mild temperatures, Jay and I don't need to worry as much about personal safety. We are well trained and prepared for the worst, so this is easy street. In February and March it is almost as if our excursions outside are accompanied by a ticking timer. The colder the temperatures, the less time we can spend outside, and it's a race to get our work done safely before we need to go back indoors to warm up. Now we can be outside almost indefinitely without cold fingers or worry of frostbite.

After getting settled today and saying hello to some of our friends here in Alaska, Jay and I connected our trailer to our truck and headed east toward Howe Island. Our purpose for this entire trip is to recover our gear from the Maternal Den Study. Today we will go pick up the first of our two remaining camera systems. The drive east to the first location, on Howe Island, takes about 90 minutes in the truck on gravel roads.

We unloaded our snow machines on the side of the road close to the island and drove about two or three miles across the frozen sea ice and drifted snow. The ride was smooth because the typical rock-hard snow wasn't present, having been transformed by the warmer temperatures to a soft, almost powdery consistency. The trip was made quick by our ability to blast through the small drifts on the ice. Whenever traveling we always keep our eyes peeled for signs of wildlife, especially polar bears. Today it was difficult to spot them as any tracks would have been obscured by freshly fallen snow on the ice.

On our arrival at the camera site, we found that the camera was running fine after all these weeks. I was relieved, and Jay and I worked together to made a few notes on the recorded temperatures inside the camera housing and the battery voltage. We then made an inspection of the snowdrift that our camera had observed for these long eight weeks, but could not see any evidence of a bear den. It is very possible that a female could have emerged and departed from her snow den; any indentations or remains would have been covered by drifting snow.

After looking for dens we packed up the gear. Within a few minutes we had the entire package, weighing a total of 180 pounds, inside our big yellow sled and tied down for the short journey back to the truck. We pack the solar panel, which is made mostly of glass, tightly in a custom wooden box to protect it from damage.

On the way home we made a more thorough search for tracks and found a set of polar bear prints on the snow about ½ of a mile from where our camera sat. They were so perfectly preserved that we could even see where the claws had come in contact with the harder snow. The tracks did seem smaller so could well have been a female polar bear but we did not spot any cub prints. Perhaps the little guy was too light to make prints that lasted in this snow or perhaps this was just a lone single bear wandering around. At any rate we hope this bear wandered through the cameras lens, providing information on polar bear behavior around a denning site. Time will tell ....

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