Polar Bears International

A Surreal World

3/19/2012 2:55:07 PM

A Surreal World

Contributor:

One of the more surreal aspects of our work studying polar bear dens involves cruising the tundra by snow machine. Even for those who work up here year-round, this is a rare experience, requiring special permitting. I might as well be traversing an alien planet—everything about it is so entirely foreign.

Jay Olson in the extreme weather of the North Slope

The very top layer of snow, a fine powder of degraded ice crystals, stays in constant motion as it follows winds from the west. The very air seems toxic, burning my skin and making me cough. My breath turns to ice on my face, sometimes freezing my eyelashes together. Walking on the surface of the tundra is comparable to talking a stroll in a field of Styrofoam. The stiff snow creeks and groans under the pressure of our overstuffed boots.

 Frozen lashes in subzero temperatures

Our outfits certainly add to the out-of-this-world factor. With bulky clothes designed to separate us entirely from the outside elements, we shuffle along just as fashionably as any decent spaceman. We even have the classic, spherical helmets. Sometimes I get just a bit carried away with my own analogy. On more than one occasion I've caught myself energetically humming Star Wars theme music as I speed away on my craft towards oil facilities that could easily double as a rebel base. This might as well be another world, and we are the invading storm troopers.

On snow machine

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