6/10/2014 6:45:44 PM

Weather, Wind, and White-outs

The adventure continues for our two polar bear scientists...

We try yet again. Talking to the weather office on the satellite phone (how did we ever do this type of work before technology?), they suggest we may have some fog along the north coast of Banks Island. Nonetheless, we figured we had best go have a look. We'd been down for two days waiting for weather, so finding even one polar bear would be a boost. Upon reaching the coast, it became clear that "some fog" really meant "lots of fog." Our day was cut short and we made our way home. Not every day is productive, but it stills stings to be skunked.

The weather in the Arctic just doesn't feel like it used to anymore. The high pressure systems don't seem as cold—and cold is good because it usually means clear blue skies that allow us to work. Working in clouds over the whiteness of the snow-covered sea ice is impossible: the sky and ice merge into a single whiteness that is at best bewildering and at worst, deadly. Best to be on the ground when the cloud, wind, and snow are doing what they do.

The storm that hit us for the last two days was a hummer: even when it did clear up the winds were far above what we can work in. Drifting snow fills in a polar bear's tracks almost immediately after the bear steps clear of them and they vanish without a trace. This matters because we find about 90% of our bears by following tracks.

Fortunately, Polar Bear Cabin is a rather cozy place (if somewhat confining) and I've brought a month's worth of work to do. It seems that my field trips are a synchronizing phenomena for my graduate students: manuscripts and thesis chapters fall into my inbox like rain before a trip. It's hard to complain about productivity, but my vague plans of catching up on some reading were clearly unrealistic and I slipped into my editorial role whenever the weather went bad.

It's not just us up here again this year. Another helicopter crew is about 200 miles east of us in Wynniatt Bay Cabin. Evan Richardson from Environment Canada (my former Ph.D. student) and Marsha Branigan with Environment and Natural Resources of the NWT Government are leading that part. They'll handle the eastern section with Mike Woodcock, who flies for Canadian Helicopters. Mike and I flew together a lot in the Beaufort Sea years ago and he's back at it. The other crew has been up here a week longer than us, and they've had even worse weather. Making matters worse, they've run low on coffee! They had planned to move to their other camp, but bad weather has them hunkered down. (Mental note: bring extra coffee into the field.)

It still strikes me as incredibly odd that we can text by satellite phone and compare weather conditions. We can even call for an aviation weather report where they can see the clouds on satellite images right in front of them. I'm guessing we'll soon have Internet in our field camps. 

Learn all about polar bears in Dr. Andrew Derocher's book: Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior (now on sale!). 

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