Climate Sentinels

Four women explore science in the high arctic

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

On the dawn of a new polar spring, four women will set off across a chaos of ice and black volcanic rock, covering hundreds of miles on skis. Their pursuit is science and a desire to show a new generation of young scientists how to gather data in one of the harshest—and yet most sensitive—environments on earth.

They call themselves the Climate Sentinels.

Three are glaciologists with degrees in snow science and long familiarity with winter climes. The fourth understands spectral geophysics and aquatic biochemistry—the stuff of drinking water analysis—and is a skilled mountaineer with a childhood tinged by occasional visits to the warm lowlands of Bangladesh.

They’ll traverse Svalbard, an icy splinter of islands and glaciers well north of Norway, halfway to the pole. Temperatures there crawl above freezing only in midsummer. From the Norwegian research station of Ny-Ålesund, the team will travel the spine of Svarlbard to the Hornsund fjord 450 kilometers to the south, across glaciers and sea ice. They will tow their gear on pulks—the short and low-slung, small lightweight hauling sleds favored by travelers in the frozen north.

By April 22, the sun will be up all day in the high Arctic; and that day and days to follow will be filled with hard work and rigorous science. Their route may be treacherous, plunging along a wrinkled landscape of deep crevasses under a thin cover of snow, and across sea ice that has become increasingly unstable from seasons of warming temperatures. The terrain is frequently roamed by aggressive predators.

Heïdi Sevestre is a glaciologist who obtained her PhD from the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) and University of Oslo.

“I love glaciers,” she confessed. “It is possible to spend your life studying glaciers, and become a glaciologist. I’ve never looked back.”

Silje Smith-Johnsen just completed her PhD in glaciology on the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream, and is based at Bjerknes Center for Climate Research in Bergen, Norway. Dorothée Vallot is an engineer who obtained her PhD in glaciology from the university of Uppsala, Sweden, in 2018. She has investigated glacier processes at the base and at the front by studying two major glaciers in Svalbard.

Alia Khan is an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Western Washington University. She has studied snow packs, lakes and reservoirs in Colorado, and glaciers, snowpacks, and lakes in the Arctic, Antarctic, and major mountain regions including the Himalayas, Rockies, Andes and New Zealand Southern Alps. Khan completed her PhD in August 2016 in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder, while working at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, an interdisciplinary research institute focused on documenting environmental change in the polar regions.

“Through my studies, I essentially caught polar fever,” Khan laughed. “I became enamored with the polar regions and the profound change occurring in those areas.

“We are four female PhD-level scientists who have been working in the Arctic and the polar regions throughout our academic careers,” Khan said. “We’ve all done a lot of fieldwork. We’re passionate about conserving the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.”

Khan’s particular focus is black carbon—fine particles produced from inefficient burning that are carried around the globe in the high atmosphere.

“Along with changes in global temperature, we have more drought and wildfires, which produce black carbon, a dark-colored aerosol that comes from the incomplete combustion of wildfires and fossil fuels,” Khan explained. “When it is deposited on snow and ice, it absorbs more solar radiation that the more highly reflective snow and ice.”

These fine particles darken surfaces such as snow and ice—a capacity known as albedo—causing them to melt faster.

It is difficult to grasp the enormity of climate change, as an estimated 300 billion tons of ice and meltwater are lost each year from the Greenland ice sheet alone—a melt that is accelerating. Sea-level rise will affect hundreds of millions of people who live or work near coastal regions, creating a terrible epoch of human dislocation and economic hardship. At the same time, the collapse of the polar sea ice and opening of vast stretches of polar ocean may lead to other disasters, such as a change in Atlantic Ocean circulation an a global disruption in weather patterns.

Something has been set in motion, something immense and catastrophic that cannot be stopped, but still needs to be more fully understood.

“In 2012, there was a very large melt event in the Arctic, and then again this past summer in 2019,” Khan said, ”two of the most significant melt events in recent history. In 2012, it was largely attributed to the combination of warmer air temperatures and the deposition of black carbon. This combined effect is really important to understand and partition the changes in surface albedo”—a way of describing the reflection or absorption of solar energy.

“Retreating ice, waning sea ice, exposes more ocean, which absorbs more solar radiation than ice, and so, yes, we have an amplified feedback,” Khan explained.

Research into arctic ice has taken on aspects of a military-style operation, and indeed a great deal of recent research has been underwritten by Cold War-era defense budgets and undertaken by armies and snow tractors. But in studying the Arctic, the Climate Sentinels want to establish methods that do far less harm to the region they’re studying.

Their assignment is enormous.

“Part of the physical challenge will be glacier travel over crevassed areas,” Khan admitted. “Polar bears are a significant concern. And then carrying all of our gear along with our sleds.”

The scientific equipment, together with food, tents, cold weather gear and the samples the Climate Sentinels will gather along the way, will push the weight each member must haul by skis and pulks to more than 100 pounds.

“Our tentative plan is to travel by boat to the western side of Svalbard, to Ny-Ålesund, where there is a set of research stations. From there, we would traverse across Svalbard,” Khan said.

Every kilometer along the way will be studied, in detail great and small.

“Essentially we’ll be stopping every one kilometer for a quick measurement and sampling,” Khan explained. “Every five kilometers we will sample for optical depth measurements—we’ll get data on the top 30 centimeters, and that is very important to understand albedo. Every 10 kilometers we will do a full snow profile. We’ll dig a deep snow out and collect high-resolution measurements within the snowpack.”

Their samples will be matched against, and therefore help validate, data collected by remote satellites that scan the polar regions.

“One of our goals is to sample snow for black carbon as well as conduct snow-density measurements that will help validate satellite remote sensing observations in areas that are very hard to collect measurements,” Khan explained. “And part of the novelty of our project is that we are aiming to show that it is possible to do clean science by skiing across Svalbard and conducting the fieldwork by manpower, rather than by snowmobile or helicopter or similar disruptive means.

“We also want to empower the next generation of scientists, and especially female scientists—and so we are connecting with schools in each of our countries,” she said. “I am based here in Bellingham. Heïdi is in France. Dorothée is based in Sweden, and Silje is in Norway, and so we are each working with local schools in our regions.

Khan has been working with the Mount Baker Snow School, a science education project that gets young students into winter recreation areas on showshoes. The project is sponsored by the Mt. Baker Ski Area, North Cascades Institute, and Northwest Avalanche Center.

“My group is adding a black carbon and albedo station this year to that program. And as part of the school follow-up, I will work with teachers on connecting with them while we are in Svalbard, so that students can connect with what is going on in the polar regions and how that also impacts the local environment here in the Pacific Northwest.”

“Through my studies and my work I have had the chance to study glaciers all around the world, from the French Alps to Greenland, from the Arctic to Antarctica. Today, I invest my time in science policy and science outreach,” Sevestre agreed. “I believe researchers like me have the duty to communicate about our work and tell the world about the wonders of the cryosphere and the threats targeting it.”

“The rest of the women have all camped in Svalbard. I have never actually camped in polar bear territory,” Khan confessed. “I’ve camped on the Greenland ice sheet, but there you seldom have to worry about polar bears.

“This will be a somewhat unique experience for me, where we are not only performing science but supporting ourselves along the way,” she said. “We’re pretty much on our own—but we are aware of the risks and are formally trained for the conditions.”

Khan is circumspect about the future of the Arctic.

“We’re living in a moment no human has ever before seen, a time of profound change, of events that once occurred over geological eras now happening with human life spans. And the consequences will be much greater as we continue to lose the Arctic sea ice and the Greenland ice sheet,” she said. “Our predictions are only as good as our observations, which are still limited. It was only ten years ago we discovered sea ice was retreating faster than our models were projecting. So the science is important.

“It can feel burdensome,” she admitted, “but as educators we must inspire and encourage climate literacy. We need to empower people and their ability to make a difference, and balance that against an assessment of the gravity of what is occurring in our coldest places.”

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