Arctic Field Science: An Unruly Harmony

Hiking past the glacial headwaters of the Sagavanirktok River (Source: Jason Stuckey).

It’s 9 p.m. on my 26th birthday, and I’m standing outside a trailer in the middle of the Alaskan tundra. The trailer is my workplace for the summer, and my labmates and I are waving signs— mine reads “You are Alaska”— and cheering for the runners sprinting past us, in the final meters of an obstacle course race. After my throat becomes sore from shouting, I go inside and get back to my work.

I’ve spent the last ten weeks living at Toolik Field Station, a collection of trailers and shipping containers perched on the edge of a lake at 68°38” north latitude, above the Arctic Circle and 350 miles up Alaska’s legendary Haul Road, the unpaved highway that parallels the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Toolik is a hub for all science Arctic; through the year scientists study wolverine ecology, soil microbes, plant communities, the infamous mosquitoes that flourish here every summer, and far more.

Loading cargo on an R44 helicopter in preparation for a flight (Source: Rachel Kaplan).

I’m at Toolik to work on a long-term lakes ecology study, collecting data about nutrient cycling in Arctic lakes. Over the summer, I’ve walked dozens of miles carrying a backpack loaded with water bottles across the tundra, and spent dozens of hours filtering that water back in the lab. A typical work day may involve a helicopter flight to sample a remote lake, or dancing to Beyonce as I clean the radiation laboratory.

This is what living at Toolik puts into sharp focus: the adventure and comedy of the scientific process. Field science in particular is not the linear, dry, objective trudge that textbooks and media often portray. Environmental data collection is a conversation between ideals and reality, between formulas and theories and the dirt and surprises of the real world.

Sampling the “Fog Lakes” involves a beautiful walk across the tundra (Source: Rachel Kaplan).

Being immersed in that environment is extraordinary. In preparing to write this post, I spoke with other researchers about their experiences at Toolik, and a theme that arose repeatedly was what a collaborative, supportive environment exists at the station. With the goal of data collection paramount, people constantly help one another— aquatics researchers sort plant roots with their friends, and kitchen staff volunteer to assist the station naturalist with vegetation surveys. Competition isn’t productive when you rely on one another for everything, from safety in the wilderness to emotional support.

This summer is a collection of moments that feel impossible. I’ve eaten risotto cakes for lunch on the shore of a remote Arctic lake, seen rainbows from a helicopter, and watched caribou watch us. I’ve laughed so hard that I fell off the side of the tiny packraft we use to deploy instruments and collect water (into the center of the raft, fortunately), and sung “How Far is Heaven” at the top of my lungs while my coworker paddled the rowboat around like a Venetian gondola.

Using a packraft makes it possible to sample remote lakes (Source: Rachel Kaplan).

In addition to the joys, fieldwork comes with inherent challenges, too. Weather is god here, the difference between safety and danger, the helicopter picking you up and a night huddled with your colleagues in a tent. One day, during one of our biggest sampling efforts of the summer, my team was caught in a thunderstorm. We walked away from our metal rowboat, and laid on the flat tundra, watching lightning strikes brighten the fog surrounding us. My coworker fell asleep, using his life jacket as a pillow, and I sheltered my face from the rain and reflected on the fact that, despite the illusion of control you may get from all the planning and logistics that go into any sampling effort, the weather is the one in charge, and no science matters as much as safety.

At the intersection of it all— of successful logistics, benevolent weather, testable hypotheses, and the chaos of a real, breathing ecosystem— is where we do our work, and try to nudge understanding of the Arctic forward. In this delicate balance is an unruly harmony. The search for and ability to find that harmony is what I will take away from Toolik Field Station at the end of summer.

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