Research in the high Arctic – Pack your instruments, a rifle and a skirt

Science is rarely a 9 to 5 job. It’s a lifestyle. So unless you are working with satellite data and it’s the Arctic you want to study, to the Arctic you must go. Atmospheric scientist Daniela Wimmer spent a month in the icy landscape, and now she tells us all about it.

Stephany B. Mazon is a PhD student in Atmospheric Science at the University of Helsinki. You can read her blog at www.ScicommWorld.com.

It took Daniela four flights to reach Station Nord, Greenland on May 18, 2015. Once there, she set out to measure the size, concentration and chemistry of particles in the air, which will help us understand air pollution and the climate system better.

Station Nord is a military base that includes a residential building for visiting scientists and an Atmospheric Measurement Hut two kilometers away. She shared a home with one Finnish and one French researcher and a Danish technician.

“Life was very simple,” recalls Daniela.  

Every day she walked (or skied!) the two kilometers to the Atmospheric Hut, checked that her instruments were working, and went back. She had a meter of snow beneath her, a decent –10°C around her, and the mandatory rifle on her back. No polar bears in sight.

Stephany Mazon

Researcher

Stephany B. Mazon
@Steph_Nataly

“In Station Nord, some 900 km from the North Pole, women have to wear skirts and males don a tie for Saturday dinners, no excuses. ”

Prior to the campaign Daniela was trained to handle and shoot a rifle. Little else would be as life-threatening to her as meeting a polar bear.

But no weapons were necessary during the traditional fancy Saturday dinners at the station! In Station Nord, some 900 km from the North Pole, women have to wear skirts and males don a tie for Saturday dinners, no excuses. A ‘tie wall’ stands as evidence of the many males who failed to pack a tie for the Arctic station (what were they thinking?!) and had to make one out of paper in order to get food. 

The comradery among the small group of scientists and soldiers in such remote location comes as no surprise. They have access to a bar, a movie theater and a games room, even a “souvenir shop.” There is one computer with email access through which you can send text only. No Facebook.

“It’s a nice feeling to be disconnected for a while,” says Daniela.

On a day trip some 100 kilometers away from the base, Daniela and company visited the scattered little huts built in the 1950s or 60s that served as shelters for dog-sled teams and patrols. They are equipped with the essentials: a bed, an oven, a table and original log books with records of the earlier visitors. I realize I forgot to ask Daniela if she signed any of them.

“The scientists have access to a bar, a movie theater and a games room, even a 'souvenir shop.'”

The instruments from the University of Helsinki worked well and the data looked good. Meanwhile, one of Daniela’s fellow housemates collected and melted seawater samples to study salinity and sea-ice thickness back in France.

It seemed we were almost done with the interview. Daniela was finishing her pulla (a Finnish sweet bun) when she casually mentioned a flaming toilet. The scientists’ residence have Flame Toilets, they are practical you see. Waste is disposed down a chute and gets slowly incinerated, which means the next person has to wait 30 minutes before being able to use the WC!

After a month the temperature fluctuated between five and ten degrees outside the station. The snow had melted down to 20 cm. On June 25th a plane was ready to take Daniela back to a world of “information overload.”

 

Note: The new Villum Research Station (VRS) has opened since Daniela’s visit and is set to be an important hub for Arctic climate monitoring.

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