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Arctic Scientists Work Hard, Play Hard
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There’s little debate among scientists that the climate is changing. But in order to measure the changes and predict the impacts scientists still need to gather lots of data on-the-ground, in remote locations. WNPR’s Nancy Cohen recently visited a research site run by the University of Alaska where scientists work, and play hard.

The Toolik Field Station hugs the edge of a mile long lake: Photo by Nancy Eve CohenThe Toolik Field Station hugs the edge of a mile long lake: Photo by Nancy Eve Cohen
Imagine being far-away, 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, so isolated there’s no place to spend your money. There are no trees, a big sky, only one road to speak of , wild sheep, bear, and at the Toolik Field Station plenty of company.

“There’s about 95 people or 94 people in camp right now. So the golden rule applies. Be nice to people so that they’ll be nice to you.”

Camp Manager Chad Diesinger is giving his Toolik introduction shpiel to a couple of newcomers. Being friendly here is essential. In the short summer, the place hums with researchers working long days in close quarters on the edge of a mile long lake.

“The sauna schedule is posted on the side of this cooler that’s right out the door here.”

Scientists are allowed only two showers a week because all of the waste water has to be hauled 140 miles away to be treated: Photo by Nancy Eve CohenScientists are allowed only two showers a week because all of the waste water has to be hauled 140 miles away to be treated: Photo by Nancy Eve Cohen
That’s right. There’s a sauna, phones, internet access, and diesel generators that power the labs and computers. By field camp standards this place is plush. But there’s at least one thing that’s rationed.

“Use as little as water as possible. Drink as much as you want, but two showers per week. Use the submarine style shower technique. So turn the water off while you’re scrubbing up.”

The water comes from the lake, But every drop of waste water has to be trucked 140 miles away to reduce the human footprint in this pristine landscape. Being sweaty and grimy become the norm. But scientists come here to get dirty...and sometimes...fishy.

“I see ya. I see ya”

Aquatic Ecologist Cody Johnson and Assistant Melissa Sanders remove fish from a net at a lake near the Toolik Field Station: Photo by Nancy Eve CohenAquatic Ecologist Cody Johnson and Assistant Melissa Sanders remove fish from a net at a lake near the Toolik Field Station: Photo by Nancy Eve CohenYou’ve heard of a horse whisperer? Well aquatic ecologist Cody Johnson is a kind of fish whisperer. In a rubber raft on a small lake, he and research assistant Melissa Sanders are gently untangling arctic grayling from a net.

“Oh we got a big one. Oh come here you...”

“The purple and yellow cat eyes I think they’re the prettiest fish we catch.”

Sanders and Johnson will tag and weigh each of these fish...and then pump their stomachs to get samples of what they eat. They’re studying the role fish play in the ecosystem. The scientists carried this boat, all their equipment, and a big lunch about an hour through the tundra to get here. But Johnson who’s 32 and working on his PHD is having the time of his life.

Cody Johnson and Melissa Sanders haul a boat, nets, traps, fish-tagging equipment and a big lunch across the tundra: Photo by Nancy Eve CohenCody Johnson and Melissa Sanders haul a boat, nets, traps, fish-tagging equipment and a big lunch across the tundra: Photo by Nancy Eve Cohen
“You’re just going nonstop for several months and I don’t know it almost is like an endorphin thing. It’s stamina. You got to be able to work long physically demanding days in the field and come back and still work late at night with the samples and do that 6 days a week. And what do we do on Sunday? We go for long strenuous hikes in the Brooks Range and come back and do it all again on Monday.”

Some days in the field it rains. Or snows. And there are bugs.

“I just want to make a note here there’s a lot of mosquitoes. Like a lot.”

Well, not by Toolik standards.

“This isn’t really that bad. On really really bad years they are actually maddening.”

Johnson isn’t the first scientist to put up with the hardships here. He’s part of a kind of Toolik lineage. He and his advisor from Utah State both studied with John O’Brien. O’Brien is a University of North Carolina biology professor and --- one of the very first researchers to come to Toolik back in 1975. At first O’Brien and his colleagues camped out. Then they got a few trailers.

John O'Brien, Biology Professor from the Univeristy of North Carolina, Greensboro: Photo by Nancy Eve CohenJohn O'Brien, Biology Professor from the Univeristy of North Carolina, Greensboro: Photo by Nancy Eve Cohen
“It was much harder. We had no phones... Often times we would not get food on time. Never got mail on time. We had no contact with home. In the early days it was a kind of bunker mentality that kind of brought us all together.”

Overtime the researchers have learned a lot about how Arctic ecosystems function. Now they’re looking at the impact of a warmer climate. O’Brien, who at 65, still works in the field here remembers the early days as a time of discovery.

‘It was newer and fresher. Every pond might hold some new creature, but now I can walk up to a pond and almost predict without sampling the pond what’s going to be there. So in that sense it was more of an intellectual adventure, personal adventure. It was wilder, more remote. It’s more of a job than an adventure now. Back then it was more of an adventure than a job.”

There's always plenty of food available for the hungry scientists at Toolik Lake.: Photo by Nancy Eve CohenThere's always plenty of food available for the hungry scientists at Toolik Lake.: Photo by Nancy Eve Cohen
But it’s still a job far from home. Those who run the Toolik camp understand what the scientists need to do their work.

“It’s just a chocolate torte. It has cinnamon thrown in, a little bit of cayenne.”

Toolik cook Rob Taylor says good food is good for morale. He’s squeezing butter cream frosting on top of Mexican brownies.

“I was going to do a brown sugar frosting on these, which I’ve never done before and I was kind of psyched, but whipping cream is on the truck that hasn’t arrived yet so change of plans.”

Making due with what you’ve got not only inspires the food, but the recreation.

“Is that fun?”

“It’s very therapeutic.”

21 year old Ashley Fenn from Colorado State University is taking a break from analyzing her field data. She’s slapping the air with a battery operated bug zapper that looks like a tennis racket. Fenn says it gives her a sense of revenge.

“After a whole day of getting bitten and trying not to get bitten and knowing you can do something about it.”

Mosquito zapping is one kind of fun. And there are more conventional kinds.

Aquatic Ecologist Cody Johnson plays banjo with others from the Toolik Field Station.: Photo by Nancy Eve CohenAquatic Ecologist Cody Johnson plays banjo with others from the Toolik Field Station.: Photo by Nancy Eve Cohen
About 30 people are crammed into a tent. Some sing along. Some are sipping beer. A stream ecologist plays the violin. A guy from the kitchen strums the guitar. And that’s Cody Johnson, fish whisperer on the banjo.

Long time researcher John O’Brien says it takes a certain kind of person to be here.

“The one thing I always tell my students it can get hard after a long summer here. Here you are in this wilderness and yet if you really think about it you’ve never had less privacy in your life.”

The remoteness seems to bring people together. But most researchers are heading home soon. The first snow has fallen, the tundra plants are taking on an autumn hue.The camp will remain open though, through the dark season for those who seek a lonelier kind of research.


WNPR’s Nancy Cohen recently returned from a science writers fellowship at Toolik, sponsored by the Marine Biological Lab and funded by the National Science Foundation. The NSF also funds some of the research there.


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