Dr. Matt Nolan

Institute of Northern Engineering
University of Alaska Fairbanks

 

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My First Art Show

In March 2010, I was invited to hang some photos of mine at the State of the Arctic meeting in Miami, by ARCUS, who organized this meeting of about 350 arctic scientists. I brought down about 40 prints, arranged loosely in several themes related to our changing Arctic. You can find those images below, along with the captions hung next to them. You can see some photos of how they were arranged at the meeting here.

After the meeting was over, a senior policy analyst from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy asked if she could take the prints back with her to hang in their offices. She explained that the director of this office is who the President comes to when he needs help with his science homework. I agonized momentarily over this decision, and now apparently some of the most influential people in the world walk past these images every day, and as a result hopefully have a better understanding of the impacts of climate change in the Arctic and the importance of funding scientists to study it more thoroughly. Click here to read the OSTP blog and see a few images of them in situ. While I'm flattered to see them hanging there, I see this opportunity as not so much being a statement about the quality of my photographs (there are plenty of great Arctic photographers out there with more skill and experience than I), but more as a sign of the times -- the Arctic is getting closer to center-stage in public politics than it ever has before, and now rather than having to stick our foot in the political door to get some notice of our scientific progress, we're being welcomed in and treated to wine and cheese. How this will benefit arctic science, scientists, and the public remains to be seen, but I think we can take some satisfaction that our attempts as scientists at getting the word out on the issues have been successful, even if too often misunderstood.

The Miami show also led to a few of the spherical panoramas being incorporated into a movie about polar ice designed for inflatable planetarium domes, by the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which will be shown to thousands of school kids later this year. A few of these images will also now be hanging in a special exhibit in the Museum of the North this summer, as part of a show organized by Ken Tape called Then and Now: The Changing Arctic Landscape. I think these opportunities are especially cool as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of my favorite places in the world and where most of my images were taken.

Overall I'd have to say the Miami meeting was probably among the most rewarding science meetings I've ever been to, which is perhaps ironic since none of the credit is due to the science presentation I was there to give...

If there's interest, I may post the full res versions of these images to FTP this summer so that anyone that manages an influential hallway, whether in a kindergarten or a Kremlin, can print their own copies. If you'd like to make a tax-deductible donation to help me continue with outreach efforts like these, please send an email here to request details on doing so.

 

The State of the Arctic
from Above, On, and Below the Surface

A Photographic Exhibition
By Dr. Matt Nolan

The theme of this exhibition is the relationship between Arctic climate and the U.S. Arctic landscape on time-scales of days to millennia. The Arctic landscape is particularly sensitive to climate because it is underlain or covered by ice – ice which can melt and create significant change to the earth’s surface and subsurface. The 40 selected images were taken from the air, from the surface, and from below the surface and arranged in sub-themes within an informal photographic tour starting with glaciers in the mountains, following their meltwater through rivers which travel across permafrost to the coastlines, and ending by using photos to describe some subsistence hunting and western climate science in the Arctic. The image formats range from 11”x17” to 36”x 150” in color and black and white, shot with both digital and large-format film cameras, in a combination of oblique and vertical aerial photos, ground photos, spherical panoramas, and gigapixel panoramas.

Dr. Nolan has been studying ice in Alaska for nearly 20 years, the past 10 of which as an Associate Professor at the Institute of Northern Engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His passion for photography has grown over the past few years based on a desire to document and share changes in these remote landscapes and this is the first exhibition of his photos. Dr. Nolan is a Certified Aerial Photographer and two of the images in this exhibition recently took 2nd and 3rd place ribbons in the 2010 international print competition sponsored by the Professional Aerial Photographers Association.

This exhibition was sponsored by ARCUS and the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Institute of Northern Engineering, and is an outreach effort of Dr. Nolan’s scientific studies funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Park Service, and US Fish and Wildlife Service.


Photos of Dr. Nolan photographing in the Arctic (courtesy of Ken Tape, left, and Dennis Giese, right)


Arctic Glaciers

There are over 800 glaciers in the US Arctic, but their combined volume is still much smaller than many of the large glaciers in the coastal regions of south-eastern Alaska. Yet despite their small size and negligible influence on future sea level rise, they do exert important controls on the regional landscape and ecology. They also serve as indicators of climate change, as their size is determined primarily by climate without the complicating effects of surging or ocean calving. These glaciers are all retreating and losing ice volume. You can see this qualitatively by the presence of the recently formed moraines near the fronts of the glaciers in these photographs. Quantitative studies here indicate that the rate of volume loss is increasing with time. The only viable explanation for such changes is a change in climate. The linkage to climate is most easily described by the position of the late-summer snow line. Over the course of many years, the glacier adjusts its size such that about half its area is above this line and about half is below. The mass that accumulates above this line is gradually turned into ice and begins flowing to the lower regions to replace what is lost by melting. In this region of the Arctic, the snow line has been rising steadily for the past 50 years and in some recent years there is no accumulation at all on some of these glaciers. If current trends continue, it is conceivable that many of these glaciers will disappear in our lifetimes.


Ancient Moraine from Jago Valley Glacier

By Matt Nolan
Here an ancient moraine can be seen enclosing the Jago River and meeting nearly at a point in the lower right of the image, representing the furthest extent of this glacier during a previous ice age. Thousands of years later, these moraines are exerting important controls on ecological succession and surface erosion. Glaciers formed in the Brooks Range in the Alaskan Arctic rarely, if ever, reached the Arctic Ocean during previous ice ages, probably because it was simply too dry then as it is today. Near the lower left, a slope detachment can be seen; such detachments will likely get more frequent if climate continues to warm.


Mt Michelson Massif
By Matt Nolan
These glaciers are flowing downhill from Mt. Michelson, one of the tallest peaks in the Brooks Range, located about 50 miles south from Kaktovik within the Wilderness Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. On the right, Esetuk Glacier is about the 4th largest glacier in the US Arctic, and flows into the Hula Hula River which drains into the Arctic Ocean. Taken in August 2009 at about 11,000 feet looking south, you can also see a smoke layer caused by forest fires in interior Alaska.


Okpilak Glacier Terminus in 1907
Photographed by Ernest Leffingwell and Stitched by Matt Nolan
Okpilak Glacier is the largest glacier in the US Arctic. All glaciers in this region were advancing or maintaining their size in the late-1800s, but had began retreating about the time the Ernest Leffingwell began studying the eastern Alaskan Arctic in the early 1900s. Leffingwell hiked inland fifty miles to find Okpilak Glacier. His images are the oldest known photographs of this region of the Arctic. His 1919 monograph remains a classic text in Arctic science.


Okpilak Glacier Terminus in 2007
By Matt Nolan
(click to zoom in)
Okpilak Glacier, like all glaciers in the US Arctic, has been thinning and retreating since the time that Leffingwell took his 1907 photos. As can be seen in the comparison, the ice loss here has been substantial. Our studies over the past 50 years have shown that the rate of ice loss is increasing with time. Now the terminus is near a bedrock ridge which is preventing a re-supply of ice from upper elevations, a process which will cause the terminus to quickly retreat above this ridge over the next few years. Note also that since the end of the last ice age over 10,000 years ago these glaciers may have disappeared completely. That is, the retreat we see today is not from an ice age advance, but rather an advance that probably began only about 500 years ago.


McCall Glacier Terminus in IPY3
By Austin Post
Studies on McCall Glacier began during the 3rd International Polar Year (also known as the International Geophysical Year) in 1957-58 to be the premier US glacier site for understand glacier-climate interactions. Research has continued here to the present and today McCall Glacier has lived up to that reputation as the only glacier in the US Arctic with any significant record of research and one of the most comprehensive measurement programs of any valley glacier in the world. It is one of the largest glaciers in the US Arctic, and at the time of this photo had only begun to retreat off of the moraine it formed by advancing only about 60 years earlier.


McCall Glacier Terminus in IPY4
By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
Compared to the photo from this site taken in 1958, it is clear that McCall Glacier has lost a lot of mass during the fifty years of the research program based there. The maximum extent of the glacier was reached less than 150 years ago, based on lichenometry, and the terminal moraine it left behind can be followed to the lower-left corner of the image. The ice-cored lateral moraines also left behind are now over 100 meters above the valley floor, and the large loose rocks pose one of the greatest hazards to human safety in the area. The large aufeis field below the glacier starts from a spring near the center of the image; by the end of winter the aufeis extends over 5 kilometers down valley and reaches over 5 meters thick.


McCall Glacier LIDAR Acquisition
By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
McCall Glacier is one of the largest glaciers in the US Arctic, but is getting smaller at a rate that is increasing with time. We know this because research on this glacier began in 1957 and has continued through the present. In this image, we are using airborne LIDAR to make a new topographic map of all of the glaciers in this region. The airplane carrying the sensor can be seen travelling towards and away from the camera as it makes it's grid pattern in the sky, near the center of the image. There is only a single aircraft – the multiple images of it were created by taking multiple photographs of it as it flew overhead. These images were then digitally stitched into their accurate position using the rock below as a guide. Accordingly, the photographer is now a permanent part of the topographic map. This gigapixel image is a mosaic of about 450 individual images.


Shaded Relief of McCall Glacier LIDAR
The data acquired by the airborne LIDAR sensor was later processed into a digital topographic map. Here this map is presented as a shaded relief image, with synthetic illumination from the upper left. The underlying data has 1 meter pixels with about 30 cm vertical accuracy. By comparing this map with similar ones made previously, we can calculate how much ice has been lost during that interval. High resolution LIDAR like this also reveals subtle changes in all parts of the landscape. For example, in the upper right of the image, you can see many slumps and detachments along the slopes of the hill on the far side of the river. Now is the time to acquire more data like this all over the Arctic, before the climate-induced changes to the landscape become more pervasive.


North Facing Arctic Glaciers
By Matt Nolan
As evidenced in this photo, elevation alone clearly does not predict glacier coverage. The glaciers in the US Arctic are largely north facing for a reason -- the energy of the sun is the primary cause of melt here, and thus the amount of shade a slope gets largely determines whether glaciers can exist or not. In today’s climate, however, the increased shading provided by north facing slopes is insufficient to retain glacier ice. Just below the middle of the image a small peak can be seen which has recently lost its ice cover and slowly a ridge beneath it is becoming exposed. In the distance, several recently deglaciated slopes can be distinguished by their slightly lighter color.



Climate Thresholds and Arctic Glaciers
By Matt Nolan
While glacier size is in general a smooth function of climate for a given topography, there are non-linearities in the adjustment process. In this image, a large section of a north-facing slope has become deglaciated. It is a very steep slope, such that only a glacier of sufficient thickness can cover it completely, and climate has apparently crossed a threshold which can no longer support the required thickness. Once this ice veneer disappeared, the mass balance of the glacier changed substantially because now snow that falls there is likely to melt on the warmer rock rather than accumulate on cold ice, and the relatively warm rock wall radiates much more energy into the surrounding ice than it used to, increasing melt. This combination of reduced accumulation and increased melt accelerates glacier loss compared to what climate processes alone might cause.


Hanging Glaciers in a Warming Climate
By Matt Nolan
In this image you can find no less than six hanging glaciers. These are glaciers that used to be connected to a lower one, but due to the thinning and retreat caused by recent changes in climate they have separated from the lower glacier and now reside only in their upper cirques. Because these upper cirques are higher, this is where most of the accumulation occurs. Once disconnected from this supply, the lower glacier will waste away more quickly than before the separation, accelerating the rate of ice loss.


Glacier Confluence
By Matt Nolan
Glacial moraines tell the story of former ice extents and dynamics. Here the two glaciers descending from the top of the image used to be joined to the lower glaciers. These glaciers grow or shrink based on climate -- as late summer snow lines rise in elevation in a warming climate, less mass accumulates there over time and therefore the glacier must get smaller. When at their maximum extent about 120 years ago, melt from the glacier surface formed a stream channel which can be seen at the base of the ridge where the two glaciers joined together.


Arctic Rivers

A skim of ice forms over all rivers in the Arctic during winters. In small rivers, this river ice can freeze all the way down to the river bed leaving no liquid water beneath. When spring snow melt comes, the water runs over the surface of this ice and melts a channel into it through thermal erosion. The case is much different on larger rivers like the Yukon River. Here water continues to flow beneath the several meters of ice that turn the river into a winter highway for snowmachines, trucks, and dog teams. When spring snow melt comes, the additional water no longer fits underneath the ice and starts to break the ice surface into pieces, which begin to flow with the water. These floes then often pile up on each other creating huge ice jams which begin to block water flow. In May of 2009, one of the largest ice jams on record occurred near the village of Eagle, AK, on the Yukon River, destroying many homes and businesses, as well as flattening many forests along the banks. Such events are not necessarily related to a change in climate, but as snow melt starts earlier in the year or is accompanied by rainfall events before snow melt is complete, such jams could become more common or larger. These events have ecological implications that last decades. For example, moose populations may rise since moose thrive on the sapling trees that will emerge from the floor of these crushed forests.


Yukon River Ice Jam, Vertical Mosaic #4
By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
This image is a mosaic of several dozen vertical images taken through the belly of an airplane along a few miles of the Yukon River just after a large ice jam broke in May 2009. You can see several cabins in the image for scale. The town of Eagle, AK, is just out of view towards the bottom of the image and the water flow direction is towards the top of the image. The stranded ice tooks months to melt, leaving behind flattened forests.


Ice in the Trees

By Matt Nolan
A massive amount of ice was suddenly on the move when the ice jam broke, floating on water that was much higher than the river banks. Here you can see how one surge of this ice floated up, over, and onto a forest, leveling the trees underneath. Events such as this are a local mechanism fostering ecological change – the saplings that will emerge from this flattened forest will become a tasty source of nutrition for moose, whose population will likely rise in response.


Eagle, Alaska
, Under Ice
By Matt Nolan
The village of Eagle, Alaska, was devastated by this ice jam. Here you can see the roofs of houses dwarfed by the ice floes which carried them away, as well as a car on the road which is now blocked by ice. The flood caused by this jam was the largest on record, peak at approximately 54 feet, where 34 feet is considered flood level. The proximal cause of the jam and flood were record high snow levels the previous winters combined with strong spring warming which sent the the snow meltwater into the river at a record pace.


Flattened Forest

By Matt Nolan
Small islands in the Yukon River were completely overrun when the jam broke, not only flattening the forests on them but stripping of them of branches and bark. These trees were 5-10 meters high, giving a sense of scale for the ice floe stranded beside them. The forces set in motion by the release of the dam are enormous, and very little in nature or man-made can survive such fury.

Permafrost
Nearly all of the Arctic is underlain by permafrost terrain, meaning that the ground stays frozen throughout the summer and usually contains a lot of ice. Much of this ice is locked up in ice wedges within polygonally-shaped patterns. These wedges form when the ground contracts due to cold winter temperatures, the cracks then fill with water later in spring, this water refreezes the following winter, and the process starts again. The drainage characteristics and stability of frozen ground are much different than unfrozen ground, and therefore the shape of the landscape and the ecology it supports are critically dependent on whether the ground stays frozen or not. When lakes intersect polygon ice wedges, there is a possibility that these wedges could form a conduit for water to escape from the lake by thermal erosion. Once water starts flowing through an ice wedge network, the heat of the water and friction of flow can quickly erode the wedge many meters into the ground, deeper than the lake bottom, and drain the entire lake in a matter of hours or days. Therefore such lake drainages are expected to increase in a warming climate. Though it would take hundreds of years to completely thaw arctic permafrost to its full depths of several hundred meters, most of the ice in permafrost is located within a few meters of the surface, as in ice wedges, and this ice responds on time-scales of only a few years. The subsurface dynamics of ice wedges are difficult to study due to their location and sensitivity to disturbance, such as by digging adjacent pits to install instrumentation. The Permafrost Tunnel in Fox Alaska offers a unique view into the underside of ice wedges.


Tundra Pond

By Matt Nolan
Polygonal ground is ubiquitous in the permafrost terrain of the Arctic, as are the shallow ponds like this one perched slightly above the old river bed of the Jago River. The current extent of the pond is smaller than it used to be. A small outlet stream channel can be seen cutting through the bluff, causing the lake to get smaller probably centuries ago. As the stream channel continues to deepen through thermal erosion, it will likely continue to drain more of the lake. The dynamics of ice wedges like these are difficult to study in situ, as any ground disturbance, such as by digging pits, quickly impacts the thermal state of the ground. The Permafrost Tunnel in Fox Alaska (see image on oppositecolumn) offers some of the best subterranean access to these wedges in the world.


Drained Tundra Pond

By Matt Nolan
The former shorelines of a large tundra pond are clearly visible in this image. This lake was drained when polygonal ice wedges formed a stream channel which incised the banks and drained the lake. It can take thousands of years for lakes to grow to this size, and only days to weeks for them to drain. Without the warm blanket of water on top, the ground beneath the former lake bed will slowly begin to refreeze, possibly leading to the formation of one or more pingos.


Impact of Snow Fence on Tundra

By Matt Nolan
Snow is an important, but poorly understood, component of landscape evolution in the Arctic. This snow fence in Kaktovik Alaska creates drifts on either side of the fence in an attempt to minimize similar drifting in the village itself. The thicker snow around the fence insulates the ground better, effectively warming it up, melting ice wedges, and creating new ecosystem dynamics. Something similar likely happen when shrubs form natural snow fences, warming the ground through increased snow insulation, which further enhances shrub growth with a positive feedback to continue this trend.


Pond Used as the Water Supply for Kaktovik
By Matt Nolan
An unfortunate consequence of the snow fence seen here is the potential for a stream to form which will drain the large lake at left by incisng into its bank and linking it with the ocean. This lake is Kaktovik’s water supply and is the only large lake on Barter Island suitable for this. It is not clear what the future holds for this water supply, but it is clear that both man and nature can conspire to change the landscape of permafrost terrain on time-scales that matter to all of us.


Tundra Pond in Arctic Ocean

By Matt Nolan
As the sea level rises due to glacial melt, it will begin flooding the Arctic coastal regions and consuming more lakes like the one in the lower right of the photograph. Marine transgressions like this happen during all interglacials like the one we have been in for the past 10,000 years. Much of the sea bed in the coastal zone is underlain by permafrost, formed when sea levels were much lower than today.


Cat Tracks on Tundra

By Matt Nolan
Climate is not the only driver of landscape change in Arctic permafrost. Here a bulldozer cut a survey line decades ago, creating a scar that will be visible for decades in the future. While increases in air temperature are important, equally so are changes to the surface energy balance – basically the way that sunshine is absorbed by the surface. By removing the tundra to create this temporary road, more sunshine is absorbed in the dark soils below, causing it to thaw and create small ponds and streams. These features will persist because they tend to reinforce their own existence by deepened due to enhanced melt.


Water Tracks

By Matt Nolan
Seen here are water tracks which follow the hillslope gradients and serve as drainage pathways. The tracks have very little relief on the ground and can only really be distinguished by the slight difference in vegetation. Because the dominant water flow event is spring snow melt when the ground is at is most frozen, the moving water is not able to mobilize the frozen dirt beneath it. As the permafrost melts and degrades with a warmer climate, it is likely that slope drainage will mature from these parallel pathways into branching networks which capture larger watershed area with time by removing soil and creating steeper gradients, much like the larger stream network that the water tracks are feeding into now.


Permafrost Tunnel, Panorama #1

By Matt Nolan
(click to zoom in)
This 360 degree panorama captures a large ice wedge within the Permafrost Tunnel near Fox Alaska. The part of the wedge closest to the scientist has clear striations which likely were formed by seasonal processes over hundreds to thousands of years. The whiter ice near the top of the photograph is likely not caused by this gradual, near-annual cracking process, but rather by the freezing of a surface stream within a single winter. Such streams are common above wedge ice because of their slight surface depression. You can find an example of what these wedges look like from the air on the opposite column.


Permafrost Tunnel, Panorama #2

By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
The Permafrost Tunnel bores through a large ice wedge, which can be seen starting on the left side of image, travelling overhead, and ending near the middle of the image. The ice appears dark because it contains a lot of dirt. This dirt was entrained in the ice during its formation, when cracking in winter allowed muddy water to fill it and freeze in place. The Permafrost Tunnel allows scientists a unique perspective on these subsurface processes, which are normally hidden from view. Plans are in progress to expand the tunnel network to further such sub-surface research.


Permafrost Tunnel, Panorama #3

By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
Scientists explore the Permafrost Tunnel looking for clues to past climates and future landscape changes. The ice in this region of the tunnel is more than 20,000 years old and was formed when they were on the surface. Now they are buried beneath 10 meters of silt, which was largely deposited by winds from the foregrounds of retreating glaciers in the Alaska Range. Mammoth bones and ancient tundra are visible throughout the tunnel walls.

 

Arctic Coastlines
Arctic coastlines are particularly sensitive to changes in climate because the tundra that meets with the ocean here is filled with ice, particularly near the surface. As wave action mechanically scrapes away dirt from the shore lines, this ice gets exposed and melts during the summer, causing the earth to slump into the water and get washed away. With longer open water seasons due to decreased sea ice coverage, storm-induced wave intensity will likely increase because the arctic winds blowing over the ocean will have a longer fetch in which to transfer energy to the waves during a longer time-period in which more storms can have this effect. Stronger and more frequent waves increase the rate of mechanical and thermal erosion of the coastline. These images were shot in July 2008 during and after one of the strongest storm surges in recent memory in Kaktovik Alaska. The waves undercut the bluffs, causing large blocks to fall into the ocean, where they were reduced to nothing within hours. Over 10 meters of coastline were lost in this single event. The storm surge raised water levels here enough to flood the only local runway, disrupting the air service here which is the lifeline of supplies and emergency services. With increasing frequency of such events likely as well as other concerns, a new runway is planned to be constructed further inland in the next few years.


Waves Under-cutting Bluffs in Kaktovik Alaska
By Matt Nolan
The waves here can be seen under-cutting the bluffs surrounding Barter Island. Eventually the undercut will get so deep that the weight of the cantilevered bluff will cause it to split from the land and tumble into the ocean. The waves seen here are quite large for the Arctic Ocean in this region, formed during one of the larger storms in recent history. As sea ice cover continues to decline, more of these larger waves are likely to form and further accelerate coastal erosion.


Wave Crash

By Matt Nolan
During a large storm, once a large block of the bluff falls into the ocean, it is quickly pulverized by wave action and completely disappears within a day. Such block rotations create beautiful, sharp exposures of the subsurface beneath the tundra vegetation. Here you can see that the directly beneath the tundra are a few meters of solid ice. Such massive ice near the surface is why the permafrost is particularly sensitive to warming climates – several meters of subsidence can occur quickly and radically change the surface in terms of hydrology and infrastructure.


Barter Island Bluff, from Above

By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
This 360 degree panorama was taken after a large storm ended, in front of one of the last blocks of the bluff to fall into the ocean. The runway hangar is visible down the coast to the right, with the village houses inland from there. The village homes used to be located on the bluff right where this photo was taken, but were relocated by the Air Force to make room for their DEW Line installation 50 years ago, the remains of which can be seen on the left side of the image.


Barter Island Bluff, from Below

By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
This 360 degree panorama was taken after a large storm ended, at ocean level below the bluff. Without wave action to speed things up, bluff erosion is dominated by ice melt and slumping of the supersaturated mud. In these circumstances, blocks that have fallen in the water may take weeks before they melt and slump away. Here you can also see some exposed ice just below the tundra; such thick ice masses just below the surface are typical throughout permafrost in this region. Due to the unusually sharp bluff exposures caused by the undercut blocks separating from the inland earth, scientists were able to find buried ice never before revealed, which they believe are the remnants of a glacier that extended to here from Canada over 10,000 years ago.


Navigation Lights

By Matt Nolan
This light would normally mark the edge of the gravel runway used to access the village of Kaktovik, but now is more useful to boats trying to avoid shoals. During this storm in July 2008, the eastern half of this runway was submerged below sea level due to the storm surge. In the long term, as sea level continues to rise due to glacial melt, coastal villages like this will be particularly susceptible to erosion and flooding. Based in part on this event, plans are in progress to move the runway to higher ground.

Arctic Subsistence Hunting
For millennia, indigenous Arctic peoples have fed themselves through hunting and gathering. Much of the subsistence patterns and traditions are still followed today. Among the most deeply ingrained tradition is whaling. The annual clocks of people in most Arctic villages in Alaska are largely set by whaling season. Through international treaty, subsistence whaling in Alaska is overseen by the International Whaling Commission with local oversight in Alaska largely provided by the North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. The local whalers organize themselves into crews, largely through family relationships, and it is a source of great pride for a crew to land a whale, as many crews go for years without success due to the difficulty and strike limits. Once caught and brought to shore, exhausted crews prepare to butcher the meat while scientists frantically try to stay one step ahead of the butchering process to collect the data necessary for whale population management, such as by taking measurements of length, noting and examining exterior scars or abnormalities, taking meat samples, and removing an eyeball for age determination. During the process, most folks try to keep an eye scanning the darkness for the ever-present polar bears, and usually the more curious or hungry bears have to be chased off with vehicles or shotgun-launched flares. Whales are not the only subsistence food, of course; caribou, fish, wolves, and almost anything else that can be eaten or worn is fair game.


Capturing the State of Arctic Traditions

By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
Indigenous traditions mix with western science as biologists from the North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management scramble to stay one step ahead of the whaling crew preparing to butcher a bowhead whale caught earlier in the day. The meat is scored in strips by the whaling crew in preparation for pulling the meat off. In the darkness outside the lights, polar bear circle in anticipation of gorging on the remains left behind by the humans.


Butchering a Whale in Barrow in a Blizzard

By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
There is a big community turn-out when a whale is landed, with everyone chipping in however they can. Some deliver lights or supplies, some drive loaders to pull the whale onto shore, some boil bits of blubber right away for a hearty snack, and some provide muscle for the hard work of pulling off the meat. It was a cold, windy night with snow flurries helping to keep everyone awake through the night and well into the next day. All the while, scientists continue with their measurements, in this case extracting an eyeball to determine how old the whale is. Whales can live over 150 years, and are occasionally found with harpoon points from the 1800s still lodged within them.


Helio Courier over the Hula Hula River

By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
A bush plane flies over “Fish Hole 2” on the Hula Hula River, a favorite subsistence use fishing hole for Dolly Varden in winter. The fish migrate up river from the ocean, about 50 miles away, and spend the winter in the deep pool here (near the bedrock outcrop to the left of the plane) until locals travel by snow machine in early spring to fill their freezers. It is likely that this fishing hole has been used for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. As much as 80% of the water in this river comes from glacier melt; if the glaciers in this area disappear and substantially reduce stream flow, it is not clear whether this annual fish migration cycle will be affected or not. The Hula Hula River was named by Hawaiian whalers over a hundred years ago.


Wolf prints in the Natural Wier

By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
Wolf are one of the most controversial animals in Alaska. To some they represent the ultimate in wilderness values, to others they represent a predator who's population must be controlled as a primary management technique to increase moose populations so that humans can hunt more of them. Thus aerial shooting of wolves in Alaska is regarded much as abortion is in politics, there is very little middle ground. Regardless of what they may represent, all would agree that wolves are intelligent and highly-capable animals. In this case, a wolf scaled an icy three-meter drop in this bedrock wier on McCall Creek in May, which was impassable by humans without using climbing hardware. These tracks continued 10 miles into the mountains until they disappeared over a steep, icy pass that requires several pitches of technical ice climbing for humans. The ice is in this image is called aufeis, formed in winter as spring water bubbles to the surface, spreads out, and freezes in the cold air.

Arctic Climate Science
Despite all of the talk about climate change in the Arctic, our understanding of it is hampered by the lack of direct observations. That is, the Arctic region is data sparse, with only a single weather station in continuous operation since the 1950s, only a handful of Federally-operated stations in operation today, and maybe 50 or so stations maintained on shoe string budgets by University scientists on short-term grants. In stark contrast, consider that there are probably a hundred times more weather stations in Rhode Island despite it being 100 times smaller. Regardless of the number of stations, the Arctic has unique challenges in terms of station operation and measurement accuracy/utility. The Arctic is dark much of year, meaning that remote stations have to have enough battery power to last through winter until the sun again hits their solar panels. The stations are remote, meaning that no one can typically come to fix them or brush snow or ice off of them. Perhaps the biggest problem of all, however, is that no one has yet to devise a device that accurately measures the amount of snow falling to the ground and measurements of snow on the ground are limited to a single spot next to the station. Thus our understanding of snow fall and snow depth are inadequate for a wide range of studies, including watershed hydrology, permafrost temperature modeling, and ecological modeling. Another short-coming in our measurement networks is information on how the climate has changed over the past few hundred to thousand years, thus we must look to the landscape for paleoclimate clues, such as in ice cores.


Research Weather Station near Barrow Alaska in Polar Night

By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
This weather station spends nearly all of its time alone, visited only a few times a year by humans. It runs through the darkness of winter powered by batteries, which get recharged quickly in spring in the nearly-constant daylight. Here rime ice can be seen accumulating on the station, affecting some of the sensors. This image was taken around noon, during the peak of daylight, in early January. This station is maintained as part of a 3 year science project; of the 50 or so weather stations in Arctic Alaska, only a few have long-term base funding for continued operations and all suffer from the same poor ability to measure snow fall.


Extracting an Ice Core under the Midnight Sun

By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
By late-April, it is barely getting dark at night in the Arctic. Here scientists are extracting an ice core from McCall Glacier at about 3AM in mid-May 2008. The cooler temperatures and dimmer sunlight at night make drilling easier, as any liquid water formed by snow melt has the potential to cause the drill to get stuck in the hole by freezing to the colder glacial ice. Whether in polar night or midnight sun, Arctic scientists need to be in the field as much as possible if we are to get a reasonable handle on climate and climate change.


McCall Glacier Camp in IPY4 (2008)

By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
During the 4th International Polar Year 2007-08, scientists extracted an ice core from McCall Glacier, in the eastern Alaskan Arctic, exactly fifty years after research began on this glacier during the 3rd IPY in 1957-58. Seen in this photo uphill from the sleeping tents is the drilling rig used to extract 151 meters of ice core all the way to bedrock to reveal a climate and air pollutant record dating back to about 1750AD. The glacier has experienced many changes during that time, many of which were recorded by scientists since IPY3. These records will help calibrate the ice core over these 50 years such that the interpretations of climate prior to this will be more accurate.



McCall Glacier Camp in IPY3 (1958)

By Austin Post
In many ways, our research today is fulfilling the dreams of scientists 50 years ago – to gain a better understanding of glacier-climate interactions in this data sparse region so that we might be able to better predict the future dynamics of both glaciers and climate. The 2008 version of this photo pair was not taken in exactly the same spot as this one, because Austin’s photo was taken while standing on a small tributary glacier which has since disappeared, and a tall pole would now be required to take an exact repeat of this perspective. The camp seen in this photo was largely abandoned in place and subsequently buried by accumulating winter snows. Today’s scientists occasionally find cases of C-rations and other 50 year old camp supplies melting out lower down glacier.


Arctic Climate in Our Hands
By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
Here scientists are removing a 1 meter section of ice core from the drill’s core barrel on McCall Glacier in Arctic Alaska. They extracted 151 similar cores, 1 meter at a time. Each core is unique and each meter holds clues to about 2 years worth of local climate information. In this photo you can see variations in bubble content which change the clarity of the ice. About 40 different elements and climate proxies throughout the length of the core are measured, such as lead, cadmium, black carbon, pollen, and water isotopes. This ice is now stored at the National Ice Core Facility (see photo on opposite column) Glaciers can also a beautiful and safe place to spend quality time with your family.


Preserving the State of Arctic Climate with Ice Cores
By Matt Nolan
(click here to zoom in)
In this photo are tubes containing millions of years of climate information. This is the National Ice Core Laboratory, run by the USGS and National Science Foundation in Denver Colorado. Here most ice cores extracted with Federal grant money are deposited for long-term archival and analysis. The core being extracted from McCall Glacier (see photo on opposite column) are stored on this rack. Immediately in view on the left are cores from the GISP-2 project near the summit of the Greenland ice sheet and on the right are cores from Siple Dome in West Antarctica. Storage temperature here is about -40.

(c) 2010 Matt Nolan.