Sandia LabNews

Hard data from a hard place: Science on Alaska’s North Slope

Mark Ivey
Mark Ivey (6913) points to an X-band precipitation radar on the roof of the Barrow Arctic Research Center in Barrow, Alaska.

Mark Ivey (6913) and I are standing on the tundra at an outpost of science at the northernmost point of the North American continent. We are five miles northeast of Barrow, an Alaskan village unreachable by roads, 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and one mile south of the Arctic Ocean.

It is late spring, the ice breaking up and the snow melting around us, and Mark – manager for Sandia of DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) climate research facility at Barrow – is waiting with me for the automated release of a weather balloon in about two minutes, at 9:31 a.m.

The balloon, to be launched from the balcony of a metal-and-glass test facility about the size of a mobile home, is expected to measure the Arctic atmosphere’s temperature, humidity, and wind speeds at a rapid succession of altitudes as it rises. The tests are part of an ongoing effort to depict the structure of the atmosphere (an interesting concept to a layman like me) and the formation and elevation of its clouds. Imprecision in both these areas cause disputes about the accuracy of global climate models, which need the kind of hard data provided by this facility for the most accurate results.

To this end, the launch facility inflates and releases two balloons every day, automatically – one at 9:31 a.m. and another at 9:31 p.m.

“We used to have our Barrow assistants come out here twice a day and fill a balloon with helium and let it go,” Mark tells me from the balcony as he checks the canisters used to fill each balloon. “This automated setup is much easier on everyone.”

The time- and location-stamped data – collected every 10 seconds as the balloon soars upward –  will be radioed to a receiving antenna at the test facility, and from there electronically to the ARM central Alaskan facility – an unpretentious one-story duplex a few miles away in Barrow. Along with other data collected at the wind-swept, often snowed-in research site, which operates under the aegis of DOE’s Office of Science, the information also helps calibrate satellite measurements of Earth’s atmosphere, providing reality checks to the remote sensor inputs received from space orbit.

Calibrating satellite observations

These inputs are electronic zeroes and ones to which human beings assign meanings. Atmospheric measurements secured and analyzed, on the other hand, provide hard data against which satellite observations can be calibrated, improving their accuracy and reducing another possible source of error in climate computer models.

I am down on one knee with my camera ready, about 12 feet below the deck where Mark is standing. The balloon should bolt out of its chamber at 5 meters per second – “It pops up and goes pretty fast,” Mark had warned – and there would be no do-overs until 12 hours later if I miss its emergence. I don’t think an evening shot would prove any easier and, because we are leaving early the next morning, a return to the site might prove difficult. So I stay down, the knee of my pants leg soaked in the melting permafrost of late spring (the top layers of permafrost evidently are not so permanently frosted), waiting at a spot I had marked on an earlier walkthrough with a quarter and a white bit of found paper glaringly evident as a marker in the still-brown short tundra grasses. (The paper, I later found out, had arrived on the site with one of Mark’s two very capable Inupiat assistants. They help maintain the ARM facility year-round as Mark and guest researchers cycle back and forth from the Lower 48.)

Two metal petals of the machine’s business end had opened a few minutes earlier like a huge mechanical rose, indicating its sensors had determined wind speeds to be low enough to make a balloon launch feasible. At 9:31 a.m., the remaining two petals should open, releasing its 3-foot diameter, helium-filled balloon.

A mile or so distant, the white radar domes of the US Air Force Point Barrow Long Range Station are watching for planes or missiles on their way over the North Pole, some 1,300 miles to the north. A DOE radar dome and several slender, heavily instrumented towers stand nearby, also managed by Mark, taking moment-by-moment data from a variety of ground- or tower-based sensors on humidity, methane, CO2, wind velocity, ground infrared (heat) emissions, and microwave energy from the sky, all transmitted electronically to a computer at ARM’s home base. Nearby, sensors in facilities run by NOAA and by the US Geological Survey gather complementary geophysical data that includes precise measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field and concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“People had mentioned to me that they thought our operation would fade away,” Mark had said in his reflective, soft-spoken way. “But because of the quality of the data and its ability to provide information about important topics in a trustworthy way, funding has actually increased. The program could be around for a long time to come.”

Balancing multiple interests

That is, of course, if Mark and his colleagues can continue balancing the interests of federal and state agencies, the local electric utility, and the native corporation that manages land in and around Barrow. One of Mark’s pressing tasks when I visited was to finalize agreements in the community for living quarters and meeting space for the scientists who come from elsewhere to do technical work. This had become particularly urgent because of rumors that a major oil company might soon move ahead with off-shore drilling immediately north of Barrow. Housing, office, and lab space, already scarce in the village, could become even harder to find, causing lease prices to rise dramatically – a big worry in economically challenging times. The uncertainty has sent mixed messages to the electrical co-op about where to install new utility lines needed for the scientific effort.

The scope of the human, technical, and regulatory problems facing Mark as ARM representative reminded me of a statement Sandia’s president is fond of making: “Sandia doesn’t do easy,” Paul Hommert has said, “Sandia does hard.”

That certainly seems the case here.

* * *

The balloon site’s data streams are available electronically to labs and modelers around the world interested in honing their computer simulations with exact ongoing information on the Arctic climate, thought to be a precursor and influencer of the rest of the slower-responding world. Among the reasons for this are the clear window to space for outgoing radiation provided by the very dry atmosphere, and the expansion or contraction of the polar ice sheet. The latter causes large changes in surface sunlight reflectivity and regulates how much solar energy is absorbed by the darker ocean water. In addition, measured trends in the extent of Arctic ice indicate the Arctic will likely be ice-free in summer within the next few decades. At what rate is the far north climate warming, and why? Up here in permafrost land is the data that may help decide these issues.

Among the site’s findings to date has been that the Arctic’s very cold clouds fill with supercooled liquids rather than ice particles. This difference has a big impact on the amount of heat entering or leaving Earth’s surface, says Hans Verlinde, a meteorology professor at Penn State and site scientist for the ARM program. In the Arctic, where clouds help warm Earth’s surface instead of cooling it, they do this more effectively with liquid in the clouds instead of solids, an important clarification for climate models.

New facilities on tap

Information like this is so desirable that the Office of Science has allocated additional funding during the next two years through its Biological Environmental Research (BER) arm to build new facilities and buy equipment for another ARM site. Also to be managed by Sandia, it will be constructed 166 miles away at

Oliktok Point, a spit of land that borders directly on the Arctic Ocean. The property is owned by the Air Force, which has been required by federal mandate to reduce its landholdings in Alaska. Part of its station may be transferred to other federal agencies, the state of Alaska, or a native corporation. The idea from the scientists comprising the Barrow ARM group is to install a ground station of four prefabricated buildings and stock it with Doppler and high-spectral-resolution lidars, radar, and radiometers, along with meteorological equipment and other sensors. More important, an abandoned Air Force hangar a hundred yards away would shelter DOE unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) expected to fly through air space almost empty of civilian or military traffic from the Point to the North Pole, about 1,400 miles away, for additional atmospheric data collection. The UAVs would be operated by DOE with university partners.

“Routine measurements of the Arctic atmosphere would be very valuable in understanding it,” Mark says, “and the ground station would be helpful in understanding cloud processes. But UAVs and balloons are ways to get at atmospheric structure that currently are poorly represented in our models.”

Oliktok Point has another advantage: It’s on a major north-south road (the “haul road” used by ice truckers on a popular reality TV show) that ends in the assorted collection of workaday buildings known as Deadhorse, an entrance point to Prudhoe Bay oil rigs. In fact, the flat peninsula that ends at Oliktok Point is eerily dotted with enormous facilities built every few miles by oil companies. The companies require personnel and heavy equipment brought in year-round to process oil to put into pipelines that send the precious fluid south.

Food delivery by barge

Though Barrow is a real community rather than the expanded truck-stop facilities that comprise Deadhorse, one of its limitations is that equipment, materials, fuel, and food arrive by barge from Seattle only once a year, though smaller items can be flown in.

The existence of the Oliktok research station depends on Mark’s ability to get the Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Inupiats, federal and state land offices, and the oil companies of the Prudhoe peninsula to agree. He needs power lines and building leases from the native corporation that oversees Barrow, site licenses from government organizations, Air Force permissions, and oil company concurrence for access to the road system in Prudhoe Bay. Finally, the land may have been polluted by previous users; if ARM purchases it, or just takes it over with the Air Force’s blessings, who is responsible for cleanup?

“What do you do when you clean up one year and next year something else leaks out?” says engineer Jerry Peace (2127), a member of the North Slope team at Sandia. “Residual pollution requires ongoing inspections.”

"It was enlightening to see the complicated maze that must be negotiated to create the new Oliktok Point site and UAV capability,” says Center 6900 Director Marianne Walck, who has made the trip north as part of a Sandia delegation that includes Division 8000 VP Rick Stulen and Center 1400 Director Rob Leland. Marianne adds that “Rick, Rob, and I are working on ideas on how to find funding so we can increase the scientific impact from our activities there.”

How does Mark, an electrical engineer by training, develop these negotiating, managerial, and leadership skills? It seems to an observer, after spending a few days on site, that Mark’s endless negotiations resemble someone climbing up a sandstone cliff, the sand falling away as he tries to climb. But Mark, who speaks slowly and has the endearing quality of pausing after anyone addresses him to make sure he understands the point, shrugs and smiles. “I’m a lucky participant and partner in science,” he says quietly. “I am also part of a great team of people. This work would be impossible without them.”

Low-key approach successful

Thus far, his continuos low-key negotiations have been successful in moving the work forward at Barrow and Oliktok Point.

“The work on the North Slope is producing uniquely important measurements that will enable vast improvements in today’s evolving climate models,” Rick says. “There will be increased confidence in model accuracy in predicting the actions of nature. My reason for taking this trip was to get a first-hand look at the operational conditions for Sandians working in Barrow and eventually Oliktok Point and to gain a better understanding of the strategic importance of our work in this remote location. I came away impressed. ”

He also was impressed by the petroleum industry. “I was really taken by the enormous oil industry infrastructure in Prudhoe Bay and the Alaska pipeline that provides for something like 15 percent of US petroleum – quite an engineering feat!”

Rob says, “What stood out for me most – in addition to the vastness, the remoteness, and the fascinating mix of subcultures that has developed out of that isolation – is the enormity of the scientific opportunity in the Arctic. Researchers believe that the effects of climate change are amplified substantially in the Arctic, and yet comparatively little is known about the specifics. By combining the data coming from our ARM program with satellite data and the proposed UAV data with the new generation of high-resolution climate models we are developing, it should be possible to greatly advance our understanding of what is really happening there.

“Add to the mix that it is clear that there are a host of critical national security issues at stake in the arctic – new shipping routes, new access to resources, new operational demands on the military to name a few – and you get a sense of the significance of the opportunity. We are just now developing our ability to work across that entire spectrum, and of course we need to do that in close partnership with many other agencies and institutions, but the prospect of Sandia being centrally engaged in addressing the arctic challenge is just tremendously exciting to me.”

One underutilized factor that could help advance Sandia’s Arctic research are the facilities and personnel at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, where the Sandia visitors spent most of their first day listening to technical presentations featuring the capabilities of that institution.

As Jerry Peace – whose master’s degree in geophysics from the University of Alaska (U of A) in 1979 included being treed by a grizzly when he went looking for mineral deposits in the brush on an industry-sponsored summer project – says, “The U of A’s Geophysical Institute, established by Congress in 1946, studies a spectrum of geophysical processes ranging from the center of the earth to the center of the sun. It has infrastructure in place and an international reputation for studying the physical environment of the Arctic. Partnering with them could be useful in furthering our state and national needs.”

* * *

The balloon-launch station is a robotic marvel. Twenty-four balloons at a time can be stacked on a conveyor belt. A half-hour before lift-off, the lead balloon is automatically chambered and inflated by the helium-filled canisters.

But by 9:36 a.m., no balloon has emerged. “Something’s wrong,” says Mark, and we travel in the project’s Suburban the few miles back to the one-story building housing the project’s headquarters. There, Jimmy Ivanoff, hired as a technical aide from the Inupiat native corporation that runs Barrow, looks at the automatically collected data in the duplex’s office and erupts, “Darn, that thing has worked without a flaw for months. On the day we have a visitor, it fails!”

A balloon apparently was not loaded in the morning’s chamber casing. The chamber’s sensors, detecting the absence, prevented the structure from opening and essentially shooting a blank.

“Fortunately, experts from the vendor are on their way here,” Mark said. “At least once or twice a year we bring someone here from there to check it out.”

I remember what Mark told me before we left: “It’s Alaska. Expect delays and keep your sense of humor.”

I have one more chance to photograph the rising balloon before leaving early the next morning. Because it’s late spring in Alaska, I realize the sun won’t set tonight. I look at Jimmy poker-faced and say, “As long as you can fix the problem before nightfall, we can try again.”

He looks at me, as does the Inupiat station manager Walter Brower, to see if I am kidding. “I guess I can,” Jimmy says finally, “seeing as how it won’t be dark for weeks.” We all laugh.

That evening, promptly at 9:31 – my last photo opportunity before leaving Alaska – the balloon takes off like a sprinter into the atmosphere. I have to estimate when to press the shutter button, because I find it takes almost two seconds for my camera to agree to snap a highly pixelated shot. I get the shot, but with the balloon not quite fully airborne.

Nothing about any of this seems easy.

The simple bear necessities, Alaska style

Polar bears complicate data collection. Many decades ago, when the Inupiats lived in sod homes cut from tundra, with whale bones across the wall tops serving as support for tundra roofs, they were sometimes hunted by polar bears for food.

There are an estimated 20,000 polar bears in the Arctic worldwide, and they are excellent predators. Says Walter, “When they hunt you, they are always downwind, and they are very hard to see.”

For this reason, and because an adult bear can stand 8 feet tall and weigh a thousand pounds, Walter Brower rebuffed the idea proposed by US administrators some years ago that as escort he could protect himself by carrying a large spray can of Bear Off, touted as a repellant and containing capsicum (the irritant in green chile). It would be, he was told, a more humane and less prone-to-accident bear guard.

But Walter, an Inupiat native, prefers – he’s very frank about this – a shotgun. He says, “I’m not putting my life on the line, maybe spraying into the wind.”   

He has his wish. Because of the hazard from bears – serious carnivores capable of hunting humans – DOE has permitted guides accompanying researchers the extraordinary measure of carrying single-barrel pump-action shotguns with six-shot clips.

But the weapons don’t arrive with the fabled simplicity of the Old West, with every man his rifle and the law a hundred miles away.

The first Sandia policy is avoidance. When an agency notifies Walter that bears have been seen in the research area, he calls scientists in the field back to the duplex base. They may have to wait a day or two – or even three – before resuming their work. Because of Sandia’s caution, no guide in the program has ever had to shoot a bear. But someday it might be necessary. So there is the training.

Walter (and anyone else certified to handle a shotgun on site) has to be flown to Fairbanks, 500 miles away, to be trained because soft lead bullets are considered an environmental hazard and Barrow has no cleanup facilities.

He must be able to place five shots in a one-foot square target pulled toward him by a pickup truck approaching at 25 miles an hour, approximately the speed of an on-rushing bear. (This is roughly the speed of the world’s fastest human sprinters.)

”It’s hard,” says Walter, “but a lot harder when it’s an actual bear.”

Sandia procedures are that the bullets must be discarded every two years to be certain the gunpowder is fresh, and shotguns professionally checked and refurbished every year by a certified armorer at Sandia. Walter likes these precautions because, he says, “I don’t like the idea of a gun jamming when a polar bear rushes me.” He maintains a register with times and dates of everyone who has ever been assigned a shotgun.

Says VP Rick Stulen, “The training and safety preparation for staff working at these locations is excellent, beyond what I was expecting.”

* * *

The full-time Sandia North Slope team consists of Valerie Sparks (10669), Jeff Zirzow, Fred Helsel, and new member Dan Lucero (all 6913). Jerry Peace, Darin Desilets (6913), and Joe Hardesty (6823) lend their talents part-time to work with the new mobile facility. “We are fortunate that they can make time to help us,” says Mark Ivey.

In Barrow, the Inupiat Corporation’s Walter Brower, Jimmy Ivanoff, and Jimmy’s son Josh Ivanoff help run the ARM facility. In Atqasuk, a small village south of Barrow, an ARM facility there investigating sea ice and precipitation is headed by Inupiat contractor and town mayor Doug Whiteman.

The North Slope Borough (itself bigger than 39 of the 50 US states) and the town of Barrow which is its seat  “are not only terrific hosts,” says Mark Ivey, researcher and station manager, “but they actively support science in the area through things like the Barrow Environmental Observatory and the Barrow Arctic Research Center.” The huge borough’s population is less than 10,000 people.

Last but far from least, says Mark, “The whole enterprise owes a lot of thanks to the Office of Science’s Biological and Environmental Research team.”