Not too many people would consider six hours outside in near-darkness,
temperatures around -30 degrees Fahrenheit, a comfortable or easy
working environment. Add to that the threat of getting stranded
on floating ice or of stumbling upon a polar bear, and you would
develop the humbleness toward the elements required of a researcher
studying coastal sea ice in the Arctic.
Matthew Druckenmiller, respect for the forces he studies seems
a given. His route to Alaska's seasonal ice packs and a Ph.D.
program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks started with coursework
in geo-environmental engineering at Penn State. While completing
bachelor's and master's degrees there, he studied geologic carbon
sequestration -- ways of storing carbon dioxide emissions underground
-- and developed an interest in climate change research.
His current project, which focuses on coastal ice near the towns of Barrow and Wales, aims to "identify aspects of the sea ice that can be monitored from a stakeholder perspective -- how the ice is important to communities, industry, and other stakeholders as well." He is interested in identifying the key events in the ice year, of monitoring "when the ice stabilizes, and when it breaks up."
To accomplish this goal, he works with a small group of other graduate students, post-doctorates and faculty at UAF, gathering data from Web cameras, radar stations and other measuring points within his study area.
Three months a year -- when the ice is solid enough -- he heads out to the field, accompanied by a local guide, to take measurements in person.
He relies, too, on local knowledge. On a near-daily basis, natives of both Barrow and Wales record ice conditions and how people in the communities are deciding, for instance, when to hunt or travel.
Currently, he explained, there is an effort to design both a national and international observing network for ice conditions in the Arctic. Understanding the variables at play -- not only in terms of the science, but also in terms of the cultures that have a vested interest in the region -- is a key part of his research.
After having lived in Fairbanks for two-and-a-half years, he says that he is constantly surprised at "how connected Alaska is to the larger global issues, whether it be energy, climate change or culture." Even in remote villages, he continued, "you find people who are so well informed on what's going on in the world."