SnowNet : Recent Activities

August 12, 2011

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August 11, 2010:

Through the trials and tribulations of modern technology, our website has been off line for quite sometime, but I think we've figured it out and now we should be back on track to post updates. Hopefully we'll start bringing more updates and we'll change our activities page up to a blog format. So look for changes to come in the near future. Meanwhile the SnowNet team has been busy, in April a trek from Deadhorse to Barrow and back was completed, a tactical team of the usual suspects got together to probe the Imnavait Creek basin and beyond. A new site has been installed in the Glenn Creek watershed just outside Fox, Alaska. Most recently, we were in Barrow, getting the site ready for this upcoming winter. Below is a short narrative written by Matthew Sturm. Be sure to visit our Facebook site to catch up on the latest photos and adventures.

Winter in August by Matthew Sturm

As I sloshed through the standing water between tundra polygons, I thought about how this place would look in two months.  Four of us on the SnowNet team were in Barrow doing the annual maintenance on the instrument site.  While the tundra world around us was green, wet, and alive with birds and bright spots of colored flowers, in a scant two months it would be cold, white and frozen.  The birds would be gone, and the flowers, or what was left of them, would be buried under 6” of snow. As rain soaked my hair and water splashed over the top of my rubber boots, I found myself looking forward to winter, when the only liquid water would be found in the sink in our warm Quonset Hut.

Soggy Crew

A group photo moment for a soggy crew at the Cake Eater snow fence site. (photo by Chris)

A rare sight for the Snownet crew, mushrooms in the tundra, most of the time the scenery is pretty much covered in snow. (photo by Matthew)

Winter can be harsh on electronic equipment several miles out on the tundra.  Cables that are supple and bendable in 40°F weather will snap like Styrofoam when it is -40°F.  Tasks like tightening a bolt that can be done in mere seconds in daylight with warm bare hands can be almost impossible in the dark in the narrow beam of a headlight where the cold wind renders fingers un-useable in minutes.  Not surprisingly, we have generally found it best to perform a thorough renovation of our instruments in summer.  But that means getting wet, and a long slog over the tundra carrying heavy batteries and other equipment.

trash haul

A light hearted moment is taken while loading up a load of trash to be carried out. (photo by Stephanie)

steph smiles
Steph is smiling, at least the load going back is a lot lighter than on the way into the site. (photo by Chris)

This year the big surprise was the solid-state snow water equivalent gauge (SSSWE).  This gauge, which consists of nine aluminum panels, each 3 by 3 feet, weighs the snow that covers it in winter.  Beneath the aluminum plates is a plywood and insulation base designed to keep the tundra from thawing and having the whole affair go out of level.  However, this year, the insulation and a cold spring resulted in the formation of segregation ice, a common feature in permafrost, but a bad thing under a SSSWE.  Segregation ice forms when ground water migrates to a freezing front.  Typically this freezing front is at the bottom of the active layer, but in our case it was at the bottom of the insulation.  At the freezing front, a layer of black ice forms and thickens.  In our case, it seems to have grown several inches thick over the past 2 years, heaving up the SSSWE.  The solution to the problem was to pick-axe the ice to pieces and then shovel up the ice cubes and mud. 

ice under swe sensor

Segeration ice has formed under the SWE sensor, lifting the platform by about 3 to 4". (photo by Art)

chipping ice
Chris and Matthew start chipping away at the ice, what seemed like and easy fix, turned into an almost all day effort. (photo by Art)

We weren’t the only ones in Barrow hurrying to get ready for winter in August.   Barges were coming in with the annual supplies for the town, as well as staging equipment for a major drilling campaign this winter.  It has been in the news that Shell Oil will be drilling for oil and gas in the Chukchi Sea off of Barrow in the future, but this is a different campaign.   Gas fields have been known, and utilized by Barrow, since the late 1940s.   Gas from a series of wells out on the tundra south of town supply the fuel for heating and electrical generation.  But with growth has come higher demands for fuel.  The existing gas wells are no longer sufficient to supply the need.  This winter several more wells will be drilled.  This is an enormous undertaking requiring tons of gear, most of which has been coming in from Prudhoe Bay.  We were told that 30 barge-loads would be needed before all the required equipment is on the beach at Barrow.

barge awaits offshore

A fully loaded barge awaits off shore to be off loaded. (photo by Chris)

barge offloading
Two barges were in the area, this one was making multiple trips between Deadhorse and Barrow. (photo by Chris)

We finished our maintenance work by reconstructing the towers we have near the Cake Eater snow fence.  This fence creates a drift that can be almost 15 feet deep.  The towers hold sonic sounders that measure the snow depth as the drift builds up.  Each tower is guyed out using ¼” steel cable.   The weight of the snow on these cables during the winter can (and has) snapped the welds on the towers.   As long as the towers are encased in snow, they are fine and won’t fall down, but once the snow melts (in late-July) the towers become wobbly and unstable.  We have to re-cable them and re-level them so they are vertical.  The area where this thick drift sits for 10 months of the year is a bad place for plants.  They get crushed by the weight of the snow, flooded by the snow melt, and deprived of sunlight for much of the summer.  Almost nothing can grow under those conditions, just some water-tolerant mosses.  The end product after 20 years of enormous winter drifts is a mucky bog and ponds next to the fence.

snow fence panorama

Another year and another bent tower. The 10-meter tower looks worse than it really is, a piece of angle aluminum, several hose clamps, and a new guy wire is all it took this year to get it back into shape. (photo by Art)

Snow on the ground still in late June… snow in late-August:  winter is long in Barrow.  No wonder we are thinking about winter in August.

Matthew Sturm


Here are some more photos that were taken during the last trip. Enjoy!


swe calibration

Science doesn't always involve elaborate equipment, in a pinch, several bottles of anti-freeze works great as calibration weights. (photo by Chris)

steph and art
Stephanie and Art hanging out by the snow fence, hoping for a little protection from the 35+ mph gusts of wind. A steady wind of 25 mph was blowing all day. (photo by Chris)
Smile Chris, usually he's the one taking the photos. (photo by Art)
barrow football
It's FOOTBALL SEASON! The Barrow Whalers are at practice on their artifical turf field, note the barge in the background. The field is between the Chukchi Sea and Elson Lagoon. (photo by Chris)
boating sign
A city sign warning that kids don't float, boating is huge activity in Barrow. (photo by Chris)
Steph shares a laugh with Chris, not sure if it's at Art's expense, or just how wet and windy things are. (photo by Chris)
Art surprised
What flag? There's a new flag? (photo by Chris)








a soggy crew getting ready to haul trash steph smiles the load is a lot lighter ice located under the SWE sensor matthew and chris chipping ice a barge waiting to be offloaded a barge offloading its cargo snow fence panorama mushrooms calibrating the swe sensor