The Science of Shoveling Snow

[dcwsb inline="true"]

I arrived yesterday in Alaska and traveled up to the North Slope this morning. Today is the first day of fieldwork for our study of how vehicular noise penetrates the snow and ice of a polar bear’s den. Much of our polar bear research revolves around exploring their acoustic ecology. Our interest, and that of our project sponsor, Polar Bears International (PBI), is to develop a better understanding of the impact of industrial and vehicular noise on denning polar bears. Because pregnant polar bears excavate snow dens in some of the same areas that hold much of the Arctic’s petroleum deposits, there is a keen interest to assess the potential impacts of these activities and develop more effective mitigation strategies in the near future.

Part of our field crew has been on the slope for the last six weeks on another PBI-sponsored project that used artificial polar bear dens. We capitalized on this overlap and utilized these same “dens” that PBI had dug out of a large drift several weeks ago. Our job today: dig out the dens, retrieve their instrumentation, and install the microphones that we would be using to record vehicle and aircraft noise.

Now, many folks might be put off at the prospect of spending a day outdoors, in -10 degrees Fahrenheit (-23 degrees Celsius), shoveling snow, but this prospect put a great big smile on my face! In my years of working in the Arctic, the field season always began with several days of “digging out camp,” shoveling snow hour upon hour. Somehow, it is very satisfying work.

And so, our field crew, biologists, and acousticians spent the day shoveling snow and setting up our camp. The snow varies in texture and weight, and the challenge of moving many square feet of it was substantial. Our crew worked late into the evening to get the dens set up right. We scanned for polar bears every hour or so (after all, this is where females with cubs call home), but we only saw an Arctic fox digging into the frozen tundra, looking for a bite to eat. With the study site dens set up right, we covered our dens to prevent more snow accumulation inside and called it a night. Tomorrow morning, we will begin testing our equipment and embark on the experimental trials soon after.

Like most biologists, I embarked on a career in biology because I loved science, but wildlife biology seems to attract a special kind of science enthusiast: the kind that likes to work outside and get dirty! When I began my career doing fieldwork in the Arctic 15+ years ago, I was enthralled by the amazing diversity of wildlife and plants around me. But I think what hooked me was the physicality and practical, common-sense problem solving of so much of the work. I’ll get to indulge this love of mine a lot over the coming weeks!

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read her post about the panda hearing study, Su Lin: Hitting the High Notes, and her most recent polar bear post, An Olympic Spotlight for Bears.