Day One at The Middle School

Our first day started (can’t use the word dawned) clear and cold! -26ºc which was nice and bracing as we waited for our cab at the hotel. We drove through the frost streets of Utqiagvik to the the local Middle School. The School’s namesake was a born and raised in Utqiagvik (named Barrow back then) and led the efforts to found the North Slope Borough.  This essentially (from my reading) put the power of governing into the hands of the native Iñupiat people (I hope I am not messing up the history too much!).

John helping The Teacher set up the classroom.

We were welcomed warmly by the office staff and signed in. Making our way to the teacher we are working with. I need to refer to him as “The Teacher” due to sensitivities.  I was struck how “normal” the school is. That is how similar it is to my Daughter’s school in the Chicago ‘burbs. Living on the edge of the continent! The Teacher’s classroom has two areas, a classic “desk area” at the front and lab tables at the back with a clear space. Today we were covering the experiential learning component of the curriculum with students carrying out at exercise designed to understand how data is distributed over a geographic area. We saw 5 classes experience the same class (The Teacher teaches all science classes for 8th grade.

Meridith and John absorbing all they have seen in the School library.

It was fantastic watching the students interact and learn as well as the diversity of learning styles. In some of our downtime I had the privilege of talking to The Teacher about native weather knowledge, something I aim to learn more about on this trip. He emphasized how important winds are to the Iñupiat people when they are out on the ice hunting (yes.. on the ice…) If the winds blow to hard on-shore the ice presses together and ridges. If the wind blows too hard off-shore the ice pulls apart and forms voids. The person in charge of the hunt keeps a careful eye on the winds and when they sense that there is a change coming it is time to go!

Meridith and John discussing the days learning with The Teacher.

Time flies when you are teaching fun! The day was soon over giving Meridith and John some time to discuss lessons learned with The Teacher. It was great watching education specialists going deep into how students learn. I was also in awe of the packed schedule at the school! I don’t think I would be so erudite after teaching 5+ back-to-back classes! Back in a taxi to the Hotel, dinner and debrief, a quick workout (after basically sitting all day) and its time for blog and bed!


First Impressions of Utqiagvik

Top of the World Hotel

It’s 5:35am in the morning, it is dark, but this is just a construct. Because it is 8:35am in Chicago and “light” is from around 11am to 1am, a twilight I now call day, it really makes no difference. We arrived at noon yesterday and this gave us a fantastic opportunity to become aquatinted with our temporary home and to understand a bit more about the community we are working in and the environment is which they live.

The team in front of the sea ice! Those are whale bones

Honestly, I was bracing myself for it to be much darker that it was! The twilight gives you a very nice pre-sunrise light, plenty to see a lot of detail. There is a constant layer of blowing snow (which plays havoc with ARM instrumentation) which made flash photography very challenging. After checking into our hotel (aptly named Top of The World) and grabbing lunch we kitted up and explored. Utqiagvik (Barrow) sits on Arctic tundra, too cold for trees to survive hear. The tundra has a layer of permafrost, a layer of soil that does not melt over the summer. So buildings are built on short stilts. I still need to get my head around Arctic meteorology (one reason why ARM is here: it is hard!) but we are getting a mix of light snow and blowing snow from some thin liquid layer clouds. Fascinating given the Beaufort Sea is completely frozen over.

Sam And Lee’s for homestyle Chinese.

We walked to the local store and did the very touristy thing of looking at the prices of produce. Things are expensive as everything is flown in. A nice aspect of Utqiagvik is the food, plenty of options. We caught a cab to Sammy and Lee’s for some Chinese food. There were pictures of the family all around the place. Very homely, you can see there is a sense of community in this, the northernmost outpost of the United States of America. Sea to Frozen Sea!

North By West

Sunny in Denver!

We made it! Thanks to the work of ground crews at O’Hare we managed to get out only a little late from Chicago. A smooth flight saw the team (Myself, Meridith Bruozas and John Domyancich) in Denver where we connected for the 5 and a half hour to Anchorage. Lots of interesting folks on the flight, from ice road truckers to many involved in the energy industry.

Ice fog in Anchorage saw some amazing hoar frosted trees.

Stunning approach over the bay (assumedly the Anchorage in Anchorage) with circular sea ice and amazing mountains. Trees in Anchorage were all white due to a freezing fog. At the recommendation of hotel staff we headed to a local spot. Folks in Alaska are very friendly with a comforting casualness. Like the midwest turned up to 11. We overnighted in Anchorage as our flight was not until the next morning.

8529_team_in_anc copy
Team Education!

A little about the team, I am acting as a domain expert on a curriculum development team. John and Meridith are the education geniuses from Educational Programs and Outreach. Meridith is the manager of the group (~12 folks) and John is the Learning Center Lead. An area John and Meridith are established experts in is developing education research around computational thinking. This is not computer science, more how students can be taught to solve problems algorithmically. This blog will cover our project, Precipitating Change in more detail later. Our flight from Anchorage to Utqiagvik is part of a “mail run” a multi-hop trip. We are the second “hop” after a stop at Prudhoe Bay. Flying into Deadhorse airport was like landing on a alien planet. Prudhoe is home to the largest oil field in the USA. It looks like a outpost on Hoth!

Prudhoe Bay airport (Deadhorse).

At Deadhorse we let some new workers off and a crew rotating out came on board for the loop back to Anchorage via Barrow and Fairbanks. It was a quick, less than one hour to fly west by northwest (another 1.2 degrees north) to Utqiagvik. We landed in a thin mist. Full kudos to our pilots, I have no idea how they tell the white of the sky from the white of the cold hard ground.

The unique deplane at Utqiagvik airport.

With a quick taxi the plane came to a stop just outside a small terminal. And with that we walked out into the Great White. Many of the passengers disembarked here, and it is clear this flight has a very high checked luggage ratio. With so much being flown in produce is very expensive in Utqiagvik so the locals returning from trips had many totes full of goods. So we are here! Now begins the process of learning and learning about learning at the top of the world.


And We Are Off!

img_2597Remarkably we seem to be making it out of O’Hare. 4 inches measured at the official Clarendon Hills site (a stick in my yard) but United ground crews are working hard to get our plane boarded.. A 1:45 layover in Denver has me hoping our de-icing goes smooth.. Lots of ice on this plane… I don’t like traveling on weekends if I can avoid it, but if I did not I would only be in Utqiagvik for two days. Meridith has, very thoughtfully, procured a bag of fruit we are taking up. Like us, everything in Utqiagvik is flow in and out in the winter and most of the summer. So everything is expensive and fresh produce is rare. 8500_flight Its a shame I will not get any last sun before the northern journey. But here is hoping we get a few clearer nights and see some Aurora (bucket list for me!). Camera gear is all packed but I have no idea how it will work in the cold. Next dispatch from Alaska!

Always Take The Weather With You

12Z MSLP and precip forecast from NAM

Could the trip be nixed even before it begins? A low pressure system is surging out of the south drawing up warm moist air. And Chicago is right where that air and cold air from where I am going (the Arctic) are meeting! What’s worse is the low is making the winds turn North Easterly on Saturday. This means the wind will come of a nice body of water around 36F turning on a lake snow machine! Usually I would be egging this bad boy on, but I have a flight to Denver connecting to Anchorage leaving at 8:50am.. Will I even get to go North after all?

NAM forecast snowfall accumulations

Current North American Model forecasts a total of just on 10 inches between snowfall start and my flight’s departure time. I am hoping that I am on a 757-300 will mean: Its a bigger plane, less prone to weather delays AND a harder decision to cancel as a fill 757-300 is a lot harder to re-accommodate than, say, a small regional jet. (Probably not how this works, but its my blog and I am sticking to it). To make matters worse (or better for snow lovers who don’t need to catch a flight) there is an isothermal (same temperature) layer around 1.5km high at around -10ºc. This is the ideal temperature for transferring water out of the atmosphere (water vapor) into snowflakes (called a dendritic growth layer). This is weather geek speak for ITS GUNNA SNOW HARD. So now I place my hopes on a missed forecast, which is entirely possible as this all hinges on the model nailing the trajectory of the low pressure system. Hardly a given at this time of year. Small errors in low location changes the surface winds considerably and could nix this whole system. Here is hoping! (sorry snow lovers). Graphics come from the College of DuPage’s Nexlab. Kudos folks!

Sounding at 12Z from the NAM Model showing nice snow making conditions.


Head North Until You Run Out of Land

Yours truly in the big smoke

The motivation for starting this blog is to have a creative outlet for long form content. This was nucleated by a work trip to Utqiagvik (Barrow) Alaska on a project we are sub-contracting to the Concord Consortium on an NSF eduction grant called Precipitating Change. So what is so exciting about Barrow Alaska? For starters it is home to an ARM Research site, the Northernmost of its fixed network. Second it is the Northern-most city in the United States at 71.29 North, well above the Arctic circle. Yes, it will be dark the whole time we are there.. Well we will get some twilight.

Sea ice web cam from Barrow
Barrow at 2pm Courtesy University of Alaska

And this makes for some very interesting meteorology. In places where the sun comes up we are used to the normal daily dance of the ground heating up and an equilibrium developing between warm air at the surface and colder air above. There are eddys that form that transport heat that develop a change in temperature with height (~1 degree per 100 meters). But no sun = some very funky temperature profiles! This effectively decouples layers of the atmosphere from the surface allowing for great cloud structures as talked about by Dr Joseph Hardin at last years ERAD.

More on the great weather (it’s actually looking ok for our trip with temperatures when we land around -19ºC) later. This trip is to observe 8th graders at the North Slop Borough Middle School interact with a curriculum we have been developing. The key to the curriculum: using the weather to teach computational thinking. Students observe weather phenomena, specifically large-scale circulations (Highs, Lows, Fronts), how they move and build forecasting rules of thumb. They reason out what should happen next at their location: Should it get warmer? Colder? Wetter? Dryer? Our plucky team (part of the larger project) is led by Meridith Bruozas from Educational Programs and Outreach at Argonne National Lab. I am not an education expert.. but I do ok at outreach. So this is new territory for me, both professionally and geographically. I am uncomfortable and I could not be happier!