Matthew Sturm – insight into the Arctic

caribou snow arctic
Caribou and windswept snow / 2007 snowmobile expedition footage

Over four decades after entering the Arctic Circle for the first time, Matthew Sturm, snow scientist and University of Alaska professor, still looks on the Arctic as a place of wonder. In Finding the Arctic (University of Alaska Press, 2012), a story of history and culture along a 2,500 mile snowmobile journey from Alaska to Hudson’s Bay, Matthew Sturm tackles an epic path across Alaska and Canada. As Finding the Arctic’s story unfolds, Sturm and six companions: Jon Holmgren, Glen Liston, Dan Solie, Henry Huntington, Arvids Silis and Chris Derksen, venture into the Arctic.

Finding The Arctic book cover
Finding The Arctic / Matthew Sturm, University of Alaska Press 2012

Seeing the big picture

“We realized there were scales of understanding that were escaping us,” Sturm explains. When undertaking the expedition, both he and Jon Holmgren “Were craving a richer, fuller journey.” From the book:

All of our previous trips had been science-driven expeditions, with extensive data-gathering quotas that required both fast traveling and dull, repetitive work. Long before the trip we would choose equally spaced points along a route, each representative of surrounding landscape, which in most cases meant they were flat, boring spots devoid of cultural or historic interest. At each site we would spend hours measuring the snow depth, density, and crystal properties, with our heads down in the snow rather than looking at our surroundings.” ~Finding the Arctic

“Much arctic science gets done at what I would call the plot scale,” Sturm explains. Researchers, often bound by limited funding and hampered by the immensity and remoteness of Arctic land, are likely to “Go out to their little plot, and that might be a hectare or as small as just a few meters. And they might study plots over several different locations in the Arctic. And their idea is that this spot and that spot have something in between them that you can guess from the two spots, but we don’t know if that is true. And the more I’ve traveled the less I’ve believed it to be true.”

When describing the land, Sturm says the Arctic overall is white. Snow lingers on the ground 7 to 10 months of every year. Yet in this white world conditions can be intensely diverse, depending on where you stand.

Matthew Sturm, Geophysics Professor, University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute / FrontierScientists footage
Matthew Sturm, Geophysics Professor, University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute / FrontierScientists footage

In 2007, while he still intended to gain more data on snow, Sturm was also ready to gain a fuller view of the Arctic. “These traverses were designed not only to see those two spots but to see what was in between and to test our knowledge, whether at that larger scale we were getting things right. But in 2007 we were able to add a new dimension… seeing the history and the culture.” The snowmobile journey, or traverse, joins other methods like aircraft-born photography and satellite remote sensing in taking steps to examine the bigger picture of the Arctic. At the same time, it keeps Sturm and his companions immersed in the environment. “It’s going from what you know at great detail in a small place and trying to get at these larger areas of the Arctic.”

Sturm doesn’t hesitate to admit that alongside the science, he’s also in it for the adventure. “It’s been wonderful to do the traverses, a great personal pleasure, but the science is still fairly compelling and it’s really why we got started in the first place: to know what went in between.”

Glen Liston, Geophysicist, Colorado State University, indicates layers of snow / FrontierScientists footage
Glen Liston, Geophysicist, Colorado State University, indicates layers of snow / FrontierScientists footage

Team and trip logistics

A scientific expedition of this scale isn’t easy to plan. In the book, Sturm provides fascinating vignettes about each of his companions. He stresses that team composition is vital to success. “Anybody that’s done a lot of expeditions – and I’ve done a lot of climbing as well as these science expeditions – knows that success or failure is less about these innovations and gear than who you are traveling with.” Sturm chose his team carefully, looking for efficiency, problem solving, and team compatibility. “You need good companions and that’s probably just as important as picking your snowmobiles and plotting how much gasoline you need. There’s no hard and fast rule. Your best friend may not be the best person on an expedition.”

With a great deal of experience under their belts, Sturm and some of his companions know to approach a journey like this one as a privilege. They plan ahead with great care. “We spend a lot of time with a mouse and computer, tracking our route, figuring out how far we are going to go. And then guessing what our mileage will be.”

“With a typical snowmobile plunging with two sleds through deep snow, it’s burning 5 or 7 miles to the gallon. On hard pack, it gets three times that.” The team has to bring along all the supplies, scientific equipment, and gasoline they’ll need out in the wilderness. “You don’t want to run out of gas. There are no gas stations where we are.”

Driving snowmobiles / 2007 expedition footage
Driving snowmobiles / 2007 snowmobile expedition footage

“We study the route we’re going to travel because we need to know where we are going to sample. In our case we are making snow measurements and we don’t want them to be just random. We want to be sampling the most representative snow. For that we look at the maps.” Modern technology helps pinpoint the spots where data will be gathered. “We actually set in waypoints, we load those into our GPS, they beep at us when it’s time to stop.”

“We spend equal amounts of time getting our expedition gear together, pulling the team together, looking at the logistics. Where are we going to get food? Fuel? What are we going to do? So there is a lot of prep work that goes into it. I kind of feel like I have driven the the route in my mind long before we leave. Nowadays with Google Earth and these other GIS packages, I actually can drive the route in advance, but there is still some uncertainty. For instance: if there’s a little cliff that is 10 feet high, we can’t see it on our maps, but we can come across it and if it covers a big area, we can’t drive our snowmobiles down that. We might not have seen that on our map – there are still surprises.”

Explorers and adventurers

Imnaviat Creek mountains Alaska
Snow cover near Imnaviat Creek, remote Alaska / FrontierScientists footage

When asked if he considers himself an explorer, Sturm replies: “I reserve that term for what happened from about the 12th century to the 18th century when we really didn’t know the extent of the earth.” There is a rich history of exploration in the Arctic. “So many people went before us: prehistoric cultures that don’t exist anymore, the Native cultures and then the explorers. Once contact occurred (in the 1600s) Westerners began to explore the Arctic. Of course they learned a lot from the Native cultures that were already there. I am personally fascinated by some of those explorers… I love their histories. By the time I was a kid I was just passionate about this. One of the icons of that world was a guy named Douglas, he was a young man from Canada and it was the end of the Victorian era and he had gone up to the Arctic […] gone there for the great adventure. He and his companions went up to the Great Bear Lake. They built a cabin and they wintered over, and they had a fabulous trip exploring. We knew Douglas had been up there – he took some wonderful glass plate photos – and we wondered if his cabin was there.”

The idea of finding Douglas’ cabin was appealing. “A lot of very famous people passed through that north end of Great Bear Lake at the turn of the 18th century: Stefansson, Hornby, Simpson, Dease, and Simpson. It was an historical crossroads.” Yet the task of getting to the cabin was not a simple one. While crossing the frozen Great Bear Lake, a body of water larger than Massachusetts, Sturm and his companions faced a fierce blizzard. “After 3 full days of traveling hundreds of miles, we had made it to the north end of Great Bear Lake.” There, Sturm’s longtime companion John Holmgren spotted the ridge pole of an old cabin. It was the Douglas cabin. “We had the photos with us. It had fallen in a little bit but, seeing the cabin, we had just been transported back in time more than a hundred years. And I felt this palpable sense of brotherhood with these explorers from a hundred years ago.”

“We’ve traveled a lot and these touchstone moments are rare but when they happen they are just electric. Having traveled for three days through blizzard, the wind was down now and the sun was setting – it was one of the very penultimate times in my life, feeling this great sort of river of humanity’s efforts in the Arctic and realizing that we were a small part of it … but at least we were in the river.” ~Matthew Sturm

See also: ✧ When your only highways are ice

Laura Nielsen

Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond

Finding The Arctic project