Cold, white wilderness surrounds Toolik Field Station, a world-renowned Arctic research outpost deep in Alaska’s interior.
It’s a cloudy March afternoon with a wind chill of -20°F as scientist and Michigan Engineering alum Brie Van Dam treks up a mountain that overlooks the station.
In some directions, it’s hard to tell where the ground ends and the sky begins. In others, frosted ridgelines jag across the horizon. The only signs of civilization are the distant camp buildings and the single road that cuts a dirty path through the snow. The closest villages along it are two hours away.
Van Dam (BSE AOSS ’07) is in the midst of a five-hour excursion – most of it on snowshoes – to document the ground cover at a plot near the top. Tiny icicles are crystallizing on her lashes. Condensation from her breath is solidifying on her scarf. While she’s weathered lower temperatures, she knows not to stay still for too long. That’s when the chill can get dangerous.
Harsh and frozen: the Arctic’s been this way for most of the past 55 million winters, including, of course, the most recent 10,000 during which humans, enabled by Earth’s modern climate, have flourished and multiplied to seven billion. The region’s store of ice, both on the sea and land, stabilizes the planet’s temperatures in a host of important ways. You might think of it as the mortar in the foundation of the climate as we know it.
But the foundation is cracking. The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on Earth. Not only is it heating up more rapidly, the pace of change is speeding up. Melting ice is melting more ice and touching off tangent cascades along the way: Permafrost is thawing and freeing more greenhouse gases. As the northern waters warm, climate-regulating currents in the ocean and air are slowing. All while the seas are rising. The consequences of Arctic warming are rippling across the globe, and they’re on track to keep escalating exponentially.
“It’s easy sometimes as a scientist to look at things through the science lens of: ‘Oh, wow, what a cool time to be studying the Arctic because the Arctic is changing so fast right now,’” says Van Dam, who manages the station’s Environmental Data Center. “But when you look at that through more of a human lens, it becomes honestly really terrifying.”
Van Dam faces these facts every day in her work documenting climate change from its epicenter, year-round. She’s a member of the skeleton crew that stays at the station through the coldest months. The winter yields pivotal insights, and the most recent was the warmest in recorded history.
In the snowpack samples she gathers, in the wing prints of the local birds and even in the patterns the wind makes on the powder, the snow, Van Dam says, tells stories. She is paying close attention. Her monitoring work is, pixel-by pixel, helping to paint a climate picture that you have to stand way back to see.