Matthew Sturm has dedicated his career to sifting, scrutinizing, and saving the white stuff.
The overwhelming feature of the Arctic coastal plain on a bright April morning is its dazzling featurelessness. A convoy of snowmobiles roars across the hard, white flatness: a landscape that offers a rider no sense of being in motion.
At a randomly selected spot, the machines stop. The scientists aboard them get off and efficiently establish a temporary research site, setting up instruments, digging pits, and making measurements. Land as flat and white as blank paper offers no obvious clue as to why it’s the subject of such enthusiastic interest.
Most enthusiastic of all is 61-year-old glaciologist Matthew Sturm. Diving into a snow pit, he gathers individual snow crystals onto a black card and stares intently at their intricate forms through a hand lens. From this seeming infinity of snow, Sturm is able to read discrete snow crystals as if they were books taken from a library shelf, discoursing on them in the subzero air.
As he notes the shape of these crystals and their position in the thin layer of Arctic snowpack, Sturm is actually decoding the story of the winter’s weather: when this snow fell, when the air warmed, when the wind blew, and so on. Once this particular expedition is over and its data interpreted, he will be able to calculate what sorts of contaminants these snowflakes carried and how they moved over the landscape. Such data will aid him and his fellow scientists in their efforts to model the changing snowpack, in its dynamic entirety, on a computer.
“Most people get in a snow pit, and they look—and it looks all white,” Sturm says. “I look at it and I think: how can they not see?”
Sturm seems happiest on frigid expeditions into the snowy wilderness. In addition to the more than two dozen treks he has made in the name of science, he has been known to take off across the frozen tundra for recreation, with friends and family members in tow. His love affair with the Arctic began when he was a young man working on the crew of a Coast Guard icebreaker. Later, as a budding scientist, he studied glaciers on a volcano. Finally, as a mature researcher, he made a name for himself by exploring some of the world’s coldest and most remote places in search of data about snow that no one else had bothered to look for. Now he holds a body of knowledge that’s of immense importance in our warming world.
“I have kids; hopefully I’ll have grandkids someday. What I do matters. What I figure out matters. And it’s real.”
In recent decades, Sturm has watched the Arctic snowpack diminish. “The world is just not as white as it used to be,” he says. “And that’s a big problem, because white reflects energy.” New snow, he explains, protects the earth from the sun’s heat by reflecting 80 percent of it back into space. Bare tundra, on the other hand, absorbs 80 percent of that energy. As climate change has caused Arctic snow to retreat, the reduction of polar reflectivity has accelerated the warming of the climate—which has further contributed to Arctic snowmelt, resulting in a harmful feedback loop.
After 26 years at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Fairbanks, Sturm recently accepted an academic position at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, where he hopes to help shape the next generation of snow scientists. His richly illustrated 2012 book, Finding the Arctic, details his 2,500-mile snowmobile journey across Alaska and Canada. Sturm also wrote a children’s book, Apun: The Arctic Snow, and designed a teachers’ guide to help kids better understand the importance of snow to the health of the planet.
Lately he has had to focus on a task he enjoys far less: advocating for the launch of a snowpack-measuring satellite. Modern satellites are able to tell us how much land is covered by snow. But that’s not enough, Sturm says. Most of our water comes from snow, but snow’s reliability as a water source depends on its depth and moisture content. And no satellite that’s currently operational—or even currently planned—is capable of giving scientists that kind of critical information.
It’s information that he believes is needed—urgently. “We rely on snow, as humans, enormously,” Sturm says. “I have kids; hopefully I’ll have grandkids someday. What I do matters. What I figure out matters. And it’s real.”
Charles Wohlforth is the author of The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change (North Point Press) and other books and articles about Alaska, where he has lived all his life. Find him on the web at www.wohlforth.net.