From April 1st to April 8th, I had the privilege to participate in the Arctic Snow School, a joint initiative of the Sentinel North program at Université Laval and the GRIMP laboratory at Université de Sherbrooke, as one of the 24 selected students. During this snow school, we learned about Arctic snow and the changing environment through informative lectures by various experts in the field, conversations with locals, hands-on fieldwork, and a group project. Our learning experience took place in the remote Canadian Arctic, specifically at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Iqaluktuuttiaq, also known as Cambridge Bay, on Victoria Island in Nunavut.
In January, I applied for the Arctic Snow School, excited by the amazing chance to learn about snow and the Canadian Arctic. Visiting Iqaluktuuttiaq and meeting local Inuits seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When else would one get the chance to visit such a unique and remote place and experience such an extreme climate? Additionally, I was looking forward to expanding my network and connecting with others who are just as interested in snow sciences and its related fields as I am.
Since snow science is not directly related to my field of study – as a meteorologist, I’m strongly fascinated by snow and it surely plays a major role in the weather and climate, but I’m currently studying atmospheric sciences rather than snow sciences – I never expected to get in. However, I still gave it a shot, as joining the Arctic Snow School seemed like a fantastic adventure I couldn’t pass up.
I received the application result on January 25th with great excitement and happiness. I was accepted! As it turned out, the organizers of the snow school were specifically seeking interdisciplinary participation. Students with a wide range of study topics, from ecology to rain-on-snow events and from sea ice to atmospheric rivers came together with one shared interest and passion: snow.
A 60-hour trip
The departure to Cambridge Bay happened from Yellowknife on Saturday the 1st of April. As Yellowknife is an airport that is relatively hard to reach, I had to depart from Helsinki already on Thursday the 30th of March. Via Frankfurt, I landed in Toronto, where I had an overnight stay. The next day, I travelled to Vancouver and from there I continued to Yellowknife, where I had another overnight stay. It was at the Vancouver airport where I met the first others that were participating at the Arctic Snow School.
Decreasing temperatures along the journey
My journey started on a remarkably cold morning in Helsinki. The temperature sank down to -15.2°C at the weather station in Helsinki-Vantaa airport, which is abnormally cold for late March – a harbinger of what was laying ahead of me. In Toronto and Vancouver, it was logically much warmer, however I did not spend a lot of time outside at those places. When we arrived in Yellowknife on Friday evening, we got a first introduction to Arctic temperatures. When we landed, the thermometer showed a value of -17°C. A very strong wind made sure the windchill was much lower. This chilly temperature was however still far higher than what was waiting for us.
Arrival in Cambridge Bay!
The next morning, after a long wait at the Yellowknife airport – during which we got the opportunity to get to know some more people that arrived in Yellowknife at different times – we departed for Iqaluktuuttiaq. Upon arrival, I was quite stunned by the view. I had been looking out of the charter airplane window for a while. From the airplane window, I couldn’t tell if we were looking at the ground in Nunavut or not. It looked like we were constantly looking at a thin layer of white clouds or fog. However, as we were slowly decreasing in altitude, more and more people started discussing: ‘is this just clouds, or are we actually looking at the tundra?’ The somewhat dirty airplane windows did not help.
When we were about to land, it became clear that we were looking at the tundra the whole time. The white snow cover was so uniform and featureless that it looked like clouds, especially with the dirty plane windows and a slight haze above the ground. It was something I had never seen before. In every direction you looked, the surface was white. It was like a north pole scene of some national geographic documentary.
With a temperature of about -26°C upon arrival, I directly experienced the lowest temperature I’ve ever felt. When we arrived, we were driven to the supermarket, where we did some groceries for our lunch and breakfast. Afterwards, we were driven to our triplexes, where we stayed the week with our study mates. The scenery was extraordinary. Snow and ice were everywhere around us. As soon as you stepped outside, you could feel your eyelashes and nose hair freeze.
After having some time to unpack, we met up in CHARS for the first time that week. We discussed the plan for the week, and we had a conversation about what snow means to us. For a lot of us students, snow was just a source for fun. But as the conversation progressed, we learned that for the local population, snow is a vital element of their way of living.
The start of the Arctic Snow School
On Sunday, the snow school truly got started. We dug our first snow pits – a hole in the snow that allows one to study the layers of the snowpack and the different characteristics related to it -, something that we would keep doing throughout the rest of the week. Also, the first lectures were delivered, with each lecturer presenting something about their specific field of snow-related expertise. All the students also gave a two-minute elevator pitch on this day, allowing us to learn about each other’s areas of study—a great way to discover how we could learn from one another. Indeed, learning from each other was precisely what we did that week.
I personally had engaging conversations with my fellow students, learning a great deal about different fields adjacent to snow and meteorology. In return, as the only meteorology student, I got the responsibility of guiding the different groups to deliver their own weather briefings before going out into the field each morning.
Fieldwork in extreme conditions during the Arctic Snow School
As the week progressed, the amount of fieldwork increased, while we kept receiving lectures throughout. We learned and applied different ways of measuring and analysing snow, using different tools and instruments. We conducted measurements related to albedo, temperature, density, (thermal) conductivity and many more variables. We looked at the different snow layers and their crystals, to find out what kind of layers were present in the snowpack and how they were formed. We examined the snow packs at different locations: on plains, on top of the hill and on the sea ice.
The circumstances during our fieldwork were extreme. The first half of the week, the temperature dropped well below -30°C every morning, with -33°C as the lowest temperature of the week. Under the influence of the sun, the temperature rose every day to a maximum of about -26°C. Our weather apps indicated that the wind chill reached around, and even dropped slightly below, -40°C on several occasions. As a consequence, at the end of our daily fieldwork, large parts of our face were covered by ice. Diamond dust, snow that falls while the sky is clear, occurred every day.
Thanks to the great gear that we received from the organisation of the Arctic Snow School, we did not get very cold, at least not to hazardous levels. Everyone also seemed to have at least some experience with working in the cold, despite it being the most extreme conditions we have ever worked in for most of us. Despite the extreme temperatures, we were very lucky with the weather. Almost every day, the sky was as good as clear. The winds were strong, but within reason. During the course of the week, the temperatures got slightly higher, while the winds increased. As a result, the last day of fieldwork presented some of the harshest conditions.
Things I Learned During the Arctic Snow School
I learned lots of things during the Arctic Snow School, way too many to mention or even recall, but some of the most important, striking, and interesting things are:
- understanding the different layers of snow you typically see in an Arctic snow pack and how these differs from snow packs in other (mostly Alpine) regions;
- what the crystals in those layers can tell you about the processes that formed and transformed the snowpack;
- realizing that the bottom part of the snow pack is most often NOT the densest, because of a water vapor flux from the bottom of the snow pack to higher up, which means that mass is transferred from the bottom of the snow pack to higher up;
- how snow pack properties differ over land and sea ice;
- discovering how animals, such as lemmings, are influenced by the snow pack and how they, in turn, influence the snow pack themselves, and how this even impacts the thermal conductivity of the snow;
- and learning from the locals how one can distinguish different layers in the snowpack by the sound you hear when you walk over it, as well as which layers are best for building an igloo.
Participating in cultural activities
Next to the fieldwork, we also participated in cultural activities. We visited the cultural centre in Iqaluktuuttiaq. Here we got a tour, during which we learned a lot about the history of Inuit population and their lifestyle. We also dined out in town twice, where we were served muskox burgers and fish, both being traditional foods among the Inuit population.
Next to learning about the Inuit lifestyle and history, we were taught how to properly collaborate with them when you want to do science in the far north. Unfortunately, in the past, researchers have made use of the local knowledge and population, without having the locals benefit in return and without acknowledgments. One of the aims of this Arctic Snow School was to improve that collaboration and learn how to include the local population when doing research.
I also had the pleasure to have some conversations with local individuals. The amount of knowledge they have is striking. As a meteorologist, I found it particularly fascinating to learn how they could predict the weather based on cloud patterns, and how closely their insights align with modern meteorological theories. Learning about snow houses (igloos) and hunting practices further increased my understanding of their culture.
One more day of Arctic Snow School
During the last days of the snow school, we had to organise a small group project. We chose what properties of snow we wanted to measure and we had to find a suitable supervisor. After gathering the results, we prepared a presentation.
On Saturday, each group presented their work. We were supposed to be done in the morning and fly back to Yellowknife in the afternoon. However, compared to the rest of the week, the weather drastically changed. Snow drifted around the buildings and over the fields. It snowed, sometimes with high intensity, and the snowfall was accompanied by a lot of wind. Therefore, the visibility was low, and the charter flight could not land in Cambridge Bay. Instead, we would arrive in Yellowknife on Sunday around noon, which meant that a lot of us had to rebook flights.
Since there were no affordable flight options until Tuesday, I personally had to stay in Yellowknife for two extra days on my way back.
Discovering Yellowknife and arriving back home in Helsinki
On Sunday, a lot of participants and staff of the Arctic Snow School were in Yellowknife, so we went out for dinner and drinks, further getting to know one another. In the late evening, we were even able to spot some weak auroras from the town, before it got cloudy.
Most people continued their journey home on Monday; however, a few of us from the Arctic Snow School, including me, had to stay in Yellowknife. One of the students, Alicia Pouw, who lives in Yellowknife, kindly offered to drive us around in town and to show us the surrounding area. As it was my first time in Canada, it was exciting to see some more of the country. For the first time in my life, I witnessed cars driving on ice roads. After a last dinner together on Monday, the last of us continued our trip home on Tuesday. After a long trip of about 40 hours, I arrived back in Helsinki on Wednesday late afternoon. With 14°C and sunshine, spring was in the air.
A heartfelt thank you and a big shout-out!
I would like to express my gratitude to the organisation of Arctic Snow School for making this incredible event possible. I feel excited and thankful for the experiences we had and the things we learned. I am grateful for the opportunity to visit such a unique place and I am thankful for all the interesting things we got taught by the various experts. I thank the Canadian High Arctic Research Station for hosting us. I would also like to thank the locals attending this event; I’m truly grateful for the insights and experiences and they shared, including both their own and those of their elders. I’m thankful for the group discussions and personal conversations I had with them. And last, but not least, I would like to thank my fellow students! I learned a lot from all of you, too. Thanks for this very fun and enjoyable experience. I’m confident we will stay in touch.
Media coverage of the Arctic Snow School
Journalist Meral Jamal closely followed the activities of the Arctic Snow School, bringing significant media attention to the event. Check out this Canadian Geographic article published before the Arctic Snow School, this Al Jazeera article covering the snow school, and this piece from OneGreenPlanet.
Difference between Canadian Arctic and Svalbard
The Arctic Snow School was not my first fieldwork in the Arctic. However, it was my first time in the Canadian Arctic. Before, I have conducted fieldwork in Svalbard, as part of exchange studies at the University Center in Svalbard, also known as UNIS (see here and here). With regard to landscape, this part of the Canadian Arctic is very different from Svalbard. Svalbard has arguably a more rough and more impressive terrain than Iqaluktuuttiaq. However, Cambridge Bay is harder to reach and therefore even more isolated than Svalbard. Also, the meteorological/climatological conditions in terms of temperature are extremer in Iqaluktuuttiaq compared to Svalbard, with much lower temperatures in Cambridge Bay than in Svalbard. Overall, it’s hard to say which region is more extreme, but because of the remoteness and the extremely low temperatures, I consider (this part of) the Canadian Arctic ‘next level’ compared to Svalbard. As mentioned in the article, I experienced the lowest temperature of my life during the Arctic Snow School: -33°C!