Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wholly Frozen Caribou!

Some mysterious photos are circulating across the North Slope and they are quite the humdingers.

But let me begin by saying two things.  

1.  I received these photos in an email.  I don't know who took the photos, the circumstances involved, or the date on which they were taken.  

2.  My only purpose in sharing them is to illustrate the harsh reality of extreme cold and the impact on all life inhabiting this region.  It is not my intention to trivialize an animal's misery or death.  

Unfortunately, every year, a few animals do freeze in the Arctic.   However, there is much debate around the community about whether or not this poor caribou froze on the ground and was set upright for the photo or did actually freeze as it stood alone against a frigid wind.  According to local hunters, either is possible.

The message that accompanied the photos in the email was short:

"Check this out...the caribou was found frozen in place by DEC personnel on a site inspection on the North Slope. That is some cold weather....temps were down in the -40s F wind chills to -70 to -80.

Caribou froze standing still at -80 wind chill in Kuparuk AK."

When I googled Kuparuk, I found this map...

...and this article about the nasty oil/water spill that occurred there a few months ago.  (for those who might be interested)

All around the village, caribou chip away at packed snow with their hooves and graze on last year's honey-colored grass buried beneath.  I've seen areas where small groups have bedded down on the tundra, the warmth of their bodies melting snow a foot deep or more.  I think it would be difficult for a lone caribou to survive for long during the coldest, darkest nights of winter.

In my opinion, the legs are positioned oddly for an animal who died on the ground.  And caribou hooves are large, unlike the narrower hooves of a deer.  The snow seems to be hugging the legs very closely.  If someone had picked it up and "planted" it in the snow, it seems like there would be hoof-sized holes around the legs.  I don't see that.

On the other hand, in the first photo, there is a white patch on the caribou's left hind leg that looks like a chunk of packed snow.  It's hard to imagine how that could become fused to an animal's fur without some prolonged contact with the ground.   Still, that could be a remnant of snow from another, less challenging, day.

It's hard to know just what to think.

It's a mystery.

An unfortunate secret only Winter knows...and will probably never tell.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Cold-Hard-Fact #4

Contrary to popular belief, zero isn't necessarily nothing.

It may be a big, fat nothing when speaking of money or calories, but in reference to temperature, zero isn't nothing.  It's definitely something.   

Around here, we call it warm.

On a day like today, when the mercury hovers in the zero range, kids will actually say, "Oh, man, it's warm out!"  And they'll head off to school or toward a favorite sliding hill wearing short pants and a light jacket or no jacket at all.

According to the airport weather station, our temperature spiked considerably overnight from negative 25 up to zero and it has remained there throughout the day.  All that warm, moist air paired with a relatively stiff wind created just the right conditions for a full day of misty sideways snow.

(which explains why the duck photo, above, looks so blurred)

Wind from ENE (060 degrees) at 21 MPH (18 KT)
Visibility  3/4 mile(s)
Sky conditions  overcast
Weather  Light snow mist
Temperature  0 F (-18 C)
Windchill  -22 F (-30 C)
Dew Point  -4 F (-20 C)
Relative Humidity  84%

During most of our winter and spring, the snow is amazingly dry.  It may come down wet, but cold, arid air pulls the moisture away fairly quickly, leaving a fine powder that is great for sliding and cross-country skiing, but not so great for building snowmen or snowball fights.

Zero snow is very different.  

As I walked to the post office a few minutes ago, I grabbed a handful of snow to see if it would pack.  Piling up in the "toasty" zero-degree air, the snow was still wet enough that it began to melt in my hand and I was able to form a small, walnut-sized chunk of ice.  

Not exactly an impressive snowball, but it's better than nothing....which is what I would have held in my hand if I had tried the same thing yesterday.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Quick Update

Walking to school this morning, I didn't pull up the hood on my jacket. It didn't really seem all that cold, but by the time I reached the front steps I could feel the familiar pinch of impending frostbite stinging my right ear.

Obviously, it was colder than I thought.

When I arrived in my classroom, I checked the weather from the airport and that confirmed what my ear had already told me.

Wind from the E (080 degrees) at 12 MPH (10 KT)
Visibility 10 mile(s)
Sky conditions clear
Temperature-23 F (-31 C)
Windchill -47 F (-44)

Dew Point -29 F (-34 C)
Relative Humidity 74%

It's actually not as uncomfortable as it might sound. And the caribou seem to be enjoying it!