An Unconventional Polar Science Career


"Polar science" may not bring to mind images of activities covered by the term. For comparison, is there even such a thing as "equatorial science?" At least, nuclear, upper atmospheric, and ocean sciences connote certain fields of training and the sorts of things that interest scientists making careers of those fields. Having only recently been accused of being a polar scientist, and while still adjusting to the idea that maybe I am guilty of it, I may be able to help by putting a human image on some undertakings by one such scientist.

Indigenous coastal residents of the western Arctic and I are currently working with 15 scientific colleagues on several research projects that span a variety of topics:

  • One project helps communities to define and illustrate their own "human ecology" so that if contaminants are detected locally in marine ecosystems, the communities will have a better basis for knowing whether and how to react in self-protection.

  • A second project works with subsistence hunters in communities that depend seasonally on coastal sea ice for travel, hunting, or both, to furnish a systematic understanding of the dynamics of nearshore ice. In turn, sharing scientific and indigenous predictive capabilities is meant to improve coastal ice interpretation and prediction based on satellite imagery, assist communities refining public safety measures, and to add local sea ice to parameters used in assessing global climate change in the Arctic. This project and the one above involve communities from Chukotka in the Russian Federation, through arctic Alaska, to Holman on Victoria Island, and Amundsen Gulf in Canada's Northwest Territories.

  • A third community-oriented research project is to help with long-term paleontological investigations of the dinosaur fauna from the mid- to late Cretaceous on Alaska's North Slope. For over a decade, the University of Alaska Museum has been expanding its estimate of the richness and extent of Mesozoic vertebrate fossil beds and trackways in arctic Alaska. An extensive dinosaur fauna is now known to have flourished for tens of millions of years at these arctic latitudes up to when dinosaurs disappeared worldwide about 65 million years ago. World-class fossil deposits in the Colville River drainage may represent a resource of economic importance to the village of Nuiqsut on that river.

  • My fourth community-based research project, recently completed, was to compile, edit, and publish a 600-page book chronicling historical development of collaboration between researchers and Iñupiat people of Alaska's North Slope at Barrow. 1 There, the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory celebrated its first 50 years of operation in 1997. Despite the persistence of Navy identity the local village corporation has administered that laboratory since 1989, in an instructive case of civilian inheritance of previously military resources.

"Hold on," I imagine a reader asking, "human ecology, sea ice physics, dinosaur paleontology, history--is this guy a legitimate expert in any single field?"

Getting Experience

To prepare for a career in arctic sciences, a promising academic strategy for students could be to develop more than one specialty, to gain field experiences in the North early and often, and to look for programs that specifically encourage interdisciplinary experience. The one program that I know of that fits this bill is in Canada--the University of Calgary's Theme School in Northern Planning and Development Studies.

Three decades ago my doctoral committee in Alaska believed they had minted an environmental physiologist destined for university teaching and research. But my experiences illustrate that not all careers in polar science follow an orderly pattern. Preference for living in the North (presumably Antarctica holds no such temptation) spoiled my graduate committee's aim. One year out of grad school, my family and I made a life-changing decision between staying on to teach at a university in Massachusetts, and returning to Alaska "just temporarily" to help with environmental oversight of Trans-Alaska (oil) Pipeline construction (1974-77).

Although no biology teaching positions were available here for years, we could never quite tear ourselves away again after that decision. First was the pipeline, a megaproject that challenged biologists to come up with habitat-protecting measures for fish and wildlife along a 1000-km corridor of disturbance caused by construction. Then there was an exciting decade of research in arctic marine waters anticipating petroleum development on the continental shelf adjoining Alaska. The government found itself short of local environmental specialists who could oversee the large-scale environmental research, so "research manager" became my title. Biologists and other scientists needed help publishing accounts of an unusual number of arctic and subarctic discoveries amassed by the 1980s. So, I tried my hand at editing and publishing a scientific journal at the University of Alaska, combining that with university biology instruction. In 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spilled oil in southern Alaska, I answered the call for help sampling biota in oiled areas of Prince William Sound. That half-year experience combined fascination and horror. It also cured me of environmental "ambulance-chasing" in the North, and I gratefully accepted a position to teach natural sciences at a fledgling community college in Barrow, Alaska. Teaching at a community college amongst Iñupiat Eskimos was ideal for reinforcing my lack of expertise in any single legitimate scientific discipline. Stated positively, I submit that generalism (holistic thinking or transdisciplinary science) is especially valuable in northern affairs.

Specialists undeniably make valuable contributions to science in the Arctic, whereas I view interdisciplinary scientists as developing a science of the Arctic.

Indications are that heavy reliance on indigenous knowledge--also known as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)--is likely to continue in northern polar science. Another trend that seems equally destined to last is profound interest in arctic manifestations of global climate change.

If I were starting out afresh today, the Arctic would probably still attract my curiosity. Environments, human health, political developments such as Nunavut, and many other challenges increase the region's appeal to creative and thoughtful North Americans. If the Arctic of the former Soviet Union continues to open up for exchange and study, there will be an increase in demand for arctic expertise of all kinds.


1 D. W. Norton (ed.), Fifty More Years Below Zero: Tributes and meditations for the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory's First Half-century at Barrow, Alaska. (Fairbanks, AK, and Calgary, AB: Arctic Institute of North America, 2001).

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