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The Challenges Scientists Face While Working In The Arctic Ocean


We're going way up north for our next story to a ship in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. The scientists aboard are there to do fieldwork, which is easier said than done, as Ravenna Koenig reports.

RAVENNA KOENIG, BYLINE: If you spend your days on Arctic ice, one of the big challenges you could face comes in the form of a neighbor.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh, polar bear.

KOENIG: On the deck of a ship moving through the frozen landscape, everyone runs to the side to see a polar bear padding along in the distance. This vessel is here helping set up an experiment to study the changing Arctic. It's called MOSAiC, or the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. And this isn't the last time that the MOSAiC team will encounter polar bears.

DAVID CHU: I've never had a problem with large, cuddly, carnivorous mammals before until they started disrupting my work.

KOENIG: David Chu works for the U.S. Department of Energy and came out here to set up some atmospheric monitoring equipment.

CHU: We had a mama bear and a cub that would quite frequently come visit us.

KOENIG: Polar bear guards stand watch. And if a bear comes into sight, they alert everyone and, in some situations, make noise to scare it away. Trude Hohle is one of those guards.

TRUDE HOHLE: Flare guns is very efficient. All of us has to have a good voice. We can use that, raise it and try to be bigger than the bear.

KOENIG: They also carry guns for protection, but that's only as an absolute last resort. Another obvious challenge to working in the Arctic is the cold. Temperatures in this area can get as low as negative 50 degrees Fahrenheit. But working even in the single digits for hours at a time can take a toll. It's not just unpleasant; it can affect your thinking.

TIM STANTON: We call it the Arctic blahs, and everybody gets it. You just - your mind's not right on top.

KOENIG: Tim Stanton is an ocean physicist who's worked in the Arctic for decades. He says you do as much prep work as you can before you go out, but you can't escape having to use your brain on the ice.

STANTON: You still have to think through some things, and that often takes, like, three times longer than it would in a cozy office.

KOENIG: Then there's the fact that if anything goes wrong - and something always does - you can't just run to a hardware store. These scientists pack loads of extra tools and spare parts, but they can't prepare for everything.

CHRIS COX: You cannot predict what's going to get you, right? It's going to be something you didn't anticipate.

KOENIG: Chris Cox is an atmospheric scientist. And out in the field, his team had to deal with a finicky panel that was supposed to help get power to their equipment. He just found a way to rewire around it.

COX: In an environment like this, it's almost easier to come up with those solutions, and I think the reason is that you don't have choices.

KOENIG: When I asked these researchers what got them through the challenges of an Arctic work day, three big themes emerged. One, prepare. Two, don't panic. And three, stay positive - really, good advice for any job, on or off the ice.

For NPR News, I'm Ravenna Koenig in the central Arctic Ocean.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.