Standing for Something

I’ve just returned from a 11 hour of day standing out on the cloudy, windy, icy, wet marshy tundra in rubber boots and a rain jacket with scientists from Virginia. I am absolutely exhausted, colder than I’ve ever imagined I’d be in June (20 degrees with windchill), and can barely keep my eyes open to write up this record of it. But I’m going to do my best.

Four scientists in a room. We’re at the BART. I’m not sure what BART stands for, or even if I’m using the right word. All I know is it is the scientific hub of Barrow– right outside of town, by the native college. It’s also close by to/the same as/irrelevant of NARL, the Navy Arctic Research Lab. Walking in you are greeted by a cozy coffee lounge, catching the end of awkward and well meaning conversation between kooky scientists from every corner of the world, all staring at you over their mugs with questioning  eyes, and an adventurous gaze.

We meet a few of them, but none of them are the scientists we are looking for. After settling into a seat and scaring all of the intriguing and antisocial scientists out of the lounge, our contacts arrive.

We walk back to their lab, and I introduce myself to my assigned scientists as an international studies major. They smile, looking up from their makeshift redboards strung across tables, and tell me this must all look like something out of an international intrigue film- huge science lab at the top of the world with homemade computers strung out across the tables, glued to fence posts with cables and wires flying like a bad hair day in all directions.

“Jordan, what’s my number?” Rhett raises his voice from across the room.

“Blue 32, Red 41. Orange 22, on.”

Rhett plugs the wires into the corresponding outlets, and calls for more coordinates, using terms and words that I didn’t know human beings could communicate with.

After setting up their makeshift computers, our day consisted of standing out in the tundra, holding the fence posts with the computers attached to them. There were five fence posts, one a person. We would hold each in place for five minutes, making sure all of the sensors were kept straight and not bent by the tundra below, then move ourselves four feet down to start a countdown for another five minutes. And continue this all day. Eight hours challenging the wind.

We were taking measurements of the polygram area, which is an area of ground surrounded by a moat and used as a spot for birds to make their nests in the Arctic. Taking measurements of the light, humidity, wind and temperature. The project is to determine what it is about the conditions that draw the birds to this patch of ice to claim their own. Birds go through puberty yearly, because staying sexually developed would add too much extra weight onto their migration journey. So the researchers were trying to figure out what about these conditions signaled the birds genitals to develop when they got here.

Their “homebrewed computers” were made in four weeks, something that they really needed a year to fine tune, but made in a rush for grant approval. The computers were made out of $90 of material, whereas you would pay $10,000 for professional instruments that did the same thing.

Towards the middle of the day, a young couple who flew in on the plane with us showed up. Lingering on the outskirts of our plot of land, they take our information and make us famous.

Our scientists take us out to Arctic pizza after work and lay down a hundred bucks on the table for three pizzas. I’m sitting by Rhett, who I feel is a kindred spirit. A theoretical physics professor from North Carolina, he’s got a lot to share, but spends the day asking us questions about our lives.

He tells me my writing pseudonym should be Barrow.

I go home and fall promptly asleep.


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