Expedition Above the Arctic Circle

Published: 17 August 2022

Two Sandians brave subzero temperatures, frozen tundra to deliver vehicle to ARM observatory

The following is based on a story by Sarah Jewel Johnson, Sandia National Laboratories.

Fred Helsel (left) and Valerie Sparks
Fred Helsel (left) and Valerie Sparks

Sandia’s arctic and atmospheric research is vital to understanding the effects of climate change in the Arctic and around the world. Every year, scientists battle the Alaskan wilderness to collect critical data, but none of their cutting-edge research would be possible without dedicated operations and logistics staff who ensure that facilities, supplies, and vehicles in the Arctic are safe and ready to use.

Sandia engineer Fred Helsel and technologist Valerie Sparks recently went above and beyond their usual duties to deliver a new General Services Administration (GSA) vehicle to the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility’s North Slope of Alaska atmospheric observatory in Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska.

Valerie Sparks stands next to a sign saying "Welcome to the James Dalton Highway: Gateway to the Arctic - the Road to Prudhoe Bay"
Sparks stands next to a Dalton Highway sign during her recent trip with Helsel to take a vehicle up to ARM’s North Slope of Alaska atmospheric observatory. Photo is courtesy of Sparks.
Snow-covered highway cuts into the mountains
Atigun Pass, at 4,739 feet, is considered one of the most dangerous passes in Alaska because of frequent avalanches. Photo is courtesy of Sparks.

Helsel is the operations manager for the Sandia-operated North Slope of Alaska observatory, and Sparks has supported logistics for Sandia’s Alaskan facilities for over a decade. In April 2022, they braved miles of frozen tundra and avalanche-ridden passes to personally deliver a new Ford Expedition to Utqiaġvik.

“Earlier in the year, we started having trouble with our current GSA vehicle in Barrow (Utqiaġvik), and we found out the Ice Road (the Dalton Highway between Fairbanks and Deadhorse, a 497-mile trip) was open,” said Sparks. “So, Fred and I were going up there anyway, and we just decided we should do this road trip. It was a win-win: We get the vehicle to Barrow (Utqiaġvik) quickly, and we get a once-in-a-lifetime experience on the Ice Road.”

Helsel and Sparks safely delivered the Expedition the evening of April 6. They completed the 1,088-mile journey in just four days, avoiding exorbitant vehicle barge shipping costs and ensuring that the Sandia staff had a safe, working GSA vehicle for daily transport to and from the ARM observatory.

Read the full story about their adventure on the Sandia website.

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ARM is a DOE Office of Science user facility operated by nine DOE national laboratories, including Sandia National Laboratories.