Utqiaġvik, Where There Was Still Snow in June

Published: 31 August 2022

ARM snow albedo campaign resumes in Alaska after pandemic postponement

This is an updated version of a story by Serina Wesen, University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).

Under a cloudy sky, one person holds a computer while two others collect snow measurements on Alaska's Elson Lagoon.
From left to right, Hannah Chapman-Dutton, Anika Pinzner, and Serina Wesen take albedo and snow-depth line measurements in May 2022 on Alaska’s Elson Lagoon during ARM’s resumed Snow ALbedo eVOlution (SALVO) field campaign. Researchers first collected data during the 2019 melt season, but scheduled fieldwork in 2020 and 2021 did not occur because of the COVID-19 pandemic. SALVO will now end in 2023. Photo is by Jennifer Delamere, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

A group of UAF faculty, students, and staff began fieldwork in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, in mid-April 2022 to measure snowmelt, but the melt only started in mid-June.

This was an exceptionally late melt year.

The Snow ALbedo eVOlution (SALVO) field campaign team worked hard through the midnight sun, which provides nonstop sunlight to Utqiaġvik from May to August.

Team members included Jennifer Delamere, Matthew Sturm, Melinda Webster, Anika Pinzner, Phillip Wilson, Ema Mayo, Serina Wesen, Hannah Chapman-Dutton, and Owen Larson, all affiliated with UAF. The group also included David Clemens-Sewall from Dartmouth College and David Shean with the University of Washington.

“The goal of the project is to understand the mechanisms that control the speed with which the landscape clears of snow and therefore absorbs solar radiation,” said Sturm, group leader for the Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Group at the UAF Geophysical Institute.

SALVO is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility and Atmospheric System Research (ASR) program.

Initially, SALVO was scheduled to capture the 2019, 2020, and 2021 melt seasons. Researchers completed their 2019 fieldwork, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the final two field seasons to 2022 and 2023. Data analysis will continue into 2024.

Map of SALVO sites around Utqiaġvik, Alaska
During the 2022 portion of SALVO, team members collected measurements at four sites around Utqiaġvik. Elson Lagoon and the Chukchi Sea were both sea-ice sites. SALVO sites at the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO) and ARM’s North Slope of Alaska (NSA) atmospheric observatory were coastal tundra. The map also shows the NSA central facility (C1) and a soon-to-be installed NSA extended facility (E12).

Slow to Melt

Three people wearing jackets, snow pants, and boots stand on a patch of slushy sea ice.
SALVO team members Matthew Sturm, Pinzner, and Owen Larson measure sea-ice thickness during the late stages of the 2022 melt on the Chukchi Sea. Photo is by Wesen, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The team began this year’s fieldwork in Utqiaġvik in mid-April to set up four snowmelt sites: two on sea ice and two on tundra. One site was coastal tundra at ARM’s North Slope of Alaska atmospheric observatory.

Initial premelt measurements from these sites will be compared with data from the melt.

The team returned to Utqiaġvik on May 15 and initially planned to leave June 15 based on when the snow melted in previous years.

The 2019 melt was mostly done around June 12, but this year’s melt started June 9 and finished around the June 21 summer solstice. Sturm stayed a few days longer to get the last measurements.

Melt ponds began forming on the sea ice, causing it to break up, but the group still carefully snow-machined to a Chukchi Sea study site.

Key activities included digging snow pits, measuring snow grain size, gathering basal snow temperatures and snow-water equivalent, measuring albedo (reflectivity) and incoming radiation, using GPS-enabled snow depth probes, photographing sites, taking snow samples to find impurities, and making terrestrial lidar scans.

The team was not alone in the Arctic, with polar bears, migratory birds, seals, caribou, and other arctic life keeping them company.

“By taking all of these measurements, we are trying to understand what drives the change from a completely white, snowy surface to much darker summer surfaces like tundra or sea-ice melt ponds,” Pinzner said.

Even though snowmelt occurred earlier in more recent years, this year’s late snowmelt was an anomaly related to a changing climate in the Arctic.

The team would like to recognize that SALVO research occurs on Iñupiat land and cannot be completed without the wisdom and generosity of the Utqiaġvik community.

Wesen is the education and outreach designer for the UAF Geophysical Institute’s Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Group. Read about Wesen’s experience on the SALVO team.

# # #

ARM is a DOE Office of Science user facility operated by nine DOE national laboratories.