I visited a new dimension.
That’s what a week in the Arctic felt like. Toolik Field Station, in remote northern Alaska, seems to exist outside of earthly time. The sun slowly arcs across a vast blue dome, willfully refusing to go down. Days and nights flow together.
The overabundance of sunlight makes the hours of the day seem less precious: like a sunshine billionaire flush with golden rays, it’s easy to overspend. It’s no wonder that labs hum with activity late into the evening and casual conversations begun over dinner stretch on. Everyone blissfully unaware of the need for sleep.
The Arctic plays with one’s sense of time in other ways. Head north from Fairbanks and a short distance outside of town the pavement turns to a slurry of gravel and mud better known as the Dalton Highway (calling it a highway is generous). The remnants of civilized society quickly fall away leaving only the company of trees. The absence of pavement and man-made structures (save the ever-present Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which parallels the road) feels like a journey backward through time to a pre-human era.
Eventually the trees fade away, too, revealing sweeping vistas from horizon to horizon. Landscapes are vast. Skies eternal. Clouds streak the blue with painterly skill. I found myself mesmerized by the constantly evolving masterworks above and spent hours trying to capture their beauty. I hope my video above gives a sense of this.
And then here in the middle of the Arctic tundra, hundreds of miles from anywhere, so much high-octane science is in the works at Toolik Field Station. At one point during my visit, the camp buzzed with more than 100 researchers—a veritable hive of humanity—studying the effects of wildfires on Arctic tundra, monitoring the migration patterns of Arctic birds, examining the exchange of carbon between the land and Arctic rivers and streams, and much more.
I began to try to sort out which researcher was involved in which project and how the scientists connected to one another. It was like piecing together an intricate jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the assembled pieces should ultimately look like. When I stepped back and looked at the big picture, however, I realized most of the science happening at Toolik relates in some way to climate change. The breadth and scope of the research is remarkable and includes projects that have been running for decades.
The stakes are high. The Arctic is one of the places predicted to be hardest hit by climate change. And what happens in the Arctic could significantly impact the rest of the planet. The research conducted at Toolik has the potential to fill in important knowledge gaps and inform society’s decision-making as the climate story unfolds.
Trip ended, I return to the Lower 48. The familiar gravity of everyday life pulls me back into routine. My visit to this new dimension is now a memory, but one that will stay with me a long, long time.