Expedition Seeks to Answer How Warming Will Affect Snow

There are a few native villages along the way where the researchers will meet with students and tell them about their work. The first few days of the journey have been relatively easy, Sturm said in an interview from the village of Buckland via a satellite phone, because they've been able to follow the "highways." That's bush country talk for trails.

Once they reach Ambler, on the south flank of the Brooks Range, they'll have to make their own trails.

Grainy or Crusty?

The goal is to sample snow along the entire route, because snow north of the Brooks Range is quite different from that found to the south. Below the range, the snow is large grained, providing a "tremendous insulator" for vegetation, thus allowing wildlife to continue their foraging by pushing their noses through the snow.

But north of the range, the snow is almost constantly battered by fierce winds, resulting in tiny crystals that blanket the land with sheets of ice.

"These two types of snow cover are almost opposites," Sturm says.

One question Sturm hopes to answer is basic. Where did the snow come from? South of the range, the snow almost certainly comes from low-pressure systems moving up from the Aleutian Islands and the Gulf of Alaska. But the Brooks Range acts as a "tremendous climate barrier," keeping those storm systems trapped to the south, Sturm says.

One theory holds that the northern snow actually originates in Eurasia. The researchers will collect samples to be analyzed for traces of industrial pollution, and various chemicals, in hopes of backtracking the course of the snow.

They will also measure snow depths, density and layering to determine regional trends in the snow properties.

At stake here are very fundamental scientific issues. No one knows how global climate changes will alter the snow. No one knows if there will be more snow, or less. No one knows if the changes — whatever they may be — will ameliorate or accelerate global warming.

That's a hole in our understanding that's big enough to drive a snowmobile through. Sturm and his team hope to come up with enough data to help plug that hole.

At least it's more exciting than one of his previous expeditions. He spent 40 days one spring, north of the Arctic Circle, "watching the snow melt."

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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