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top of the world

The glaciologist has spent more than 30 years studying the Arctic snowpack.

the snowman cometh Matthew Sturm has dedicated his career to sifting, scrutinizing, and saving the white stuff


By charles wohlforth

he overwhelming feature of the

Arctic coastal plain on a bright April morning is its dazzling featurelessness. A convoy of snowmobiles roars across the hard, white flatness: a landscape that offers a rider no sense of being in motion. At a randomly selected spot, the machines stop. The scientists aboard them get off and efficiently establish a temporary research site, setting up instruments, digging pits, and making measurements. Land as flat and white as blank paper offers no obvious clue as to why it’s the subject of such enthusiastic interest. Most enthusiastic of all is 61-year-old glaciologist Matthew Sturm. Diving into a snow pit, he gathers individual snow crystals onto a black card and stares intently at their intricate forms through a hand lens. From this seeming infinity of snow, Sturm is able to read discrete snow crystals as if they were books taken from a library shelf, discoursing on them in the subzero air. As he notes the shape of these crystals and their position in the thin layer of Arctic snowpack, Sturm is actually decoding the story of the winter’s weather: when this snow fell, when the air warmed, when the

wind blew, and so on. Once this particular expedition is over and its data interpreted, he will be able to calculate what sorts of contaminants these snowflakes carried and how they moved over the landscape. Such data will aid him and his fellow scientists in their efforts to model the changing snowpack, in its dynamic entirety, on a computer. “Most people get in a snow pit, and they look—and it looks all white,” Sturm says. “I look at it and I think: how can they not see?” Sturm seems happiest on frigid expeditions into the snowy wilderness. In addition to the more than two dozen treks he has made in the name of science, he has been known to take off across the frozen tundra for recreation, with friends and family members in tow. His love affair with the Arctic began when he was a young man working on the crew of a Coast Guard icebreaker. Later, as a budding scientist, he studied glaciers on a volcano. Finally, as a mature researcher, he made a name for himself by exploring some of the world’s coldest and most remote places in search of data about snow that no one else had bothered to look for. Now he holds a body of knowledge that’s of immense importance in our warming world. In recent decades, Sturm has watched the Arctic snowpack dimin-

Sturm’s book, Finding the Arctic, details his 2,500-mile snowmobile journey across Alaska and Canada

spring 2014

onearth 2 1

OnEarth Spring 2014  

Hog Wild, by Ted Genoways

OnEarth Spring 2014  

Hog Wild, by Ted Genoways