How to spot the Aurora Borealis at Toolik Field Station in Spring:
- Check the forecast for the Aurora before bed. Check.
- Set alarm for a time when it seems dark enough to see it, like 1am. Check.
- Go to bed as early as possible to get up at 1am. Check.
- Wake up at 1am. Check.
- Spend several minutes getting dressed in the dark to brave the Arctic night. Check.
- Go outside quietly so as not to wake up your neighbors through the thin walls. Check.
- Stare at the sky in wonderment and awe while the sky turns green and purple with the Northern Lights. Fail.
Ok, sometimes you plan everything perfectly and it doesn't work out. There was no Aurora visible in the sky at 1am last night. It was just a guess when it might be possible to see it, and since I work during the day and evening, there is no possibility of staying up all night hoping to catch a glimpse. You just can't plan nature and natural events, but that is part of the fun. I did learn that even at 1am now there is a sunrise/sunset look and feel, as the sky still has that red horizon you would see just before dawn. Really quite pretty.
After breakfast we headed to the lab to process the female squirrel from yesterday. We did all the usual measurements and sampling, and Cory implanted a body temperature logger. Afterwards we headed to the Atigun site to release the squirrels we caught yesterday, and set up traps to try to catch some today. I learned that the density of squirrels at this site is something close to 10-15 males and 20-25 females.
Helen releasing an Arctic ground squirrel.
Can you spot the squirrel running? He blends in very well with the tundra.
The squirrel has been released and is looking around.
It was a lovely day with almost no wind. I even had my gloves off for a while as we sat on the tundra, in between checking traps. This field work involves spurts of activity, such as hiking around to get to locations to set traps when we see squirrels, and dips in activity, such as when we have to give the squirrels time to actually get in those traps. Despite the sunscreen this morning, I managed to get a bit of sunburn on my face. The temperature was below freezing, but I felt too warm at times in all my layers. It's a strange feeling.
We set our traps this afternoon and then enjoyed the surroundings while waiting.
I've also been meaning to mention how super important sunglasses are here. With the sun on the snow, it is blindingly white most of the day, and there are only a few times, such as after 8pm, that I do not have my sunglasses on outdoors. But, as I walk on the snow, I am always struck by the way the sun hits it. The snow sparkles and the tundra appears covered in tiny diamonds. It is beautiful every day.
Today we saw what appear to be wolf tracks in the snow.
You can get a feel for how large the tracks were compared to my boot.
Helen spotted a ptarmigan which looks to have been killed by a predator that was scared away afterwards.
We got back to camp just before dinner, so we put the two new squirrels we caught in the lab in a quite room, their traps sitting on shavings to keep the squirrels warm and comfortable. We ate and then headed back to process the squirrels, one male and one female. We did all the same processing as yesterday, and this female did not get a collar or body temperature logger as we have not yet recovered any light loggers from other squirrels that could be redeployed. Perhaps tomorrow.
This is a close-up of ground squirrel teeth that I took while waiting for an anesthetized squirrel to wake up.
Here is an example of the ear tags we give the squirrels for identification on an anesthetized squirrel.
I finished the evening with a solitary sauna during women's hours. It was 160˚F/71˚C. I'm still adjusting to the idea of relaxing in a sauna, but I am starting to enjoy it. I'm just not sure if that would be true if I was not the only one in there. Afterwards I stopped in at the dining hall and there was a game of Bananagrams going on, and I got in on a round. Then it was time to do my homework and write my journal and go through my pictures of the day.
Bonus round – I was still up and found myself hungry after 11:30pm, and decided to get myself a snack in the dining hall. Less than halfway back to my room, what did I see? The northern lights! Not the stunning colors you would expect to see in the dark winter night, but I saw them! Hello Aurora! Moral of the story? Do your homework and eat a bagel. The lights will come to you. Also, wear thicker gloves and a balaclava so you can stay outside longer.
The Aurora Borealis over Toolik Field Station at midnight.
For comparison, this is how it looked when I turned in the other direction.