One hundred and fifty eight miles north of the arctic circle, in the middle of a vast remote tundra landscape, there is a place called Toolik Field Station. It isn’t the kind of place you expect to find a hundred or so biologists. But they come from all over the world to take advantage of the impressive array of scientific resources that the field station has managed to provide. Need some lab space to work on a project in the arctic? Toolik has you covered. Helicopter transportation to your study site? Not a problem. Starved after a long day of collecting samples in one of the harshest of environments out there? Dinner is hot and ready to eat. It’s actually kind of ridiculous how comfortable and convenient this place that I’ve lived for the past four month has managed to make arctic research.
What is daily life at Toolik Field Station like? It’s kind of like a science summer camp. You live in a reasonably sized tent called a weather port, complete with an actual bed. Meals are served in the dining hall three times a day and the food is really good. If you can’t make it to a meal, there is a salad and sandwich bar open any time of the day or night for you to help yourself. A community center provides a moderate amount of entertainment. Getting outside for a bike ride or hike is far more enjoyable, but between the erratic weather and thick swarms of mosquitoes, that isn’t always easy. Most time is taken up by work. Most of the researchers are only at Toolik for a very limited time and must cram all of the season’s field work into that time, so it isn’t uncommon for people to be working from early morning, late into the night, and seven days a week. The amount of research that has come out of Toolik is impressive. Some examples can be browsed here: http://ecosystems.mbl.edu/arc/
Maintaining such an establishment in such a remote location is absolutely unsustainable in every way. Which is why it’s ironic that Toolik can serve as a great model of sustainable living. One thing you quickly learn is water conservation tactics. All of Toolik’s used water has to be shipped North to Prudhoe Bay at a high cost. With over a hundred residents, that can easily add up fast. We are told to be constantly vigilant about using water. If you take five minutes of shower per week then you’re pushing it. Garbage is also expensive to ship out and supplies are expensive and slow to get shipped in. This forces people to learn how to work with what they have when possible rather than throwing things out and buying new stuff. Leave no trace practices are very important around camp too. In theory, this area is a pristine environment where you can test out your ideas about tundra ecology. The reality is that our presence has an impact on the land and care must be taken to minimize this impact for future generations of scientists. Hopefully some of Toolik’s residents take these lessons back home and adopt some of the practices. You can learn from it too. Just imagine in your every day life that you are at Toolik or some other remote field station where resources are limited and expensive. Waste less and save more for people of the future (you didn’t think you were going to get through this blog post without some conservation preaching, did you?).