Redux: Konrad Steffen’s Desk

This post ran originally in November of 2014, about excavating the desk of a prominent ice researcher at a small camp in Greenland. The researcher, Konrad Steffen, appears alongside Al Gore in the film and book “An Inconvenient Sequel,” which just released. With record high temperatures sweeping the country, enjoy some ice and snow.
Konrad Steffen's Desk
Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out with an even firmer stance on current environmental affairs, including reams of new data from more scientists saying, basically, news is not good. The New York Times called it “the starkest warning yet.” Little new was revealed in the report, rather it deepened the empirical resolve that changes we are now witness to are the tip of an ever-growing iceberg.

The findings of the IPCC are not numbers invented out of black boxes. They come from the ground, from sensors, from live people getting eye to eye with the changes that faraway news media eventually pick up.

In May of 2010, I had the back-breaking pleasure of excavating the desk of IPCC cryosphere author Konrad Steffen. Using a shovel, I dug through hard-packed snow to get to his desk and see what he’d been up to.

One of the first to land that spring at the small research station of Swiss Camp on the Greenland Ice Sheet, I had arrived with a chaos scientist and climate researcher, Jose Rial, from the University of North Carolina. We were dropped off by ski plane, finding camp crippled by incredible storms that winter, the kitchen tent popped open, snow poured in. Steffen’s office in another tent had turned into a haven of snowdrifts. All six snowmobiles had tumbled to the ice, and would take a few days of hard digging to get out. Once dug out and repaired by Steffen, the snowmobiles would be used to check arrays of remote sensing sites focused on the temperature, movement, and the rise and fall of Greenland’s ice.

Swiss Camp

A long way from that, I was just starting into Steffen’s desk. The door had creaked open over the winter, and snow drifts covered everything. This wasn’t the kind of snow you’d shovel off a sidewalk. As dry and packed as gypsum, it was easiest broken off in big chunks, shovel wedged to crack off blocks to carry outside. Ghosts shapes had gathered on everything, the ceiling hung with eerie stalactites, fine snow crystals clinging to each other like feather down.

Steffen, Zurich-born and now working out of the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the more sought-after voices in cryopshere research. He’d spent thirty-five consecutive seasons on polar ice and overwintered twice in a tent. When he began his studies in the 1960s and 70s, the world’s great ice sheets were thought of as immobile. Glaciers might move, but the big ice was fixed. During his career, that turned out to be false, and Steffen’s own measurements revealed that on one warm summer day, the entire Greenland Ice Sheet will speed up. Meltwater lakes draining suddenly down to bedrock beneath the ice lubricate the process, and he now sees this vast white expanse as highly mobile and easily influenced. Swiss Camp, built in the early 90s, is moving a few feet per day, over decades surfing up and down on oceanic waves as the ice sheet flows toward the coast and ultimately into the sea.

On his desk, I dug down to electronic equipment, sensors in various states of construction and repair. I saw whatever Steffen had been working on when he last evacuated his camp, taking the first weather window, his desk left in mid-action, pencils sharpened to stubs. With an over-mitt, I picked up a candle burned halfway down, imagining Steffen sitting here writing his late-night papers, his findings adding to the weight of the IPCC not from a four-walled office, but out here on the ice.

I found under a drift a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, a Scotch whiskey Steffen had marked with his name. Being alcohol, it was the one thing not frozen. I uncapped it and took a swig, warming my insides from the scientist whose desk I was exhuming. What IPCC researcher, I wondered, does not have a bottle somewhere nearby? Knowing what he knows, how the big machine of the earth is shifting beneath us, around us, I’d take more than one swig.

When Steffen’s plane landed at the edge of camp, more of the crew climbed out. Gear was unloaded quickly, pilot chasing windows in blustering polar weather.

Konrad Steffen

As the plane flew off, Rial showed Steffen the damage that we’d found, camp tents partially wrecked, snowmobiles gone. Steffen had a lean-boned face, a healthy-looking character with a thick, neatly-trimmed beard. His beard iced up as soon as he emerged into the cold. Rial led him around, pointing out solar panels that had blown off, and a weather station bent over by winter storms.

In one swift move, Steffen lit a cigarette in the crook of an upraised arm. Holding it in his teeth, confidently sucking to keep the thing lit in the wind, he said, “I’ve seen worse.”


Photos by Craig Childs

Conversation with Adam Rogers: DARPians and the Social Science Problem

Ann:  Please meet Adam Rogers. He wrote a story about DARPA looking for solutions to the credibility problems of social science, only what I’m calling “solutions to credibility problems,” he called bullshit detection.

First, social science’s credibility problems.  Here’s the way I said it in 2015: Start with any question involving human behavior or motivation and try to find an answer.  Google it, GoogleScholar it, search the PsychLit database, read the titles and abstracts.  Your question will probably be profoundly interesting: Why do siblings stake out their own territory? Why do some people in a community accept what the community offers but avoid offering anything back? How long does grief last? Every single answer you find will be one you could have figured out if you’d arrived yesterday from Mars, taken one look around, and said the first thing that came to mind.  

However, that’s a rant, not an explanation of a problem.  So Adam, why is a BS detector necessary in the first place?  What is wrong with social science that it can’t reliably answer some of the most vexing, important questions we have?

Adam: Hello, Ann! Well, you’ve hit upon the problem right at the top, of course, which is: Why are there no good answers to the best questions? The questions are not, as I perhaps crossed a line by saying, bullshit. The answers, though? Ugh. Across disciplines—from sociology to anthropology to economics to political science—they hew to frameworks that are at least internally consistent (a good start) but don’t talk to each other. This is what the sociological Duncan Watts called his field’s “incoherency problem.” Which I might rephrase as “WTF social science?” Continue reading

The Last Word

July 31 – August 4, 2017

Jessa’s on a trip that’s so far out in the back of beyond that it needs a guide.  The guide doesn’t show. But nobody quits.

Michelle finds a splendid metaphor for surviving ridiculously unpleasant situations: imitate the reindeer and assume Arctic resignation.

I redux the struggles that Helen and I, and now Jenny, have with creating epiphanal and life-saving mint lemonade.  We’re almost there.

Helen reduxes a mountain hike with her father.  He hikes, she plods.  But she plods with a good eye, a willing heart, and good family.

Craig find labyrinths and mazes when he travels with his kids.  Craig says the labyrinths are almost holy; his kid knows exactly what to do with them.

Labyrinths and Mazes

There is a difference between the two. In one you can’t get lost; one way in, one way out. The other is full of dead ends and false passages.

I take my kids to labyrinths. When they were little, we walked in socks along the path of a smooth stone labyrinth on the floor of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Inside the soaring bay of the cathedral, walking is like gliding, like leaving your body. We wound in and out of each other, the path sometimes bringing us close together, other times sending us apart as we headed from the outside to the center, and from the center back out.

This is a 35-foot-wide replica of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth, built into to the floor of the French throned church in 1201. According to Labyrinth Guilds caring for these convoluted works of interactive art around the world, these are spiritual artifacts, “divine imprints.” Traveling along one involves three canonical stages: purgation, illumination, and union. Purgation is the entry, leaving the prosaic details of life behind. Illumination is reaching the center. Union is leaving along the same path, joining with God.

This is how my kids learned to do it, and nobody ever told them. They figured out if you spend half an hour walking to the center, you must spend another half an hour walking out.

Mazes, on the other hand, are made of alleys. They have dumpsters and knocked over trash cans. You can get cornered, and at times can’t find the way. I like these, too. Continue reading

Redux: Plodding With My Father

A couple of years ago I climbed Flattop Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park with my dad. I’m back in Colorado this week, again with family, so I thought it was a good time to recall that hike.

The rising sun really does turn things pink.
The rising sun really does turn things pink.

The Milky Way hung overhead. The lights from the far-off plains made a faint glow in the eastern sky. I made one last visit to the pit toilet at the edge of the parking lot, put on my day pack, and began to plod.

I was setting out to climb a mountain with my dad. The mountain was Flattop, a 12,324-footer in Rocky Mountain National Park, in Colorado.

My dad claims Rocky Mountain is the best place in the world for day hikes. Now, I happen to think he is right. For one thing, he’s been a lot of places. And his argument makes sense: The park has a long list of trails that offer a short walk to a dramatic cliff face with a gorgeous lake at its foot. He has tested most of these trails personally. His first visit to the park was as a toddler in the mid-1940s. My great-grandfather was a dentist in Kansas who started going out to Colorado for long trips in the 1930s or so and was spending whole summers in Estes Park, just outside the eastern border of the park, by the 1950s.

Continue reading

Redux: Helen and I Smack Down Unhappiness

This ran not that long ago, August 23, 2016.  But I feel it should be run again because it has an important update.

Recently, Helen and I made mint lemonade again, this time with Jenny.  As the post suggests, we blended-and-spigoted at the same time, and instead of demarara sugar, we used white.  The pond scum effect entirely disappeared so that was good.  But we put too much ice in blender and ended up with mint-lemonade slushies or however you spell it, and mint lemonade needs to be drunk, not spooned and strawed.

So we tried a second batch and this time the liquidity was perfect but the amount of plant matter was noticeably chewy.  Helen suggests that we blend mint and sugar together before adding ice and why didn’t we think of that before?

Also this time it wasn’t stinking hot on the porch so the mint lemonade was only refreshing and not resurrection.

Here’s the original.


Photo by Pearl Pirie, via Flickr

Science Metaphors (cont.): Arctic Resignation

The Svalbard archipelago, midway between continental Norway and the North Pole, is famous for its polar bears, but it is also home to the distinctive (and distinctively adorable) Svalbard reindeer. Shaggy-haired and stubby-legged, the Svalbard reindeer is not only the world’s smallest subspecies of reindeer but also the world’s northernmost herbivorous mammal, and its survival is something of a daily miracle.

Winter vegetation on Svalbard is sparse to begin with, and because winter temperatures regularly rise above freezing, any greenery is usually covered with ice. So between April and late August, when the Arctic sun shines all day and vegetation grows round the clock, Svalbard reindeer eat frantically, laying on fat for the months ahead. When winter descends, they enter a state that’s not quite hibernation—they stay alert, and their body temperature stays constant—and not quite torpor, for their metabolic rate doesn’t change much. They just … stop moving. Norwegian zoologist Arnoldus Blix has dubbed this curious state “arctic resignation.”

I first encountered the term arctic resignation in The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon, a book I revere (and recommend to everyone, regardless of your brain chemistry). Solomon observes that arctic resignation looks like some varieties of human depression, and it’s true: in addition to spending almost all of their time lying down or standing still, arctically resigned reindeer have low thyroid hormone levels and eat almost nothing. But depression tends to make easy situations hard, and hard situations impossible. Arctic resignation, on the other hand, makes a ridiculously difficult environment survivable. It’s a strategic response to unwelcome but temporary conditions.

Like scale mismatch, arctic resignation strikes me as a strategy that can be applied to all sorts of difficulties. When times are tough, reduce your overhead; get plenty of rest; stay alert; and, when absolutely necessary, trot. When the sun returns, eat to your heart’s content.


Photo of presumably resigned Svalbard reindeer by Flickr user Christopher Michel. Creative Commons.

No Maps for These Territories

Camping and canoeing are all about self-sufficiency. The sensation of our own competence on the land lets us feel our own strength directly, rather than through oblique measures of success like social status or money. So it’s hard to accept when some trips are just so out of our realm that they require a guide.

Ten years ago, for a journey down the remote Thelon River in Nunavut—a trip whose events I’ve detailed elsewhere—it seemed like just such a special case. My father and I signed on with an outfitter who would ferry canoes up the river, coordinate with the pilots about what July day the ice might come off the fly-in lakes, and buy all of our essentials for three weeks in the Far North.

The trouble began immediately. We flew on a float plane to a village on the Eastern shores of Great Slave Lake, ready to meet our outfitter and get packed and organized. No outfitter. We met our fellow travellers and an assistant guide but our fearless leader did not show. A town council member stopped by the outfitter’s cabin, where we were to stay, to say that the he—we’ll call him Taiga Tim—was not welcome anymore in town. Continue reading