Just chilling: Yale researchers share some of their coldest moments

In Reina Maruyama’s line of work, you can’t call yourself a real scientist until you’ve flirted with frostbite while scouting for subatomic particles at the South Pole.

Bone-chilling cold is almost a rite of passage for certain areas of research, from forestry and geology to environmental biology and Maruyama’s discipline, physics. First come the parka and gloves and then, the researchers hope, come publication and glory.

“I was there during the ‘summer’ in Antarctica. The temperature hovers around -20 degrees,” explained Maruyama, an assistant professor of physics and scientific spokesperson for the DM-Ice experiment. “The South Pole has two environmental factors that make it challenging to work there: temperature and altitude. We used extreme cold-weather clothing issued by the National Science Foundation, which operates the South Pole Station. Boots have very thick soles with room for extra footbeds for added insulation from the ice. It’s more difficult to deal with altitude. At 10,000 feet, one has to be very careful not to overexert oneself, especially the first few days of being there. We walk slowly, with no physical exertion for the first couple of days.”

Maruyama’s research has taken her to the South Pole twice to work on the international physics projects IceCube and DM-Ice. IceCube is a neutrino detector; DM-Ice is looking for dark matter.

The South Pole is perfect for such activities, the Yale scientist explains, because the experiments require a thick covering of rock or soil to shield cosmic rays, and large areas of stable, transparent material, such as ice, in order to detect the light given off during particle interactions. “We constructed small huts to work in when working for extended lengths of time away from the station,” Maruyama said. “During the summer, the sun is up 24/7, so one can build a fairly efficient solarium which cuts down on the fuel consumption needs.”

Of course, Maruyama is hardly alone in her frozen bona fides. She is joined by a number of Yale faculty members, students, and staff who have conducted research in extremely cold conditions. For them, cold weather is an essential part of any meaningful fieldwork. It also leads to some primo personal stories.

Eyes frozen shut

For instance, there was the time John Wettlaufer’s eyes froze shut on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean.

Wettlaufer, the A.M. Bateman Professor of Geophysics, Mathematics and Physics, spent four and a half months in the central Arctic Ocean in 1987-1988, conducting research on ice/ocean heat flux. Temperatures dropped to -40 degrees, and there were storms every 1-2 weeks — the final storm breaking apart the ice floe itself.

“What those big hoods and funny, furry hats do is create a boundary layer around your head so that very little but the turbulent bursts in very windy conditions hit your face,” Wettlaufer said. “However, I was tending to one of my observations in about mid-November when it is completely dark. I had been out for an hour and had been using a headlamp to illuminate the sensor, while reading numbers into an old cassette tape player to insure I had duplicate data.”

Wettlaufer’s headlamp was losing power, and he was far away from his ship, which was frozen into the ice pack. He did not want to trek all the way back to the ship for new gear.

“So I took off my hood and was getting as close as I could to the sensor, but the wind was making my eyes water badly,” he said. “It was pushing -40 degrees, which is the temperature below which water is thermodynamically unstable, and the tears made my eyelashes freeze together. I had to put the hood back on over my eyes and let the body heat melt my eyes open. It was perhaps a few minutes, but it seemed a lot longer. There had been a problem with polar bears, so that made time linger.”

Wettlaufer said he learned quickly that preparation was essential in extreme environments. “There were equipment failures all of the time, and so much duplication was necessary,” he recalled. “Everything must be planned, including timing how long you have to keep your gloves off and how long you can be out.”

Polar bears and snowy owl

More recently, geology and geophysics graduate student Mengnan Zhao traveled to the Arctic aboard a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker. It was only a few months ago, part of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project.

Zhao wrote regular dispatches about the trip, including an account of the group’s first on-ice buoy deployments:

“The floe was very close to the Louis (Zhao’s ship) — a huge multi-year ice floe, perfect for all our work — three buoy deployments and ice measurements,” Zhao wrote. “The first two groups had started work when I arrived on the ice. Away from the noise of the ship, it was so quiet and peaceful, with a thick layer of snow over the ice; I could clearly hear the gentle wind and the sound of my boots in the snow.”

There were other times when the weather wasn’t quite so gentle. “Our work on the deck of the ship and on the sea ice required a lot of warm gear, loaned to me by my advisor, Mary-Louise Timmermans,” Zhao said. “We put many layers on to work, so walking on the ice could be cumbersome, let alone sometimes dealing with strong winds and blowing snow. My hands and feet were always the first to feel the cold, in spite of my warm gloves and boots, and after some time it was difficult to work.”

Still, she said, there were lots of perks: watching a family of polar bears running on the ice, checking in on the snowy owl that followed the ship for several days, and seeing the Northern Lights.

Vanishing trick

Extreme cold can make routine activities interesting, as well. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and a faculty member at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, found that out for himself in 2009, during a research trip to Selawik, a village in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough.

Leiserowitz and colleague Darcy Dugan were investigating the effects of coastal erosion and sea level rise on the lives of local residents. It was January, and temperatures in Selawik dipped to -60 degrees. “That was pretty intense,” Leiserowitz said. “It means wearing layers and doing your homework about gear. If you don’t get it right, the consequences are severe.”

One day, Dugan said she’d heard that at -60 degrees, you could take a mug of boiling water outside, fling the water into the air, and the water would not touch the ground.

“I said, ‘You’re making that up,’” Leiserowitz recalled. So he and Dugan got a cup of boiling water and headed outside.

“We flung it up in the air — and the water vanished,” Leiserowitz said. “It made this incredible sound. It’s so cold and the air is so dry, it vaporizes the water.”

In the end, all of these cold roads lead back to campus, where Mother Nature has any number of winter tricks to play. Some scientists, including Wettlaufer, said their frigid adventures elsewhere make New England winters much easier to endure.

Maruyama wasn’t so sure about that. “It’s amazing, but sometimes it feels much colder in New Haven,” she said. “I think it’s the humidity. At the South Pole, we had the right gear, and the air is very dry. It’s a different kind of cold, I guess.”

Photos: Yale researchers share some of their coldest moments

Anthony Leiserowitz and Darcy Dugan conducted research in villages in Alaska's Northwest Arctic Borough.
Darcy Dugan prepares to conduct an experiment with a cup of boiling water in -60 degree weather.
Dugan flings the water into the air and it vaporizes.
Reina Maruyama, front row and waving, is shown with other members of the IceCube collaboration. (Photo by Robert Schwarz, NSF)
1 of 1