The Virtual Arctic

Personalizing The Arctic

When it comes to documenting the changes in the Arctic, many scientists rely on metrics that lack a human face. Ice cores, for example, reveal which atmospheric gases were prevalent thousands of years ago. Air measurements tell what particles are present and where they came from. Glacial ice isotope measurements can reveal information about trends in atmospheric temperature to those who understand the science. But for non-scientists, the data that pours out of the Arctic is, at best, layered and technical and, at worst, so removed from their experiences they choose to ignore it.

Video: Dr. Shepson Discusses Arctic Stories

Bringing The Arctic To The Lower 48

Two men are working to change that. Dr. Paul Shepson, professor of analytical and atmospheric chemistry at Purdue University and Peter Lourie, a Vermont-based adventure writer, want you to experience the Arctic in the most personal way possible (short of visiting, that is): via the Internet. Meet Arctic Stories, an online equivalent of a beautiful coffee table book brimming with tales and images of those who live and/or  work in the far north.

A Portal To The Far North

Video: Amazing Bowhead Whaling Stories

Like a coffee table book, this website is heavy on visual and light on the written word. But the visuals consist of compelling videos of interviews with a diversity of people intimately familiar with this remote and mysterious landscape, including scientists, and native people.

Close Encounters With A Polar Bear

Take Geoff York, Arctic polar bear expert for the World Wildlife Fund. York has shared the ice with bears throughout his career, but his closest encounter was almost his last. York and colleagues were investigating three polar bear dens on Pingok Island in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, and they entered a den they thought was empty. They were wrong. A female bear stood, hissing, 20 feet from York. He fumbled for the .22 holstered onto his chest when his leg broke through the ground and he fell on his back. The bear charged, towering over York as he envisioned his impending death. Just as he expected to be torn to shreds, the helicopter pilot fired the engine and scared the bear away.

In one of myriad stories on the site, York recounts the experience in measured, humble tones. He's both serious and grateful, and his respect for the bear is clear. Watching the interview makes you want to watch more—and not just of York. After all, there are six categories, each featuring scientists, conservationists, native people, and other experts.

Myriad Videos

Video- Mike Lockhart, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services

The categories include:

• Science • Sea Ice • Wildlife • Arctic Life • Climate • People

An Arctic Perspective

The intent is simple, says Shepson.

"The idea is to hear about climate change and climate change impacts from those members of the scientific community who understand it best and from Arctic Native people who have watched change in the Arctic occur over the decades," he says.

The lives of those people and the vitality of their culture depends on sea ice, and as climate change contributes to sea ice loss, the Inupiaq way of life will change dramatically.

Dual Goals: Arctic Education and Protection

Arctic Stories strives to achieve dual goals: to document that which exists today for posterity and to educate—in real time—Americans and others about the Arctic to galvanize support for climate change research and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, says Lourie.

"The idea is to have a repository of stories that will grow," says Lourie. "So much is changing and could be lost  And yet somehow if the stories of those living and working there today can draw people to the site and demystify the Arctic, we might begin to really appreciate what we have.  Then we can protect it."

Virtual Education

By creating Arctic Stories, the pair wants to "bring the Arctic to people who know nothing about it," they say. That includes teachers, students, city dwellers and rural folks—anyone with access to an Internet connection.

See And Be Seen

And now they find themselves at a critical juncture. The site is live. It's comprehensive and compelling. And it needs to be seen!

Creating a buzz and building an audience that checks back regularly is among the biggest challenges of the project, which is funded by National Science Foundation grants, says Lourie. A celebrated children's book author who met Dr. Shepson through a mutual friend (who is now married to Dr. Shepson), Lourie shares the atmospheric chemist's reverence for the Arctic.

Adventures Make For Great Stories

Lourie wrote a book about his adventures in the Arctic with Dr. Shepson called Arctic Thaw and has recently published Whaling Season, another children's book about an Arctic whale scientist living and working with the Iñupiaq Eskimos,His research trips to the north with Dr. Shepson culminated with the creation of Arctic Stories. Lourie conducted all of the interviews featured on the site and, using Final Cut Pro, edited them into digestible lengths.

Racing The Clock

And though they are patient, they want to play a big role in promoting the region—before climate change drastically alters arctic lives and landscapes. "This is one of the things people don't understand about climate change," says Shepson.  "The climate scientists are trying to communicate there is going to be massive change. And humans are change averse."  But, as Shepson is quick to point out, "The Arctic will thrive even as the ice melts," and these two men will be there to document those changes in Arctic Stories.  —Rachel Walker