Depending on Wind and Sun

Cooper Island, Alaska, July 25, 2009 — People frequently mention to me that summer in the Arctic must be really exhilarating because of the “24 hours of daylight”. While this is true, less well known is that the “24 hours of wind” can make living at this latitude somewhat of a chore, no matter how much daylight one experiences. On Alaska’s arctic coast a rather constant wind blows from the northeast during almost all months, maintained by a high pressure system sitting over the Beaufort Sea. This summer has seen winds of strength and duration that are surprising even to Barrow natives, who have had limited opportunities to boat but are finding it good for drying recently harvested caribou on their drying racks.

For me the wind is part of the reality on Cooper Island and one works with it and around it on a regular basis. Guillemot nest sites that need to be lifted are approached from the west side, so they do not catch the wind and flip over. I census from east to west, to avoid having the wind in my face during observations. During our tenting days, the orientation of the tents and windbreaks were dictated by the northeast wind. We placed plywood windbreaks on the northeast side of the tents and the wind would keep them upright for weeks before they fell during one of the rare periods of calm. For the past eight years, however, I have come to enjoy the regular wind, since it means we will have power, from the wind generator first installed in 2002.

Until rather recently, the only need for electrical power on the island was the operation of a small VHF radio. to communicate with friends and colleagues in Barrow.I brought out two or three charged 12V batteries at the beginning of the field season for that purpose, and communications were infrequent and short to save battery power. In the mid-1980s, we purchased some small solar panels, a major upgrade of the island’s infrastructure, but one that did not allow us to charge batteries in the cloudy and shorter days of August — a time when communication is critical because of storms and, recently, bears.

In 2002 we invested in a wind generator (a Southwest Power Air-X), which allowed us to meet the increasing energy demands of the computers, digital cameras, and (beginning in 2003) a satellite phone that have quickly become part of island life. Now, in combination with some recently acquired solar panels, we are able to generate power in almost all weather and light conditions. While for the first few years of this century I simply charged 12V batteries at the base of the wind generator and brought them back to the cabin, since 2005 we have had a battery bank and inverter. With the help of the “furthest north.” 100-yard extension cord, this allows us to have AC power and electric lights in the cabin. A great thing when you want light in late August, after the sun finally goes down, since the thing that just went bump in the night might be a polar bear.

Many field camps in the Arctic (even those of climate change scientists) still rely on drums of fuel to run gasoline generators for camp maintenance. Being able to meet all of our electricity needs through solar and wind power has been very satisfying. However, this summer there has been a minor glitch. Shortly after setting up the power system, I found the inverter had not survived the winter in the cabin. This necessitated a call to my Seattle neighbor and Friends of Cooper Island’s electrical guru, Jim Gamache, who dispatched a new inverter to Barrow. Now, ironically, the only thing stopping the inverter from getting the 25 miles to Cooper Island is the wind, which has been near or above 20 mph for most of the past two weeks. The sailing vessel Ocean Watch, which has been anchored off of Barrow the past week waiting for the opportunity to continue their Northwest Passage (you can monitor their progress at Around the Americas) hopes to drop it off as they pass east on their expedition. Until then I will be carrying 12V batteries to and from the cabin — a good way to be well aware of just how much energy I am using. People would be much more sensitive to their energy demands if every day they had to lug it from its source back to their house.

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