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Foothills of the White Mountains

Life at the Last Frontier is different than that in the continental US. This article is about a real life story.

  1. A great place for Arctic research
  2. Student researchers from Houston
  3. Where their balloons landed
  4. How to retrieve the payloads in the Alaska wilderness
  5. The Alaskan way
  6. When the payload lands on military land

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A great place for Arctic research

This March, our research group had undergraduates from the University of Houston as visitors. These young men and women had built low cost instruments that they launched on balloons. They had installed a receiver station on the top of the roof of the Geophysical Institute using our group’s lab for access and they weather sensitive hardware and data storage. They launched most of their balloons out of Chatanika, a small community on the Steese Highway 27.1 miles (44 km) away from Fairbanks. Under good road conditions, it is a 41 minutes drive.

Alaska Geophysical Institute tours
Geophysical Institute (middle) and Akasofu Building (left) as seen from south south west. There are free tours of the labs in summer

Student researchers from Houston

The undergraduates had built instruments to track stars, measure stratospheric ozone, investigate physical properties of the aurora, take air samples, just to mention a few of their experiments. Of course, not all instruments flew on the same launch. Most of their launches had to be done at night as the objects of interest like stars or the aurora are only visible during darkness. The balloons were to lift the instruments into the atmosphere up to about 30 km height. At this height, the balloon bursts and the instruments descend on a parachute.

fashion blogger over 40 in Casual Friday outfit with sport pants and faux fir sweater
Zara faux fur sweater, Adidas pants, and Harley Davidson booties (all own)


Typically, the time from the beginning of the ascend to reaching the ground takes about 2 hours. During the ascend balloon fist travels vertically against gravity due to buoyancy of the helium in the balloon. During the descend, it travels vertically due to gravity. During both ascend and descend, the balloon also travels horizontally as winds displace it with different speeds and into different directions. Thus, launch and landing site differ. The receiver on the roof of the Geophysical Institute served to record GPS signals of the exact position of the sonde. Signals were sent every 3-10 seconds. Thus, the students know exactly the landing coordinates to retrieve their instruments.

mature style blogger in striped sweater and sport trousers
Front view of Casual Friday work outfit with Zara faux fur sweater, Adidas pants, and Harley Davidson booties (all own)

Where their balloons landed

Last Friday, four research teams of these undergraduate students reported about their experiments and about the launches they had already done in the Atmospheric Sciences Informal Seminar. One student of the group casually mentioned that they had successfully retrieved their payloads except for three. “We know exactly were they are. One is 200 yards off Miller’s house in Central, the other is in Two Rivers, unfortunately far off the road. We will drive to Two Rivers this afternoon to retrieve that payload.” “Two Rivers will be easy. There live a lot of dog mushers out there who will be happy to help” one of the Alaskans said. “Yes, I think we will have some fun” the student replied with excitement in his voice. He smiled all over the face in anticipation of the dog sled ride.

Alaska foothills of the White Mountains
Foothills of the White Mountains

How to retrieve the payloads in the Alaska wilderness

“Central is a problem” said his professor with a very serious face. “To get there one has to go over the mountains.” “No, it’s easy. You just tail the snow plow. It leaves Fairbanks in the morning and turns back from Circle at 3 pm. My student drove out to Circle in February to deploy air quality instruments right after the big snow storm. He can give you the exact departure times. If you stay behind the plow you will be fine. The road is two lane to Central. The rest to Circle is small as a lane. But you only need to get to Central, right. Of course, staying overnight when you can’t find the payload until the plow returns is a logistic problem to solve.” I said. A student asked “How far is it to Central?” “Only 122 miles (197 km). It’s an about 3 hour drive in summer” one of the Alaskans replied.

The professor turned to his students “We will get into trouble with the rental car contract.” An Alaskan colleague said in an upset voice “What are these rental car agency people thinking? It’s Alaska, there are unpaved road! As a matter of fact most roads are unpaved and dirt roads even exist in town.” “Yes, it’s a dirt road shortly behind the Poker Flat – the rocket range you visited. But there are rental car places in town that permit driving unpaved roads” I said and mentioned the name of one of these places.

style over 40 woman in faux fur top and gym pants
Front view of outfit with Zara faux fur sweater, Adidas pants, and Harley Davidson booties (all own)

The Alaskan way

“I always rent a truck there when I plan to drive unpaved roads. Despite my car has a four-wheel drive, I just prefer a big truck out there. It’s just about safety.” “Thanks, but I can’t sign to let the students get there because of safety. They aren’t Alaskans used to icy roads, driving on snow and passing the summit in the White Mountains.” “Yes, Summit is critical. The path may close fast by blowing snow. Thus, it is critical to stay behind the snow plow.” “Have you seen how fast they drive?” a guy from Texas asked with disbelieve in his voice and face. The Alaskans smiled, looked at each other, and then at the Texans and knotted.

Speed limit is the limit for the snow plow. #Alaska Click To Tweet

“We wonder why the balloon got there in the first place. It flew about 4 hours instead of 2.” “A lot of weather balloons go down there” a colleague replied. “That’s a good thing for you to get your payload back. People in the Interior are used to finding radiosondes and know how to bring them back.”

View over Fairbanks and the Tanana Flats
View from the Akasofu building over Fairbanks into the Tanana Flats to show the slightly pink light

When the payload lands on military land

“So, where is the third one?” someone asked. “In the Tanana Flats out there.” One of the students said pointing with his finger outside the window. The Tanana Flats glowed innocently in light pink in the Sun with the 158 miles (254 km) bee line away Alaska Range in the background. “We will need a helicopter to fly us out. There are no roads!” “That’s military land to a large part. If it’s on their land, you may be lucky when they find it summer.” “Or someone finds it in fall during the bison hunt.”

If you find their payload, please let them know. Details for contact are on the payload. Thanks.

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Photos of me: G. Kramm

Photos of locations: N. Mölders

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