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Reindeer and Snowflakes: NASA Helps During International Polar Year
Two things that come to mind during wintertime are snowflakes and reindeer. Now, NASA is providing technology to help study both of those in various ways during a kick off of the International Polar Year in Norway.

Photo of a reindeer Image right: During the winter, reindeer scrape away thick layers of snow to find green moss underneath to eat. They need more than 20 pounds of food each day to survive. Credit: U.S. D. A. Forest Service

The International Polar Year (IPY) involves over 60,000 researchers whose purpose is to increase knowledge about the Arctic and the Antarctic. Although there have been two prior IPY events in 1882-83 and 1932-33, as well as the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58, the current event is the first to include a focus on changes in the societies of the Arctic indigenous peoples.

“You can learn a lot from a snowflake but the problem is that so many fall in so many different locations,” said Peter Wasilewski, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. For more than 25 years, Wasilewski has been studying snow and ice, by participation in six Antarctic expeditions and development of a winter camp in Lake Placid, New York. His camp, called "The History of Winter," (HOW) instructs science teachers about snow and ice and is in part funded by a NASA education program. In February 2006, he launched "The Global Snowflake Network (GSN)." The GSN will serve as a Web site for identification of snowflake shapes and will also record wherever snow falls on Earth.

Photo of Dr. Peter Wasilewski Image left: This image of Dr. Peter Wasilewski on one of his Antarctic treks shows just how cold it was. He grew "frozen ice tusks!" Credit: Dr. Peter Wasilewski

Through both the HOW and GSN programs, scientists are enlisting the observations of indigenous reindeer herders in Norway. As a kick-off event that opened the official "Indigenous People International Polar Year" in Norway, Wasilewski and educator Katherine Bender presented over the Internet, real time examination of ice pits at Lake Placid, N.Y. The ice pit study is a visual hands-on analysis of the metamorphic changes in the ice. For example, when ice forms in layers, the ice crystals in layers below can change shape.

“We are trying to produce teams all over the world that look at snow wherever it falls, identify the shape and any other characteristics of the snow, then log the data,” said Wasilewski. “The shape reveals temperature and moisture content in the clouds where the snowflake forms and grows before reaching the ground.” With the establishment of GSN, the goal is to provide a collection network for improved understanding of snow changes across the Arctic, a benefit to both NASA and the reindeer herders.

Still from movie about the International Polar Year and the Global Snowflake Network Image/movie right: Dr. Peter Wasilewski introduces the Global Snowflake Network (GSN) in this video. + Click to view movie about the Global Snowflake Network Credit: NASA

In Norway, NASA scientist Nancy Maynard has been working with the EALÁT program (translated as Reindeer Pastoralism in a Changing Climate) that examines how climate change affects reindeer pastoralism. Pastoralism is the name given to the practice in which people care for and domesticate animals, such as reindeer.

The EALÁT program includes the Sámi University College-Nordic Sámi Institute, the Association of World Reindeer Herders and other organizations such as the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry. These organizations are located in the heart of the Sámi region, Guovdageaidnu-Kautokeino, Norway.

Dr. Peter Wasilewski and Tony Gow cutting an ice block from the Cascade Lake Image left: Dr. Peter Wasilewski and Tony Gow cutting an ice block from the Cascade Lake. Credit: NASA

So why study changes in snow and reindeer? Currently, the warmer Arctic climate is making it harder for herds to find winter food and travel across the Arctic. The data gathered from the partners could provide reindeer herders with improved information for better predicting and adapting to changing snow conditions. Knowing these snow conditions is important because they can indicate availability of forage and mobility for herding.

Reindeer herd in Norway in the snow. Image right: Reindeer herd in Norway in the snow. Credit: Dr. Svein Mathiesen, Sami University College.

Maynard has also been collaborating with herders and EALÁT partners on NASA satellite and ground-based data studies of Arctic pastures. The project uses data from the Moderate Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The addition of data from the GSN will enable better sharing of snow conditions and snowflake formation to all partners.

The herders are using equipment supplied by NASA that includes instructions on how to collect data, collection cards with snowflake shapes (so that the types and shapes of snowflakes can be identified and categorized), magnifying glasses for observation, and an electronic device called a "thermochron" that provides continuous temperature and time records.

NASA scientists view knowledge from indigenous reindeer herders as valuable in studies to better understand the changes in snow across the North, both from a historical perspective as well as providing real-time ground data gathering in the Arctic.

Group photo of the HOW team at Cascade Lake Image right: Group photo of the HOW team at Cascade Lake.

Over the next year, NASA and its partners, including doctoral student Inger Marie G. Eira of the Saami University College and the EALAT project, will collect reindeer and snow data in the field. They will then combine the data sets and collaborate on co-production of their findings on snow for an improved understanding of snow changes. “We feel that this partnership is a good example of the importance of combining indigenous traditional knowledge with scientific observations for better understanding changes in the Arctic as well as the significance of indigenous peoples’ institutions in producing and managing knowledge about the Arctic,” said Maynard.

Related Links:

+ NASA's International Polar Year site
+ History of Winter
+ Global Snowflake Network
+ Indigenous Peoples' International Polar Year
+ Norwegian IPY EALAT project
+ Norwegian IPY project
+ IPY-EALAT - Snowflake Online Workshop
+ Dr. Wasilewski's research

Rob Gutro
Goddard Space Flight Center