UND alum caps year of meteorological work in Antarctica with dedication to UND Atmospheric Sciences mentors
By, Connor Murphy
When UND Today last heard from atmospheric sciences graduate Janelle Hakala in November 2017, she was in the first weeks of a year-long stay at the geographic South Pole.
She anticipated the challenges ahead: being away from friends, family and society; working in one of the coldest places on Earth.
UND helped prepare her for the journey, which was on the top of her mind as she dedicated one of the hundreds of weather probes she launched throughout the year to the faculty and mentors who helped her get there.
Their names now permanently occupy the frozen continent, around 21 miles from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, after ascending 17 miles collecting atmospheric data.
“At UND, we were a pretty small department and a tight-knit group,” she said of the atmospheric sciences crew. “Being part of that unit had me prepared for the small environment of Antarctica. A little bit of everything helped me during my time down there and I owe it all to those who helped me along the way.”
She included the faculty she had as professors, as well as a tribute to the late Leon Osborne, a UND Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor in atmospheric sciences. Chair Mike Poellet said everyone felt honored by the “amazing and creative” gesture.
“It takes a special kind of person to spend a year in that part of the world,” he said.
“I have to admit that I count it among my ‘science nerd brags’ that my name is laying out there, somewhere on the frozen tundra,” Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director Gretchen Mullendore said, who served as Hakala’s advisor. “Janelle has embraced the adventure of exploring the world and I’m incredibly proud to have been one of her mentors as she started out on that journey.”
Hakala’s data collection over the past year played an essential role for the research station, as the “summer” months between November and February signify aircraft arriving with food, supplies, scientists and other support staff. The readouts from twice-daily balloon launches were utilized in an atmospheric model, which served as an aid in forecasts. These observations kept pilots and officials abreast of the latest conditions at 90 degrees south latitude.
During the winter, when there’s zero sunlight and no air travel, Hakala and her team’s launches shifted to directly serve the station. Instruments crucial to the station’s research are vulnerable to wind and extreme temperatures; same goes for the maintenance equipment keeping blowing snow at bay.
“The station also used the data to forecast for food,” she explained from the comforts of her Ely, Minn., home. “We had an elevator to bring food out of storage that didn’t work if temperatures got down to minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so we would pull food a couple days early if needed.”
Without intending the pun, Hakala describes the station as one of the coolest places to live. Despite the extreme conditions, she was outside every day for her job. During those dark, isolated winter months, the southern lights danced and dazzled almost daily. She thoroughly enjoyed her adventure in the “white desert.”
“A lot of people joke that you don’t spend one year there,” she said. “You spend one long day and one long night. I can tell people stories about it, but unless you’re there to experience it, it’s hard to explain.”
Living and working with the same 40 people for months on end; having big celebrations for the annual sunrise in September and the sunset in March; having little resembling a circadian rhythm; remaining physically detached from the outside world; Hakala makes it clear just how different it really was.
Despite the lower amounts of activity during winter—balloon launches happened once a day instead of twice—there were plenty of ways to stay busy. Evening events were reminiscent of how colleges keep freshmen engaged on campus, Hakala said. Activities ranged from basketball to screen printing, and the diverse background of community members left nary a dull moment. The limited population during winter also meant increased responsibility for maintaining the station; Hakala found herself training to be a firefighter weekly and assisting with waste management.
One popular use of free time was planning vacations, Hakala said. Thursday nights were “travel nights,” where people could present the places they’ve been, which proved an excellent source of inspiration.
“I saw what people did in Nepal and the Himalayas,” she recalled. “It looked gorgeous. I had friends who would talk about it; I thought it would be amazing to see the tallest mountains in the world.”
With the station positioned at 9,300 feet above sea level, hiking in Nepal sounded like a great post-Antarctic vacation. Hakala, along with friends she made over the past year, left the southern-most continent in November 2018 for their destination.
The mountain vistas and hospitality of the local guides made her journey in the Himalayas better than hoped, but it was their stop before Nepal that brought back everything she had missed while living in Antarctica.
“The big highlight was getting to New Zealand and having fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said, having spent two weeks on the island nation connecting Antarctica and the rest of the world. “All the smells – you lose those while you’re down there. Seeing flowers and green was great to have again. We also got to have some time at the beach.”
Of the work experiences she’s had around weather sciences and meteorology, her stint in Antarctica affirmed what she’ll be looking for moving forward: something new, exploratory and scientific.
“This was my second job coming out of school and I’m still figuring things out with my career,” she said. “UND gave me an opportunity to do that too. Not only did I feel prepared academically, but I got a chance at UND to be involved and get experience.”
She was part of the UND Weather Update team, an intern at the National Weather Service office in Grand Forks and tried a variety of things within the atmospheric science and meteorology departments that offered her a look into different opportunities with different work.
“Ultimately, they all revolve around science or weather because that’s what I love,” Hakala said.