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Frosty ambition

UND Atmospheric Sciences graduate finds hot opportunity at one of the world’s coldest locations

Janelle Hakala
Meteorologist Janelle Hakala takes a break from her forecasting duties to snap a photo with her trusty UND flag. The photo was taken at exactly 90 degrees south – the Geographic South Pole. Photo courtesy of Janelle Hakala.

Janelle Hakala just landed her second real-world weather gig after graduating from UND with a degree in atmospheric sciences this spring. Her new job won’t put her in front of a television green screen or at a desk in a regional weather service hub.

She’s 90 degrees south and 9,300 feet above sea level, where the temperature has never climbed above 9.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

Her new “office” is the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

“I always love a good adventure, traveling and a new challenge, so when I saw the job advertised I thought, why not?” the Ely, Minn., native said. “It was an opportunity to pursue one of my passions (weather) in one of the most extreme environments in the world.”

Hakala is one of the newest members of the United States Antarctic Program’s meteorology team, managed by the National Science Foundation. The program maintains three year-round research stations in Antarctica.

This November, Hakala found herself at the coldest one.

“It felt incredible to initially step out into Antarctica. I couldn’t believe it at first,” she remembers. “We didn’t have a normal window to look out of like commercial flights, so you didn’t really see anything the whole flight. But when the plane door opened and I stepped onto the ice, and felt the chilly air and saw just bright white – it was just beautiful.”

Most of the research conducted at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station revolves around astrophysics, utilizing some of the planet’s most powerful telescopes. But the aim of the meteorology team is providing support for aircraft by taking hourly weather observations, sending up weather balloons and completing essential quality control checks.

Hakala will spend at least the next year battling brutal cold, elevation and 24/7 daylight during the South Pole summer – and complete darkness in the winter. But one of the biggest hurdles she’ll face is non-elemental.

“Being away from family and friends for the year,” she said. “That could be challenging.”

Janelle Hakala
UND Atmospheric Sciences alum Janelle Hakala recently traveled to Antarctica to spend at least one year as a support meteorologist for the National Science Foundation’s United States Antarctic Program. The primary research of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (seen in the background) is astrophysics, housing some of the world’s most powerful telescopes. Photo courtesy of Janelle Hakala.

North to South

As a UND-trained leader in action, Hakala is already tackling her subzero responsibilities head on.

“My time at UND helped immensely for this trip,” she said. “The UND Atmospheric Science program and curriculum provided me with sufficient knowledge to apply what I learned in school to my job.”

Courses in math, physics and meteorology – in which Hakala achieved excellent grades and, ultimately, magna cum laude graduation status – were just the beginning for the aspiring scientist. As her advisor and mentor, Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Gretchen Mullendore, can attest, this is a woman hungry for experience.

“Janelle fully embraces life, and while at UND, she took advantage of all sorts of opportunities,” Mullendore said, and she wasn’t kidding. Hakala participated in summer research at the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, interned with the National Weather Service, served as a STEM ambassador through a NASA Space Grant, and was a part of the leadership team for the American Meteorological Society UND Student Chapter.

“Along the way she would reflect on what she liked and what she didn’t, leading her to the decision that she would love to be more involved in field work,” Mullendore said.

Atmospheric Sciences Professor Mark Askelson says he knows Hakala will succeed as an Antarctic meteorologist “both because of her skill set and her character,” and Assistant Professor Aaron Kennedy agrees. He describes her as intelligent, hard-working, and “extremely kind.” He joked that although his first two descriptors would serve her well in anywhere, the last one may be even more important in Antarctica.

“In a setting where you are isolated from the rest of the world, she’ll not only be working, but also living with her colleagues,” he said.

Kennedy is right— it’s tight quarters. And during the winter, the population of the South Pole Station will drop to just 40 people.

“We will all become pretty close, I’m sure,” Hakala mused. “Being in the small, close-knit, great community that I found at UND really prepared me for that.”

Janelle Hakala
Janelle Hakala leaves the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station balloon inflation facility, preparing to launch a weather balloon – one of her many meteorological responsibilities. Photo courtesy of Janelle Hakala.

Warmest regards

Just a few weeks in, Hakala is embracing her South Pole journey. The thermometer may drop to an average 76 degrees below zero in the winter – yikes – but this is her perfect environment.

“I was interested in this job because, unlike some weather jobs, I wasn’t stuck in an office all day,” she said. “It takes me outside every day, multiple times, and it gets back to the basics and foundation of weather, actually having a human weather observer.”

So she’ll continue her work – dashing around the sheet ice of Antarctica, bundled to the brim, releasing weather balloons and keeping pilots safe.

“It may not be everyone’s cup of tea,” she said, “but it’s just another fun adventure for me.”