Matthew Sturm has studied the Arctic for 38 years, in recent times concentrating on how climate changes affect ice and snow cover, permafrost thawing, and shrub and tree cover. He has published 100 academic papers and has led more than 25 research expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic. He has also authored two Scientific American articles—"Meltdown in the North" (October 2003) and "Arctic Plants Feel the Heat" (May 2010)—as well as written blogs for the Expeditions channel on the SA Blog Network. But Sturm, senior scientist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Fairbanks, Alaska, had not done two things in his notable career: taken an outlandish trek to explore the human history of the North or written a narrative book.

Now he has done both. Sturm has just published Finding the Arctic (University of Alaska Press), which chronicles a 4,000-kilometer snowmobile adventure that he and six companions took from Fairbanks to Baker Lake on Hudson Bay in Canada. Their purpose was to see firsthand the places where great adventurers made discoveries and great events altered history.

Of course, Sturm also took careful note of changes he perceived in the Arctic landscape he knows so well. Scientific American asked him what he witnessed, and what that revealed to him.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

In the book's introduction, you say that many people have one of two clichéd views of life in the North: individuals vying against harsh though beautiful terrain or individuals living an isolated existence marred by alcoholism and violence. What were you hoping to find?

There's a lot of historical and cultural context that gives a larger picture of the North. I wanted the book to broaden people's sense of the place. Also, today a lot of people read about the Arctic as the canary in the coal mine for climate change. That's important—changing sea ice, changing lake ice, changing snow cover, increasing shrubs—but I wanted the book to enrich that picture, by describing those changes through the human lives that experience them. Part of the trip, too, was to get out of the day-to-day, academic context of research on climate change—to get some introspection from a geologic standpoint.

Can you give us some examples?

One example from history was related to Samuel Hearne, who explored the Canadian Arctic in the 1700s. He and his party traveled along the tree line. That gave them animals to hunt. There was a way to make fires. That tree line is now a huge, broad, brush-filled ecozone, an example of what is happening in different places.

Baker Lake on Hudson Bay, where we ended, was notable, too. It used to be a little, tiny outpost. It's pretty modern now. When we rolled in we hadn't seen any signs of humans—a track in the snow or anything human—for weeks on end. Then we picked up one snow machine track about a day's ride out. We started following it, but then we got caught in a whiteout. Then all of a sudden there was this big sign, "Welcome to Baker Lake." There's a school now that's modern. People are driving around in cars and trucks. We checked into a hotel, which was a novelty. And we caught a turboprop jet out of there.

Sturm and his companions approach LaChute River in Yukon territory. Credit: Matthew Sturm

How about the effects on people's way of life?

On Hudson Bay the ice is nowhere near as reliable as it used to be for hunters. If you hunt on the ice for seals, you look for what's called "land-fast ice." The big danger when hunting on the ice isn't that you'll fall through; it's that the big piece you're on will break away and you can't get back. That's true across the Arctic. As the ice thins, its reliability gets worse. The risk factor goes up. You get breakouts. This is documented in scientific papers, too; the periods on Hudson Bay, being fairly far south, when the ice is reliable are much less frequent.

People in the North are talking about these things. Because they live so close to the land, they have a strong sense of what's changing. You used to go somewhere and you could get across the [frozen] lake in October or November, but now you can't get across till December. The date that you can travel over the ice is a pretty salient memory for generations of people: when freeze-up comes, when break-up comes. The shifts in those dates are significant; most of the lakes are definitely freezing up later and breaking up sooner.

Did any of the conditions affect your own travel?

We were most nervous crossing Great Bear Lake, which is bigger than Massachusetts. It took us three days to get across. We expected good ice, and we had that. But what we didn't expect was a snow gradient on the surface; there was snow on the south side but it can get blown clear on the north end. If you get caught and there's no snow, and you have no studs on your tracks, which we did not, glare ice is very difficult to move across—you get no traction, you just spin. We ran into that. We had just enough snow to patch together a route to get to land.

The final night of camping during the two-month trip, near Baker Lake by Hudson Bay. Credit: Matthew Sturm

Now that you've had some time to reflect on the journey, what strikes you most?

On one hand, you feel like you're on a land that somehow seems timeless—it's snow and rock. On the other hand, you're standing in a place where, 12,000 years ago, there was an ice cap several thousand feet thick. Profound changes do sweep across the Earth. And that, for me, was a profound feeling. It leaves you thinking: "Hmm, this whole climate change thing—it's bad for humans but the Earth will probably adapt." It changes your perspective.

What will you be doing next?

I'm doing a project on ice roads, which combines economics and cryospheric science. A paper in Science said that "the climate is changing. Ice roads are dead." That seems like a no-brainer. But I think that's wrong. What kills you on ice roads is financial risk, not the actual ice. I'm working with an economist from Babson College. There is generally enough ice on these lakes that you can get your stuff through. But your risk is going up. The harder part of the equation is the economics of the decisions about risk. It's different work for me, and I'm enjoying it.