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Alaska bush pilot makes history, enriches science with expeditions over both poles

Colleen Mondor
Alaska bush pilot Art Mortvedt, who owns a lodge in the Brooks Range, is the first person to cross to cross both the North and South poles in a single-engine aircraft. His contributions to science as a citizen researcher have left a mark. Alaska Dispatch illustration

It's been about a month now since Alaska pilot Art Mortvedt crossed the Geographic North Pole in his Cessna 185, becoming the first pilot to cross both poles in a single-engine aircraft. Mortvedt, who with his wife owns and operates the Peace of Selby Wilderness Lodge in the Brooks Range during the summers and calls Manley Hot Springs home in the off season, has flown more than 20 missions to Antarctica and purchased his aircraft, the "Polar Pumpkin" after its years of service at the South Pole.

Even though this member of the Explorers Club has had many adventures, he hoped to accomplish something different when flying in the Arctic:

When I flew the Polar Pumpkin to the South Pole back in 1999, I had the passing thought of how neat it might be to fly that same airplane also to the North Pole.  It was a personal goal taking seed. With the progression of events, the Polar Pumpkin came up for sale, I bought it, and now have recently realized my goal, germinated so many years ago. But I wanted my flight to the North Pole to be more than the realization of this personal quest. I actually wanted to accomplish something more than burning up tanks of gas. So, with my personal connections from various scientific expeditions over the years - both in the Arctic and the Antarctic - I was able, with the help of many people, to put together a science program that I would hope to be credible and useful.

The experiments Mortvedt has been involved in during the last three years of North Pole attempts have been varied and supported by governmental institutions and academia. In 2012 he collected 360 gigabytes of hyperspectral imagery for NASA, which is currently under analysis. This year he flew gelatine filters for the Institute of Ecology at the University of Innsbruck that were used for sampling Arctic airborne microbes, as part of a European research project involving young people called "Sparking Science."

Specific to his flight, Mortvedt's website explains that, "... the atmosphere has been recognized as a possible habitat for microbial life with extreme conditions such as low temperature, low nutrient conditions, low pressure, high radiation levels, etc. Despite the harsh conditions we find microbial communities where active metabolism and reproduction is still possible."

The samples collected by the gelatine filters will provide more insight into the type of communities that exist in an Arctic environment.

Closer to home, this year Mortvedt collected air sample data on black carbon for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His assistant for this study, Dr. Cathy Cahill, is a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the Geophysical Institute and a self-proclaimed "aerosol geek." Her research focuses on atmospheric aerosols and specifically how they impact global climate and human health. Her graduate student, Tara Craft, helped Art with the instrument that was necessary for the flight.

Aerosols are minute particles suspended in the atmosphere that in large enough concentrations can be seen, especially when they are of the black-particle variety and spread over Arctic ice. Created by both natural and human sources, aerosols can either reflect or absorb the sun's radiation, depending on their type. This absorption and radiation is how they directly affect the climate but the degree to which they do so is still being studied.

Mortvedt's flight was a perfect opportunity to gather more data.

There are two main types of aerosols, sulfates and black carbon, which are especially significant. "We care about them because they influence the albedo (or reflectivity) of the Arctic surface," explains Cahill, "and are one of the largest sources of climate change."

Sulfates come primarily from the burning of coal and oil and as they scatter solar radiation, tend to have a cooling affect on the planet. Black carbon is produced by industrial processes, primarily the combustion of diesel and biofuels. They absorb solar radiation and produce a warming influence on the atmosphere. While sulfate emissions have reduced in recent years due to regulatory action from the U.S. and other countries, black carbon emissions have steadily risen, as they have since this Industrial Revolution, largely because of increased emissions from Asia.

The equipment on the Polar Pumpkin collected real-time data measuring the black carbon, which Cahill hopes will be available quickly. She also intends to complete some elemental analysis, which will take several months. Having the data itself, though, is already something to be happy about.

"It is very hard to get aerosol data in the Arctic due to the lack of infrastructure in the area," Cahill said, "so Art's flight provided us with a unique snapshot of the black carbon aerosols in the atmosphere near the North Pole."

Modern day Renaissance man

With more than 40 years in the Brooks Range, his nearly two-dozen trips to Antarctica and participation in six expeditions to Greenland, Art Mortvedt has already proven himself many times over as an explorer. But with his successful efforts to incorporate science into his North Pole flights, he may well have made a far larger mark in the aviation world then he ever intended.

"Perhaps one of the main reasons that I wish to incorporate science into my expedition activities is to promulgate the concept of 'citizen scientist,'" Mortvedt recently told Alaska Dispatch, "to show that all of us with a humble education, but a strong passion, can make worthwhile contributions to scientific knowledge."

While the Arctic might have been navigated decades ago by the likes of Ben Eielson and George Wilkins, the world of polar science is still full of unknowns. With the success of the Polar Pumpkin, Art Mortvedt shows just how much aviation has to offer as we strive to learn more about the planet. His efforts are a 21st century way of keeping aviation relevant and reminding us how much it can contribute to what we know about the world we fly over every day.

You can find out more about all of the Polar Pumpkin’s North Pole flights as well as Mortvedt’s most recent flight logs at the PolarFlight website.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com