Professor Kenji Yoshikawa travelled 3,500 miles by snowmachine. He traveled to Shaktoolik (poplation 223), Koyuk (population 299), Holy Cross (population 204), and a hundred other villages scattered across Alaska. Make no mistake about it: 3,500 miles on a snowmachine is no picnic. The snowmachine is only marginally superior to the pogo stick for long-distance travel. Its suspension converts bone-breaking bumps to bone-jarring bumps. To claim that a snowmachine's fairing blocks wind is to claim that a sieve holds water. Seasoned riders welcome the insulation of an ice-covered beard.
"I go by snowmachine," Kenji says, "because the kids like it." And so he arrives in villages normally reached by bush plane, a stranger with a heavy Japanese accent showing up in the twilight of a winter afternoon with a supersized snowmachine towing a sled full of drilling gear. The kids, Kenji says, like the big machines. His arrival becomes an event. He finds the principal of the village school, or a teacher, or a school maintenance man. Between them, they pick a spot near the school. Kenji assembles his drilling rig. He fires up its motor. His drill bites into frigid earth, into permafrost. In most of these villages, the ground below three feet of depth has not thawed in at least twenty thousand years. Some of it has not thawed in more than thirty thousand years.
The first three feet of ground, called the active layer, lies on top of a hard foundation of frozen earth, hundreds of feet thick. The active layer thaws each summer. As Alaska warms, this thin veneer of thawing ground will thicken. When it thickens, foundations will be compromised. Homes will slowly sink into the ground. Roads will collapse. Surface waters will drain into newly thawed soils. "The kids in the smaller villages have seen permafrost on eroding river banks," Kenji tells me. "Some have seen it when they dig holes. They see it in graves." What they see is exposed ice lenses and vertical wedges of ice, frozen ground water, water that seeped into the ground and then froze in place when mammoths wandered the surface.
When he drills, Kenji passes around handfuls of frozen earth. "The children feel it melt in their hands," he says. "They feel the moisture."
He lowers temperature recorders into the hole. Over five years, he has set up more than eighty permafrost observatories next to schools scattered across the far north. Kenji, along with everyone else who understands permafrost and climate change, expects the ground temperatures to increase. But this will not happen quickly. So far, most of his holes have not warmed at all. A few have warmed by a tenth of a degree. The kids need more action. He drills a second hole, this one going down only a few feet, just through the active layer. He inserts a clear tube full of water, a frost tube. In spring, the kids will see the water in the tube melt. In autumn they will see it freeze. If there is heavy snow insulating the ground, the frost tube will stay frozen longer in spring or freeze slower in autumn.
Follow up messages from teachers are not uncommon: "December 2nd the frost tube read 34 and the snow depth was 40 cm. The grade 8 students can't wait until it's their turn to go out and take the measurements, even when it's very cold outside."
The children of Alaska's villages face certain challenges. Too many of them suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome. The lucky ones face nothing more complex than integrating with the modern world from an isolated village with few jobs, with limited outside contact, with tenuous links to modern economies, with futures as questionable as the temperature of permafrost.
From a teacher in Oscarville, Alaska (population 61): "The amazing and wonderful thing from Kenji's visit is that he single-handedly captured the attention of all our students in grades 5-12 for 45 minutes. Short of setting myself on fire and doing cartwheels across the room I really have not been able to accomplish that feat."
Here is another amazing and wonderful thing about Kenji, about Professor Yoshikawa: He has a secret identity.
"I don't tell them," he says. "It is funny. They see the videos with me standing right there and they don't know it is me."
His secret identity, his alter ego, is Tunnel Man, the star in a series of quirky but remarkable educational videos on frozen ground. From the shadows of an ice tunnel, Tunnel Man emerges. His head is clean-shaven. His cape billows behind him. A red T stands against a yellow shield on his chest. His superhero black boots are in fact gum boots of the sort worn by fishermen throughout Alaska. He looks nothing short of ridiculous. And then the backbeat picks up and he starts to rap: "Changes to the permafrost, changes in the weather. Frozen in the permafrost from now to whenever." Another sample: "Where the ground surface warms or has no insulation, ground ice melts, permafrost degradation." The video footage flashes between images of Tunnel Man rapping in full custom, Kenji's shaven head covered in mosquitoes, houses sinking into degraded permafrost, and computer-generated images illustrating the workings of frozen ground.
Professor Kenji Yoshikawa in tight underwear and a cape, in black gum boots, rapping, does not appear dignified. But dignity is not the point. Educating village children about their changing world is the point. Inspiring them about science is the point. The kids download the videos. They laugh, but they listen. The message they hear is about science, but it is also about change. The ground under their villages is changing. Their lives are changing. Their futures are not the futures that their parents or grandparents faced.
And here is another key point that both Professor Kenji Yoshikawa and Tunnel Man bring to the villages: Village kids matter. A scientist from Japan thinks village kids matter enough to justify 3,500 miles by snowmachine. Whether or not they become scientists, they know this: A Japanese man came on a snowmachine with a message of enthusiasm and a hands-on approach to life and left behind a permafrost observatory and, even more importantly, a sense that what happens right here matters, that this isolated village is not alone in a warming world.
Bill Streever, author of the New York Times bestseller, Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places, lives in Anchorage.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing