Journey of hope

Portola Valley residents find promise in Arctic ice melt research

Leslie Field of Portola Valley, an inventor and engineer who heads Ice911, and Ice911 research scientist Roman Decca collect samples in the Arctic during the research trip in July. Photo by Carol Sontag

By Kate Daly

Special to the Almanac

Fresh back from measuring ice melt in the Arctic, Carol Sontag is not only alarmed about climate change, she's doing something about it.

It took her more than a day to get from her home in Portola Valley to the tundra last month, where she performed two days of testing, but she found the trip was well worth it because it reinforced her faith in the work of fellow Portola Valley resident Leslie Field.

A University of California-Berkeley, and MIT-trained engineer, Field runs the nonprofit Ice911 in Menlo Park. She is an inventor with 54 U.S. patents whose doctorate in electrical engineering was earned from UC-Berkeley.

For 12 years Ice911 has been experimenting with spreading layers of reflective sand on top of ice in the Sierra Nevada, Minnesota and Alaska to try to slow down the melting process and promote ice build up.

Sontag is a nurse at Palo Alto Unified School District, where over the years she has noticed more and more students are reliant on EpiPens and inhalers. She believes the uptick in endocrine and respiratory illnesses is related to climate change. Extreme weather events, for example, can lead to wildfires, which in turn impact air quality.

The documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" prompted her family to install solar panels, drive hybrid cars, and recycle, but Sontag decided she wanted to be an even better steward of the earth. When she heard about Field's hands-on approach to tackling global warming, Sontag got excited – and involved.

She now serves on Ice911's governing board, and wrote the following account of her recent research trip with Field:

Reflections on a journey to the North

On July 10 I am sitting on a plane bound for Utqiagvik, Alaska (formerly known as Barrow), chosen as an Ice911 test site for the deployment of its reflective silica sand. Climate modeling has shown great promise for Leslie Field's solutions, and the team currently uses several buoys to monitor the thickness and reflectivity of the ice on the North Slope of Alaska close to this town.

Total travel time door-to-door has been close to 30 hours, and as our plane flies over the Arctic I can see first-hand the thinning ice.

We touch down on a runway surrounded by Arctic on one side and bay on the other. The sun is bright, the sky a beautiful blue with crisp cool air.

We stop at Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation research facility to grab our keys to the research dormitory, which houses scientists from all over the world. Some test carbon dioxide or methane levels, others are more interested in Arctic plant and wildlife, but all share a concern for what is happening to our Earth. The large communal kitchen and dining area allow scientists to talk and exchange ideas and research.

We place our belongings in our rooms and don high waterproof boots and warm clothing to set out through the spongy, partially frozen, boggy tundra. At first the yellow tundra looks barren and desolate, but the moment we step into this vast expanse we can see it is teeming with life. Lemmings, hares, birds of all types are visible, and various insects buzz our ears as a snowy owl swoops down to capture prey. Polar bears are at sea ice hunting, but they will soon return to land when the ice is no longer thick enough to support their weight, or isn't close enough to shore. Arctic fox and Caribou also call this place home.

As we hike to the Ice911 test site I think about how much better the weather conditions are today, with a high of 38 degrees, compared with the previous trips this year. Two areas at the lake, each roughly the size of a football field, were treated in March and April, when temperatures ranged between -20 and 5 degrees. Instead of walking, team members used snowmobiles then and looked out for polar bears. As beautiful as these creatures are, we don't want to come in contact with bears that are indiscriminate in what they eat.

After an hour of hiking, we arrive at the lake, which the town has permitted to serve as a test site for three years. In past seasons supercomputer modeling results at this location have shown a slowdown in the melt and even some restoration of the ice that has been lost due to rising carbon dioxide levels and increased temperatures in the Arctic.

Our primary goal is to look for indicators that the test site's reflective sand is shielding the ice and slowing down the melting process. We carefully packed in a drone named "Maverick" to the North Meadow Lake. The drone flew over the control and experimental fields to look at ice albedo or reflectivity.

By recording and analyzing the drone footage, Ice911 research scientist Roman Decca is able to determine that the reflectivity of the experimentally treated ice is greater than the control area. This confirms what computer modeling has shown from earlier testing and is extremely important in the world of climate change since the loss of much of the old reflective polar ice has caused the Earth's temperatures to rise. If we can restore the reflectivity of the ice, it will have a positive impact on the Arctic.

Next we check on some buoys placed to gather data during the winter and spring months in the Arctic, when conditions are at their most challenging.

Over two days we photograph the test site, measure the lake's size, and gather samples of soil, water, ice and reflective material. On our final day we are met with menacing clouds of mosquitoes recently hatched in the Arctic melt ponds.

When we return with our samples, data and video to the research facility, I calculate that I have slept 12 hours in the last three days, but the enduring Arctic sun tricks me into believing that sleep is unnecessary and keeps me moving forward.

The townspeople have come to know and respect the work of Leslie Field and acknowledge her with a smile or a nod when they see her at one of the few restaurants or pushing a grocery cart at the store. They too are facing consequences of sea ice loss with increased flooding, loss of coastal land and thawing of permafrost, which causes destabilization of roads and buildings.

The presence of climate scientists reassures residents of this small town, with an average elevation of 15 feet above sea level, that they are not alone and someone is working on finding solutions.

We drive to the tip of Point Barrow, the northernmost point of the United States. The sea is scattered with icebergs floating in a still ocean. It is a perfect ending to a quick trip, and we relish the few hours taking photos and talking to locals before we board our flight home.


Ice911 is hosting a fundraiser on Thursday, Aug. 30, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Thomas Fogarty Winery in Woodside.

Go to to buy tickets for Restore the Arctic, Research Climate Benefit.

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Like this comment
Posted by Karen Rynewicz
a resident of Corte Madera School
on Aug 30, 2018 at 5:59 pm

Carol - All I can say is you are an amazing woman! It was so lucky to have lunch with you right after you returned from this experience and hear all about it!

Like this comment
Posted by ice melt
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Aug 30, 2018 at 6:03 pm

Thank you so much! May your efforts alleviate some of the worst that awaits our future's hundreds of millions of climate refugees.

Like this comment
Posted by Karen Rynewicz
a resident of Corte Madera School
on Aug 30, 2018 at 6:05 pm

Oops - I meant "I" was so lucky not "It"!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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