Arctic researchers brave wilderness, giant swarm of sky blackening mosquitoes

Grant Burningham

You learn to deal with mosquitoes at Toolik Field Station, Alaska, a tiny research facility near the Arctic CircleShannan Sweet, a PhD candidate studying Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, has spent four months at the station for the last three years as she studies the dramatic changes to the vegetation as the area warms. She hikes onto the permafrost 6 or 7 days a week. You have to make other adjustments that far north -- the sun never goes down, it's miles to the nearest town and there's only one road. But the mosquitoes; those require real stamina.

"100-percent DEET," Sweet says, "We don't even bother with the 20-percent stuff." And then there's the head nets, like the kind worn by beekeepers, and the latex gloves that the little buggers can't bite through.

Despite the precautions, this year's crop of mosquitoes has taken Sweet and the other scientists off guard. "It was the most anyone has ever seen," she says.

A perfect storm of a really wet year, late snowpack and then blazing high temperatures seem to have created the largest brood of the annoying flying bugs that anyone has seen there. She recorded the video on the worst of the worst. A day when "you could smash 50 of them on your body if you swatted," she recalls.

Mosquitoes are an important part of the ecosystem in the Arctic: They pollinate several plants and live off nectar, most of the time. But they prefer the protein they can get from blood, and that's where Sweet and her team come in.

When asked how many of the pests she's killed, she sighs, "Oh my gosh, thousands, and that's just from swatting, we don't use bug spray, that would be pointless." At camp, they use electric fly swatters, too. But it's unlikely to make a dent.