Profile: Matthew Sturm

Matthew Sturm

By Diana Campbell

Matthew Sturm can’t choose one thing he likes best about snow, because it would be like choosing which of his children he likes best.

“I love the intellect of the science,” said Sturm, a geophysicist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. “It’s pure and simple.”

Sturm is one of the world’s snow experts, having driven thousands of miles on a snowmachine for winter research missions that last for months.

“Why does snow curl off a roof?” he said. “How can an avalanche move across a flat surface so far? Why does spring snow pour like sugar?”

Sturm grew up in New Mexico, where he would escape to the mountains as a boy. “That’s where I first saw snow,” he said.

This is a snowflake that fell through rain. Photo courtesy of M. Sturm.

At 17, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard and served on an icebreaker that took him to both Antarctica and the Arctic.

Sturm came to UAF in 1981 to work on his Ph.D., studying under Carl Benson, now a GI professor emeritus known for his snow and ice research.

“I was drawn to the North,” Sturm said. “I like the snow. I don’t like the heat.”

He first started studying glaciers, but then switched to snow cover and individual snow grains, he said.

Much of Sturm’s snow research took off while he was at the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory on Fort Wainwright. He has been at the Geophysical Institute for two years now, although he has worked with its scientists frequently during the past 35 years.

Matthew Strum and snow mobile
Matthew Sturm, a snow expert and geophysicist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, stands by his snowmachine during one of his many winter field trips. Photo courtesy of M. Sturm.

Sturm holds patents for two types of snow-measuring gadgets he’s developed, and he is a book author. His most recent book, “Apun: The Arctic Snow,” is for children and has an accompanying teacher guide. He provided his own pen and ink drawings for the book.

“I had written so many scientific papers that got read by just a handful of experts,” Sturm told Geophysical Institute writer Ned Rozell. “A kid’s book is going to have as much of an impact as any scholarly paper I’ll write.”

While doing research on the children’s book, Sturm worked with Inuit elders to understand their snow vocabulary. There are about 71 words for snow in the Inupiat Eskimo language, not hundreds, but those words capture many nuances concerning snow, Sturm said.

Just as Arctic indigenous peoples have adapted to the Arctic, so have northern plants, animals and other living things.

As the northern climate changes, so does its snow. For example, thaws and winter rain can actually create vertical icicle-like formations deep in the snowpack and block tunnels that voles and other critters use. That could force them to the surface, where they are more vulnerable to predators and cold, Sturm said.

“Arctic ecosystems are primed for snow,” Sturm said. “Most plants and living things here have a good relationship with snow.”

And, after many decades of study, so does Sturm.