After hiking in Denali, Tanya and I rode the Alaska Railroad to Anchorage and then drove across the Kenai Peninsula to the town of Seward. This marked the southernmost point of my nearly 1000-mile overland trip from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Gulf of Alaska in the south.
The route from Prudhoe Bay to Seward. Courtesy of Google Maps.
From Seward we embarked on a 3-day kayak camping trip in Kenai Fjords National Park. The scenery was spectacular, with mountains and glaciers, deep blue sky, swirling mist and clouds, and wildlife everywhere: otters, seals, whales, sea lions and all types of birds.
Humpback whale in Aialik Bay, Kenai Fjords National Park.
Kayaking by Aialik Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park
Finally, sadly, our trip was over and it was time to...
The Alaska adventure continues! After leaving Toolik I spent 2 days in Fairbanks. First I hiked to the U of Alaska’s Large Anima Research Station and then, after picking up Tanya at the airport, we went to the World Eskimo Indian Olympics at the Carlson Center on the banks of the Chena River. The WEIO has been taking place every year for over 50 years, featuring native athletes from the US, Canada and Greenland competing in traditional events. We saw the ceremonial costume exhibition and the Ear Pull competition.
Costume exhibition at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics
In the ear pull, contestants sit facing each other with their legs crossed, and a loop of sinew is threaded around their ears. The goal is to pull the loop off your opponent’s ear -- like tug-of-war. Best of three wins...
This morning we left the Toolik Field Station. I took the first shift driving the Ford truck down the Dalton Highway, 230 miles from Toolik to the Yukon River.
Driving the Dalton Highway over Atigun Pass.
Louise, a student from California working on fish studies at Toolik, drove the rest of the way into Fairbanks. It was a 9-hour, 357-mile trip on dusty dirt and roller-coaster pavement warped into dips and bumps from frost heaving.
We also rode with Rolf and Thorsten, two German researchers studying the Northern wheatear, a bird that summers on the tundra around Toolik. They fitted over 100 wheatears with 1.5-gram geolocating backpacks that will record their 15,000-mile migration to west Africa and back. Rolf's specialty is photographing insects in flight, and he's posted amazing...
If you're a high school or college student and think it might be interesting and fun to do research at a place like the Toolik Field Station for a summer, here's what I want to tell you:
You CAN do it.
In fact, there are a lot of college students working at Toolik this summer. Two of them are on our team, working on an "REU" - a Research Experience for Undergraduates. If you're thinking about going into the sciences, start planning now to get yourself on an REU for at least one summer during college.
Sarah Hay is from Pennsylvania and just finished her sophomore year at Bloomsburg University, where she's planning to major in biology. She's doing an REU with the environmental biology group here at Toolik, studying the bacterial communities in lakes and rivers.
From May 26 through July 17 the sun never sets here at the Toolik Field Station. This is a 1-minute time lapse video showing the midnight sun over Toolik Lake.
Midnight sun over Toolik Lake.
I’ll be leaving Toolik in few days, heading for Fairbanks to meet Tanya and travel around Alaska. Spending 3 weeks here has been an amazing experience and I’m looking forward to bringing the tundra into my environmental science classroom this fall.
Molting caribou near Imnavait Creek
In the past 2 ½ weeks I’ve been trying to explain the team’s complex work on the tundra carbon cycle. For years the team has been taking thousands of samples from the soil and water from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean to understand how carbon moves across the landscape. They’ve even been doing DNA analysis of the microbes that convert organic matter to CO2 and methane, and studying the effect of sunlight in making it easier for microbes to break down organic matter.
Now that I’m nearing the end of...
Today was a quiet day in camp, catching up on computer work. But I did manage to get out and paddle around Toolik Lake in one of the camp's canoes.
The lake and the mountains were beautiful, with amazing clouds over the Brooks Range to the south.
After having sampled the land, lakes and rivers near Toolik in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range, today we drove north to the coastal plain of the Arctic Ocean.
Field truck parked on side of the Dalton Highway.
We sampled the lakes there to try and find out how they might be affecting the carbon cycle on the tundra, and what role they play in converting organic matter to heat-trapping gases like CO2 and methane.
That's me getting ready to wade into a coastal plain lake.
The coastal plain is almost perfectly flat, with tundra stretching out in all directions. I waded into the lakes to check the light attenuation of the water column, to get a better understanding of the nature of the organic matter present in the lakes.
Jason and Katie tested the temperature, pH, and...
It was fun to talk about spiders yesterday, but let’s get back to the carbon cycle now. In a previous post I described some of the team’s work on the role of sunlight in breaking down organic matter to make it easier for microbes to convert it to CO2. Now let’s talk about the microbes.
The microbes play the key role in breaking down organic matter and converting it to the heat-trapping gas CO2, which promotes global warming. In fact, microbes are so numerous that they play a far more important role than animals or anything else in breaking down organic matter to produce CO2. And as I’ve discussed before, as permafrost thaws there’s a lot more organic matter available for the microbes to eat.
To get a better understanding of how organic matter is being converted to CO2 now and in the...
One of the great things about learning Arctic science here at Toolik is that there’s a wide variety of projects going on. While my team is studying how carbon moves across the landscape, other teams are studying plants, birds, insects, airborne chemicals, hibernating squirrels, and spiders.
So today I broadened my horizons by going out in the field with Team Spider, which includes Nell Kemp, the other PolarTREC teacher at Toolik right now.
Nell Kemp doing field work along the Dalton Highway.
Wolf spider in Team Spider's lab. Note the round, gray egg sac on her abdomen.
Team Spider is studying the ecology of wolf spiders on the tundra, especially the impact of parasitoid wasps on spiders. If you’ve been in my Environmental Science class, you know about parasitoid wasps that attack...
Now that I’ve explained the basics of the carbon cycle and why it’s important to understand the fate of carbon from thawing permafrost in my last post, let’s talk about what the team is learning about the role of sunlight in this process.
The team recently made an important discovery – that when permafrost thaws and exposes previously frozen carbon to sunlight, that carbon becomes much more susceptible to being converted to CO2 by microbes than carbon that is kept in the dark. In fact, according to the team’s results, exposure to sunlight will increase conversion to CO2 by an additional 40% or more. This is important because right now, the tundra IS thawing, exposing previously frozen carbon to sunlight. To better understand climate change, it’s important to know the fate of this...
The 4th of July is celebrated on Saturday at Toolik, so today is a regular work day. This is the first day since I arrived last week that I didn’t go out in the field, and it was good to have a chance to catch my breath and think about everything I’ve learned so far.
Yesterday I spotted an American Golden Plover out on the tundra.
While looking at birds is easy, the team’s work here is highly technical and complex, far-ranging, and all interconnected, so it’s a major challenge for me to understand it, and even harder to explain it. Based on the questions I’ve been getting, I put together this video to give some background for non-scientists and show the teams’ approach. Before watching the video, these are the key points to keep in mind:
carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse gas”...
Today was Wildlife Day! Grizzly, moose, musk oxen, fox and caribou!
We drove the Dalton Highway from Toolik north to the town of Deadhorse, which is as far north as you can go, just a few miles from the Arctic Ocean. Along the way we stopped to take water and gas samples from the Sagavanirktok River, and also tested the river’s light attenuation throughout the water column at each stop. As usual, the overall purpose was to learn how carbon is moving from the land to the water and the air, and how light is affecting carbon as it travels downriver. There will be much more to come about the science behind the work, but it’s been a long day in the field and in the lab, so for now here’s the pictures.
Bruce Taterka in the Sag
Katie measuring light attenuation in the Sag
Today we took helicopters to NE14, a small lake near Toolik that has a “thermokarst” feature along its shoreline. I’ll explain more about thermokarst and answer some basic questions about the carbon cycle in upcoming journals, but for today I’m just posting this 2-minute video of the trip.
Helo at NE14
Today I sampled water and gases in lakes and ponds, helping the team figure out the fate of carbon from the melting tundra. As I’ve mentioned over and over in earlier blogs, this is important to know because there’s twice as much carbon frozen in the tundra as in all of the earth’s atmosphere. If this carbon is converted to CO2 and methane when permafrost melts, it could have a major effect on climate change.
But what exactly happens to carbon when permafrost melts? It’s a complicated question but I’m starting to understand how the team is trying to find answers. One way to understand the flow of carbon is to follow it from the land to the water and the air. This is what I’ve been doing so far.
The first step is to follow meltwater and runoff as it flows downhill. This is what we...
My first day at Toolik was filled with field work all over the tundra, sampling soil and river water to analyze in the lab.
Hiking in to sample soil water at Imnavait.
Eight of us started at Imnavait, near the Toolik Field Station, where we collected samples from water tracks. Water tracks are strips of wet ground running from hilltop to valley, like a stream that runs just below the surface.
Katie using a soil needle to sample soil water.
The samples will be analyzed in the lab to try and figure out what happens to carbon in the groundwater as it flows downhill – do microbes convert it to CO2, or does it remain dissolved in the water?
The sky was hazy from wildfires on the south side of the Brooks Range, which we saw as we were driving in yesterday.
Wildfire in the Brooks Range,...
After nearly 36 hours and 3500 miles, I arrived at the Toolik Field Station on the North Slope of Alaska. I flew into Fairbanks last night and today I set out at 10am in the Toolik Truck with Chad, Art and Erica for the 357-mile drive up the Dalton Highway, also known as the “Haul Road” because of the all the trucks driving from Prudhoe Bay.
The Dalton Highway
Going can be slow on the Dalton Highway, with long waits for construction.
I leave for Alaska in a few hours! Our local paper put the news of my expedition on the front page last week and it’s generated lots of interest around here.
Front Page 6-22-13
The article isn’t online yet, but I’ll add the link when it’s posted.
The Duffel Bag
My bag is all packed, and I’m leaving just in time to experience a record heat wave in Alaska and the emergence of the tundra’s infamous mosquitos. Here’s a picture from Toolik yesterday, taken by PolarTREC researcher Alicia Gillean who’s been at Toolik for 3 weeks now.
Toolik Mosquitos, by Alicia Gillean
Tonight I’ll be in Fairbanks and tomorrow I’ll make the 10-hour drive up the Dalton Highway, crossing the Arctic Circle and arriving on the tundra. Next journal entry will be from Alaska!
What better way to get ready to go to Alaska next week than to put on my boots and take a hike with Denali, my favorite sled dog?
Denali, Tanya and I hit the trail at Jockey Hollow National Historic Park in Morristown, NJ this weekend. The weather was beautiful and the woods were filled with the pulsating buzz of 17-year cicadas.
Sound of the Cicadas
Sorry, flash is not available.
Cicadas were everywhere! Unlike the bugs at Toolik, the cicadas are non-biting and very gentle. The cicada nymphs began emerging from the ground a few weeks ago. After emerging, they shed their exoskeletons which you can see all over the trees and the ground.
After shedding, the adults look to mate. We caught a pair in action.
It’s the last day of classes here at Mendham High School. Next week is final exams and then on Monday, June 24 I fly to Fairbanks. On Tuesday I’ll ride the truck north on the Dalton Highway to the Toolik Field Station where I’ll spend the next 3 ½ weeks. I can’t wait to go!
This week I’ve been showing my IB and AP Environmental Science classes the work going on at Toolik and on other PolarTREC research expeditions.
Yesterday I showed my Period 8 EnviSci class Alicia Gillean’s awesome video about the tundra around Toolik, and then we watched Carol Scott’s PolarConnect event live from Kevo, Finland. Carol’s work on methane production from wetlands is similar to the work I’ll be doing at Toolik, and my students were interested to see how a PolarTREC teacher lives and works in the field...
This 2 ½ minute video gives a basic overview of the research I'll be working on at Toolik.
Since getting back from Fairbanks I’ve been working to learn the science behind the work I’ll be doing with my researchers, Rose Cory and George Kling. In simple terms, Rose and George are trying to figure out exactly what happens to the carbon frozen in permafrost when it melts. With Arctic temperatures rising and more permafrost melting every year, it’s important to understand the fate of this newly exposed carbon. We’ll be specifically focusing on the effects of bacteria and sunlight on converting organic carbon to CO2.
Of course, it’s much more complicated than this video...
It's been a great week of PolarTREC Orientation
On Wednesday we went to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks Museum of the North, where we got to hold a hibernating Arctic ground squirrel.
Hibernating ground squirrel at the UAF Museum of the North
Hibernating ground squirrel at the UAF Museum of the North
The Museum had interesting native art, like this Statute of Liberty doll.
Statue of liberty doll from the Rose Berry Gallery at the UAF Museum of the North
In remote locations like the Arctic or Antarctic you're sometimes out of range of communication signals we take for granted, so part of our training was to learn how to use satellite phones which work anywhere on earth. At the Toolik Field Station we'll normally have a good internet connection, but some of the PolarTREC...
Bear carving at the Ice Park
This week I'm in Fairbanks for my PolarTREC orientation, which has been a great experience so far. I'm meeting other teachers from around the country who are going to the ends of the earth to do cutting-edge science. PolarTREC alumni are here too, to help us get ready for our expeditions.
Last night I got to see some of the city with some amazing teachers. We went out for sushi, then to the Ice Park in 2F temperature to see the World Ice Art Championship
Obed Fulcar, Jamie Eisler, Bruce Taterka...
In June and July I’ll be a PolarTREC teacher, working with a research team at the Toolik Field Station, above the Arctic Circle. We’ll be studying the effects of climate change, trying to better understand what’s going to happen to carbon frozen underground as the permafrost melts. Some might wash out to sea, while some might form greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. The fate of this carbon is important, because there’s twice as much of it frozen in Arctic tundra as there is in the entire atmosphere.
I was absolutely thrilled when I was selected to work with Dr. Rose Cory of the University of North Carolina and Dr. George Kling of the University of Michigan. They‘ve been working at Toolik for years and have made great progress in understanding how melting permafrost is...