July 31, 2012 Reflections on my PolarTREC Experience in Siberia
After the past month in Siberia, my thoughts focus on the remarkable vision of the Polaris Project, on the extreme difficulty of doing Arctic research in Siberia, and on the remarkable people I met throughout this expedition.
Polaris Project Successes
The Polaris Project (ThePolarisProject.org), who sponsored my participation with them, has a multi-faceted set of goals. The emphasis on advancing Arctic Science was a daily focus by all of the researchers. I was able to personally participate in two new (and to be on-going) projects. The first by the team of Dr. Heather Alexander of the University of Texas and Brownsville on the effects of more frequent and severe wildfires on the arctic boreal forest ecosystem and, consequently, on the carbon stored by both the forest vegetation and the permafrost soils below. The second project by Dr. Valentin Spektor and Dr. Alexander Kholodov involved drilling deep boreholes in permafrost soil to characterize these soils and to monitor permafrost temperatures at various depths through time. The data produced by these projects, not just during our stay, but over the next many years will help us understand the effects of climate change in the future.
A second goal of the Polaris Project is to train future Arctic scientists. The mentoring I witnessed of the 15 undergraduate and graduate students by professional scientists started prior to our departure and was evident at every meal and throughout every day, as the sharing of knowledge, experience, and ideas was continuous, intentional, and generous. I was truly impressed by each of the young men and women who set up and carried out their individual projects. Although not every experiment worked precisely as designed, the opportunity to conduct Arctic field science left each of these students inspired to continue their studies. They also left me inspired by the high caliber of students being attracted to this critical field of science. I felt fortunate to learn with these American and Russian students from the patient mentoring of many university and Woods Hole Research Center scientists.
While all of these new projects were being conducted, the scientists of the Polaris Project continued several long-term projects from previous years to promote their critical goals of contributing to long-term data sets. The on-going aquatic and terrestrial surveys of the region required the continuous allocation of both transportation, human, and equipment allocation. I was amazed at the well-developed environmental sampling and laboratory analyses protocols that were in place to insure quality of the data added to the pool.
The Polaris Project continues to advance another goal, that of engaging and informing the public about the important work of Arctic science and the impacts of climate change. Not only was there continuous discussion of developing more effective strategies for this by participants, the participants themselves were each remarkably well spoken and enthusiastic ambassadors for this work. I look forward to exhausting the avenues available to me to work on this.
The Difficulty of Doing Arctic Research in Russian Siberia
The work of conducting Arctic science, specifically in the Siberian region is both critical and immensely difficult. Because of its sheer vastness, the Siberian Arctic plays a role that cannot be overlooked by researchers. However, simply getting to the Siberian Arctic is extraordinarily difficult, in part due to the constantly changing and severe weather of the region. This was demonstrated in a profound (and expensive) manner as our travel both to and from the region were delayed by summer snows. Another factor making the Siberian Arctic difficult to study is the logistics of operating in Russia. Russia is incredibly large, so travels are long by any measure (Recall, that we changed eight time zones in our travels within Russia alone!). Also, we ran into some problems getting equipment to the country, specifically a satellite terminal that, despite being approved by one Russian Ministry, was confiscated upon our entry into the country. We eventually had to make the choice of leaving the equipment at the airport on our return as no airport official apparently had the authority to release the terminal back to us in a timely fashion as we departed the country. That small parlay into the bureaucratic structure of immigration policy shows how much more advanced planning and flexibility must be built into any international scientific expedition in Siberia.
Considering just how difficult it is for Americans to do research in the Siberia points out the value of the Northeast Science Station near Cherskiy, Russia. Through the strong leadership provided over many years by the Zimov and Davidov families in conjunction with the Polaris Project principle investigators, this facility is remarkable for both its location in the Arctic environment by the Kolyma River and the scientific resources available in such a remote location.
The Amazing People of Russia
Not only are the Russian scientists and caretakers of the Northeast Science Station remarkable and resourceful people, every Russian I met individually left a positive impression on me.
I had the remarkable opportunity to work closely with two Russian scientists, Dr. Valentin Spektor of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in Yakutstk, Dr. Alexander (Sasha) Kholodov now at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and Varvara Andreeva, a student of Dr. Spektor’s in Yakutsk. We were known as the “Drilling Team,” as we worked to drill two deep boreholes into the permafrost, one at the Northeast Science Station and the other at the fascinating and remote Pleistocene Park. Working closely with them, I had the opportunity to not only understand the diligent Russian approach to fieldwork and permafrost science, but to gain an insight on the kind nature of the Russian people.
Through my new Russian friends, I found a great appreciation for the history of Russia and how that history impacts their approach life. I learned that the singing cowboy of the American West has a parallel in the singing geologists of eastern Russia. I learned that many Russian expressions of the Russian language come from historical references such as “crossing the Rubicon” or my favorite “Поехали!” (pronounced “Bi-eh-ha-lay”) from the first person in space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, meaning “Let’s go!” or more strictly translated as “Let’s Ride!” This became our slogan to get to work drilling more.
I had the amazing chance to live for several days with the workers at the remote dry cabin at Pleistocene Park (accessible only by an hour speedboat ride up small and twisting streams from the science station – which took three hours in a cold, windy rainstorm on the way back). These hardened men, Slava and Vladi, live in the wilderness year round and yet were amazing hosts to me. Slava, a native Yukagir, shared his history, through Sasha and Valentin’s translation, in much the same way I may have learned about a personal history from a Native American. It was a remarkable opportunity.
From Varvara, the science student from Yakutsk, I learned that college students everywhere are looking for opportunities to improve their futures and deal with the same issues of taking their adult roles in society. Varvara, a warm 21-year-old young woman, always looked for ways of contributing to the team through her hard work and impeccable record keeping.
It was difficult for me to leave my new Russian friends. I hope I can see them again someday and I hope I can convey my appreciation for these Russians in a manner that helps other Americans appreciate the generous friendship of the Russian people.
The Beauty of Arctic Siberia
Even in the middle of the short summer, the Siberian Arctic is a ruggedly wild and constantly changing landscape. From freezing snow to hot summer days, we experienced a considerable range in our short time. This is a land that is never far from winter but breathtaking in its expanse and variability.
Not only does the beauty of Arctic Siberia need to be respected and preserved; the global implications of the findings in Siberia go well beyond the Arctic regions. It will take an internationally shared curiosity and commitment to continue to study this beautiful area and its environmental systems. More importantly it will require an internationally shared determination to act decisively on the findings.
I have returned from my trip as a PolarTREC teacher with the Polaris Project with the goal of continuing to foster the relationships with the students and scientists I have met here. I look forward to the opportunity to actively help engage and educate students and public on the science of Arctic Systems and on their implications for the future.
Stay curious my friends! - Mark Paricio
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