Arctic Sunlight and Microbial Interactions


Bruce hosted a great PolarConnect Event, a live webinar event, from the field. Check out the archive of the event in the PolarConnect Archives.

What Are They Doing?

Thawing permafrostThawing permafrost

Tremendous stores of organic carbon frozen in permafrost soils have the potential to greatly increase the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Permafrost soils may thaw sporadically, and melting ground ice can cause land-surface subsidence called "thermokarst failures". These failures change the rate and amount of carbon released with the unanticipated outcome being that soil carbon can be mixed-up from a depth and exposed to sunlight as the land surface fails. Sunlight can photo-degrade organic carbon and alter the carbon's ability to support bacterial respiration to produce carbon dioxide. Whether UV exposure will enhance or retard the conversion of newly exposed carbon to carbon dioxide is currently unknown—in this study team is providing the first evidence that this alteration will be amplified by photochemical processes and their effects on microbes.

The research team is trying to understanding exactly how sunlight and bacteria degrade dissolved organic matter by determining how fast these processes convert newly released dissolved organic matter to carbon dioxide, compared to dissolved organic matter already in surface waters. The team will accomplish their research objectives with a series of laboratory experiments to determine rates of photodegradation and microbial processing of dissolved organic matter from different sources, and a series of landscape comparisons and sampling transects to characterize dissolved organic matter degradation in small basins and large rivers extending from the headwaters to the Arctic Ocean. Ultimately, this research will attempt to answer questions such as whether carbon export from tundra to oceans will rise or fall and how reactive the exported carbon will be. The team hopes to be able to measure the ultimate impact of impending disturbances, including climate change, on the net carbon balance of the Arctic and its interaction with the global carbon cycle.

Where Are They?

The Brooks Range near Toolik Lake, AlaskaThe Brooks Range near Toolik Lake, Alaska The research team was based out of Toolik Field Station, an 8-10 hour drive north from Fairbanks, Alaska. Toolik Field Station is operated by the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and has hosted hundreds of researchers and students every year since 1975. From the field station, the team traveled to their sites by foot, truck, boat, and helicopter. The weather near Toolik Lake can be wet, cold, snowy, muddy, buggy, and occasionally sunny and beautiful.


Back in NJ
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,...
Denali grizzly
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,...
Driving the Dalton Highway over Atigun Pass.
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...
Sarah Hay
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 Sarah Hay is from Pennsylvania and just finished her sophomore year at...
Midnight sun over Toolik Lake.
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.

Expedition Resources

Project Information

24 June 2013 to 31 July 2013
Location: Toolik Field Station, Alaska
Project Funded Title: Collaborative Research: Turning on the lights - Photochemical and microbial processing of newly exposed carbon in arctic ecosystems

Meet the Team

Bruce Taterka's picture
West Morris Mendham High School
Mendham, NJ
United States

Bruce Taterka teaches environmental science and theory of knowledge at West Morris Mendham High School in Mendham, New Jersey. Bruce is a trustee of the Schiff Nature Preserve in Mendham where he has designed and led after-school environmental education programs for middle and high-school students. In 2009 Bruce won an Earthwatch Fellowship to study trophic relationships in the cloud forest of Ecuador, and in 2010 he was a NOAA Teacher at Sea working aboard NOAA ship Oregon II in the Gulf of Mexico during the BP oil spill. Bruce has rafted and paddled the waters of the Americas from the Tena River in Ecuador to British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands to the Colorado, Snake, Allagash, and Passaic rivers in the U.S. In 2011-2012 Bruce worked on federal and state education policy as a U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow and served on the New Jersey Department of Education's Evaluation Pilot Advisory Committee.

Prior to his career as a teacher, Bruce worked for seventeen years in the environmental industry, first as an environmental consultant and then, after earning his law degree at night from the Pace University School of Law, as an environmental lawyer at the international firm Latham & Watkins. Bruce is currently co-authoring New Jersey's Environmental Literacy Plan with his wife, Tanya Sulikowski, who is an environmental educator working on her MS in ecology at Montclair State University. Bruce has a BA from Vassar College and MS in geology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Rose Cory's picture
University of Michigan
Ann Arbour, MI
United States

Dr. Rose Cory works in the Arctic where climate warming is thawing frozen soil which may release tremendous stores of dissolved organic carbon to the Earth's surface. After having been trapped for millennia in the frozen soils this new carbon then becomes part of the modern carbon cycle. Dr. Cory finds that exposure to sunlight accelerates the return of this dissolved organic carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, which may further increase the rate of global warming. Because climate change is influencing our planet's evolution, understanding the fate of newly released carbon will help predict our future as a planet and society. Read more about Dr. Cory and her research here

George Kling's picture
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI
United States

George W. Kling is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan. He primarily studies aquatic ecology and biogeochemistry, and his research has focused on carbon and nutrient cycling, on using stable isotopes to understand trophic interactions, and on the integration of lakes and streams in a landscape context. His recent research has examined the role of microbial diversity in ecosystem function. He has worked internationally on arctic lakes and streams for approximately 25 years, and on tropical lakes in Africa.

Kling's scientific outreach to the public through interviews about his research on climate change and on the killer lakes of Cameroon includes articles in magazines and newspapers (e.g., National Geographic, Smithsonian), T.V. and radio broadcasts (e.g., CNN, BBC), and television films (e.g., BBC, Discovery). He has met regularly with U.S. Congress members to discuss issues of climate change and scientific integrity, and was lead author of the Union of Concerned Scientists – Ecological Society of America publication 'Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region' (2003). Kling is an associate editor for Limnology and Oceanography (2001-), an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1997-), and received a National Academy of Science Young Investigator Award (1993), a NSF Presidential Faculty Fellowship (1995), the United Nations Sasakawa Award (Certificate for Disaster Reduction, 2001), and the ASLO Ruth Patrick Award (2007).

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