The Elephant in the Room

    A significant portion of the research here at Toolik is either directly or indirectly connected to climate change. Some experiments are mainly focused on how this Arctic ecosystem works (like the circadian rhythms of the arctic ground squirrel or the relationship between microbes and the abiotic Arctic environment), while others, like this one, specifically look at how a “warmed” Arctic ecosystem behaves differently when compared to the actual (current) ecosystem conditions. The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on earth, so a place like Toolik, high in the Alaskan tundra, is a perfect location to investigate how this system could react to the increased warming that scientists have projected to happen over the next 50 years. I say could because this is science after all, and nothing is certain until it actually occurs (remember all that stuff about variables in my last journal?)…

    Check out this 30 second video from NASA showing temperature changes over the last century. Yellow-red colors represent higher than average temperatures.

    Replicating Warming

    The tundra behind Toolik Field Station is peppered with lots of experimental plots that have been built to simulate a warmer than average ecosystem. How is this done? Easily – mini greenhouses are built over naturally occurring tundra (i.e. no plants were brought in). Some of these greenhouses have been in place for the last 25-30 years, allowing scientists to conduct experiments in these conditions, meant to simulate a warmed Arctic ecosystem. All of the greenhouse plots have “control” plots next to them – natural tundra areas that have not been manipulated. Also present in this experimental area are shadehouses – to simulate a cooled tundra environment. Note that the houses are only covered during the summer months when sunlight is present. During the winter, the houses are partially disassembled.

    The boardwalk over the tundra leading up to the experimental plots.

    The boardwalk continues. The greenhouse plots are over the ridge on the upper right of the photo.

    Experimental plots
    A view of some of the greenhouses, shadehouses and control plots at Toolik.
    Thinking about the last journal entry, variables, what is the variable that is being tested here?

    The Question

    So what, exactly, does the research team want to understand about this ecosystem? Well, it’s a complicated question, but it basically boils down to “Do tundra plants have deep enough roots to be able to access certain nutrients (specifically, Nitrogen) if the permafrost continues to thaw at an accelerated rate?” While this question seems straightforward, it’s only one part of the entire project. There are collaborating scientists on this project that are asking their own (slightly different) questions about this system too – questions like: What fungi might exist on these plant roots that help the nutrients that move through the soil? Do different types of tundra soil ecosystems have the same plants and same root systems? Can we create a model based on these findings that could predict how the Arctic ecosystem could “react” to changing climate?

    Discussing the project.
    Drs. Becky Hewitt and Helene Genet discuss some of the initial data from field sampling. Both are interested in this project but their research questions might not be entirely the same.

    Examining tundra.
    Three scientists can look at the same section of tundra and see entirely different things.

    Answering the Question

    So how exactly has the team designed their experiment to answer this question? Stay tuned for the next post! In the meantime, here's a picture of me pretending to be a scientist...

    Taking thaw depths.
    Who knew taking the thaw depth of permafrost soil could be so fun?!? If only you could hear the sound of the probe hitting the ice layer!

    Toolik Field Station
    Weather Summary
    Cloudy and rainy


    Rachel Johnson

    Hi Ms.Kemp
    You said that the arctic warms faster than any place on earth, so then why are there still pieces of ice still left in the late August?

    Susan Steiner

    I love that picture of the 3 scientists looking at the plot...and truly, due to their area of interest, they see different things. I think that is a life lesson we can all live by as we learn to understand the different viewpoints everyone has!

    Nell Kemp

    YES! I hope that my students see that picture and think the same thing you did :) Thanks for continuing to read!

    Mark Buesing

    How many miles/feet of boardwalk are there at Toolik? Do people exercise while there? I know working in the field is workout enough, but what if you are in a lab for many days straight. Are there other trails or paths to walk or run?

    Nell Kemp

    There are about 8 miles of boardwalk here, and just now a researcher was talking about running the boardwalks after dinner. When we were in the field the other night we did see a runner go into the tundra to run between the tussocks (which is extremely hard - imagine doing high knees while in soggy soil), but most people don't do that! There is a small fitness room here and some mountain bikes to ride around camp, but most people usually use lab time as a rest from the field. The tundra is pretty hard to walk through when you aren't close to the station, and you are often carting heavy equipment. Sundays are often rest days, so a lot of people go on day hikes in the nearby Brooks Range. Since it is light until 10-11 pm, some people also take hikes after dinner.

    Kyla Willis

    Without the control plots or shade houses would the scientist be able to conduct experiments in these conditions?

    Kevin A.

    Would the accelerated defrosting for permafrost kill the plants or would it just mess with the plants stability? Also what would happen if instead of having shade if it was just as cool but exposed to a lot of sunlight?

    Kevin A.

    Would the accelerated defrosting for permafrost kill the plants or would it just mess with the plants stability? Also what would happen if instead of having shade if it was just as cool but exposed to a lot of sunlight?

    Jasmin Nunez

    Ms. Kemp, is there a particular question that you would like to have an answer to?

    Nell Kemp

    Hi Kyla,
    We are not using the shade houses, but yes - we could not conduct these experiments just anywhere, they have to be approved by the National Science Foundation, the Bureau of Land Management, State of Alaska...probably other places too! This Arctic ecosystems are extremely important to regulating our Earth's climate, so they are protected and regulated. This field station was set up so that scientists could conduct research on the tundra in an effort to protect it even more.

    Nell Kemp

    Hi Kevin,Scientists are still unsure what would happen to the plants if the permafrost thaw rate increases dramatically. One hypothesis is that as the permafrost thaws, the frozen organic material will start to decay and release nitrogen and carbon into the active layer, feeding the plants and the decomposers. This increased rate of decomposition will likely release CO2 and methane into the atmosphere, which could lead to a greater increase atmospheric warming BUT…scientists also think that this increase in released nitrogen and carbon could help plants to grow bigger and possibly take in that CO2…we just don’t know yet!

    Nell Kemp

    Hi Jasmin,
    No particular question, just feel free to read the journals and ask away!

    Elijah Williams

    Why are the shadehouses simulating a tundra environment when the shadehouses are already located in a tundra?When the 3 scientist were looking at that section of tundra, what were they looking for?

    Elena Wilson

    How do fungi help move nutrients through the soil?How does the thawing permafrost affect the animals in the tundra?

    Nell Kemp

    Hi Elijah,
    The shadehouses are there to simulate an environment that is slightly cooler than our current one – so this helps us to understand how the plant communities might change if the temperatures in the arctic were decreasing (rather than increasing as they are currently doing). The scientists have many different things they may see when they are looking at the tundra – it’s hard to know! See you next week!

    Nell Kemp

    Hi Elena,
    Great question. Fungi are very interesting creatures. Special fungi form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of plants – in this case it seems to be mutualistic since both plant and fungus benefit. The fungi put down long tubes (as thin as a hair filament or spider silk) which can extend way down into the soil where there is [potentially] available Nitrogen. The fungi share the N with the plant, and the plant shares some of the sugar made during photosynthesis with the fungi (remember sugar=energy).

    As for the animals – it’s really too soon to see how the animal life is being impacted by the warming permafrost. There are lots of scientists at Toolik studying birds, ground squirrels, etc to see if their seasonal rhythms (egg laying, hibernation, etc) will be impacted by the earlier/longer summers. The changes to the climate are still pretty small right now (like you might not even notice it if you went to the arctic every summer), so I think it’s still too early to make any guesses about what the changes to animal life might be.

    Zora Beaty

    Are the greenhouses and shade houses models to predict/compare how the tundra will react in different climates? If so why were these two models the most effective to use?

    Nell Kemp

    Exactly! We really can't create other models without damaging the tundra itself, so these are just for the long term effects of warming and cooling. There are many other experiments here that model other effects on a short term basis, but these greenhouse/shadehouses have been in place for around 30 years, so they really give a good picture of what a future tundra could look like if the Arctic keeps warming at its present rate.