Dr. Bret-Harte has two sites at Toolik that were part of her initial 2006 experiment. Yesterday she and I visited the Riparian Snowfence Site. The second site is down the road, about a mile or so, from the other snowfence site we visited earlier in the week. As with the tussock site, the riparian site was also injected with 15N, a very low concentration tracer that allows scientists to follow the cycle of nitrogen, at specific quadrat sites. This riparian site has a lovely series of streams meandering through the hillside. The babble of the streams almost, almost, drowned out the hum of the million of mosquitoes that surrounded us during our work. The day was foggy and cool and perfect weather for being out in the field.
Our purpose for the field visit was to collect plant samples (foliage or leaves) from established plots. There were seven plant species evident in 2007 and those were the plants that we collected. There were eight plots on the drift side of the snowfence, and eight more on the control side of the fence. Dr. Bret-Harte chose this site in 2006 because of the abundance of deciduous shrubs found there. With it being a riparian site, the shrubs on this site are much larger than the shrubs on the hillside tussock site.
As the day went on, I became familiar with the seven plant species that were being collected. One of the plants, the Vaccinium uliginosum quickly became my favorite. It is much smaller than the other leaves we were collecting and has a beautiful dark green color. When I shared news of my new favorite, Dr. Bret-Harte let me know that the common name is the 'bog blueberry'. The plants I had seen hadn't developed their berries yet, so I didn't know this when I decided it was my favorite, but knowing it produced blueberries solidified my new found affection.
It is funny – when in the field and focused on collecting foliage samples, you rarely look up. Dr. Bret-Harte and I were asked the other night coming out of the field if we had seen the caribou on the hillside. Neither of us had! Knowing that there are occasional bears, wolves, musk ox, and caribou present, I did look up and scan the horizon from time to time. Unfortunately, my only wildlife sightings were the mosquitoes.
Back in the lab, the foliage samples were put into the industrial ovens to bake. Once the samples have been in the oven for a few days, they will then be taken out and taken back to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. There they will be ground up and put in the spectrometer to detect if there is evidence of the extra N atom. This will be an indicator if the nitrogen normally partitioned throughout the plants and soil is being consumed more by the deciduous shrubs.