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photo by Julia Kumari Drapkin

Ode to Eriophorum Vaginatum
By Benjamin Shaw

Walking over Eriophorum,
Watch your step or you’ll fall off ‘em.

Hiking through the Arctic tundra,
Tussocks make me stop to wonder.

How does this sedge survive the snow,
The fire too and yet still grow?

The puff-ball stalks sway in the breeze
And look like real-life Truffula Trees.

Now, should I step upon the mound
Or simply try to go around?

The tundra’s boggy, low and wet
So that dry tuft could help me yet.

But one wrong move could cause a sprain
And aggravate my ankle pain.

A sedge encounter yesterday
Already has me in dismay.

Now if the Arctic grows too warm
The vegetation will transform.

No longer would these tussocks thrive.
Willows and birches would arrive.

And though I curse the path today
And know flat ground would ease my way,

I’d miss that plant if it did stray.
I hope E. Vag is here to stay.

Safe from the Kuparuk River mosquitoes.

I’ve been blogging for ScientificAmerican.com’s Expeditions blog from Toolik. Here are the posts that are up so far:

Science, pipelines and bears: A reporter goes to Alaska’s Toolik Field Station

It just dawned on me that in two days I’ll be on my way to one of the most remote places on Earth: Toolik Field Station, an environmental research station on the North Slope of Alaska. To get there, I have to fly almost 17 hours from Vienna to Fairbanks (and that doesn’t include layover times), and then travel by van some 12 hours north on rough roads. Once there, I will have to endure swarms of mosquitoes and infrequent bathing opportunities. A box of crucial items (sleeping bag, fleece, rain pants) that I sent ahead of me may have gotten lost in the mail—a nearly unthinkable eventuality.

Alaskan science on the solstice: Doing research where the sun never sets

I packed my flashlight. That’s really stupid. I’m above the Arctic Circle near summer solstice. The sun never sets. Never. It’s like when my friend packed her umbrella to go to the Sahara.

Adventures in Alaskan science: How I escaped from a thermokarst

I was nearly eaten by a thermokarst. I just stepped in and, before I knew it, I was sucked in up to the top of my big rubber boot.

There are also more posts on the way.

– Chelsea Wald

Charred. Burned tussocks at the Anaktuvuk River fire burn site in 2008, the year following the fire. Credit: Adrian Rocha/Marine Biological Laboratory

Polar Fellow Chelsea Wald wrote a news story for ScienceNOW about the 2007 Anaktuvuk fire.

TOOLIK FIELD STATION, ALASKA—For nearly 3 months in the hot, dry summer and fall of 2007, the biggest arctic tundra fire in Alaska’s history—the Anaktuvuk River fire—raged on the North Slope, a large area that contains the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve. Scientists have been concerned that such fires—which seem to be on the rise—could contribute to global warming by burning deep into tundra soils, thereby releasing carbon that thousands of years’ worth of plants have stored there. But a new study finds that the Anaktuvuk River fire burned only the newest, topmost layer of the soil, leaving the tundra’s ancient stores of carbon intact below. That’s a small victory when it comes to climate change, says ecologist Michelle Mack of the University of Florida, Gainesville. Although the fire released a lot of carbon, “it’s not radically changing the carbon system, as far as we can tell.” Read the full story here.

One of 2010′s polar fellows, Benjamin Shaw, originally wrote this post for the NatGeo Newswatch Blog.

tunnel.JPG

Photograph courtesy Benjamin Shaw

By Benjamin Shaw

Scientists hope the planned expansion of a tunnel, excavated deep into frozen Alaskan permafrost, will answer questions about melting in the arctic and reveal evidence of ancient life.

Today, the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, or “CRREL tunnel,” is run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Scientists conducting a variety of research programs use the space as an active underground laboratory.

The current tunnel was excavated just north of Fairbanks, Alaska in the early 1960′s by the U.S. Bureau of Mines. The official reason for construction was to evaluate mining and construction methods in frozen soils. But the dig exposed a treasure of geological formations, animal fossils and ancient plant remains. Bones and teeth of bison, woolly mammoth and horse from 14,000 years ago protrude from the tunnel wall, literally frozen in place and time.

Mammoth Bone-2.JPG

Photograph courtesy Benjamin Shaw

In 1999, NASA astrobiologist Dr. Richard Hoover discovered a new bacteria species in ice samples from the tunnel’s roof. Hoover says the roughly 32,000-year-old microbes suggest similar life forms may exist in the glaciers or permafrost of Mars or in the ice oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Researchers are now planning an expansion to the tunnel and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has received $500,000 in federal funding to begin small-scale engineering tests.

Currently, a small wooden shack juts from the base of a wooded hill. Inside a heavy door, the tunnel cuts one hundred and ten meters in and fifteen meters down through the frozen earth.

tunnel_entrance.JPG

A shack sits at the entrance to the tunnel.  Photograph courtesy Benjamin Shaw.

Research Physical Scientist Dr. Matthew Sturm lives above the CRREL tunnel and is the resident caretaker and tour guide. The tunnel is chilled to -4 degrees Celsius year round to prevent the permafrost from thawing, and before entering visitors are provided hard hats and parkas. The passageway descends through the permafrost made up of frozen silts, a gravel layer, and then into bedrock.

Helmets.JPG

Hard hats and parkas await visitors to the tunnel.  Photograph courtesy Benjamin Shaw.

Permafrost is soil or rock that remains frozen for two or more years. But warming temperatures are causing the permafrost to melt all across the arctic causing environmental changes and engineering headaches.

As permafrost thaws, carbon that had been bound up in the frozen tundra is released into the atmosphere, intensifying climate change. More immediately, warmer temperatures are leading to buckled roads and
cracked building foundations.

Sturm says an expanded tunnel will help answer important questions about thawing permafrost that can’t be seen by looking at the surface. “We have massive circum-arctic lands all of which are undergoing some degradation of permafrost, but we don’t know what’s happening until we see it in the surface evidence.” But the expanded tunnel, says Sturm, will give scientists a unique three-dimensional look at frozen arctic soil.

Excavation on the new tunnel will also focus on preserving DNA materials. “To get the paleontology story right you have to harvest the materials very carefully,” says Sturm. “That was not done in the current tunnel.”

The excavation will add 1000 feet of new tunnel. Sturm hopes drilling for the new tunnel will begin in December of 2011 and open by 2013.

“I’m ecstatic that we’re moving forward,” says Sturm.

Dr Matthew Strum with Mammoth Bone.JPG
Sturm holds a mammoth bone found in the tunnel.
Photograph courtesy Benjamin Shaw.

The Journey North

One of 2010′s polar fellows, Gretchen Weber, originally wrote this post for the KQED Climate Watch blog.

Naively, I thought Alaska’s “Haul Road” would be smooth.  For some reason, I’d pictured the 414-mile route that runs north, from near Fairbanks, to Deadhorse, near Prudhoe Bay, to be a picture of modern asphalt-laying engineering, and that, during our 350-mile drive to Toolik Field Station, I would be able to catch up on some of the sleep I’d been missing after two nights in a University of Fairbanks dorm room (think college students on summer break in a place where the sun barely sets).  After all, this is the road that tracks the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, connecting the largest oil field in North America (which happens to be operated by BP) to the rest of the continent.

As it turns out, I was heartbreakingly wrong.  Roughly a quarter of the road, which is officially called the Dalton Highway, is paved.  And the paved parts are actually the worst. Between the frost heaves caused by the alternate freezing and thawing of the ground, and those Ice Road Trucker tires chewing up the road, driving the Haul Road is more like an amusement park ride, at least from the back seat of a 15-person van.  Suffice it to say that I did not catch up on any sleep during the ride, which turned out to be a good thing, because the second half of this ride was through some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen.

View from just below Atigun Pass (4643 ft) in the Brooks Range (photo: Gretchen Weber)
View from just below Atigun Pass (4643 ft) in the Brooks Range (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

About 70 miles north of Coldfoot, one of the three “towns” along the road, and 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle, we passed a sign marking the “Farthest North Spruce Tree.”  It actually wasn’t the farthest north spruce tree we saw, and also, it was dead, but right around there was where we crossed the treeline, leaving behind the white and black spruces stunted from extreme temperatures, and crossed into the tundra.

Back in Fairbanks, over breakfast (reindeer sausage), a biologist named Andi Lloyd had talked about her research on the treeline in Alaska.  There’s a lot of evidence showing that climate in the Arctic is changing faster than any place on Earth.  Here, mean winter temperatures have climbed between six and eight degrees F since 1960, and in summer, between two and three, said Lloyd.  This change is affecting how the boreal forest is expanding, she said, and causing the treeline to move north. In some places, such as the Seward Peninsula, Lloyd says it has moved ten kilometers (six miles) in the last century. “The Arctic is changing faster than we can study it,” said Lloyd.

But the relationship between climate change and the forest is not as simple as warmer temperatures equal northern expansion.  Rising temperatures also mean a drier environment, said Lloyd, as precipitation in the region has not increased as much as temperatures, and more warmth means more evaporation.  Lloyd and others have found that trees in the boreal forest are increasingly drought-stressed, which means they are growing much slower than they did in the mid 1900s, and that they are more vulnerable to insect infestation.

“I had a naive idea that the temperature controlled everything, but then I had a dawning awareness that the boreal forest is a moisture-limited forest,” she said.

There are no trees here at Toolik Station, where I will be for the next two weeks talking to scientists about the changing Arctic. The camp is nestled on the shore of Toolik Lake, in the northern foothills of Alaska’s Brooks Range.  We arrived at 10 p.m., after 13 hours of driving, and the sun was still high in the sky.  It was still up there casting shadows when I awoke at 2:30 a.m.  At breakfast time, however, camp is encased in fog, and the temperature is about 45 degrees–kind of feels like I never left San Francisco.


When the Science Journalists weren’t busy in the field or interviewing the researchers at Toolik Field Station, they had some time for fun. Here they are helping a group of Toolik scientists, research assistants, and others in an Arctic tribute to Michael Jackson. This is claimed to be the northernmost performance of Thriller… Enjoy!

Jane Qiu has written a Q & A with Breck Bowdon, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Vermont, Burlington for Nature.

Last week marked the start of a US$5 million project to study the effects of thawing permafrost on ecosystems in the Arctic. Based at the Toolik Field Station in northern Alaska and sponsored by the US National Science Foundation, the project will look at the impact of thermokarsts — the scars and pits left behind as melt water from permanently frozen ground leaks away, and soil and rock collapses in its wake.

Read the full article here.

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