Monday, July 25, 2016

Team Members Begin to Arrive in Nome…

A lot of people are committed to the success of the NGEE Arctic project. And thankfully, many of them have traveled to Alaska. Some come to conduct research in the field, while others collect samples for analysis back in laboratories at their home institution. Still others come to get a better sense of how multi-scale models should be developed, parameterized, and evaluated using knowledge generated by their colleagues. So, whenever we have large field campaigns, like we are having now, it is especially enjoyable to see members of the NGEE Arctic project from all over the country begin to arrive.

Brent, Jeff, and Carli arrived from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Brent and Jeff have been associated with the project since our beginning and contribute in areas of hydrology and geochemistry. Carli is a post-doctoral research associate and is new to the project; she will assist with installation of equipment and initial collection of surface- and pore-water samples. Lauren, a post-baccalaureate student, will join us in a few days.

Alistair and Shawn from Brookhaven National Laboratory have also arrived. Both have extensive experience working at our field site in Barrow and will spend the next week in Nome conducting leaf gas-exchange and spectral signature measurements on a variety of tundra plants. Mark is completing his post-doctoral research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and will soon be moving to the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. He has undertaken some exciting analyses of landscape features on the Barrow Peninsula and estimated their contribution to greenhouse gas production. Mark is a creative scientist and we hope that he will continue to work with us once he gets settled into his new position.

Peter from Oak Ridge National Laboratory arrived last night, along with Eugenie from UAF. Both Peter and Eugenie are terrestrial ecosystem modelers who work at a range of scales, including the regional and global scale. They each also have conducted field research and know the value of collecting quality data for use in model development and parameterization. It is great to have them join us in the field as they benefit from, and contribute to, many stimulating discussions that happen in the field.

Several additional colleagues from ORNL also arrived last evening – Colleen, Joanne, and Verity. Colleen leads a Phase 2 task on plant traits. We are looking at shoot and root structure-function relationships and exploring whether this area of research can be used to inform models. The utility of plant traits in modeling is being championed by our sponsor at the DOE and we, along with our sister project NGEE Tropics, are keen to test ideas using field data from our respective field studies. Colleen and Joanne will be busy keeping us organized and on task this week. Amy (UAF) and Holly (ORNL, not pictured) have been in Nome for a week completing community composition assessments. We are fortunate to have Amy on the project as she brings a wealth of knowledge on arctic and boreal vegetation. Finally, Verity just finished her PhD dissertation at the University of Florida last Friday. She will join Colleen at ORNL as a post-doctoral research associate in another month or two. Congratulations Verity on receiving her PhD and welcome to the project!

Others will be joining us in the next few days. I’ll be sure to mention them in the coming week, along with the scientific and technical expertise they bring to the NGEE Arctic project.

Facilities in Nome…

Members of the NGEE Arctic team, or at least those who conduct field research in Alaska, are finding themselves increasingly comfortable living and working in the vicinity of Nome. While it is not a large town – 3,500 people – it nonetheless has resources that make our stay comfortable, efficient, and safe. These come in the form of grocery stores, hardware stores, hotels and B&B’s, restaurants, a regional hospital, a community recreation center, and the UAF Northwest Campus.

Business owners and local citizens are friendly and go out of their way to answer our many questions. Just this morning in response to asking about the different kinds of fish that occupy area streams and rivers I was given a “Fishing Guide”. The guide provides a river-by-river description of fish found in the region and, more specifically, along the Teller, Kougarok, and Council roads; Chinook, pink (humpies), chum, Sockeye, and Coho salmon; Arctic grayling, Dolly Varden, and Northern Pike. Now if we only had the time and, more importantly, the energy to fish or join a pickup game of basketball at the recreation center after long days in the field! Such is the life of a field scientist.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Flight into Nome via Kotzebue

Yesterday was a busy day with flights from Knoxville to Chicago to Anchorage, and then to the Seward Peninsula in western Alaska. Normally I stop in Anchorage for a night to stock up on supplies, but given that the NGEE Arctic team is well equipped I flew straight through to Nome. I had forgotten that flights from Anchorage to Nome include a short stop in Kotzebue (, which is several hundred miles north of Nome. Kotzebue has a population of over 3,000 people and serves as a regional supply hub for 10 satellite villages in the Northwest Arctic Borough and one in the North Slope Borough. We visited Kotzebue in 2012 and enjoyed the area, especially our visit to the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center operated by the National Park Service (

The flight from Kotzebue to Nome was short, less than an hour. Flying into Nome provided an opportunity to see some of the surrounding tundra and, in fact, the city itself. The weather in Nome has been cloudy with a few rain showers, but should be sunny and clear by the first of next week.

Although Amy (UAF) and Holly (ORNL) have been in Nome working for three or four days, most members of our team begin arriving tonight. We will welcome several dozen NGEE Arctic students, staff, and faculty in the coming week so there will be a lot of activities on which to report. Later today as I travel around town I’ll be sure to take a few pictures and include those in a post this weekend.

- Stan Wullschleger

Let the Field Research Campaign Begin!

The NGEE Arctic project ( has enjoyed five successful field seasons working at our research site near Barrow, Alaska. This year – thanks to the hard work of many people – we begin a new chapter in our efforts to integrate field and laboratory studies in support of advancing climate model development for the Arctic. Our team is expanding to include field sites outside Nome on the Seward Peninsula in western Alaska.

While this is certainly not our first trip to Nome, it will be our largest. Several dozen of our scientists, students, and staff will travel to the area throughout the next few weeks. Our team will conduct a broad range of integrated research activities at an intensive field site along the Teller Road. We are thankful to the Sitnasuak Native Corporation for making this land available for our use. Other native corporations are being engaged to also identify field sites along the Kougarok and Council roads.


The NGEE Arctic team will, working first at the Teller site, use an array of geophysical approaches to establish interactions between permafrost and bedrock, and to examine the consequences of those interactions to watershed hydrology. Complementary studies of vegetation, biogeochemistry, and energy balance will help inform our understanding of Arctic tundra and provide insights for developing multi-scale numerical models for inclusion into climate models. Our goal is to better understand the fate of frozen soil organic matter (i.e., the permafrost carbon cycle) in a warming climate and incorporate critical feedbacks into models. We were fortunate to begin collecting initial datasets last year and will continue to expand on those with increasingly detailed field and modeling investigations of the Teller Road watershed.


The next three weeks will be a productive time for our team. Our planning has laid a foundation that we will continue to build upon, ensuring that our interdisciplinary science delivers on expectations and does so in a safe and efficient manner. We are thankful that while working thousands of miles away from our home institutions can be challenging, our team has the support and cooperation of people and facilities like Bob, Gretchen, Claudia, and others at the UAF Northwest Campus in Nome.

While the next few weeks will be busy ones, I’ll do my best to provide periodic updates on the science being conducted by our team and how those research results and acquired knowledge is incorporated into models, including global-scale Earth System Models.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Tundra Tram – Up and Running

Field research for the NGEE Arctic team is off to an early start. There have been, and currently are, team members conducting snow surveys at our field sites on the Seward Peninsula. And there have been plenty of preparations for field studies on the North Slope as well. This week, Bryan Curtis (LBNL) and I travelled to Barrow for a number of activities; foremost among them was the reinstallation of the tram on the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO). We had disassembled the tram last fall and moved all the infrastructure and cart to storage facilities. This was done for several reasons, one being to remove the physical infrastructure from the field so that it did not pose a safety risk to local people who might traverse the BEO using snow machines during the winter. Another was to continue to upgrade the suite of sensors on the cart which required it to be shipped back to LBNL.

Our first task in Barrow was to transport all the uprights and supporting rails from storage to the field site several kilometers away. This was done by loading the materials onto wooden sleds and then transporting everything to the field using snow machines. Although much of the tram is constructed of aluminum, it is still heavy and required multiple trips to and from the field before everything was in place. It was cold with high winds in the afternoon. However, the weather cooperated and we had plenty of daylight for moving materials to the field.

When Bryan and I were not transporting materials to the field, the sensor cart was assembled and all components were tested including sensors, data logger, and control programs. This required several days of effort but no surprises due to careful planning by Bryan and others at LBNL.

Once everything was in the field it was just a matter of getting everything installed. The system was designed for ease of installation and thanks to the carefully planning by a number of people, including systems engineer Keith Lewin at Brookhaven National Laboratory, the uprights and raised rails were up, leveled, and ready for testing with only two days of effort.

The cart was the last thing to be transported to the field, and it too was easy to install. Once all the sensors had been connected the system was ready for testing. Everything worked perfectly! The cart made its maiden 2016 trip down the rails on April 20, collecting data every 0.5 meter along the 65-meter length of the tram.

Bryan will be keeping an eye on the system as he, and Sigrid Dengel (LBNL) now turn their attention to getting the eddy covariance system up and running. John Peterson and Emmanuel Legger, both from LBNL, will also be joining Bryan and Sigrid for a few days in order to reinstall the geophysics (ERT) array and take a few permafrost cores for physical characterization.

It was a great trip – thanks!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Erector Set...

Bob Busey, Cathy Wilson and Lily Cohen finished up the catchment-wide snow surveys on Friday and Saturday under mostly sunny skies and began preparation for our final task of the trip. The challenge was to construct two mobile snowmelt stations at the NGEE Teller site using the fewest, lightest, shortest, easiest to assemble, pieces of observation equipment, tower infrastructure, hardware and tools. It all needed to fit in the 5ft x 2ft x 2ft belly pod and back seat of a helicopter, and take a day and half to construct and test. Thanks to Bob Busey’s creativity and careful preparation in Fairbanks, we landed at the field site on Saturday with our artfully compact load and got to work building the stations.

One of the novel aspects of the station design was the use of survey tripods as the foundation of the infrastructure. These are easy to carry and set up in any terrain.  Bob designed to stations to mount on top of the tripods with unistrut and interlocking, lightweight aluminum poles. The snow sensor, temperature and relative humidity sensor, net radiometer, game cameras and data logger boxes were then mounted off of this simple scaffold.

While Bob and Lily constructed the tower infrastructure, I dug a pit in a snowdrift banked against a shrub thicket to install Bob’s new snow temperature profiler. The profiler has thermistors spaced every 4 centimeters along a wooden rod that has approximately the same thermal conductivity as snow. When inserted upright into the face of a pit, it continuously measures the temperature of snow from the ground surface up through the snow pack to the top of the ~90cm tall unit. We will use the instrument to assess changes in thermal conductivity in the snow pack as a function of depth and time during snowmelt. After installing and burying the profiler, and running its cables through a trench to the snowmelt station pit, I assisted Lily as she built the “yellow” snowmelt station in the shrub drift, while Bob completed the “blue” runoff observation snowmelt station overlooking the creek.


On Sunday we put the finishing touches on both stations and deployed two pressure transducers in the creek that was already flowing due to the unusually warm early spring temperatures. In fact, areas of shallower snow pack including the “blue” snowmelt station site were shrinking fast, leaving large patches of bare ground that had been snow covered two days earlier.

By Sunday afternoon we were packed up and ready to leave the site. Cathy got one more look at the two completed stations as she ferried the first load of empty action packers and tools back to Nome. She also spotted one of the first grizzlies of the season just a few miles North of the airport. Sunday night was spent reorganizing gear for the snow survey in Barrow this week, and snowmelt survey back at Teller next week.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Fair Weather...

We couldn’t ask for two more perfect days.  With brilliant warm sunny days we collected nearly a thousand snow depth measurements at intensive sites and along transects that cross the Teller NGEE watershed. As we climbed out of the site in the helicopter at 8pm, we could see the faint tracks of the tens of thousands of footsteps along remarkably straight survey lines that form the Teller snow grid. 

Every ten meters along kilometers of transects we collected snow depth measurements in order to quantify the spatial patterns of snow distribution in relation to vegetation type, slope, aspect, topography and elevation. For each transect Bob and Cathy set up a directional bearing using hand held gps, Lily Cohen (UAF) paced off distance using a three-meter-long avalanche probe, Cathy measured snow depth with a thaw probe and Bob Busey collected high resolution position data with the Trimble differential GPS rover.  

Given the depth and density of the snow pack we adjusted our snow density measurement goal from 40 sites to 10, and noticed that within just two warm days the snowpack had gotten significantly more “rotten” and wet.  In the mornings water in the snow pack froze into icy layers that were difficult to penetrate with the snowpack density tube, but by the afternoon the snow was so soft we struggled to stay upright, expending significant effort extracting ourselves from thigh deep postholes, even though we wore snowshoes or skis. On Saturday we will install two temporary mini-meteorology stations to track changes in the snow pack and radiation balance in anticipation of snowmelt, which will start soon if temperatures continue to stay warm.