Thursday, October 13, 2016

A first visit to the Anvil City Science Academy

Amy Breen
International Arctic Research Center
Alaska Climate Science Center
Scenarios Network for Alaska & Arctic Planning
University of Alaska Fairbanks

Last week, I traveled to Nome to meet with middle school students at the Anvil City Science Academy charter school. My aim was to establish a researcher-teacher partnership with their middle school science teacher as part of The Arctic in the Classroom Project led by ARCUS (Arctic Research Consortium of the United States). The Alaskan Arctic is a science-rich region with stunning natural landscapes, ecosystems, and people. Arctic science, however, is not always well communicated to the people that live within the region. Their project facilitates citizen science and community-based monitoring collaborations between students, teachers, and researchers in Arctic communities.

Nome Public High School and Middle School

The school was kind enough to offer housing at the Nome public schools for my two-night visit. My flight arrived on Wednesday night. After taking a cab to pick up my rental truck, I met my teacher partner Tammie Holt for the first time. Tammie is a new teacher at the school and arrived at the end of the summer from Colorado with her husband. She was late meeting me due to a last minute offer of fresh caught Bering Sea crab and halibut from her neighbor that she could not pass up, and I certainly could not fault her on that decision. She gave me the room key and we talked about the logistics of meeting the next two days with her students. I slept surprisingly well in the single dorm style accommodations.

Our plan for the visit was to introduce myself, my background, and research interests on the first day, and then to do a field trip with the students the following day. The field trip was work that I would have otherwise done independently to collect seed from several tall shrub species for an experiment to begin during the 2017 growing season. The NGEE Arctic Shrub Team will stratify the seed, germinate it in the greenhouse this spring, and then outplant seedlings into the field on the Seward Peninsula. We will set up two experiments to test: 1) whether tall shrubs can survive beyond the northern limit of shrubline in the Arctic with supplemental warming, and 2) whether shrubs survive best in undisturbed tundra or tundra disturbed by wildfire in different age fire scars. Our expectation is the shrubs will have higher survivorship in the warmed and disturbed settings, showing that temperature limits shrub distributions and that wildfire disturbance facilitates shrubification.

Student collecting seed from an alder shrub

The first morning, I met with two separate science classes that each convened for 50 minutes. We began with introductions from all of the students which included their sharing of what they enjoy most about science. I told them my story of how I became a scientist and we talked about different options to work as a scientist in the Arctic. I shared a set of slides mostly comprised of photos to provide a glimpse of the work that I do teaching an Arctic field course and as a field biologist, leaving time at the end for more of a Q & A with the students where they could ask me questions. I got several great questions such as, “How long was I in school to become a researcher?” and “Where do I see myself in 5 years? Will I still be doing the same sort of work?”

My cleverest moment of the discussion was when I remembered the 2015 film, “The Martian,” (and book by Andy Weir) in which the main character is not only an astronaut, but also a botanist and engineer, who is inadvertently left behind during a Mars mission and has to grow his own food to survive. It was a great illustration of why studying plants, or botany, is a worthy career track for a scientist – including a reference to the more applied work of agriculturists. I also made the analogy of the character being a field biologist, although rather than studying earth system science, his field site was on Mars. We then became engaged in a lively discussion about whether astronauts will actually travel to Mars in our lifetime. There were several students that were quite adamant there is a high probability that the first human will step on Mars in the next twenty years. Although we were not specifically talking about Arctic science, it was still great to be able to reference a botanist as the main character in a high profile Hollywood movie. Interestingly, President Obama set a goal to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, and return them safely to Earth, just a few days later.

That afternoon, I scouted the area around the Nome High School and Middle School for a good place for the field trip. We were limited to within one mile of the school because the students would be on foot. The only tall shrub population I found within that restriction was Siberian Alder. The distance from the school to the collection site was just right at the one-mile limit on a maze of 4-wheel drive dirt roads toward Anvil Mountain.  I was fearful we would lose a student on the approach so I set out to mark the route as I would for a running or biking race – with orange flagging and spray paint arrows on the road surface.

The next morning both classes (40 students) met together for the field trip so that we would have almost 2 hours to travel by foot to the field site and make our seed collections. I brought in alder twigs to show the students the plant in its winter state after its leaves had dropped.  Alder is a large shrub up to 2 m tall in the tundra.  The flowers are borne on catkins and the female catkins mature in late fall in clusters of 3-10 that resemble small pinecones.  We reviewed the methods by which I wanted students to collect the seed.  In short, each student was to collect 10-15 catkins per plant from a unique individual.  The catkins were to be stored in paper lunch sacks and labeled appropriately. If nothing else, I wanted the students to learn the importance of detailed labels in the field and lab. I showed the students how to fold the bags to assure the seeds were contained and to affix the end of the bag with a piece of masking tape.  We did a quick head count and we were off.

Looking back at the group of 40 students from the front of the classroom.

I led the parade of students from the school to the collection site. Mrs. Holt followed behind in her vehicle as a safety precaution.  Little did I know, many of the students ran cross-country and the roads I had chosen to follow were well known from their after school practice.  Before I knew it, students were running ahead following the marked course. I started running with them as well, as I didn’t want the crowd to get too far ahead. I may or may not have impressed the students with my scientific pursuits, but I did impress several with my running ability. I am pretty sure they expected to drop me within the first quarter mile.

Students traveling to the field site on foot.

Once we got to the alder population I had chosen, I had the group in the front wait while I ran back to gather the line of students stretched out as they were walking at different paces behind the lead group.  It was great to have Mrs. Holt in the car as sweep to assure we did not lose any students along the way.  She also did a head count before and after we made our collections.

Mrs. Holt in the sweep car.

This is what happens when you give your camera to the students to take photos.

We had asked a pair of students to carry our field supplies, so when they arrived we were set to make our seed collections. I stressed again for each student to collect from a single unique shrub. The flurry of activity began with students disappearing into the alder thicket that paralleled a nearby creek.  I was pleased to see most of the students labeling their collections well and folding their bags neatly.  After about 20 minutes, they each deposited their collection back into the field bag and we made the return trip to the school.

Amy handing out paper bags to the students.

Student labeling her seed collection.

Once back in the classroom, Mrs. Holt led a discussion about what they had learned on their field trip.  She asked several great questions about alder (e.g., is alder deciduous or evergreen?) that brought the science home at the middle school level.

That afternoon, I went out to the Kougarok field site to make additional seed collections from two shrub birch species and two willow species.  Winter will soon arrive on the Seward Peninsula making travel to the field site difficult once the snow begins to fall.  The road is not maintained in the winter months for travel by car, although it is open to snowmachine, dog team, cross-country skiing, and other assorted activities. My collection of seed from the other shrub species was a success and it was a pleasant return drive to Nome.  I departed for home on the evening flight.

-Amy Breen

Road sign erected in the winter months to warn travelers that the Kougarok Road is not plowed or maintained.

The top of the hillslope at the Kougarok field site showing one of our intensive stations with plots marked with wooden stakes and a weather station.

Cabins along the Pilgrim River on the return drive from the field site. There are still some fall colors among the tundra plants.

Looking back at Salmon Lake as the sun sets.

Monday, August 8, 2016

No Regrets…Well, Maybe One

The last three weeks have been a great time as more then 25 participants in the NGEE Arctic project conducted research at sites near Nome, AK. Everyone had a well-defined plan before coming to Alaska and executed those plans efficiently and safely. From my perspective this was a win-win situation.

One regret, however is that I did not get to work with the geophysics team from LBNL. This included John, Baptiste, Craig, Florian, and Emmanuel. I have worked with this group before both on the North Slope of Alaska and the Seward Peninsula. And it is a treat to say the least. They are a hard-working, talkative group of researchers who truly love their science and a good challenge.

This week that challenge was several ERT, seismic, EM, and GPR transects that easily totaled more than 5000 meters in length. The datasets that this team collected will be critical as we begin to characterize the subsurface environment of our sites, as well better understand the interactions between permafrost and bedrock and relationships to surface and groundwater hydrology. The hydrology aspects of this are being handled by Brent, Jeff, Cathy, Carli, Lauren, and Bob, colleagues at LANL and UAF. Together this is a strong team.

If you happened to be in Nome the past couple of weeks perhaps you saw their “geophysics” truck…it was easy to tell they were proud of their science!

Energy Balance of Tundra Landscapes

While the NGEE Arctic project has been interested in the energy balance of high-latitude ecosystems for several years, those measurements have focused on our site near Barrow, AK. We have used a suite of sensors to characterize energy-related processes across ice-wedge polygons and drained thaw lake basins. We have also deployed an instrument package on an automated cart that rides along a 65-m tram that collects data every three hours throughout the season. These systems are the product of our colleagues at LBNL and BNL.

This week Margaret, Bryan, Ori, and Sigrid – all from LBNL – were keen to deploy the portable system at sites near Council, AK on the Seward Peninsula. The suite of instruments included sensors for measuring short- and longwave radiation, incoming and reflected PAR, surface temperature, albedo, PRI, and NDVI. A camera could also be activated to take pictures of vegetation in each of the plots. The system was carried across the tundra and deployed at plots where we characterized community composition. This way we can interpret components of the energy balance and relate those to specific vegetation types. This will ensure that ecotypes are properly parameterized for use in our NGEE Arctic models.

Tasks were divided among the team; Ori prepared stakes for marking plots and she and Margaret picked representative 2.5 x 2.5 m plots along a transect and determined community composition. The transect crossed tussock tundra, several thermokarst features, and then two drained thaw lakes. Once plots were selected, Bryan and Sigrid walked from plot to plot with the sensors and made measurements as they went. A measurement would take 5 minutes with the greatest investment of time and energy spent walking between plots. We repeated measurements over a period of 4 to 5 days.  Ancillary data on thaw depth, soil temperature, and soil water content were also recorded at each plot. Our team had the opportunity to sample across a range of weather conditions; sunny days and rainy days.

It was a great week for deploying the energy balance system, looking at data, talking among our NGEE Arctic colleagues, and envisioning how we could improve the system in the coming months. Right now we are happy with the results and how they will inform models, especially models that explicitly represent vegetation dynamics including shrub expansion in tundra ecosystems.

Friday, August 5, 2016

International Collaboration...Meet and Greet on the Tundra

The NGEE Arctic project is keen to collaborate with scientific partners from around the world. This makes sense for any number of reasons, but especially as it relates to our ultimate goal of improving pan-Arctic simulations of ecosystem-climate feedbacks. We need to work closely with others to make this happen.

Scientists from the Arctic Research Center, Korea Polar Research Institute (KOPRI) have an active interest in the Arctic with research sites in Cambridge Bay, Canada; Zackenberg, Greenland; and Ny-Ă…lesund, Svalbard. Interestingly, they also have a research site on the Seward Peninsula not far from our field site near Council, AK. We have met with representatives of KOPRI in the past and prior to this field campaign had coordinated with them to share information and possibly conduct a few measurements at their site.

Yoo Kyung Lee and Youngwook Kim arrived at our site after a 2 hour drive from Nome and Margaret (LBNL) spoke briefly with them about conducting a geophysical transect near their field site, along with plot-scale measurements of energy balance and NDVI. Sebastien (LBNL) had flown his UAS equipped with an optical camera over the KOPRI site several days ago, so we already had (once processed) a high-resolution digital elevation map (DEM) for them.

Although we have just a few days left before everyone departs, we will be able to undertake the measurements in the next two days. Once completed, we can share the data and then discuss other ways in which we can collaborate in the future. We look forward to the interaction and welcome collaboration with other international partners!

Science Takes Flight on the Tundra

Every field trip to Alaska brings with it recognition that scientists working on the NGEE Arctic project are both curious and innovative. Curiosity is certainly one of the hallmarks of the scientific process. Innovation is also a distinguishing feature of science, especially in areas where emerging technology can be used to gain new insights into ecosystem dynamics.

This week Sebastien Biraud from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory joined us on the Seward Peninsula to acquire high-resolution aerial imagery of our field sites using an Unmanned Aerial System or UAS. Sebastien works primarily with the AmeriFlux program. In that capacity he has instrumented a quad-copter with an optical camera and with sensors that enable other properties of the landscape to be quickly and efficiently captured.

Sebastien kindly agreed to join us for this trip and has secured all the necessary FAA permits and approvals to fly his UAS in Alaska. These flights were intended to evaluate capabilities of the aerial platform and to preliminarily characterize several of our field sites. The quad-copter was surprisingly quiet and fast, taking a complete set of measurements for our site in less than 15 to 20 minutes. It passed overhead with nothing more than a “hum” as it went about collecting data.

Sebastien has agreed to give one of our monthly NGEE Arctic Science Talks and update the team on his results and thoughts on future collaboration. The data products derived from the UAS flights should be interesting and applicable to our goals and objectives as we characterize sites on the Seward Peninsula and “upscale” our field data to larger and larger areas. This will be important as we continue to represent insights gained from our field studies in Earth System Models.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Trace Gas Emissions on the Tundra

Greenhouse gas emissions, including the flux of CO2 and CH4 from terrestrial ecosystems, provide an important land-atmosphere feedback to climate. As such, the NGEE Arctic project has several tasks that target a mechanistic understanding of the processes that control the carbon cycle. This applies not only to our field and laboratory studies, but also to our modeling where it is critical to properly represent the timing, rate, and magnitude of CO2 and CH4 flux from plants, soils, and ecosystems.

This week Ori (LBNL) and others are busy measuring trace gas flux at locations across the landscape at our field site near Council, AK. You may remember Ori from her work in Barrow where she has been helping with our measurements since 2014. Using similar techniques as those perfected at Barrow, Ori is working this week to deploy a network of chambers that will allow our team to determine how the flux of CO2 and CH4 varies in tussock tundra and in areas where permafrost thaw and thermokarst formation are underway. Ori has installed PVC bases into the soil at dozens of locations across the field site. She is using a portable gas analysis system from Los Gatos Research to measure flux rates by first placing a clear or opaque chamber on the PVC bases. An air-tight seal ensures that both the increase and decrease of CO2 and CH4 concentration can be measured, from which rates of ecosystem gas exchange can be estimated.

Field-scale measurements of CO2 and CH4 flux will be important for quantifying whether tundra ecosystems are a source or sink for carbon. More importantly these data, and the knowledge derived from them, will guide more mechanistic studies under controlled conditions in the laboratory and validate how those mechanisms are represented in models. The results that Ori and others gain this week will also help us prepare for more intensive measurements next year.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Digging Deeper

The NGEE Arctic project is interested in plant and soil processes. Not only does this include a focus on the biogeochemical mechanisms that lead to CO2 and CH4 emissions from tundra landscapes, but also on the structure and function of plant roots. Colleen (ORNL), who is one of our Phase 2 task leaders, understands the importance of roots and has made it a central theme for our research on the Seward Peninsula.

Today Colleen, Joanne, Verity, Eugenie, Holly, Mark, and Peter joined forces to collect soil cores and selectively excavate roots from several plants growing at our field site. Soil cores were taken using a battery-powered drill equipped with a specially-designed coring device. Using this technique Colleen was able to collect soil cores up to 35 cm in length in just a few minutes. Once cores were extracted from the barrel it was easy to see the different soil layers including green moss, organic-rich regions that contained most of the roots, and then mineral soil. These are placed in plastic bags, frozen, and shipped back to Colleen’s laboratory for analysis.

Verity, a post-doctoral research associate working on the project, also wanted to collect roots from plants in the field. This is a tedious process in which roots attached near the base of a specific plant had to be excavated and then traced out into the soil. In this way roots of various sizes and “root order” could be collected. Verity attacked this task with enthusiasm. It turned out that Peter was also particularly talented at tracing roots and helped Verity and Joanne collect a large number of roots. Although Peter has a background in field research, most of our colleagues know him for his work with Earth System Models. This week he traded high-performance super computers for helping us in the field; and apparently Peter enjoyed getting first-hand knowledge about how data on root structure and function were obtained for use in global climate models. We were glad to have him as part of the field team!