Monday, October 3, 2011

SATURDAY, October 1, 2011

Mrs. Roberts - It has been a great week of science on the Alaskan tundra and an even better week since I got to share my experiences with your students. My thanks to everyone!

I leave Barrow tonight, but wanted to send just a few more pictures. I took these as I drove around town this morning.

Here is a picture of the elementary school. Remember the Arctic Foxes? One of their teachers told me there are 600 students enrolled this year. There is a series of basketball games this weekend where the students in each grade play each other. Too bad I can't stay to watch that! Last year I watched kids play at the community center and a few of them could shoot some hoops. I also took a few pictures that show how the community combines art and humor, while at the same time trying to convey a useful message to residents of Barrow. I like the one about "Kids are our future". Another sign read "What would happen if we all gave 100%?" I also like the signs that you see around town showing how many miles the various planets in our solar system are from the Sun. Do you know how many planets there are in our solar system?

One sign in particular was funny. It was just down the street from the elementary school. It showed how far several locations are from Barrow. Hard to believe that the North Pole is still over 1,300 miles away! Although not on the sign, Knoxville is almost 4,100 miles from Barrow. I have a long flight, but I am looking forward to being home in east Tennessee.
Have a great week!

Friday, September 30, 2011

FRIDAY, September 30, 2011

Hi kids! Paglagivsignin! That means "We welcome you all!" in the native language of the Inupiat people of Barrow.

Barrow is 4 time zones behind the time zone of east Tennessee. When it is noon in Knoxville and you are getting ready to eat lunch, it is 8:00am in Barrow and I am just finishing my breakfast!

My internal alarm clock went off early this morning and I went for a walk. The sun had not risen and it was still dark. And what do you think I saw? A whale! Well, not one that was alive, but the jawbone of a whale. Bowhead whales are common in the Arctic Ocean and can often be seen off shore. The jawbone in the picture is from a whale that was almost 60 feet long and weighed 120,000 pounds. Even baby whales can be 10 feet long at birth and weigh 1,000 pounds.
Now that you know so much about the bowhead whale, it should be clear why high school students in Barrow are called the Whalers. The Whalers are just like any high school; they even play sports just like students at Karns. They play basketball and football. Their football field is not like the one at the Karns high school. Because of the harsh climate here in Barrow grass would never grow. So the Whalers have artificial turf that they roll out along the beach of the Arctic Ocean and play football with other schools in Alaska. Can you imagine doing this in Tennessee? And if that is not unusual enough, the field is blue! Do you know any other football teams who have a blue field? (Mrs. Roberts - the correct answer is Boise State University). Tonight the Whalers are playing an away game in Seward, Alaska. The Whalers have a winning record this year. I hope they win tonight!

Finally, I wanted to share a couple of pictures of the tundra and one showing where we stayed this week. Snow now covers the tundra and we had a great week in the Arctic. We learned about the ecosystems of Alaska; the plants and animals of the Arctic and how they cope with a harsh climate; and; and how kids in Barrow are a lot like those in Knoxville.

Have a fun weekend!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

THURSDAY, September 29, 2011

Mrs. Roberts - Are the students enjoying hearing about life in Alaska? I am having fun sharing my week with them. The world is a big place and there is so much to see! I am lucky that as a scientist I can visit these places and experience so many new things.

Researchers in our group continue to use special instruments to look at ice and soil below ground. Did you know that soil in the Arctic is frozen? You can dig a hole to roughly 15 inches before you hit solid ice. The instruments that we have can tell us where frozen soil is located and how deep it is. Students from the high school came today and watched us work for a while. One of our scientists talked to them and explained how some of our equipment works. They were very interested and surprised that we could "see" things buried deep in the ground.
We took a break this afternoon and drove around the town of Barrow. None of the streets are paved; all of them are dirt. Do you know why? Concrete streets like we have in Knoxville would crack and buckle in the cold environment of Barrow. Can you imagine the size of an Arctic pothole in the streets of Barrow?

In driving around town, we saw several interesting signs and paintings. These appear all around town; some are even painted on the sides of buildings. People in Barrow are proud of their town and emphasize that by putting colorful signs where people can easily see them. I like the one of the walrus; there are others of whales, seals, and polar bears. I still have not seen, however, a polar bear.
We also stopped along side the Arctic ocean. The water is cold and only the hardiest of animals can live there. Our group stood in the water for a few minutes. I have been to the coast in South Carolina and Florida, this is quite different. No one ever goes swimming in the Arctic ocean because it is just too cold. When you stand on the beach of the Arctic Ocean, the North Pole is still more than a thousand miles north. We live on a very, very big planet!
I will talk to you again tomorrow. I hope you are ready to hear about the local football team; the Whalers. I will also try to find a few surprises for you as well! Study hard and stay tuned...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

WEDNESDAY, September 28, 2011

Yesterday was a great day to get an introduction to what it will be like to be a scientist in Barrow. We worked a long day in cold, windy, and snowy weather. Ground that was soft and spongy just a few days ago has now frozen. We walked on boardwalks and matted trail to protect fragile tundra, but were able to complete much of our sampling without any disturbance to the tundra. We collected soil samples and put them in small containers so we can analyze them later in the laboratory. We stored them in a cooler, but then found out that we had no refrigerator to get them cold. What do you think we did to keep them cold? Can you think like a scientist?

Scientists on our team are trying understand how land forms in the Arctic are controlled by things underground. Over the last few days we have used various imaging techniques, much like x-rays are used to image bones when they are broken, to see ice and frozen soils.
A third grade class from Ipalook Elementary School came to our research site to see what we were doing. They were a great group. They listened and then we showed them some of our equipment.

While the students were visiting us on the tundra we just happened to see a fox. We had seen many of these over the last few days. They are very curious animals. Can you see how the color of their fur helps them blend into the snow-covered tundra?

The students got back on the bus and we talked a little more about what it is like to live in Barrow. They liked their teachers and their school, although some of them liked the cold weather and others did not. Remember that I wrote about the mascot of the Ipalook Elementary school? Today I learned that the High Schoolers are called the Whalers; students at the middle school are the Wolves; and the mascot of the elementary school is the Arctic Fox! I ended my talk with the students by telling them that I was also writing to Mrs. Roberts' class of third graders in Knoxville. They all thought that was pretty neat. All the students here say "hello" and they wanted me to tell you that you are always welcome in Barrow. If you come, however, dress warm and be prepared for cold weather. The students also said to study your math, reading, and science!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

TUESDAY, September 27, 2011

A big "hello" to Mrs. Roberts and her third grade students at Karns Elementary school in Knoxville!

Here's an update of my trip so far...

Susan Hubbard and her team of scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory arrived in Barrow on Saturday. They have been sorting gear, purchasing supplies, and have started to take a few initial measurements in the field. The weather has been cold and windy with some snow and freezing rain. Temperatures dipped into the twenties last night. These are typical conditions in Barrow for late September. Staying warm and dry will be our challenge this week!

Last night I checked into the dormitory-style housing that scientists use when in Barrow. There are three hotels in town, but those are almost always filled by tourists and oil company employees. Tourists come to see rare and endangered birds that live in the area and in hopes of spotting polar bears that come ashore from the Arctic ocean. Maybe I will see a polar bear this week! One did come ashore during my last visit and it created some excitement, with many local residents coming down to see the bear as it swam onto the beach. Because of its proximity to the National Petroleum Reserve, oil and natural gas exploration are also important activities in the Barrow area.

Our research team visited Barrow in August and had a photographer with us who took some really neat pictures. Wooden boardwalks are often used by scientists as they walk to and from their field sites in the tundra. These ecosystems are sensitive and damage due to repeated walking on the tundra can take years to recover. No vehicles are allowed on the tundra during the summer. In the winter, snow machines and other vehicles with big, spongy tires can be used on the tundra because the ground is frozen and covered by snow.

Although the Arctic tundra looks really different than the forests of eastern Tennessee, ecologists are finding that plants and animals in Alaska have many ways of coping with the extreme climate. Plants grow close to the surface of the ground, for example, to avoid the harsh influence of high wind and blowing snow. Animals like the snowy owl, fox, caribou, and reindeer also make their home in the tundra. Although it looks like a harsh environment, these animals get everything they need from the tundra.


1. You notice that there are no trees in the tundra. The nearest trees to Barrow are hundreds of miles to the south. Locate north, south, east, and west on a map of Alaska. What ocean is north of Barrow and what country is to the west?

2. Where do birds like the snowy owl live on the tundra and how do they stay safe from other animals?

3. Plants are adapted to the cold temperatures and short growing seasons in the Arctic. Animals are too. Can you think of ways that animals use to protect themselves in the winter?

Monday, September 26, 2011

MONDAY, September 26, 2011

This week our team travels to Barrow, Alaska. Scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley and Oak Ridge National Laboratories in California and Tennessee, respectively, are conducting research to better understand processes that form polygonal ground in tundra ecosystems. Thousands of square miles in the Arctic are covered by networks of polygons that fill with water early in the year after the snow melts. Polygons are formed by a well-developed system of ice wedges in the ground and are a striking feature of the landscape, particularly when seen from the air. This is just one of many examples where nature creates intricate designs on the earth's surface. Although a common landform in the cold regions of the world, polygons are sensitive to disturbance and warming temperatures, and scientists want to know why.

Our team will also be sharing our experiences in Barrow this week with Mrs. Roberts and her third grade class of students at Karns Elementary School in Knoxville, Tennessee. Students in Mrs. Roberts’ class are learning about ecosystems, climate, and landforms around the world and our week in Barrow will provide a good opportunity to highlight all of this, and more. We are looking forward to daily postings to this site and with sharing thoughts and pictures with students while in the Arctic.
Today (Monday) is a travel day; a long one. I leave Knoxville, travel to Chicago, Seattle, Anchorage, and then after flying for more than 16 hours and traveling almost 4100 miles, I will land in the small city of Barrow. Barrow is the northernmost city in the United States and it sits right on the Arctic Ocean. It is 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Barrow is home to 4600 residents, many of who are Native Inupiat Eskimo people. I have visited Barrow several times in the last year and like the town and people. It is, however, remote; you can only reach Barrow by airplane or boat. You cannot drive to Barrow from other cities in Alaska. So it is very different than living in Tennessee. The record low temperature for Barrow is -58 degree Fahrenheit. Because it is so far north, the sun never rises above the horizon between mid-November and mid-January. This 2-month period is known as polar night. Snow machines are the best way to get around in the winter. I will share more facts about Barrow later in the week. Wait until you hear about the Barrow High School Football Team – the Whalers!

1. Find Alaska, and then Barrow, on a map of the North American Continent. Can you determine the location of Barrow by its latitude and longitude?

2. Locate the Arctic Ocean. See if you can also find the Arctic Circle on the map or better yet, a globe of the Earth. Compare it to the Equator.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

First geophysical field campaign!

The NGEE geophysical team had their first field day today, with an objective to explore subsurface soil variability just prior to freeze in a field site in Barrow that displays different thermokarst characteristics. Baptiste Dafflon, Craig Ulrich, John Peterson and Susan Hubbard from LBNL were joined by Alessio Gusmeroli from UAF. We arrived to a dusting of snow and what seems like an incipient freeze – everyone was bundled for field work. After hauling lots of equipment out to the site, we collected surface electromagnetic data along some key transects and tested the ground penetrating radar responses. We initiated the collection of active layer depth, temperature, and TDR moisture probing along the geophysical transects. Tomorrow Stan Wullschleger from ORNL will join us, and we will start the electrical data acquisition. We are exciting to see what these data yield!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cold Soak

Posted by Sam Wright on behalf of Cathy Wilson

The charter flight from Nome to Barrow could have been called the “Arctic geomorphology express”. We had great views of periglacial features that included giant solifluction lobes, polygonal ground, thermokarst ponds and lakes, water tracks, pingos and more.  While some features of the landscape remained the same from site to site, others changed dramatically.  One surprise was the juxtaposition of patches of high and low centered polygonal ground throughout most of the transect from Nome to Barrow.   This suggests that permafrost and ice wedge degradation is taking place across the Arctic, driven by small differences in topography, soils, drainage and other factors that were indiscernible from our low flying plane.  The exception was our first stop, Council, where there was little evidence of polygonal ground of any type. Were ice wedge polygons pervasive in the past and now nearly completely obscured by intensive thermokarst? Most puzzling was the extent of permafrost degradation in the Barrow area. How could someplace so cold have so many high centered polygons and so much thermokarst?

These are just a couple of questions that piqued our curiosity and fueled our growing Arctic fever. By the time we landed in Barrow we were ready to get our feet wet and hands dirty in the pursuit of Arctic science… and that’s when we got a taste of how hard it is to work in a remote, cold, and environmentally sensitive location like Barrow.  We went from T-shirts in Council to layers of down and Gortex in Barrow, in August! At each of our stops we gained an appreciation for the need to deploy monitoring infrastructure that is resistant to bears (does anything stop a bear?) and foxes (flexible metal conduit for cables), protects the tundra (board walks and tundra mats) and operates/survives at 40 below zero (new phrase for NGEE neophytes: “cold soak” eg. test instruments at extreme cold temperatures before purchasing).  In this environment, even a met tower can warm the permafrost and generate its own thermokarst.  In addition to the infrastructure associated with “science” we developed a new sense of what constitutes luxury accommodation in remote, extreme Arctic towns and villages. By the time we packed up to head home, the women’s quonset hut felt like the “penthouse suite”.

Photos on this post were taken by Cathy Wilson

Monday, August 22, 2011

Microtopography. Microheterogeneity. Microbiology. - Dave Graham

Nine flights in Alaska last week reminded me how far the tundra spans in this state that is 14-times the size of Tennessee. Polygonal features cover the ground like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Standing in the middle of the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO), you can see for miles in any direction. Only the much-welcome power lines break up the landscape. The largest permafrost degradation features rise only ~80 cm from the surrounding troughs. But a few centimeters make all the difference to the fauna, and probably the microbes as well. Liquid water is precious for the cotton grass in saturated depressions and the rootless sphagnum moss that forms tight clusters in moist terrain. Microtopography begets microheterogeneity.

While polygons and vegetation stand out from above, the subsurface is a bustling metropolis of microbial activity. The temperature drops from a chilly 4 degrees C (air) to 3.5 degrees C (surface water) to 2 degrees C (dry ground). Microbes in this cold active layer busily degrade dying plant material, but we know much less about the microbes that are degrading old, long-buried biomass from the thawing permafrost of high-centered polygons. The nutrients and gasses released by this microbial activity are key to understanding the tundra’s future vegetation and climate. I would expect the variations in microtopography and water distribution to have a huge effect on microbial heterogeneity. I look forward to returning during ‘drilling season’ to sample cores of this hidden world.