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.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

This was a wonderful trip from all aspects. Our team learned a great deal about the properties and processes of arctic soils, permafrost, hydrology, and vegetation dynamics, and also discovered the logistical challenges associated with working in such remote areas. The conditions were perfect to experience the Arctic at its best, which may disguise how truly difficult working in these areas can be. But, at this stage where we are trying to select sites that completely encompass the range of conditions and match the needs of all disciplines, it was certainly an optimum time to be there. We were lucky, but I believe the team was also ready to face the worst. It looked like everyone had assembled good quality gear to remain dry and warm under what can be tough working conditions. It will probably not be possible for me to accompany each team on their first trip back to the sites, but I think the team leaders have learned enough to be self-sufficient. I will try to accompany them, or send some of my people until we are confident all groups can operate safely. We will rely heavily upon our logistical providers to help us operate safely, but we have much training and many more discussions are needed before we reach that point.

We easily found sites that fit our needs in terms of a range of permafrost degradation. In Council, all of the permafrost is warm and degrading and we see vast evidence of thermokarst and shrub invasion. Along the transect between Council and Barrow, we discovered hundreds of sites of with evidence of degradation, and consequent impacts to the ecosystem. In Atqasuk, we discovered the best site for pristine low-centered polygons, see next image as an example.

We were surprised to see the extensive amounts of advanced permafrost degradation in terms of high centered polygons.

We can not say for certain what is causing this degradation, but I guess that is why we are doing the research. The process of the permafrost degradation is important to the ecosystem, to the hydrology and to the climate. We can understand its impacts, and we can predict the process... we just cannot explain where and why it will occur.

Much work remains to be done. We have a strong team, and we are committed to working with knowledgeable scientists who have conducted related research in the past or are actively conducting relevant research presently. Such complementary studies will help greatly in leveraging our measurements and extending our understanding.

Alaska Seen Through a Camera Lens

The team that participated in this week's trip to Alaska represented a terrific group of people. The cast of characters spanned a broad range of scientific disciplines from plant and microbial ecology to hydrology to subsurface science and geophysics. Through this blog you had the opportunity to read their unique perspectives on the places we visited; Nome, Council, Kougaruk, Ivotuk, Atqasuk, and Barrow. You also had the chance to read how each perceives the challenges we face in conducting research on the Seward Peninsula and the North Slope. These landscapes are complex, but our approach is a strong one and this team is ready to move forward with a scope of work that will ultimately lead to improved understanding of basic Arctic processes and the modeling of those in support of improved climate change predictions.

Our team also included a photographer, Roy Kaltschmidt from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Roy took many of the pictures that you have seen this week scattered throughout our postings. His contributions to the NGEE project are easy to spot as they reflect a perspective that can only come from a thoughtful analysis of the lighting, colors, angles, and composition of the scene in question. The majority of our team used their cameras to record an event, Roy used his to capture, and in some cases create, an impression. This proved to be a distinguishing feature of his work.

Roy was present throughout our trip and sat in on our community meetings, project presentations, and field site visits. He never seemed to grow tired. However, while we were having lunch or dinner, possible before breakfast, Roy would often "go missing" only to return 15 to 30 minutes later with stories of people and places he saw around the towns and villages we visited. There was an interesting encounter with the circus clown in Nome and a Snowy Owl in Barrow. As a result of Roy's curiosity hundreds of pictures emerged over the course of our trip. Those pictures do much more than simply record our trip.

I want to thank Roy for joining our team this week. We will compile his photographs and, with his permission, make them available for viewing through the NGEE web site or another site that Roy may designate. We will work out those details and announce that site within the next couple of weeks. We hope that you will then be able to enjoy more of Roy's view of the Arctic.

Landscapes of the Future

Our team has been in Alaska for a week now and we have seen some pretty amazing places; today was no exception. The community of Barrow, together with the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC), is a strong advocate for scientific research on the North Slope. This advocacy was so strong that the community created the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO), a 7,450 acre outdoor laboratory for Arctic science. Our destination today was the BEO and we were looking forward to it!

The BEO is home to numerous field research projects. We know many of the scientists who are working on the BEO and their projects. It was fun to pick out experimental "landmarks" associated with the various projects that dot the surrounding landscape. These included boardwalks and robotic tram systems of the Biocomplexity Experiment; the tower that supports the BEO eddy covariance instrument; the passive warming chambers of the International Tundra Experiment (ITEX); and many others.

Over the course of the day we were able to identify an area of the BEO that contained what appeared to be the right mix of features that we had hoped to find; polygons. Arctic tundra is widely known for patterned or polygonal ground that forms due to rapid changes in temperatures, repeated freeze-thaw cycles, and formation of ice wedges within permafrost. What we observed on the BEO was a landscape where low-centered polygons were in transition to high-centered polygons in a complex process associated with permafrost degradation. These transitions drive not only changes in topography, but hydrology, carbon and nitrogen cycles, vegetation dynamics, and net energy exchange. The NGEE project hopes to study these transitional landscapes, the processes responsible for them, and how they drive ecosystem-climate feedbacks at regional to global scales. It looks like we can accomplish all these objectives by working on the BEO. Our next step will be to discuss this with other scientists who are conducting research in the area and get their input before we proceed much further.

Our excitement in locating what we think is a great research site on the BEO was tempered somewhat by the fact that most of our team departs Alaska tonight. Margaret Torn will stay an extra day or two to work at the DOE/BER Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) site and to present a Schoolyard Saturday talk for local residents. These talks are educational and outreach activities hosted by BASC with the goal of more closely integrating the community into science being conducted on the BEO and elsewhere. The NGEE project is pleased to support this program and our team appreciates Margaret's willingness to help us connect so early in our project with the local community.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Seeking the Wild Sphagnum

Posted by Sam Wright on behalf of Rich Norby

One of my primary objectives for this trip has been to learn some of the plants and plant communities of the tundra. I've read about them, of course, and looked at photos, but nothing compares with seeing them live. I've been especially interested in the Sphagnum species. Sphagnum mosses are really cool. They shape the environment in important ways, and they should be good indicators of changes in site hydrology. We saw a lot of Sphagnum at the Council site on Tuesday. One of the species is probably S. fuscum. I don't want to guess at the other species, but I collected samples to send to the experts. Even without knowing species, it was clear that some species were morphologically adapted for relatively drier conditions and some for wetter conditions. This differetiation creates interesting research opportunities. As we moved north on Wednesday, I saw progressively less Sphagnum. From what I had read, I didn't expect to see any Sphagnum here in Barrow, but I did see some yesterday, and perhaps when we get back out field site today, I'll see more.

Science in the Arctic

Today dawned with fog and light rain, but neither lasted long. We had breakfast at Ilisagvik College where we also planned our day; we had much to do. Our first stop was the Barrow Arctic Science center (BARC) where Larry and I had scheduled team meetings with local community leaders. Our message was similar to that delivered earlier in the week in Nome; the NGEE project seeks to investigate how permafrost degradation and associated affects on hydrology, landscape evolution, and vegetation dynamics will drive important feedbacks to climate.

Participants in our meeting were engaged and discussions were both positive and lively. The Barrow community is a strong advocate for research and have been for many years. Barrow is often referred to as "Alaska's Arctic Science City". Like our meetings in Nome, people of this area have a lifetime of traditional ecological knowledge that they were quick to share. We heard many accounts of how the land has changed within the past 25 to 30 years. I find the insights conveyed through these life experiences both fascinating and informative. Our meeting was hosted by Glenn Sheehan, Director of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC) and he too had suggestions for how scientists can benefit from local knowledge and thereby establish strong working relationships with local villages.

The rest of the day was spent touring the BARC facility and visiting the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) site operated by the Department of Energy, Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research Program. This is a state-of-the-art facility for atmospheric science and cloud physics research. Walter Brower, local site manager for ARM, gave us the tour and provided a great overview of program goals and objectives. This included plans to install several new instruments at the site, one of which would allow scientists to track carbon dioxide and methane flux from the land surface. The NGEE project will benefit from this capability as well as the other data streams available from the ARM site.

Wednesday night we had the pleasure of having dinner with Craig Tweedie, University of Texas, El Paso. Craig has worked at Barrow for several decades and provided useful thoughts on conducting research in the Arctic. Thanks to Criag, we had the opportunity to meet several students of Robert Hollister, a professor at Grand Valley State University including Jenny Liebig and Kelseyann Kremers who have been working to understand the influence of warmer temperatures on plant productivity. They took time out of their busy day to show us their study and provide us their perspective on the Arctic. It looks like science is in good hands thanks to this new generation of Arctic scientists!

Friday we will continue to look for potential field sites on the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO). This is a 7,450 acre parcel of land that is dedicated to Arctic science research. It should be a great day to spend time with my colleagues in a truly unique field environment.

Quyanaqpak! Thank you very much!
Posted by Sam Wright on behalf of Larry Hinzman

Today was another good day for site selection and team building for the NGEE program. We met today with community leaders from Barrow, who not only welcomed our request to conduct research near their community, but also encouraged the initiation of this project by telling us of more evidence of warming in the Arctic. The Barrow community leaders spoke of willows, ground squirrels and salmon berries all thriving where they had never existed in living memory. They suggested numerous sites where we could conduct research to document and understand these changes. We discussed the goals of the NGEE project and our approach of integrating the science of many disciplines in Council to Barrow, and eventually in a transect between the two.

The community leaders and the many researchers who are already working here have been very welcoming and helpful in sharing their knowledge and ideas. Many have encouraged us to incorporate traditional or local knowledge into our studies. They have also asked that we present our reports and findings in formats that are understandable and useful for community members. It is often difficult for researchers, who are accustomed to analyzing measurements collected over periodic time series or spatial grids to incorporate observations of changes in species, stocks or fluxes, but these observations can provide key information in deciding what to monitor and where to establish our research sites.

Barrow offers no limitations in selecting sites that could provide valuable information. On the contrary, it will be difficult to settle on one area, as many of the places we visited today appear prime to experience substantial permafrost degradation in coming years. The amount of thermokarsting was somewhat surprising to me, but perhaps I have never been searching so diligently for thermokarst before. Barrow is quite cold and I expected the permafrost to be stable with signs of degradation only in areas that have experienced disturbance. It will be necessary to acquire aerial photography from the 1950s and 1980s to see if these are new features and/or to determine how quickly they are changing. Many sites could satisfy our scientific objectives, so we also have the opportunity to consider other factors such as availability of historic data, previous studies, logistical demands, opportunity to collaborate with on-going research, and availability of electricity and telemetry. The ARM site was particularly attractive due to the tremendous amount of historical observations and on-going measurements of very relevant meteorological variables.  Plus, there is a mix of low-centered and high-centered polygonal ground in the area, indicating both stable and degrading permafrost.  It is nice to be in a position where we have so many good options.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Arctic Biota: Amazing and Abundant

Walking on the tundra feels like walking on sponges. Wet sponges, to be exact.
We have now looked at potential research sites spanning from Council to Barrow. What has surprised me most is the density and variety of the vegetation across the region. Other than areas disturbed by man, it is hard to find bare soil. Every square inch is covered in a deep mat of actively growing plants. Since there isn't much grazing pressure at the sites we've visited, we've been treated to lush vegetation, including an abundance of wild berries and flowers.
This environment is one of abundance and deprivation. Looking at the current abundance, it is difficult to remember that for much of the year the plants and animals are just barely hanging on, waiting for next summer. That realization makes me want to tread lightly as I walk. I don't want to hinder their chance for survival.

Features, features everywhere

Continuing our site selection activities, yesterday the NGEE team flew by charter plane from Nome to Barrow, flying over or stopping at: Council, Kougarok, Kotzebue, Selewik, the Brooks Range, Ivotuk, and Atqasuk. Although in the early stages of NGEE we propose to focus our field activities on the Barrow and Council 'end-member' sites, we envision that later stages of the project will include a gradient study along a transect similar to what we flew. The beauty, vastness, and remoteness of the landscape was awe inspiring.

Over and over again, we witnessed a variety of permafrost degradation features in close proximity to each other. Being able to see these features from above - and in relation to the larger scale geology, topography and river systems - allowed us to speculate about key factors and interplay of processes that control the evolution of these features. The 'uniformity of the heterogeneity' was striking, and suggests that there is a rhyme and reason to the expressions. This is encouraging, because development of a next generation landscape simulator will require an understanding of the permafrost evolution as well as its impact on climate.

Last night (after dinner, at 11 PM at 'night', when there is still plenty of light to work....), Craig Tweedie gave the team a mini-tour of several experiments in progress in the area. This morning we will meet with community leaders in Barrow and spend the rest of the day scouting for field sites and visiting the Barrow ARM site. In contrast to Nome, the weather is gloomy here. I guess that is to be expected, for the farthest northern city in the US!

Flying Wild Alaska

If seeing a birds eye view of Alaska was on my bucket list, it would have been checked off today! We climbed aboard a Cessna 208B Caravan this morning in Nome and spent the day hopping from one landing strip to another. We started with a low altitude flyover of Council. It was great to see from the air what we saw yesterday on the ground. There is no doubt about it, this area is both ecologically diverse and is undergoing considerable change.

We landed at Kougarok, flew over Espenberg, and landed again in Kotzebue for fuel. Larry has worked at Kougarok before and we spent about an hour checking out the polygonal landscape, trying to identify various forbs and shrubs, and probing the permafrost for near-surface temperature. We then departed for a quick flyover of the large thermokarst feature near Seliwik. Joel Rowland and Cathy Wilson, both participants in the NGEE project, have studied this feature along the Seliwik River for several years.

The Brooks Range was the only geographic obstacle between us and the North Slope, and our destinations of Ivotuk, Atqasuk, and Barrow. We landed at Ivotuk to take a quick look at the CALM grid and Walt Oechel's environmental monitoring tower. The CALM site is one of a network of locations where the depth of the active layer and permafrost temperatures are being monitored. A sign at the landing strip indicated "Welcome to Ivotuk, When you're here, you're still nowhere". It was easy to get that feeling today.

It was an awesome day! Few people get to see the diversity of ecosystems that we did today. Having seen all this compressed into a 14-hour period made the bioclimatic transitions from the Seward Peninsula to the North Slope seem obvious and highly relevant to the NGEE project. I walked the tundra at Kougaruk with Margaret Torn, an ecologist, and we commented on the biological complexity of the landscapes. We speculated that this complexity could be categorized into two broad classes; overwhelming and daunting. I think we saw both in our trip today and we are looking forward to seeing more in Barrow over the next few days!

Finally a special thanks to our Era Aviation pilots Ross and Tony. It was an outstanding flight and those landings were smooth...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Seeing is Believing

The NGEE team has talked for many months about conducting research at sites on the Seward Peninsula. Trouble is that we had never visited those sites. That all changed in a matter of hours today and I must admit that we were not disappointed. The landscape near Council, Alaska represents an exciting collection of ecosystems that by all measures looks to be a perfect environment to examine the role of permafrost degradation on vegetation change, carbon cycle processes, and other land-atmosphere feedbacks. It was satisfying to see the landscape so alive with surface and subsurface interactions. Thermokarst features were abundant across the tundra and in what looked to be various stages of development. This opens many doors for achieving our goal of studying these complex systems in a statistically robust manner.

Also satisfying was seeing the way our team interacted with each other throughout the day. It is one thing to listen as colleagues from different disciplines exchange ideas or debate alternative hypotheses on a conference call. I have done this for months. But there is something quite rewarding to see this play out spontaneously in a field environment. Today I watched as a hydrologist discussed possible scenarios of soil moisture with a microbiologist, and as a geophysicist talked to an ecologist about how subsurface processes potentially control the large-scale distribution of plant functional types. This is an encouraging sign that we are taking strides to having an engaged and integrated team that is ready to tackle the demands of the NGEE project.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thermokarst Exploration near Council

Today the NGEE team spent the day exploring the geomorphology, hydrology and vegetation near Council. We were able to observe an outstanding array of features indicative of the transitional nature of this landscape. On the hillslopes, we witnessed solifluction (or active layer detachment and transport) as well as shrubification. On flatter ground, we walked through many different thermokarst features, stepping from wet sedges in the middle of the thermokarsts (the first step is always a surprise...) to higher and dryer shrubs on the banks of the features.

We used a probe to measure the spatial variation in the active layer thickness , which often ranged from 30cm on the banks to >1m in the center of the thermokarsts; this variation is expected to drive a variety of above ground vegetation and below ground microbial ecosystem processes that feedback to climate. Not only were the transitions in moisture, vegetation, and active layer sharp, but the heterogeneity of features within a small distance was striking: thermokarsts, drained lakes, and patterned ground formations were all evident in close proximity. Witnessing textbook examples of such a variety of permafrost degradation features first-hand was awesome - it fostered plenty of team discussion about where to select sites for detailed study.

After investigating lodging possibilities for a field camp in Council and experiencing the generous hospitality of Council townspeople, we headed back for our last night in Nome. On the way back, we spotted reindeer and grizzly bear, as well as several large birds and small critters. What a day.

Tomorrow early morning we board a small charter plane to survey this and several other areas from the air – we expect another exhilarating day of observing these features from another perspective.

All photos in this post were taken by Roy Kaltschmidt and are under copyright by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab