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