Saturday, August 20, 2011

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.