Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Welcome to Nome

Posted by Sam Wright on behalf of Susan Hubbard
The majority of the NGEE team flew this morning from Anchorage to Nome,  Alaska. Nome is located on the Seward Peninsula, about 75 miles from the town of Council, where the NGEE team is considering developing one of two field study sites. Compared to the Barrow study site (which the team will visit later this week), the Council region is warmer and the permafrost is thinner.  A study site in this region will allow us to examine ecosystem-climate feedbacks associated with a transitional landscape where the permafrost is discontinuous and the expansion of shrubs to tundra is already occurring. Stan and Larry, who had arrived in Nome the day before, met us at the airport with vehicles.  We arrived to a beautiful day – bright blue sky and warmer temperatures than many of the summer days I experience in Berkeley.  It was an auspicious start to our weeklong site selection venture!
Our main activity today was a meeting with several of the Nome community leaders. Larry had arranged the meeting, and he initiated the discussion by describing the NGEE project to the leaders and then asking for their feedback.  Four hours of very interesting conversation followed.  The leaders asked excellent questions and offered assistance in terms of data, introductions, and community outreach. They thought our key scientific question - of how permafrost degradation impacts water distribution, nitrogen allocation, organic carbon decomposition and energy balance - was indeed worthy of study. Most importantly, listening to them provided really valuable insights about how climate change and the coupled processes that we plan to study can really impact a community. We heard accounts of how the landscape, flora and fauna had changed since the days that they or their parents were younger. They told us how Felt Leaf Willow and Cottonwood, which grow well in thawed soils, has become much more pervasive in their landscape.  Terrain that ‘used to be smooth when I was young is now humpty-dumpty’, which referred to the microtopograhy created through thermokarsting.  We heard about changes in the fish species, how moose had replaced caribou within their lifetime, and how areas that once yielded salmonberries now yield blueberries. With a population that includes large mammal hunters, reindeer herders, and fisherman, it is clear that these changes have impacted the livelihood of the town members. These changes also have feedbacks to the processes that we are intending to study in ways that we had not considered.  For example, beavers, which very have recently become much more common in the area due to warming, are building dams that are altering surface water flows.  Although we had envisioned choosing our study plots within the Council site based primarily on geomorphology (i.e., pre-, active- and post- permafrost degradation), it was clear through these conversations that there are many other factors that could indicate the state of the landscape transition, and we discussed different avenues for soliciting this deep local ecological knowledge for use within NGEE.
We wrapped up our meeting by talking with logistical providers who had also joined the meeting, and looking at maps and areal images of the different areas around Council that we will visit tomorrow.  We are all excited about getting out to the field - it is bound to be an interesting day in this fascinating region!