Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Fair Weather in Fairbanks

After a week in Barrow, where the temperatures dipped to below zero and wind chills approached -25F, we were greeted with 50F temperatures upon our arrival in Fairbanks. Alaska is certainly a region of contrasts, especially in the spring when temperatures can vary so widely from the north to the south.

Today would be the last of our trip to Alaska and we had two goals to achieve. The first one was to pick up 300 pounds of permafrost samples at the airport and transfer them to FedEx for shipment back to ORNL. This proved to be rather straightforward exercise and within 90 minutes we had cores packed into insulated coolers. David had discussed protocols for shipping before leaving so everything went very smoothly. With any luck, the cores will arrive at ORNL before we do on Tuesday afternoon.
After a quick lunch, our second goal was to meet with Jon Holmgren, the fellow who makes the SIPRE coring device we used in Barrow. While the SIPRE performed exceedingly well and provided us with over 25 quality cores, it did suffer noticeable wear after 4 days of hard use in literally rock-hard frozen permafrost. Jon confirmed, as expected, that it would need repair if we were to use it again. He commented, however, that the number of cores we obtained in a relatively short period of time on the North Slope was impressive even if we did damage the device in the process.

Fortunately, Jon was more than willing to share experiences that he had in drilling cores and we left his shop just north of Fairbanks feeling like we had performed admirably in our first permafrost sampling trip to Barrow. We still have a lot to learn, but at least in this area of arctic science we were no longer rookies.

So, in closing, we had a productive trip to Barrow. During these trips we will collect field and laboratory data that will facilitate our ultimate goal of improved climate prediction by better understanding the surface and subsurface interactions that occur in these sensitive and globally important ecosystems. This information will, in time, be used to better represent processes that will lead to reduced uncertainty and improved model prediction of climate.

Thanks for reading our daily blogs this week, we appreciate your interest in our research. Our team would like to acknowledge logistical support from UMIAQ and financial support from the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program. Due to the hard work of many, we will return to Barrow in early- to mid-May at which time the NGEE Arctic Blog will return as well. Until then be safe...

Monday, April 16, 2012

A day to relax...not likely.

Today was originally supposed to be a day when we wrapped up a few remaining tasks on the tundra, packed samples for shipment back to our respective laboratories, and generally organized ourselves as we readied to leave Barrow later this evening. That would have been a productive and enjoyable day, but it turned out to be a little more complicated.

David and SungJin stayed behind this morning as the rest of us departed Hut 163 bright and early for our field site. There was heavy fog and temperatures hovered right at zero degrees F. Permafrost samples that we had collected for biogeochemical analysis were organized by David and SungJin, then packed in coolers for shipment to Fairbanks. The plan was to pick those up at the airport and further prepare them on Monday for shipment to ORNL and LBNL. David was able to arrange for shipment with Alaska Air Cargo and those samples were later placed on an Alaska Airlines 737-400 Combi destined for Fairbanks.

While David and SungJin were handling the permafrost samples, the rest of us were on the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO) installing survey points. These points would be used in the future to accurately map not only latitude and longitude, but also the subtle but important variation in elevation across this Arctic landscape. Slight variation in topography make big differences in how water flows across the land surface and, in turn, how vegetation dynamics and carbon emissions respond to changes in soil water distribution.

Although we had only 8 of these survey points to install, it would take almost an hour to drill the hole and insert the 10 foot piece of metal rebar. Our biggest problem was the difficulty of drilling into permafrost. Earlier in the week, we used the drill rig and a SIPRE coring device to collect soil samples. These samples, however, were only 3 feet in length. For the survey points we needed to drill smaller diameter holes to a depth of almost 10 feet. This proved tedious and extremely time-consuming. We had been told that it would be easy to get augers stuck in permafrost as there is a tendency to actually freeze augers in place. This proved true and Ken Lowe, as operator of the drill rig, had to exercise considerable care to prevent this from happening. We were able to place the 8 survey points, but it took much of the day to do so. We will return later in the year and survey these points with UMIAQ staff from their Barrow Survey office.

While installing the last survey point a call from David reminded us that our plane departed Barrow in just a little more than 2 hours. We finished drilling the hole, installed the metal rebar, and began making our way off the BEO. Back at the UMIAQ warehouse, people packed supplies and equipment into storage for our next trip to Barrow in May. A quick shower and we were off to the airport where we checked in with time to spare for dinner at Arctic Pizza just down the street. It turns out that dinner is usually the best meal of the day when working in Barrow as it is a good time to not only eat, but discuss the days activities and plan for tomorrow.

Colleague from Korea and More...

Most of my postings this week have focused on participates involved and activities related to the NGEE Arctic project. I should mention, however, that we hope to engage a range of national and international participants in our science. Although we are working now in Alaska, ultimately we will want to make statements about the fate and function of the Arctic in a changing climate. This will take an effort that involves a much larger community from around the world.

It was along these lines that we were joined this week by SungJin Nam, a researcher from Korea. SungJin contacted our team several months ago and asked if he could join us to learn more about sampling permafrost in the Arctic. SungJin works at the Korea Polar Research Institute where he has gained the majority of his expertise working in Antarctica. This week was his opportunity to see how permafrost cores could be taken using a small drill rig and the SIPRE coring device. SungJin hopes to use similar approaches as he and others at the polar institute expand to include research sites in Alaska and elsewhere in the Pan-Arctic.

SungJin will travel to Fairbanks tomorrow for a few days and then onto Nome where he currently has an established research site. In appreciation for adding him to our team this week, SungJin presented us with pens embossed with his research organization logo and topped in the shape of a penguin. Science allows ample opportunities to meet new people and make new friends. It's a fun part of our job. I have a grandson, James, who will enjoy one of these pens when I get home.

Most of day was spent locating and establishing survey benchmarks in and around our research site. These will be useful as we begin to measure surface topography in an area that encompasses thaw lakes, drained thaw lake basins, and polygonal ground. We are using these landscape features to guide both our measurements and models.

Craig spent much of the afternoon using his TOPCON system to located sites where we will establish survey benchmarks. As I mentioned yesterday, this system provides very accurate location of points that we will later use for elevation measurements in the surrounding landscape.

David took the opportunity today to organize all his permafrost cores for shipment back to ORNL and LBNL. All samples were assigned unique plot and sample identifiers in the field and these were then linked to bar codes. Although it will be a challenge, we want to maintain close tracking and accountability of samples taken in the NGEE Arctic project. This applies not only to permafrost samples, but other field and laboratory plant, soil, and water samples we might take in the coming years. Our goal will be to complement our measurements and models with a data management system that will facilitate data integration across the project. This will be an important capability that we will use to ensure we achieve our project goals.

The spring festival continued throughout the day. Unfortunately, we were working on the tundra and missed all the activities. UMIAQ staff told us it was a great day for the community. Maybe tomorrow we will be able to enjoy some of the festivities. The finals of the snow machine races are Sunday at 3:00pm and I'd like to see that if we have time...

Kudos to My Colleagues

Sometimes one forgets that good things happen thanks to the hard work of those around you. Today the entire team had a long, cold day on the tundra, but nonetheless achieved considerable success.

Like yesterday, we dedicated a lot of time to collecting permafrost samples. This is not a job for one person, but instead takes a collective effort to operate the drill rig; insert and extract the SIPRE coring device; collect ancillary data on hole depth; and then bar code and log information in your field notebook. David Graham managed this process well in what eventually involved the assistance of six other people.

All of these activities were especially challenging because of wind and colder temperatures. It was not necessarily cold by Arctic standards, but cold enough to make working difficult. Larry had brought along a simple hand-held device that measures wind speed. He pull this out several times today and watched as wind speeds rose from 10 to 15 to eventually 25 MPH. Temperatures fell throughout the day and the wind chill factor this afternoon dipped to minus 20 F. Thankfully the sun was out and the working conditions did not get too bad.

Throughout the day, we just kept getting quality permafrost cores. Ken Lowe was a big help because of his experience with operating a drill rig. Ken gained this experience working on sites at ORNL and probably never dreamed those same skills would make him a prime asset for the NGEE Arctic project. Craig Ulrich, from LBNL, was also an asset as he located each of the sample locations with great precision. We had obtained some high-resolution imagery of our site from a colleague at the University of Texas, El Paso and using those images, Craig was able to position our sampling points to within a foot or two. Pretty amazing given that the tundra was covered by anywhere for two to maybe three feet of snow.

Our work will continue through the weekend. The Barrow community, however, is having their annual spring festival this weekend. It is called "Piuraagiaqta" and will include everything from a scavenger hunt to snow machine races to a parade that will wind it's way through town. We have been invited by several UMIAQ staff to attend and may be finished with work Saturday in time for the "Nigliq" or the goose calling contest that begins at 5:00pm. And then there is live music later that night by the "Barrowtones". Not sure that either I or my colleagues can stay up that late after a long day in the field, but it does promise to be an exciting and interesting weekend!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Let the science begin...

Last night, Tony and Eric from UMIAQ picked up our team of seven scientists and technical staff at the Barrow airport. A new truck and a large passenger van awaited us, we were quickly and efficiently escorted to the UMAIQ operations office. There we completed local site access permits, received our vehicles for the week, and were given a general safety overview. We were also assigned radios and instructed as to their proper use and operation. Cell phones work sporadically when on the tundra so radios are the preferred mode of staying in touch with other members of our team and with UMIAQ staff.

We were also given a tour of the warehouse and garage facilities that we will be using this week. The boxes of supplies and equipment that we shipped to Barrow last week were securely stored and tagged "NGEE Arctic". Our small hydraulic drill rig was in the garage where we will spend Thursday making sure that it works properly. It had already been mounted on a wooden sled for transport to the tundra with a snow machine.

Our Thursday began with breakfast, a project briefing which we intend to do every day, and then preparations for working at our field site. We will break off into three teams today in order to achieve our objectives: test operation of drill rig and evaluate sample collection protocols; transport necessary supplies and materials to a staging area near our field site; and then conduct initial GPS survey and mapping of potential sampling points. We will work out a plan to install a web-camera on the tundra.

Transport on the tundra is always a little problematic. Although boardwalks are in place from the turnout on Cake Eater Road, they are currently buried under at least a meter of hard packed snow. It can be significantly more in some places due to drifting snow. So we have opted for snow machines with sleds that we can use to transport people and supplies to our site. UMIAQ can make these available as part of their logistical support and provides mandatory safety training for all users. We completed the required training and then three of our team members began moving supplies. There are strict guidelines on snow machine operation on the Barrow Environmental Observatory, including the route one can take going to and returning from the tundra.

David and Ken worked most of the morning to get the hydraulic drill rig operational. It checked out in good working order. After a few modifications to the sled-mount infrastructure, Larry hooked the sled to one of our snow machines and we were ready to take initial permafrost cores right after lunch. We were making good progress. Like everything, however, there was a modest learning curve, but we completed the day with a half dozen cores and confidence that we could collect more cores from the ice-wedge polygons that we hope to characterize in Phase 1 of the NGEE Arctic project.

One thing about working this far north in Alaska is that the sun stays up much later than we are accustomed. Daylight periods are currently more than 16 hours long with the sun setting at 10:30pm. Today, we worked up until 8:00pm with the sun still way above the horizon. It was good to get back to the hut. Sitting around the table, we all agreed that it had been a successful day. We have some problems to work out, but not bad for our first day on the tundra.

Although today was a beautiful day, there are rumors that high winds are headed for the North Slope. Winds could cause the wind chill factor to fall below -20 degrees F. That would not stop our work, but it could make progress slow. Locals tell us that changes in the weather happen all the time so you have to be prepared and, more importantly, flexible. The Arctic is teaching us many lessons.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Still Waiting on Spring

People tell me that spring is a great time in Alaska. Trouble with this theory, true as it might be, is that unlike east Tennessee, spring in places like Barrow is still a month away. Temperatures have risen to double digits in southern and interior Alaska, which is a surprise to many of the locals, but there is still plenty of snow. This was obvious when flying into both the Anchorage and Fairbanks airports yesterday. Despite the snow, we have heard several stories that spring is early. Geese have, for example, already returned to Creamer's Field in Fairbanks which according to locals is a sure sign of spring.

We spent much of Wednesday morning in Fairbanks making sure that we had the materials and supplies that we would need in Barrow. Fairbanks has a wide selection of hardware stores so we were able to locate and purchase necessary items. A quick stop at the local outfitter allowed us to pick up clothing that would make working in sub-freezing temperatures a little more bearable.

We also visited Jon's Machine Shop north of Fairbanks. Jon Holmgren owns the shop and he has made several SIPRE coring devices that we will use for sampling permafrost soils this week in Barrow. He was quick to offer both encouragement and advice that will come in handy in just a few days. David and Tommy Phelps (ORNL) worked with Jon last fall to modify the sample barrel of the SIPRE device in hopes that we can obtain cleaner samples suitable for microbial analysis. Jon has a great deal of experience working in the Arctic and will be available should we have questions when in Barrow.

Fairbanks is home to the University of Alaska, a state institution that has a sister campus in Anchorage. The International Arctic Research Center (IARC) is located on campus and occupies an impressive building. We stopped off briefly to coordinate departure times to Barrow with Larry and Bob who both have offices in the IARC complex. We had a climate change in high-latitude ecosystems workshop here in October of 2010 and it was good to see a few of the faces who helped organize that meeting.

In addition to our visit to the university and Jon's Machine Shop, I had also scheduled a series of meetings with scientists from the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL). I have collaborated with Jon Zufelt, Anna Wagner, and Marc Beede for several years. We met at their Farmer's Loop Road permafrost research station just outside Fairbanks and discussed a soil warming prototype that we have been testing at this well-characterized field site. Our testing of a large soil warming array has been a low level activity in the past year, but initial evaluation of the system is promising. CRREL has been a great partner in this aspect of our research.

We were able to meet Larry, Bob, and Craig at the Fairbanks airport around 5:00pm for our trip to the North Slope. After a quick 503 miles as the Snowy Owl flies, we arrived in Barrow and were greeted by Eric Burnett and other partners from UMIAQ. We were transported to our lodging on the old Naval Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL) site and "Hut 163". We have stayed here before on previous trips and find the bunkhouse style lodging comfortable, warm, and adequate.

It's great to finally be at our destination. Our work in the Arctic begins tomorrow...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Research beyond our backyard...

Our flight just left the McGee Tyson airport and we are officially on our way to Alaska. Having conducted biological research on the Oak Ridge Reservation (ORR) and the Walker Branch Watershed for two decades, it is a considerable change to now be working at field sites that are not in our backyard. A good rule of thumb so far seems to be don't forget the essentials. We have invested a lot of time and energy making sure that we get to Barrow with all the supplies and equipment we will need for the week.

My colleague, David Graham, is a good planner. He prepared itemized lists of our required materials and supplies several weeks ago and made sure that those were safely packed and shipped to Barrow last week. David is a microbiologist and serves as lead scientist for our soil biogeochemistry tasks in the NGEE Arctic project. He will oversee the collection of permafrost cores this coming week. Ken Lowe has a lot of experience with the safe operation of drill rigs. He will use those skills this week in working with David and Craig Ulrich from LBNL under some unique conditions. Last check of the Weather Channel showed air temperatures in Barrow right at zero degrees with blowing snow.

David and others on our team will later analyze these cores during controlled experiments back in the laboratory to understand the fate of organic matter stored in tundra soils. It is important that we describe the mechanisms whereby carbon dioxide and methane are lost from these soils, and that we incorporate such insights into climate models.

David, Ken, and I will be joined this week by Larry Hinzman and Bob Busey from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Larry is the Director for the International Arctic Research Center (IARC) and is the Chief Scientist for the NGEE Arctic project. He has spent his career working as a hydrologist throughout the Arctic and provides a great perspective that both supports and strengthens our project goals and objectives. Bob will be installing a web camera at our field site in Barrow so we can view real-time images of snow melt and changes in tundra vegetation later in the spring. He has a lot of technical experience working in remote and harsh environments. They both have a long list of stories they tell around the dinner table.

It will be a long day before we arrive in Fairbanks. Next stop is Chicago, then Anchorage, and then Fairbanks tonight; Barrow tomorrow. My itinerary shows the various legs of this trip and estimated mileage. A total of almost 4,100 miles to Barrow with flight times of 16 hours. Fortunately, I brought good colleagues and a few videos to watch.

(Click on picture to enlarge image)

Monday, April 9, 2012

North to Alaska

Science has, for me, always been exciting. This was true as an inquisitive PhD candidate and it continues today after 25 years as a plant biologist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). I guess that’s one of the many rewards of being a scientist.

The last year has been an especially exciting and busy one for me and for all the participants in the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE Arctic) project. Our team has taken on the challenge of better understanding Arctic ecosystems with the goal of using that knowledge to improve climate prediction. In addressing that challenge we have spent months working to make this project a successful one not only for our sponsor at the Department of Energy, Office of Science, but for our colleagues at Los Alamos, Lawrence Berkeley, and Brookhaven National Laboratory, and our partners at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Tomorrow we begin to reap the rewards of our hard work as we depart for a field research trip to the North Slope of Alaska. David Graham, Ken Lowe, and I will fly to Fairbanks on Tuesday and then to Barrow on Wednesday where we plan to collect cores of frozen soil from the Arctic tundra.

Barrow is an Inupiat Eskimo village located at the northernmost point in the United States, approximately 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It was the home of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory for many years and like Oak Ridge is a community that is a keen supporter of science. Barrow is also home to the DOE Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility. Building upon this history, we chose to focus our research in this region because of our interest in tundra ecosystems and because of the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO). This unique preserve consists of 7,466 acres of ice-rich tundra that was set aside by the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC) for scientific research. Our team has visited Barrow and the BEO several times in recent years. We have worked with the North Slope Borough to identify field sites, have our research plans approved, and we are now ready to conduct a suite of field and laboratory experiments that will inform computer models used in climate prediction.

Our team will spend the next week in Barrow working with colleagues from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Alaska Fairbanks to sample permafrost soils, install wells for sampling water later in the spring, and generally prepare the field site for additional research activities that will take place in May and throughout the coming summer. We expect a lot of research to occur in the Barrow area this year as we address topics in hydrology, biogeochemistry, vegetation dynamics, geophysics, and then integration of these efforts into models.

We have teamed with UMIAQ as a provider of logistical support to our team. They will provide housing and vehicles, plus they can recruit specific expertise from the community who can then advise our team based on local knowledge, skills, and cultural understanding of the arctic environment.

Follow us this week as we post daily updates of our trip to Fairbanks and then north of the Arctic Circle to the science city of Barrow.

Additional Information:

NGEE Arctic (http://ngee.ornl.gov/)
Barrow Bulletin (http://www.polarfield.com/barrow/)