Characterized by vast amounts of carbon stored in permafrost and a rapidly evolving landscape, the Arctic is an important focal point for the study of climate change. These are sensitive systems, yet the mechanisms responsible for those sensitivities remain poorly understood and inadequately represented in Earth System Models. The NGEE Arctic project seeks to reduce uncertainty in climate prediction by better understanding critical land-atmosphere feedbacks in terrestrial ecosystems of Alaska.
Our team has been setting up field sites and conducting
research for almost 9 months in the North Slope village of Barrow. We have met
with the local community to talk about our research and given two Saturday
Schoolyard presentations, thanks to Nok Ackers with the Barrow Arctic Science
Consortium. We have given field tours to students from the high school and met
with third graders from the Fred Ipalook Elementary School, thanks to an
invitation from their teacher Ms. Wallace. These are all important educational
and outreach opportunities for our project, especially in the close-knit community
like Barrow. Many of us enjoy the interactions we have had with the local
Inupiat people and others, we look forward to more of this in the coming
In the spirit of community outreach, several members of
the NGEE Arctic team who (for now) will remain nameless, found a creative way to
heighten the visibility of our project while driving around town this week.
Such grassroots publicity might explain why I started to
be greeted by name at the AC grocery store and NAPA Auto Parts upon exiting the
van. It might also explain why one sweet woman asked "What's an
But in all seriousness, we are enjoying visibility in the
larger community; especially as more and more people begin to appreciate the
unique role that the Arctic plays in climate and climate change. Just this week,
we were approached by two individuals who wanted to learn more about our
research. Sara Reardon, a reporter with New Scientist, learned about our
project through BASC and asked about meeting with members of our team in
Barrow during early August. A similar request came from Gary Braasch (Braasch
Environmental), who hosts several highly visible websites on climate and climate
change. He will also be in Barrow and asked about talking to us regarding our goal
of integrating process knowledge of terrestrial ecosystems into Earth System
Models. Our team will do what we can to honor these requests.
In closing, we had a great field research trip to Barrow
and my thanks to Alistair, Victoria, Anna, Jonathan, John, Yuxin, and Ken for
all their hard work during the past 7 to 10 days. Cheers...
While walking through the AC grocery store on Thursday, I
was surprised to see a bulletin for the "Top of the World" marathon,
half marathon, and 5k. Really? Many towns and cities have road and trail races
throughout the year, but it was not something I expected in Barrow. I also
didn't expect Alistair Rogers (BNL) to see the bulletin on the dinner table and
suggest, "Hey, let's form a Team NGEE and run the 5k". This should not
have been too surprising as we did something similar last year at the American
Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco. That time, we were cajoled
into the race by Forrest Hoffman, one of our climate modelers working on the
NGEE Arctic team. That run took us along streets that meandered in and out of
the waterfront, so why not a brisk 5k through the native Inupiat village of
Barrow and along the Arctic Ocean?
The race was conveniently scheduled to start at 11:00pm.
Remember that Barrow enjoys 24 hours of daylight at this time of the year. I
guess this was a good time, we could warm up and rest up after
working a long day on the frozen tundra. Pasta was in order for dinner,
compliments of leftovers from the previous evening...plus a little ice cream. We
figured the calories would be burned off later.
Alistair, Victoria Sloan, and I were ready by 10:15pm, just
slightly after my usual bed time. We had registered earlier in the day, so it
was just a matter of attaching our assigned race numbers and heading off the
starting line at the Fred Ipalook Elementary School. To our surprise, there were
over 60 people registered for the race. We even met graduate students from Craig
Tweedie's lab and students from Robert Hollister's lab. Kim and
Christina were there from David Lipson's lab and Karl Newyear, Chief Scientist
for UMIAQ was there as well. It was a 'who's who' of energetic people from the summer
scientific community in Barrow.
A young woman sang the National Anthem, a prayer was
offered, and the race director said "GO!". Alistair bolted to the
front and managed to stay among the leaders throughout the race. We ran past
the Airport, turned right at the Arctic Pizza restaurant where weenjoyed a slight downhill, only to be
followed by a slight uphill over by the Post Office. We crested the hill near
the AC grocery store, made our way past the auto store, and then into the final
stretch as we rounded the corner back to the elementary school. It was a
literal 5k tour of Barrow in 25 minutes. Best I can tell, Alistair had a Top 10
finish followed by me and Victoria. It was a smashing success for Team NGEE and
one that will surely spark more than one dinnertime story in the coming
All in all, it was a great way to end what otherwise was a
pretty busy week of research. Oh, and while we chose to run the 5k, there were 4
runners in the marathon and 9 in the half marathon. I imagine that more than a
few people will now check off a box that was previously on their bucket list.
Now that we know of this event, and assuming they have it next summer, we
talked about maybe running the half marathon in 2013...well, maybe we will decide
that after the AGU 5k in December.
I’m nearing the end of ten day stretch of gas exchange
measurements.I’ve been using a pair of LI-COR
6400s to measure photosynthetic parameters on some of the common species on the
BEO. The aim is to measure key species that represent the different plant
functional types found on the tundra.
Following a lesson in Arctic botany from Victoria Sloan
(ORNL) I set to work.The first four species
on my list were Carex aquatilis,
Petasites frigidus, Eriophorum angustifolium and Dupontia fisheri.One of
the targets this trip was to determine the maximum rate of carboxylation by the
enzyme rubisco (vc,max), a critical input for modeling CO2
uptake, and for Chonggang Xu’s nitrogen optimization model (LANL). Back at the lab I can use
measurements of leaf N content and determine the fraction of leaf N invested in
rubisco (FLNR). Sensitivity analysis of CLM4.0 has revealed that FLNR
is a critical parameter to constrain and these data will help do that for the
I was impressed with the high rates.Preliminary analysis suggests that the winner
was P. frigidus.When normalized to 25⁰C this little forb stands
toe-to-toe with many crops.This makes
sense because Arctic plants have to operate at low temperatures where a large
investment in rubisco would be required to gain carbon. I also made two important
gas exchange discoveries; (1) mosquitos can quickly fill the head of the Leaf
Chamber Fluorometer, stuffing the fan and air space with their mangled
carcasses, causing instrument failure and (2) If you leave a 6400 unattended and
it tips over into a trough full of water, all is not lost.A night in the oven, a few new fuses and some
fresh chemicals and you’re back in business.
The NGEE Arctic project has many objectives as we deliver
a process-rich model of terrestrial ecosystems for inclusion into Earth System
Models. While that is our primary focus, we are also committed to providing a
resource that other scientists can use. Together, we can pursue similar goals in
Ken Williams (LBNL) is one such person who, along with
Derek Lovley (UMass), approached our team earlier this spring with an idea which would utilize our field sites in Barrow. Having discussed
their ideas on the telephone, we then asked that they provide a written scope of
research that described what they wanted to do, why, how it would complement
the NGEE Arctic project, and a description of proposed measurements. We also
asked for a list of potential safety considerations. Once we had completed
discussions and approved his work plan, Ken began his preparations for the trip
This week, Ken is prepared to install graphite
anode-cathode sensors to monitor microbial metabolism at locations along the
Site 0 transect. His boxes of equipment eventually arrived and we spent the
morning unpacking and sorting various probes, electronics, data loggers, and
equipment housings. Ken is going to place sensors at three locations along the
transect; low-center, high-center, and flat-center (or transitional polygons).
These three types of ice-wedge polygons have distinct hydrology and
geochemistry. Ken reasons that such differences will be reflected in the
timing or magnitude of microbial metabolism. Within each of the polygon types,
Ken will be monitoring trough, rim, and center locations.
Ken and I spent the afternoon transporting all his
equipment to the field, including three deep-cycle marine batteries. The use of
wheelbarrows, at least along the trail mat and wooden boardwalk, was a pretty
effective way of moving items from the truck to the field shed and ultimately
out to an area adjacent to the transect. From there it was a matter of carrying
items carefully across the tundra. This was no easy task, but one we
carefully completed in a few hours. It was then up to Ken to install electrodes, wire
them appropriately to data loggers, and collect other ancillary data like soil
temperature, thaw depth, etc.
I'll post additional information on Ken's activities in the
future. More information about the research of Ken, Derek, and their colleagues
can be found in several recent publications. The one that I am most familiar
with is the Williams et al. article published in 2010 in the journal,
Environmental Science and Technology.
Finally, we welcome other potential collaborators to
contact us directly or through the collaborators page at our NGEE Arctic web
site. We can also provide (with discussion and agreement across our team)
water, plant, and soil samples...assuming all required permits are completed and
in place before distribution of materials. We'd like to hear from you!
Earlier in the week, I posted a short note on sea ice; the
gist being that a lot of sea ice had disappeared since we were here in June. I
naively thought that it had melted and was gone for good. For example, here is
one of those pictures from earlier in the week:
This morning, I was surprised to see that a significant
amount of ice had moved back towards shore. This ice must move around depending
on wind direction, currents, etc.
The Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO) is a great
place to conduct research. However, it is easy to be so focused on your own
work that you forget other scientists and students are also working within
the area. Today, while locating sites for a collaborator (Ken Williams)
who is adding a series of new microbial measurements to our field plots, I
counted six other researchers on the horizon. I later learned that two were
conducting vegetation surveys, two were preparing to collect LiDAR images using
a large hand-held kite, and two others were collecting CO2 and CH4 flux
estimates from an area near a thaw lake basin.
Because not all our packages had arrived in Barrow due to
fog, I took the opportunity to visit with the one set of scientists working in
the nearby thaw lake basin. It was a short walk and, within 15 minutes, we were
talking about greenhouse gas emissions and the geochemical and microbial
mechanisms responsible for CO2 and CH4 emissions from the tundra.
I learned that this group of investigators (Kim, Elliot,
and Cristina) were all working with project PI David Lipson from San Diego
State University. David has worked in Barrow for several years now. Kim and
Elliot are PhD students at SDSU and Cornell University, respectively. Both are
apparently close to completing their dissertation research. Neither of these
two had a problem with walking 2 km to their "office on the tundra"
every day and both were really excited to talk about their research. It was
nice to see that level of enthusiasm in young scientists.
In talking with the two students, I came to understand
that Kim is conducting small manipulative experiments where she adds humics or
iron to small "micro" plots defined by PVC collars. She then measures
gas exchange from these treatments, comparing flux rates to those of the
controls. Kim is interested in learning more about how electron
donors/acceptors affect microbial processes and the cascade of consequences
that ultimately lead to greenhouse gas emissions. Small samplers inserted into
the soil allow Kim to withdraw a sample of pore water for later geochemical
Elliot is doing something similar to that of Kim, but
rather than add different compounds to soils, he is using electrodes to create
a variable electron environment for microbes and then measuring impacts on CO2
and CH4 fluxes. The instruments that he was using were fairly sophisticated and
I could only imagine the challenges he faces in keeping everything running.
Today, Kim and Elliot were assisted by Christina. Christina is
a PolarTREC teacher from Los Angeles, having been selected to participate in a
science project for the summer in hopes that she will take some of that
experience back to her class of 8th grade students. TREC stands for
'Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating'.The PolarTREC program requires that the
teacher develop a direct connection with a particular faculty member and write
a proposal outlining how knowledge gained will be transferred back to students
in the classroom. I am sure that Christina's students will enjoy hearing
stories about her Arctic experiences.
Thirty minutes later, I found myself walking back to our
NGEE Arctic field site having introduced myself to three interesting people.
The informal setting of the tundra made it possible to meet others working in
the area. It reminds me that various groups share the BEO and there are
definite benefits to be gained by asking others about their research. Now if
only those two students from Craig Tweedie's laboratory (at the University of
Texas, El Paso) would just fly their kite...now that would be cool.
Those who follow our NGEE Arctic blog know that in June
we positioned trail mat at our field sites on the Barrow Environmental
Observatory (BEO). This was done, of course, to protect the tundra from
repeated foot traffic due to the many scientists working in and among our
various plots. The design of that trail mat was such that plants could grow up
through the plastic lattice and survive, if not thrive, despite the frequent
passage of heavy-footed researchers.
I was pleased to see that, just a month later, plants are
growing up through the trail mat and that its presence was not hindering plant
growth. On top of that, the trail mat was preventing any physical disturbance
to the tundra. This was especially obvious in the wetter areas associated with
our plots in low-centered polygons and in a nearby drained thaw lake basin. In
fact, in some locations, the tundra vegetation is already beginning to obscure
the presence of the trail mat altogether. So this seems to be a win-win
situation; mission accomplished.
Doing the job safely is, for those of us who conduct
research within the national laboratory system, a high priority. This is
emphasized for work conducted in the laboratory and in the field. And being
4,100 miles from our home institutions, maybe farther, doesn't lessen that
expectation or that responsibility. However, being so far removed from the
operational support of staff who are trained in ES&H does make it all the
more important to be vigilant in our safety protocols and in our assessment of
how those procedures and requirements are implemented in the field and
laboratory environments here in Barrow.
In thinking about safety plans for the NGEE Arctic
project, we have recently added what we are calling the "Officer of the
Day" concept. This requires that one person assumes the responsibility
each morning to get the team together, review any issues encountered during the
previous day, and then highlight the upcoming activities that might bring with
them new safety considerations. Most people do this informally during some part
of their day. We have simply chosen to formalize that in order to heighten the
safety message in what can be a hectic and harsh working environment.
Today, I took a turn at being the Officer of the Day and
reviewed with our small team any safety issues that were revealed as
we worked yesterday and need to be revisited or analyzed today.
The small size of our team, just four of us, made it easy to talk through
issues and identify potential hazards and safety concerns.
The main topic of discussion was that Jonathan was new to
Barrow and would be working for the first time at our field research site. He
needed to check in with UMIAQ and get a BEO permit. He also needed a briefing
on proper use of our communication radios, appropriate clothing for the
prevailing weather conditions, location of the local hospital, etc. We are developing a
field and laboratory safety manual that contains much of this information, some
of which Jonathan was already aware based on discussions prior to his trip.
Site-specific training was given by Victoria who will be working closely with
Jonathan in the coming weeks.
The safety briefing and site-specific training were
completed in a short period of time and people departed for the field. We will
do the same thing tomorrow morning as we continually reinforce safety
expectations and requirements in the NGEE Arctic project.
Flying to Barrow is never easy. There are always multiple
plane changes, layovers, occasional delays, 18 hour flight times at best, and a
4 time zone difference between east Tennessee and the North Slope of Alaska.
Yesterday's flight for Jonathan and me was no different. We did manage to
arrive in Barrow only a couple hours late and were met by Alistair and
Victoria. We took a few minutes to orient Jonathan to the town and then it was
off to the apartment.
Jet lag is always an issue when you cross so many time
zones, although sometimes is seems a little worse than others. The 24 hours of
sunlight does not help as you wake up and have no visual cue as to whether it
is midnight or 7:00am. Last night was such a night and I found myself up far
too early to disturb others. My solution was to slip into my running gear and
head off for the run along the Arctic Ocean.
The sea ice broke up last month, but there are still
large chunks of ice drifting in towards shore. It was pretty amazing to see all
the shapes, sizes, and colors of the ice. I now know where the term "blue
ice" comes from. Although it was cloudy and overcast, the light
transformed the ice into many colors, green and blue. The birds, white gulls,
rode the ice chunks as they moved into and along the coast by moderate winds.
I managed to run from our apartment out to the Barrow
Arctic Research Center (BARC) where we have a lab and then past the bowhead
whale display (i.e., jaw bone) outside the tribal community college.
Well, today will be a busy day as Victoria and Jonathan
begin vegetation surveys on our field plots. Alistair will continue his plant
physiological measurements, focusing on biochemical controls on leaf
photosynthesis. I will help where possible, but also need to discuss logistic
issues with our UMIAQ partners and track down materials and supplies shipped to
Barrow by our LBNL colleagues who arrive tomorrow. I want everyone to get off
to a productive start.
We have been fortunate to have a post-doctorate research
associate, Victoria, conducting her research in Barrow this summer. She is
working with Rich Norby and the vegetation dynamics team to characterize plant
community composition across the low- and high-centered polygons at our field
site. She is also pursuing interests in root depth and distribution for the
many plant species that occur across the tundra.
While Victoria has been making great progress in her
work, it is always useful to have someone to help. Joining me on this trip to
Barrow is Jonathan Brooks who will be working with Victoria for the next
several weeks. Jonathan comes to ORNL as a post-graduate intern through the Oak
Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). This is a great program that
places graduates at ORNL for periods up to one year, during which time
participants gain experience in research related to their field of study.
Jonathan graduated with a degree in biology from Hope College in Holland,
Michigan. He has been working on a variety of projects at ORNL and is now off
to Alaska. Colleen Iversen is his mentor during his ORISE internship.
Jonathan will be helping Victoria these next two weeks
with plot inventories. Because our safety procedures require that at least two
people work at our field site at a time (i.e., the buddy system), Victoria and
Jonathan should be able to spend significant time in the field each day
recording data on plant community composition. This will be a great help to
Victoria and, in return, Jonathan will get an excellent opportunity to learn
about plant and community ecology on the North Slope of Alaska.
We'll check in with Jonathan and Victoria later in the week.
Despite a busy travel schedule this summer, our NGEE
Arctic team has made it a priority to hold regular meetings to discuss one
aspect of the project or another. These meetings have usually come in the form
of conference calls or small group discussions hosted by the modelers on the
project and/or those on our biogeochemistry, hydrology, geophysics, and
vegetation dynamics teams. These meetings are helpful to stay up-to-date on
what each group is doing and to look for areas where opportunities for integration
exist and/or where improved coordination across teams might be beneficial.
Anticipating this week's trip to our NGEE Arctic field
site in Barrow, the ORNL team got together on Friday morning to discuss various
aspects of the project. We reviewed progress made by the team in recent weeks;
submission of our revised proposal, development of field and lab safety plans,
and then upcoming events. We are already planning to visit DOE headquarters for
a project briefing in the fall and then our Second Annual All-Hands meeting
that will occur in early December, right before the AGU meetings in San
During our meeting, we also received an update on progress
by our biogeochemistry team. This update was given by David Graham who leads
this area on behalf of the project. David and his team traveled to Barrow last
April and used a hydraulic drill rig and SIPRE coring device tocollect a number of high-quality permafrost
cores. These cores were brought back to ORNL for subsequent analysis of carbon cycle
processes under controlled laboratory conditions. The mechanisms controlling
CO2 and CH4 flux are, for example, required for models and to understand
potential biogeochemical feedbacks on climate.
David and his team, including Tommy Phelps, Dwayne Elias,
and others have made significant progress in developing a setup for controlled
thawing of permafrost cores. This group has worked with Charlotte Barbier at
ORNL to simulate the design of a temperature-controlled system for imposing
defined gradients of temperature for these cores and then using those computer
simulations to guide the actually construction of a prototype. That process has
worked well and the results of initial experiments look promising. David and
his team will be refining the approach and then undertaking controlled warming
experiments in the coming months.
Finally, David took the opportunity to introduce Taniya
Roy Chowdury to our group. Taniya just recently completed her Ph.D. at Ohio
State University and has joined David's team as a post-doctoral research
associate. In that role she will work with David on the permafrost warming
experiments. Taniya's background has prepared her well for this role as her
Ph.D. Addressed mechanisms for methane emissions from wetlands. We welcome her
as our newest member of the NGEE Arctic project.
The mosquitos were out in force today, especially at the
BARC where they were swarming around the main entrance.Even limiting the van-to-BARC transition
time to a few stealthy seconds was not enough to avoid picking up a coat of mosquitos.Luckily, the bug density at the BEO was much
lower. Victoria and I donned our bug hoods and managed to limit our bite count
to single digits.