Monday, July 23, 2012

NGEE Arctic project gains visibility in Barrow

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 months.
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 NGEE?".
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...

Chums on a Barrow

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 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 we  enjoyed 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 months!

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.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Gas exchange

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 Arctic.

I was impressed with the high rates.  Preliminary analysis suggests that the winner was P. frigidus.  When normalized to 25C 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.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Collaborators welcome!

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 the Arctic.

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 to Alaska.

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!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ice on the move...

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.

Neighbors on the tundra...

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 analysis.

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 that would be cool.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mission accomplished: Trail mat doing its job...

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.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Do it safely!

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.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Jet lag and a run along the Arctic Ocean

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.

Jonathan to the Rescue

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.

A Team Meeting Before Departure

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 Francisco.

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 to collect 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.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


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.