Monday, August 13, 2012

NGEE Arctic team flies north for a birds eye view of Alaska

A quick checkout from our hotel and we were off to the airport. Larry and I had to shuttle people and luggage, but 30 minutes later everything was complete and we were ready to focus on a flight that would take us from the Seward Peninsula to the North Slope of Alaska.

Our trip from Nome to Barrow was chartered with Hageland Aviation Services. This was the same company we used last year and we were really happy with the experience. We were met at the gate by our pilot Jim and co-pilot Sterling. After a short safety briefing and check on the weather, we were escorted onto the tarmac and our Cessna Model 208B Caravan. The aircraft holds 11 and we filled every seat.

Larry and I had arranged for a flight that would take us from Nome back out towards Council. We wanted our team to see from the air what they saw yesterday on the ground. Because our team on this trip is composed mainly of modelers, there is a keen interest in having them see the different scales at which patterns and processes emerge across the landscape. Yesterday, we stood in thermokarst formations on the tundra, areas where permafrost is beginning to thaw and degrade. Today, our team is getting to see those same formations, but from a larger perspective. What they see are interconnected networks of features that snake their way across the tundra. These thermokarst features are representative of the dynamics we plan to measure and then include in advanced ecosystem and climate models in the coming years. One can easily envision how thawing of permafrost and subtle shifts in local-scale hydrology can drive important changes in vegetation dynamics, biogeochemistry, and then feedbacks to climate through influences on CO2 and CH4 exchange with the atmosphere.

After flying over Council, we headed north. One of the first things we noticed was the disappearance of trees, tall shrubs, and eventually even small shrubs were restricted to stream margins. The presence of patterned ground or ice-wedge polygons also became much more obvious. Again, these can be subtle features when on the ground, but they are very evident from the air. Haruko (from LBNL) has been quite diligent in taking notes and I saw that, while flying, she had sketched these polygons in her notebook. I am very impressed with how Haruko, and in fact a number of our team members, have committed themselves to learning as much as possible about Arctic ecosystems during this trip. Larry has been outstanding in his willingness to explain all he can to our team. He has a knack for translating complex topics into simple explanations and then layering on details as appropriate. Larry provides a great example of someone who is willing to transfer his knowledge to others and how that ability is such a benefit of the larger project.

After stopping for fuel in Kotzebue, we turned east towards Selewik. We visited this site last year and it was another tremendous visual of how dynamic the landscape can be in Alaska. This larger catastrophic thermokarst occurred several years ago in response to a disturbance along the Selewik River. This exposed permafrost to prevailing air temperatures and the area has been degrading ever since; expanding into the surrounding landscape. The pictures can be dramatic.

Our last stop of the day was an isolate runway at Ivotuk. We landed there after first crossing the Brooks Range. As expected, they were a rugged and remote range of mountains. Ivotuk is a site that Walt Oechel, San Diego State University, has maintained for many years. It is instrumented with a number of sensors and has capabilities for measuring greenhouse gas fluxes as well as other environmental variables like temperature, radiation, and wind speed.

You could not have asked for a better day to make this flight. The sun was out, but not the mosquitoes. We covered a lot of ground and compressed in time the transition of ecosystems from boreal forests to high Arctic tundra. Flying is such a great way to see all of this in a short period of time. It serves to reinforce the dynamic nature of these ecosystems along with the opportunities and challenges of what our team is committed to ding in the NGEE Arctic project. Along the way, we also managed to see a lot of caribou and one lone moose. Peter and a few others were lucky enough to spot 6 Grizzly bears; on each of two occasions there was a mother and 2 cubs. So it was deemed by all to be a successful day.

We landed in Barrow where Victoria and Alistair picked us up and handed off keys to the van and a truck. These will be handy as we shuttle people in and around town while touring our NGEE Arctic field sites and those associated with the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) facility on the North Slope. That begins tomorrow; right now I'm anxious to get to our assigned housing and then to dinner. A soft bed, futon,  or couch would also be appreciated...cheers!