Monday, August 13, 2012

NGEE Arctic team makes its way to Council...

Everyone was ready bright and early this morning to make the 75 mile drive to Council. The road has been undergoing repairs, so we figured an early start would make up for any travel delays we might encounter. Fortunately, there were none and we arrived safely in the vicinity of Council by 10:30am. We did make several stops along the way. One especially nice one was in the foothill as we rose above the coastal plain and crested a pass. It was here that Larry introduced members of our modeling team to permafrost and the use of a long slender rod to determine thaw depth. Thaw depth is a function of air and soil temperature where ground frozen during the winter slowly thawing as air temperatures rise and the summer months progress. Although the ground at this location was admittedly rocky, we could still easily probe to determine active layer thickness. In most cases, it was only 35 to 40 cm; 12 to 15 inches maximum.

Later in the morning, we took the opportunity to dig a small hole in the tundra and examine it for organic matter, live roots, and mineral soil. It was a good illustration for our modelers as it showed carbon-rich soils in these permafrost environments.

We descended down the road onto the tundra that occurs in and around the Council area. Larry had worked in this area for many years and was familiar with the general landscape and how the area was dotted with a mix of short and tall shrubs, open woodlands, boreal forests, and then tundra. We spent the morning and into the afternoon looking at various features in the area including thermokarst, areas that form due in part to thawing permafrost. These are interesting features in that the tundra undergoes local subsidence, ponding of water, and then (with time) networks form and water moves laterally across the landscape. This process is poorly understood and not well, if at all, represented in models. We hope to add that level of understanding to models and it was, as a result, great to have the modelers on our team see these areas. There was a great deal of discussion and I believe that everyone came away with a much better appreciation for how dynamic these landscapes can be, especially in a climate that is characterized by warming temperatures.

Our lunch was enjoyed along Bear Creek just outside Council. It was a good opportunity to relax in what was surprisingly warm temperatures. We had a chance to talk about the morning activities and then highlight what was yet to come in the afternoon.

After lunch we had the opportunity to visit a near-by research site maintained by scientists from the Korean Polar Research Institute (KOPRI). They had a number of weather monitoring stations, eddy covariance towers for measuring greenhouse gas flux, and then small plastic chambers for measuring very local scale exchange of CO2 and CH4 between plants, soils, and the atmosphere. We had worked with one of these scientists earlier in the year and it was good to finally see their research site.

Although it proved to be a long day of driving and observing landscape dynamics on the tundra, our team had a very positive experience. To make a great trip better we came across sculpture or two outside remote cabins and an old dredge at least 60 miles from Nome. We saw several just like this one during our drive to and from Council. We also had the pleasure of seeing upwards to 100 muskox. They were all a little too far away for my camera but they were massive. I understand that populations of muskox in the Seward Peninsula were once low but are now making a come back. We took a late-day group picture with one herd in the background.

It was a demanding schedule, but nonetheless one that allowed us to see and do a lot of different things. Saturday we continue the learning experience as our team of modelers and Martin travel from Nome to Barrow. Should be an equally great day!