Monday, April 22, 2013

A safe and satisfying week in Barrow

Thanks to careful planning and great weather, we had an extremely productive research trip to Barrow. Everyone had a unique skill set that made this a successful week. And although this was her first trip to the North Slope, Taniya adjusted quickly to the exciting, albeit harsh, Arctic environment. We commented several times that while it was cold, the lack of wind kept wind chills to a manageable level.

Our group accomplished a lot on our trip and each day we were able to check off one or more items on the list that David put together before we left Tennessee. In summary, we...

1.  Safely drilled more than 35 permafrost cores from the Barrow Environmental Observatory; these cores will keep Taniya, Beth, and others working on the project busy for months to come,

2.  Built several sections of wooden boardwalk to protect sensitive tundra from foot traffic; we will position these at strategic locations during a trip to Barrow after snow melt,

3.  Saw a polar bear; it was several hundred yards out on the sea ice and we were able to view it from a safe distance courtesy of the North Slope Borough Wildlife Office and Barrow Police, and

4.  Gave a community lecture on the topic of how field and laboratory experiments and observations can help improve climate models.

I was also able to sit down with Eric from UMIAQ and layout logistical needs of others on our NGEE Arctic team who will be traveling to Barrow beginning April 26.  A group of 10 scientists from LBNL, LANL, and UAF will spend two weeks conducting a broad geophysical survey of the subsurface environment at our field sites. They will undertake a series of measurements to better understand local hydrology and lay the groundwork for additional hydrological monitoring that will occur during snow melt.

For now, our team is heading home knowing that we accomplished our goals and that we will soon return to continue our studies in support of improved climate prediction.

Photos by Ken Lowe (ORNL)

Friday, April 19, 2013

More cores...from drained thaw lake basins

Our team has spent the last year and a half sampling permafrost soils in polygons that represent the major geomorphological feature in the vicinity of our field plots. We have been working in an area occupied by low-, flat-, and high-centered polygons and studying how these different landforms might impact the distribution of water across the landscape. In turn, this water influences carbon cycle processes that are important to climate.

Our intent has always been to study feedbacks between climate and Arctic ecosystems, beginning with polygonal ground and then broadening our scope of work to include other features like drained thaw lake basins (DTLBs). These are what remain when thaw lakes on the Arctic Coastal Plain drain, leaving vegetated areas that can be of various ages and have carbon cycle dynamics that are different than those of the surrounding landscape. Ken Hickel, from the University of Cincinnati, has been active in identifying these areas and we have used his maps to locate the types of DTLBs that we would now like to study just south of our current field site.

Craig, Ken, and Taniya used a GPS system to guide us to one of DTLB sites that we had identified early in the week. This was straightforward since, before he left California, Craig downloaded one of the Hinkel et al. maps into the system so that we could easily navigate to the desired location. It was, fortunately, just a few hundred meters off a spur road south of the Barrow Environmental Observatory. A land-use permit from the North Slope Borough had been approved last fall and allowed us to now conduct our research in this area.

Once we located our sampling points, Larry and Bob positioned the drill rig into place. Ken took over and began drilling what would be our final two or three cores of the trip. Having drilled dozens of cores in the last two years, Ken was able to notice that drilling these soils was a little different than those we drilled on the BEO. Here, the soil seemed finer in texture and harder to drill. We will analyze the sand, silt, and clay content, and fractional ice content on all samples...this should be sufficient to confirm this observation.

The permafrost cores, although harder to obtain than those from polygonal ground, were of a high quality. Several layers of fine sediment and organic rich layers were quite obvious. We are keen to get these samples back to ORNL and LBNL where our groups will be able to conduct studies on the fate and chemical characteristics of organic matter on the many cores we have collected.

Finally, Larry and I had agreed earlier in the week to give an informal science presentation to the local community. Nok Ackers, who works for the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC), extended the initial invitation. I met Nok several years ago during one of my first trips to Barrow. As it turns out, Larry returned to Fairbanks earlier this afternoon and thus the presentation was mine to make. I spoke about the integration knowledge gained through field and laboratory studies into climate models. The NGEE Arctic project served as an example. The presentation was at the Inupiat Heritage Center and was attended by several dozen residents. There was a good Q&A session afterwards.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sensitive tundra, sustainable science...

While the rest of the team continued to sample permafrost on the BEO, I had another task for today. I have mentioned before that NGEE Arctic is conducting research in Barrow as guests of the local community. This is their land, and although it is set aside for research by a native village corporation (UIC), we want to be good stewards of the tundra in and around where we have our field plots.

Last year we placed trail mat across the tundra to provide protected walk-ways within and among our many field areas. Tundra vegetation is sensitive to repeated foot traffic and the trail mat serves to protect arctic plants from multiple trips to and from our plots throughout the season. The trail mat did a great job of limiting our impact on the local environment. We did notice that wet areas, especially as our walk-ways went through water-filled areas like polygon troughs and centers, needed a little extra protection. We therefore decided to build a few wooden boardwalks that could span these wet areas and limited the negative impacts due to foot traffic in these areas.
I purchased wood last fall from the local hardware store here in Barrow and stored it for the winter in our sea-land container. Yesterday evening, all the wood was moved to a large UMIAQ building and today I began building a few sections of board-walk. 

The task went fairly quickly with my job being one of basically aligning the three 10 foot-long supports and then nailing the 2x4 cedar walk boards into place. It took the better part of the day to assemble six of these walk-ways and I'll do more tomorrow. We will be able to load these onto the wooden sleds we have been using and move them to the field with snow machines. We will place them in areas where we know they will be useful, people visiting Barrow in June after snow-melt can hand-carry them into their final position. This will provide an efficient and cost-effective way of protecting sensitive tundra so we can conduct our research as good stewards of the land.



Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Cold, but confident....

Although the weather has been great with bright skies and no wind, the temperatures do seem colder than last year. This morning, the temperatures were -25C, but we were confident that we could operate with few problems under those conditions. Our first job, however, was to secure the drill rig and other supplies to wooden sleds and transport those to the field. This took some time, but by 9:00am we were headed out of the garage and off to the field. Larry, Bob, and Craig drove the snow machines while the rest of us headed south on Cake Eater road in our truck. 

As we made our way across the tundra to our field site, the snow depth appeared less than it did last year. The vegetation that inhabits the raised rims and ridges around the ice-wedge polygons is still visible. Last year, it was buried under a significant amount of snow.
Once we reached our field site, which is several kilometers from the road, we located the sampling sites that Craig and Bob marked yesterday using GPS. The drill rig was easily raised into place and within minutes Ken was coring the first sample. It was good to see that the process seemed to go faster than last year; maybe we have learned a few things given our past experiences. The cores came out of the SIPRE auger pretty much intact which will make our job much easier back in the laboratory.


While the main team was coring, Bob was checking out the network of monitoring sites that he, Bill Cable, and Vladimir Romanovsky established last fall. We have temperature probes at multiple depths along with sensors for measuring soil moisture, heat flux, snow depth, and radiation. All this information will be useful as we parameterize and test our models of permafrost dynamics. A few sensors need to be replaced so Bob will probably spend the next day or two doing that as the rest of us continue to obtain permafrost cores.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Wondering if everything works...

Yesterday, Craig and I took a quick assessment of what we had and what we needed to get off to a productive start. We located everything, but waited until today to see what worked and what didn't. Once we knew that, the afternoon was set aside for repairs and getting everything ready for sampling permafrost cores on the tundra tomorrow. 

However, before we launched into any repairs, we drove to the airport to pick up the rest of our team. David, Taniya, and Ken stayed last night in Fairbanks and then joined Larry and Bob for the trip northward. David organized a similar sampling trip last April and Ken was our seasoned drill rig operator. We were glad to have him back this year. As for Taniya, this was her first trip to Barrow so I was looking forward to watching her this week and gaging her reaction to field research on the North Slope. I trust she will have a great time with our science and her interactions with people in Barrow.

Today, one of first jobs as a group was pulling out the hydraulic drill rig and making sure it worked. We used this last year and although we had prepared it for 12 months of sitting in the cold, we knew that it would require some careful attention before it would come to life. Ken and Larry replaced the oil, topped for the hydraulic fuel, filled the gas tank, and cleaned the spark plug. I won't say that is started on the first try, but it was running and ready to go within 30 minutes.

We had to dig out the sea-land container to find a few of our other supplies. Once the snow was cleared, we retrieved our SIPRE auger and soon had all the pieces organized for tomorrow. Other bits and pieces were retrieved as well and, by the end of the day, we all felt confident that we had everything we needed for a successful start to our field campaign in the morning.


Monday, April 15, 2013

Welcome Back to Barrow

Other than the 17 hours, 4100 miles, and layovers in 4 trip to Barrow was uneventful. I planned my schedule to arrive a day before others on the sampling trip. This gives me a chance to check on a few things with UMIAQ, pull a couple items out of storage that our team will require, and then generally assess weather conditions before our field work begins. 

Brower Frantz, Operations Manager with UMIAQ, picked Craig and me up at the airport. We loaded up our luggage and headed out to UMIAQ's office east of Barrow. Brower and I exchanged a set of keys for the hut we would be staying in and several other buildings where we would stage our work before heading to the field. Last year, we stored our winter clothing in one of the UMIAQ buildings and I retrieved those for everyone so they would be ready when they arrived tomorrow. Craig picked up a few misc. supplies that he needed for his GPS unit, we'll need that to locate sampling points tomorrow. 

A quick dinner at Arctic Pizza and we were back at the hut. It is 10:00pm and the sun is still shining. The weather looks excellent for the next few days. Cold, but no wind. It's been a long day so the bed will feel good tonight. We get started with our work in the morning.

Time to Begin Again...

My alarm clock went off at 4:30am Sunday morning. I loaded my bags into the car last night, so all I had to do was take a quick shower, grab a granola bar on the way through the kitchen, and I was off to the airport within 30 minutes. Had it not been for leaving my Blackberry on the kitchen table, all would have gone precisely as planned. Thanks to some last minute heroics and creative driving across town by my wife, Denise, I was reunited with my primary means of staying in touch while away from the office. And just in the nick of time; the airplane doors were closed, latched, and we pushed back from the gate bound for Chicago, Seattle, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and onwards to Barrow on the North Slope of Alaska. The 2013 field season for the NGEE Arctic project had officially begun!

Those of you who might be new to this blog or to the NGEE Arctic project...welcome! Our goal in this DOE-sponsored research is to develop, through field and laboratory studies and modeling, a process-rich understanding of Arctic terrestrial ecosystems in a changing climate. We are focusing primarily on critical feedbacks to climate that arise due to permafrost thaw and degradation, and associated carbon cycle dynamics. Our team is committed to delivering new insights that support improved climate prediction. This is the second year of what we anticipate will be a decade-long investigation of Arctic ecosystems and how important physical, chemical, and biological processes are changing with warmer temperatures. We have a large, multi-disciplinary team of scientists from four DOE national laboratories and several strategic universities working to address the many facets of this question.

This week, my colleagues from ORNL, LBNL, University of Alaska Fairbanks and I will be collecting permafrost cores from the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO). David, Taniya, Ken, Craig, Larry, Bob, and I will use a sled-mounted hydraulic drill rig to sample cores to a depth of one meter. We did this last year with great results and hope to have similar success this year as we collect cores across ice-wedge polygons and drained thaw lake basins of several ages. Taniya is new to the project, having joined us as a post-doc last fall, so this will be her first trip to Barrow. Once cores are transported back to ORNL, Taniya, Beth, Liyuan, Baohua, Tommy, and David will conduct controlled temperature studies using the cores and relate CO2 and methane flux to soil carbon quantity and quality, geochemistry, and microbial community composition. A subset of samples will go to scientists at LBNL for additional characterization and analysis by Susan, Janet, and their teams in geophysics and microbiology, respectively.

I am looking forward to being back in Barrow and working in the field with a great group of scientists. It is still winter in Alaska so we will have to be aware of the cold, wind, wind chill, visibility, driving conditions (e.g., trucks and snow machines), and other safety-related issues. As always, we appreciate the assistance that we receive from Marv, Karl, Eric, and others with UMIAQ. They provided logistical support to our project last year and we look forward to working with them again in 2013.