Monday, June 24, 2013

Friday flashbacks...

One of the unanticipated benefits of having Gus Shaver visit Barrow and interact with our NGEE Arctic team is the fact that he worked here in the early- to mid-1970's. Gus has conducted a lot of interesting, excellent research in his career.  He started working in the Arctic as a young scientist with the International Biological Program (IBP). The IBP was a large, multi-investigator effort between 1964 and 1974 which coordinated large-scale ecological and environmental studies. One early aspect of work that Gus enjoyed as part of the IBP team, and for which he is well known, was his characterization of roots in various arctic plant species. This research took place just south of Barrow. Our team has driven past this site many times on the way to the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO) and we had never stopped. Today, we pulled off the road at a place Gus recommended and walked a short distance onto the tundra. As Rich, Victoria, Gus, and I walked, Gus talked about his research. He pointed out the location of several experiments and mentioned the changes that had taken place in the landscape over the last 45 years. He talked about the stream that ran through this area and how in the 1970's he had examined exposed ice wedges along the stream bank. The stream now is wider than he remembered with steeper, more degraded embankments.

As we walked, Gus began looking for what he called "root boxes". These were boxes have wooden sides with plastic front and backs. Tundra vegetation was excavated, placed carefully into these boxes, and inserted back into the soil. The idea was that the wooden boxes could be periodically removed and the growth of roots examined through the clear plastic windows. After some looking, we found one, then two, and before long we had located his original plots. The thermocouples that had been inserted into each box were still visible. Victoria was particularly keen to talk to Gus about this work. It was agreed that although a simple approach, the data that came from those wooden boxes is still some of the most complete information on root growth and structure for plants on the North Slope. Victoria is conducting research on plant roots in polygonal landscapes as part of the NGEE Arctic project and plans to revisit these boxes later in the year and see if any roots can be observed. It is hoped that a better understanding of root traits can improve our description of plant functional types.

We walked back to the van and drove the remaining distance to the BEO parking area. As we walked along the boardwalk, Gus was reminded that the small "greenhouses" in the distance were part of an educational effort that he and others had initiated several years ago. These structures were placed over tundra vegetation and essentially raised the air and soil temperature throughout the season. Teachers from the local elementary, middle, and high schools would bring students out to the site. They would then talk about climate, climate change, and how increased temperatures could potentially impact local vegetation. I participated in one of these tours last fall and these simple structures are a good "show and tell" opportunity for educators. It was also a good local outreach activity for participants in the NGEE Arctic project. Thanks Gus!