Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Science Camp at Ilisagvik College - the adventure continues!

Alessio tells me that he, Skye, and others leading the Science Camp at Illisagvik College in Barrow are now halfway through their journey.  He wrote late last night with the following update:

“Unlike plate tectonics and glaciers, which were topics of discussion earlier in the week, Tuesday’s topics were more relevant to the environment of the North Slope: tundra and permafrost. After watching Tunnel Man, we started off with modeling an ice-wedge polygon landscape using clay. Everyone became gradually accustomed with the idea that, beneath the familiar tundra, there is frozen ground and that the frozen ground is responsible for the configuration of the landscape.”

Alessio’s reference to Tunnel Man may be new to a few of you. Tunnel Man is a super hero who lives in ice tunnels, and teaches children about ice wedges and permafrost in Alaska. Tunnel Man is played by Kenji Yoshikawa, a UAF Research Associate Professor for the Institute of Northern Engineering. He is actively engaged in geophysical, geothermal, hydrologic, and permafrost research throughout Alaska, and is known both for his science and for his creative videos where he plays out the character of Tunnel Man. Kenji has aggressively pursued the goals of the permafrost outreach program and travels to schools throughout the state developing working relationships with those involved in educational communities.

Later in the day, Alessio and the kids cruised out to the Barrow Environmental Observatory with the very noble intent of putting into practice what they had learned in the classroom.  Numerous mosquitoes, Alaska’s summertime enemies, descended upon the group and did their best to distract the next-generation of Arctic scientists. The kids could not quite endure repeated attacks and the frequency of “When are we going back to the car?” skyrocketed. Nonetheless Alessio, Skye, and the kids did get to meet Liyuan and Beth, who kindly demonstrated their techniques for sampling surface and pore water on the tundra. Liyuan and Beth are geochemists from ORNL and they are in Barrow conducting research as part of the NGEE Arctic project. Liyuan indicated that the kids braved the mosquitoes, paid attention, and then distilled the essence of their interaction into the question “Can we drink the water?”  Beth replied that it wouldn’t taste very good and Skye commented that an Arctic fox may have used the pool of water for a potty break. Discussions then quickly turned to other topics!
Alessio and the kids thanked Liyuan and Beth for their help and then turned to other activities: they measured the thawed layer thickness; they noticed that the thawed layer was thicker in the depressions; they also discovered that the temperature of the permafrost was way colder than the temperature of the tundra. Alessio quickly dug a hole and chopped off tiny samples of permafrost and passed it around among the group. “It’s cold!!!”, somebody shouted. A valuable lesson was learned that then sparked discussions about how weather and disturbance can influence the tundra through impacts on ice and frozen soil.

The afternoon was spent reviewing previous day’s activities. Alessio optimistically commented that all of a sudden concepts fell into place. They watched some more Tunnel Man, they emailed him, they prepared “artificial permafrost” using sand, water and ice cubes and they discussed earlier measurements with the thaw probe.

Alessio writes that “After three days we are getting to know the kids in considerable detail. We can recognize their writing and the style of each of them. Some of the kids are beginning to open up to us, and are expressing an interest in what we are trying to teach them. It is an amazing experience, beautifully rewarded by their smiles or by the occasional blinking when they understand concepts. We are grateful to be here with them and very excited that Tunnel Man replied to our email!”