Monday, April 28, 2014

Keeping an Eye on the Tundra…

Scientists in the NGEE Arctic project have a number of automated instruments operating in the field, including eddy covariance towers, soil respiration chambers, transparent chambers of measuring evapotranspiration (ET), and ERT systems for subsurface geophysics. John Peterson and Baptiste Dafflon, both from LBNL, have been working this week to install two cameras that will capture pictures of the tundra landscape in and among these various instruments. Earlier in the week, a short tower was installed at our field site along with a large weather-proof box that holds all the sensitive electronics.

This morning Baptiste and John mounted the two cameras into a plastic housing that will protect them once installed on the field tower. They also took time to program the data logger so that everything would work when taken to the field. One camera gathers spectra in the red, green, and blue (RGB) region, while the other collects images in the near-infrared region of the spectra. Both cameras are programmed to take pictures 2 to 4 times daily throughout the season, and they can be accessed remotely. The primary objective is to acquire visual images and spectral data during snowmelt and to associate spatial distribution of snow and water across the landscape with changes in subsurface properties determined simultaneously with the ERT. A secondary objective is to associate CO2 and CH4 fluxes measured with eddy covariance and with our CO2 and ET chambers to observed changes in inundation and vegetation phenology throughout the season.

It was a cold snow machine ride to our field site. John and Baptiste were able to mount and test the cameras in their planned configuration. After making few modifications tonight at the UMIAQ machine shop, everything should be on target for the final installation within the coming days.

Finally, and as mentioned earlier, the cameras are meant to provide an additional data stream that will help us interpret other types of plant, soil, and water measurements. These kinds of installations are increasingly being deployed in remote locations where people are not necessarily present every day in the field. It is nice that high-resolution data collected in space and time using a ground-based system can be used along with similar data gathered from UAVs, planes, and satellites. This will be helpful as these multi-scale data products are merged to derive a more complete understanding of processes at plot, landscape, and regional scales. We anticipate that NASA and their planned Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) project ( will be sponsored through Diane Wickland's Terrestrial Ecology Program and will ultimately become a valuable partner in this scaling endeavor.

Hydrology Team Gets an Early Start…

Although it is still several weeks or more until the spring snowmelt, our team of hydrologists from LANL and UAF are in Barrow this week to collect data that will help us model patterns of water distribution within polygon landscapes. Cathy and Joel from Los Alamos, New Mexico were joined today by Larry and Bob from Fairbanks, Alaska to begin the installation of water sampling stations across the four NGEE Arctic sites on the BEO. Cathy and Larry have worked with members of our modeling team to select the most appropriate locations to install the stations where we will determine saturated hydraulic conductivity later this summer. This is a parameter that our modelers need; it describes the rate at which water moves within soils. It has been a difficult value to glean from the published literature, so we will measure this directly in the field. Aerial images and LiDAR maps of our study site were used to identify likely areas to locate our measurements and John (LBNL) was able to quickly locate those points using high-precision GPS.

Once the locations were identified, it was then a matter of removing snow so we could visually identify the underlying landscape features we were interested in (rims, troughs, and centers). In some cases this required shoveling just a few inches down to polygon rims, but other areas had more snow and required removing 2.5 to 3 feet of hard-packed snow. Fortunately we had only 10 to 12 of these “pits” to dig out during the day. Joel and Bob then drilled holes of varying depths using a one-person auger engine to which we attached a SIPRE coring device. This procedure not only will allow us to prepare for measurements of hydraulic conductivity later in the summer, but also to recover a core of active layer and permafrost soil. These cores were, of course frozen, intact, and we could often remove them with no breaks. Having an intact core will facilitate analysis of thermal properties, soil carbon, and certain aspects of microbiology later in the laboratory.  We could make some simple measurements in the field like length of sample and note soil texture and any ice cryostructure. Cathy recorded all this in her field notebook and later transcribed data into computer files. This information will be shared with the larger team and we will make sure that final parameters and interpretation of data is communicated to our modelers.


Friday, April 25, 2014

NGEE Arctic Broadcasts “Live” from the Coastal Plain of Alaska…

Scientists working on the NGEE Arctic project have never been shy about outreach and communication when it comes to the exciting research that we are doing both in the field and laboratory. Over the last two years we have implemented a number of innovative approaches to informing people of the challenges we are tackling in the Arctic; we have a project web site, Facebook, Flickr, monthly “Science Talks”, and postings to our project blog. Today we took another step by broadcasting live from the tundra where we are working for the next couple of weeks. The Google Hangout was led by the Public Affairs Department at LBNL, and featured scientists working in Barrow and others in laboratories back in Berkeley, CA. Also joining us in this endeavor were students from Oakland, CA and Green Bay, Wisconsin. Craig Ulrich and I setup a laptop and video camera in the field and “went live” at 10:00pm. We were introduced by Dan Krotz from LBNL and then Craig and I talked about the NGEE Arctic project and about the geophysical and permafrost sampling tasks that our team are undertaking this week. Although we experienced a few technical glitches, everything went smoothly and the students seemed to enjoy seeing science in action. They asked some really great questions too! A special thanks to the students and teachers that made this a successful and learning experience.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Permafrost Cores from the Tundra…

It snowed several inches last night and dawned cloudy, but we were up early and ready for our first day of drilling permafrost cores on the BEO. Surprisingly we were prepared within an hour; having done this now for two years helped! The Big Beaver hydraulic drill rig was on one wooden sled and all of our packed miscellaneous materials and supplies were on another ready for transport to the field site. Craig drove one snow machine and Ken drove the other. Having the drill rig mounted on a sled made it relatively easy to get to the field and to position into place. The mast was raised into place, secured, and we cautiously began taking cores. In years past we restricted our coring to the surface 1 meter, but this year we wanted to obtain deeper cores so we were prepared to drill to 2, possibly 3 meters. Our reasons for this were two-fold. First, we wanted to know more about soil carbon at depth. Second, previous geophysical surveys of certain sites suggested that deep unfrozen zones might be present potentially corresponding to saline permafrost. If we could confirm this then it will open opportunities to conduct microbiological studies and associate novel microbes with CO2 or CH4 fluxes from the deep sub-surface. It is still too early to tell if these unfrozen layers are present or if we will be successful with deeper cores, but our first few holes were encouraging.



Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Getting a Start with Geophysics…

Last night John, Craig, and Baptiste arrived in Barrow. These three have been part of the NGEE Arctic project from the beginning or actually slightly before the beginning. Our project officially launched in spring of 2012, but our geophysical characterization of the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO) started in September, 2011. We visited the Barrow area as part of a pre-project tour of Alaska in August 2011 and the team immediately saw opportunities to begin sub-surface research of the ice-rich tundra environment. So this group, along with Susan, Yuxin, Jonathan, Tim, and Haruko, all from LBNL has a fair amount of experience working in the Arctic.

In preparation for work this week John, Craig, and Baptiste spent the morning sorting through the dozen or more boxes shipped ahead of time to Barrow. UMIAQ stored all the boxes in Building 553 where our supplies can be a kept dry and secure. We spent an hour organizing instruments, materials, and supplies; and found that we were missing two boxes. They were not to be found in any of the usual places. So, with a little help from UMIAQ, we finally determined that the two missing boxes were still at Northern Air Cargo (NAC) in town. I drove to the airport during lunch and was happy to locate the boxes within a few minutes of searching the warehouse. This meant that we had everything needed for a productive two weeks of geophysical studies.

Once all boxes were accounted for and equipment sorted, John and Baptiste started assembling the OhmMapper resistivity system. Our team has previously worked with using electrical resistivity before to characterize sub-surface properties of active layer and permafrost, but that work has largely been with a static system. i.e., stainless steel electrodes inserted in the ground. The OhmMapper is composed of a series of receivers and transmitters that, when towed behind a snow machine, allow sub-surface profiles to be determined in a continuous manner. It is possible to acquire a lot of geophysical information in a very short period of time. We will be using this system in a couple of days.

While John and Baptiste were working on the OhmMapper system, mounting it on one of the wooden sleds, Craig and I headed out to the BEO on snow machines. We received safety training and a proficiency check ride from Brower Frantz earlier in the day. Travel across the tundra was relatively quick and we saw plenty of caribou en route to the BEO control shed. Craig and others from LBNL have arranged for us to broadcast a Google Hangout on Thursday morning and we wanted to check internet connections from our planned field location. Everything went according to plan and we will link live with high school and middle school students in California and Wisconsin for a discussion of research being conducted in the NGEE Arctic project.

Finally, I recalled seeing an interesting Inupiaq Word for the Month written on the white board at the UMIAQ office. I went back this afternoon and snapped a picture. The word is “Cooperation,” and it is one of the core values for the native people in this area. The word has some interesting attributes, especially in relation to how people interact with one another in the workplace and beyond.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Last Minute Preparations…

Spending the Easter holidays on the North Slope of Alaska has proved to be a mix of work, work, and a little more work. I spent most of my time sorting through boxes that were packed and shipped to Barrow last fall, and getting everything ready for when Craig, John, and Baptiste arrive from LBNL tonight. They are scheduled to arrive in about 30 minutes. They will need to go through a mandatory safety briefing and check-in that could take an hour or so. After that we will gather at the apartment to devise a plan for our field research that begins tomorrow.

In preparation for field research, the UMIAQ crew did two things for us today that will accelerate our science. First, the crew pulled out our Big Beaver drill rig then replaced and checked all engine and hydraulic fluids. We typically do this every year in order to avoid any problems in the field. No one wants to check engine fluids at -20F. Scotty is the new mechanic who joined UMIAQ this year and he made short work by getting the right filters, draining and replacing oil, and running the engine and hydraulics through their paces. I purchased and replaced the battery yesterday, so it was great to finally see the Big Beaver start on the first turn of the key. Thanks Scotty, and welcome to UMIAQ!
Although we will finish this task tomorrow, we also looked at a few of the snow machines provided by UMIAQ and thought about our field requirements for the next few days. We will definitely need a wide-track, more powerful snow machine for pulling the sled-mounted Big Beaver out to our field site. We know from past experience that it is heavy and can be problematic to pull the drill through miles of tundra especially if there are patches of soft or deep snow.


Several modifications to the sled will be made this year including the installation of leveling jacks at four locations of the sled. In the past we have noticed that the sled can be unstable side to side, and front to back, on less than level ground. Drilling, especially drilling deeper permafrost cores can be complicated by shifts in the positioning of the sled. So the leveling jacks should eliminate that concern and give us a safer and more stable platform from which to drill. Craig and Ken Lowe (ORNL) will be making those modifications in the next day or two. We’ll be sure to let you know how those work when in the field beginning on Wednesday.




Monday, April 21, 2014

BEO Advisory Committee Concludes their Discussions…

Today we continued our discussions in the Barrow Arctic Science Center (BARC) with a focus on current research activities taking place on the BEO. I began with a presentation of the NGEE Arctic project and how we are working to bring together field and laboratory researchers and modelers. I emphasized that the Arctic Coastal Plain, with its mixed of distinct landscape features like polygons, thaw lakes, and drained thaw lake basins, provides a great opportunity to test our multi-scale observations and models in support of improved climate prediction. There was good discussion about our long-term goals and how the BEO could help us achieve those through logistical support. This encompassed not only what UMIAQ could do to assist us with our field studies, but also how laboratory space might be optimized for the types of research we would like to conduct locally as opposed to shipping samples back to our home institutions. Here the discussion turned to possibly providing resources like balances and drying ovens for sample preparation and analysis.

Craig Tweedie from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) then presented an overview of several studies that he is conducting on the BEO and surrounding area. Craig and his students have worked in Barrow for many years. They have conducted extensive vegetation surveys and developed vegetation cover maps for the Barrow Peninsula. One of Craig’s passions involves finding historical research sites, for example those conducted as part of the International Biological Program (IBP), and resampling plots that were established in the 1970s. In so doing, he and his students have not only been able to identify and preserve sites and rescue datasets, but use those to map changes in vegetation and other landscape features over time. This is pretty fascinating research, especially given how some of this information can be applied to questions being asked about environmental change in the Arctic. A lot of these data can be found at the Barrow Area Information Database (BAID) web site (

We also heard a brief, but informative, presentation by Salvatore Losacco who worked in Barrow this winter and maintained a year-round eddy covariance system for measuring CO2 and CH4 flux from the tundra near the southern edge of the BEO. Salvatore is a marine biologist and oceanographer, and is providing technical support to a project led by Donatella Zona. Most eddy covariance systems are put up in the spring and taken down in the fall because as sensitive instruments they require a fair bit of maintenance during the harsh Arctic winters. I am not aware of any year-round measurements of CO2 and CH4 using the eddy covariance system; until now. And according to Salvatore, it was not easy to keep the instruments running given the cold and dark conditions. However, thanks to Salvatore and some exciting stories, it looks like they were successful and now this team has a lot of data to analyze, interpret, and then publish. This should be valuable information.

Tomorrow I will transition to field research. I will dust off our hydraulic drill rig, work with UMIAQ staff to change fluids, and then test the system in anticipation of others from ORNL and LBNL arriving next week. I also took a quick drive out towards our research site this afternoon and counted several dozen caribou in the distance. I understand that caribou have spent the last few months near Barrow and that we might expect some equipment damage given their numbers in the vicinity of our research plots. Apparently caribou are not too careful when grazing tundra interspersed with research instruments. Two years ago Arctic foxes created some headaches by chewing through cables and tubing to some of our equipment. These are the constant challenges of a field scientist!

Here are a few pictures of the terrestrial and marine environments near Barrow. The first picture shows the boardwalk and trail mat that protect the tundra from repeated foot traffic leading several miles out to our field plots that are covered in deep, hard-packed snow. As I took pictures, a snowy owl flew past me only a few inches above the ground. I'll be sure to keep an eye open for owls as we begin our field research. They are beautiful birds that we frequently see catching and carrying lemmings to their nests in the spring. The second picture shows that the Arctic Ocean is, as it should be this time of year, covered with sea ice. A little bit of clearing in the clouds helps differentiate land from sky. Otherwise it can be difficult to orient yourself relative to the horizon.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Day Discussing the Barrow Environmental Observatory…

While my primary focus in Barrow is science, it is important to point out that the NGEE Arctic team chose the Arctic Coastal Plain on the North Slope of Alaska as its initial area of research for a reason; the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO). The BEO encompasses 7,500 acres of Arctic tundra that was set aside by the village of Barrow for national and international research. Every year several hundred scientists come here to study Arctic ecosystems, both terrestrial and marine.  In addition to providing access to the outdoor laboratories, the community of Barrow has built a modern research facility where scientists can undertake analyses while away from their home institution. These resources, and logistical support provided by UMIAQ, have made it possible for our team to get off to a quick, productive, and safe start.

Resources like the BEO and the Barrow Arctic Research Center (BARC) must be managed so that these can sustainably meet the needs of a growing community of users. Therefore, an Advisory Committee has been formed to provide feedback on the policies and procedures for managing the BEO. Today was the first meeting of that advisory group. Our agenda was a simple one, but nonetheless the scope of which will grow given the significance of the Arctic and the North Slope of Alaska to climate-related research across multiple state and federal agencies, and private companies.
The advisory committee stayed focused today on the job at hand; how to protect the natural resource while ensuring that once in Barrow scientists have the support they need to be successful. This includes, but is certainly not limited to aspects of access (e.g., trail mat or boardwalks), power, and infrastructure. One of the challenges to managing any resource is anticipating the needs of scientists who are now, or in the future might decide, to work on the BEO. Tomorrow morning I will present an overview of the NGEE Arctic project and communicate our research needs for the coming year and beyond. Other scientists attending the meeting will do the same. In addition, we know that new projects will be located on the BEO in the coming years (i.e., NEON) and those requirements must also be considered in future planning.

Finally, the Barrow area has a rich history of Arctic research that will undoubtedly continue into the coming decades. The people of Barrow are well aware of the role they and their community have played in this endeavor. Scientists working on the BEO and in the larger surrounding area will need to stay focused if they are to keep pace with the increasing depth and breadth of questions being asked about the changing Arctic.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Travel Days to Barrow Are Always Long Days…

I have travelled to Alaska, and Barrow, several dozen times in the last three years. The trip is always exciting as I enjoy the anticipation of field research. The 4,600 mile flight, however, never gets any shorter or quicker. It still takes 16 to 18 hours; sometimes longer. My flight left Knoxville at 7:05am and, after a short layover, departed Chicago several hours ago, bound for Anchorage, and then to Barrow with stops in Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay. Thanks to what I understand are 16 hour days right now and quickly getting longer, I will arrive 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle with plenty of sun still above the horizon.

While people like to talk about the science we are doing as part of the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE Arctic) project, they are also quick to ask me about what clothing I take at this time of year to stay warm. Fortunately, experience and sage advice from others including our Chief Scientist Larry Hinzman (UAF) has given all of our team a good idea of what is required when working outside all day in sub-freezing weather. My Arctic insulated parka, insulated bibs, and tundra boots are all kept in our team “dry” storage area in Barrow. Most people on the project do that as well. It’s great not to pack those bulky items every time we travel. All other clothing including base layers, fleece, insulated vests, anoraks, wind pants, gloves, headwear, and goggles all fit into a couple of weatherproof duffle bags. The goggles and headwear come in especially handy because of the strong winds the blow across the open tundra and when riding snow machines to and from the field site which is located just a few miles to the southeast of Barrow. If people on the team forget an item or two there is a slim chance that it can be purchased in Barrow. Best advice is not to forget anything…

My flight does not arrive into Anchorage for another four hours; then northward to Fairbanks, Prudhoe Bay, and finally Barrow. I have plenty of time to prepare for Wednesday’s advisory board meeting for the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO). I’ll write more about that and my arrival into Barrow tomorrow. For now, I have plenty of time to read through Taniya’s draft Global Change Biology manuscript entitled “Stoichiometry and temperature sensitivity of methanogenesis and soil respiration from saturated polygonal tundra in Barrow, Alaska”. In this manuscript, Taniya and her co-authors report on the mechanisms, as determined by incubation studies across a range of temperatures that underlie CO2 and CH4 release from active layer soils and permafrost. Taniya, David, Beth, Baohua, and others draw some interesting conclusions about soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition, microbial metabolism, and iron reduction. It is great to see tangible progress being made in so many areas of the project!


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A New Field Season Begins in Barrow…

It has been almost 5 months since we were last at our NGEE Arctic field site in Barrow. During that time air temperatures dipped to -35F in late December, but otherwise have been mild for locations throughout the North Slope of Alaska. NOAA reports that January was unseasonably warm across much of Alaska.

Although warmer than average, we still expect cold temperatures and snow as we conduct field work during the April 16 to May 4, 2014 period. I will arrive in Barrow ahead of others for a two-day meeting of the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO) Science Advisory Board. The BEO is approximately 7,500 acres of pristine tundra that the Native Village Corporation set aside for national and international Arctic research. It is a tremendous resource and one used by many research projects, including NGEE Arctic. Once the BEO Science Advisory Board meeting concludes, then I will be joined by other scientists from Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. As we have done before, this group will undertake almost two weeks of field research that will include geophysical characterization of land across the BEO, sampling of deep permafrost using a hydraulic drill rig, and then preparations by our team of hydrologists for the upcoming spring snowmelt.

If you are new to the NGEE Arctic blog – welcome! You might be interested to know that Barrow, 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, holds the distinction of being the northernmost city in the United States. It is also listed among the top 10 northernmost settlements in the world. Barrow has been home to Native Inupiat people for over 1,000 years and was named after Sir John Barrow, an English statesman and writer. Barrow is ca. 1,300 miles south of the North Pole.

In addition to our two weeks of field research, we will also be hosting (hopefully) a live Google Hangout broadcast from Barrow on April 24, 2014. Join us for that if you can. I will be sure to post details as that date gets closer and as details are finalized. We expect to broadcast live from the field as researchers conduct geophysical surveys using snow machines and collect cores of frozen soil or permafrost using a sled-mounted drill rig. We will be joined by scientists from two research labs in California. Plans also include talking about research in the Arctic, live with students from two high schools, one in Berkeley, CA and another in Anchorage, AK.

Stay tuned as it looks to be a busy trip as the NGEE Arctic project begins our third year of research on the North Slope of Alaska.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Join us for first trip to the North Slope of Alaska in 2014

A team of scientists from the NGEE Arctic project travel to Barrow in mid-April to collect permafrost cores and conduct geophysical surveys across the Barrow Environmental Observatory. Join them as they begin the 2014 field season on the North Slope of Alaska.  Follow trip…