Saturday, August 23, 2014

Research Sites out the Council Road…Start Slow, Finish Strong

The NGEE Arctic team had hoped for an early start today as our plans were to travel out the Council Road. This road leaves Nome and heads east for 72 miles. I exited the Dredge No. 7 Inn only to find Larry and David changing the tire on one of our four vehicles. This was a bit frustrating, but not unexpected given the roads in the Nome area. Fortunately we had a spare and, with that quickly installed, David and I headed to town to either have the flat repaired or get another spare tire from where we rented the vehicle. We were able to do the latter and within an hour we were set to go.

Just as we had for yesterday and our trip out Kougarok Road, we left town and proceeded to travel in a caravan out the Council Road. This road travels first along the coast and then inland up over Skookum Pass and into an amazing tundra-boreal forest transition zone near Council, Alaska. The drive took us 2 to 2.5 hours and given the delays of this morning we arrived at the end of the road about noon. We grabbed a quick lunch on the banks of the Niukluk River and then back-tracked a mile or two to look for a potential field site. Our team has visited this area on two or three occasions and we immediately saw the potential for some aspects of our research in the flat areas of tundra that are undergoing consider degradation. This location is characterized by warm, discontinuous permafrost and thermokarst depressions have created a network of features and drainages that would be ideal for our system-level studies. What we did not expect, however, was to find that this area lends itself to a transect that encompassed non-degraded tundra, areas of tussock tundra, shrubs, and then shrub-boreal forest transitions in the distance. Our discussions in the field focused on a catena concept that would encompass measurements across all these features. What a great opportunity for comparative studies and for understanding the surface and subsurface dynamics that are taking place in this area. Needless to say it was an exciting time in the field for our team. Evidence for this was seen throughout the day as people talked and discussed the science questions that could drive our research and our goals of integrating that knowledge into climate models. 
We also stopped during our drive back to Nome to look at several small watersheds where we could look at aspects of integrated aspects of hydrology and shrub dynamics. Joel (LANL) took the time, and energy, to dig a few pits to look at rock content, depth of permafrost, and soil moisture contents in these areas. We know from satellite imagery that areas of Arctic tundra are showing signs of shrub expansion, although the controls on this dynamic are unresolved. What we saw in these small watersheds was the potential controls and consequences of shrub expansion. It was interesting to see how dominant shrubs like willow and alder are performing differently in these environments. Our team has not yet worked out all the details, but we feel that these areas will allow us to incorporate this aspect of vegetation dynamics into our studies and thereby improve our understanding for the rate, controls, and consequences of shrub advancement into tundra ecosystems. There is a considerable need for this kind of information in climate models and we believe that we can tackle this challenge, along with others, once we identify a series of suitable sites on the Seward Peninsula. 

One other task that we tackled today was the topic of logistics. We have enjoyed great support from UMIAQ in Barrow and, although we can be more self-sufficient working on the Seward Peninsula, our team will still need some assistance with logistical support. For example, we have made good use of lodging in Nome thanks to the Dredge No. 7 Inn and the Aurora Inn and Suites. However, if we are to work for any extended period at a Phase 2 research site we will need housing closer to our field location. Larry and I discussed this in our earlier meeting with the Bering Straits Corporation and they gave us a couple of leads for renting cabins near Salmon Lake out the Kougarok Road, and at Solomon and Council. Solomon is 30 to 35 miles from Nome and the cabins in Council are near the end of the road just on Niukluk River. The latter two locations could house perhaps 10 to 12 people and keep everyone near to our potential field sites. We will continue these discussions with both the Solomon and Council Native Corporations as we consider these options. 

Tomorrow we head out the Teller Road….it will be interesting to see what lies out in that direction.