Sunday, August 24, 2014

Terrific Trip Out Teller Road…

Our NGEE Arctic team has spent three exciting days in Nome with trips out the Kougarok and Council Roads. Today we met to begin our trip out the Teller Road that goes 75 miles north and to the west of Nome. Everyone gathered in the parking area of the Dredge No. 7 Inn and we had a safety briefing for the day. This is something we do to ensure that we are all aware of what we will be doing and to discuss any logistical or safety concerns. Keeping everyone safe while we drive mile after mile of remote dirt roads is always a priority.

With the exception of Larry, no one on our team had traveled out the Teller Road so this was going to be a new experience. We knew of research that had been conducted along the Council and Kougarok Road, but knew relatively little about research in this particular area of the Seward Peninsula. Our hopes were high, however, and we were not disappointed with our first stop of the day that included a large area of tundra undergoing considerable thaw and degradation. There was ample evidence that this area of the Seward Peninsula was once covered with active polygons and here we saw how degradation of the underlying permafrost was transforming the landscape to one of hummocks and hollows, or high-center polygons. It was quite striking. Our team spent a considerable amount of time here. And once our eye was accustomed to seeing evidence of degradation, it was something that we saw consistently along the road for 20 to 25 miles. 

Members of the team enjoyed their time at this degrading site with a lot of discussion about what might be controlling such a dramatic change in the landscape. Larry and I commented that working with the NGEE Arctic team, especially because of the multidisciplinary background of all the investigators, the conversations could be quite varied. Small groups tended to form and talk about how hydrology was impacted by a change in landscape topography and, in turn, how that might drive vegetation dynamics and biogeochemistry across these areas. We saw this again in a second area when we stopped to look at solifluction lobes that had formed on a moderate slope. 

There was a lot of really great discussion as we stood around the field today and looked at one feature or another. It was rewarding to listen in on all the discussions. What I did not expect was that this conversation continued within individual vehicles, and between the vehicles. The discussion between vehicles occurred because Larry had purchased hand-held radios for the trip. His purchase was primarily motivated as a safety measure and for what we thought would be just minimal exchange of information as we drove. To our surprise what happened this afternoon over the radios was a full scale discussion of the mechanisms controlling shrub expansion at the sites we had visited. A person in one car would make a comment, followed by another and another. We kept our discussion going for several hours. It was pretty fascinating and really exciting as we laid out a framework for shrub dynamics and the controls and consequences of shrubs increasing moving into tundra. Never under-estimate the value of discussion and the willingness of researchers to share their ideas. Larry - thanks for purchasing the radios!