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I stood at the edge of the river in awe. The river had swallowed half of my study site, leaving niviarsiaq flowers and my temperature sensor poking through ice-cold rapids.

There must have been a spectacular glacier calving event to cause the river to violently spill over its banks. Waterfalls almost doubled in width, the river found new courses to handle the large volume of water, and chunks of ice were carried downstream.

I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures. This is crazy cool,  I thought, but what about my research?!

Study Site #1

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DURING FLOOD: My study site is on the left. It didn’t used to be an island…the water in the foreground wasn’t there the day before.

We returned the next day to survey the aftermath. Things looked like they were almost back to normal.

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AFTER: The site is almost back to normal. See Becca standing on the rocks? The water would have been over her head!

The niviarsiaq flowers were extremely resilient.

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AFTER: These flowers were covered with two meters of rushing water the day before. Two days later, the flowers were producing pollen and buds were opening, like nothing happened.

Study Site #2

The day the river went rogue, we had to hike to our study site at seahorse lake because the road was flooded.

seahorse

DURING: The road to the seahorse lake study site was flooded – we continued on foot.

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DURING: The flooded landscape produced some great scenery.

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DURING: Looking out from our study site the day of the flood.

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AFTER: The beach and the boulders reappeared the next day.

Study Site #3

We visited a third site the day after the flood. Signs of the surge were abundant.

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The water etched ripples into the sand and left behind ice at a third study site.

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Ice deposited near our third study site.

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The grounded ice chunks were hefty.

Had I not been there the day the river went rogue, I would not be able to grasp the extent and power of the flood.  Fortunately, niviarsiaq, aka dwarf river beauty,  is  presumably adapted to such disturbances despite its delicate appearance. So, my research continues, and I am left with a much deeper respect for the ice-fed river.

There are about 25,000 species of bees in the world but only two wild species in Greenland: Bombus polaris and Bombus hyperboreus. Both are bumble bees well adapted to the chilly climate, and they are recognized as especially effective pollinators.

bombus polaris

Bombus polaris checking out a closed niviarsiaq flower. Niviarsiaq is dwarf fireweed and seems to be quite popular with the bees.

In other parts of the world, like the United States, there is great concern that parasites in native bees, including bumble bees, are contributing to population declines. But what about Greenland? Are the bees healthy, or are there parasites lurking? We don’t know yet, so one of my goals this season is to survey the bee population in Kangerlussuaq for parasites like Crithidia and Nosema.

The first step of this research is catching bumble bees, which can be challenging! Catching bees reminds me of trout fishing – it requires a lot of patience and determination, good technique and speed, and some ability to read the landscape.  The bees aren’t always very active, and sometimes we only see a couple the entire afternoon.

Here’s Becca demonstrating proper form to catch a bee foraging on niviarsiaq flowers.

bombusbw

Becca demonstrating how to catch a bumble bee foraging on niviarsiaq. The bees fly to the top of the net once it is lifted up.

I’ll later be dissecting the bees back at Dartmouth, staining their guts, and looking for parasites under a microscope.  Here’s what Crithidia looks like:

crithidia bombi

Chrithidia bombi. Image source: http://www.ethlife.ethz.ch/

The research will give us a baseline for tracking the response of bumble bees and their potential parasites to environmental change.

“Hey hey hey.. Check it out, Hans! Someone left their tent just a little open.” Martin cackels.

“Dang – nice find! Let’s go in!”

“You don’t just GO IN, Hans. Entry requires a certain know-how. You have to open the zipper contraption just so. And I do believe I’m more qualified to handle that than you are.”

“Oh yeah? How so?”

“Well, for one, my raven IQ is 140 and yours is 123. Besides, your larger stature makes you a good look out.”

Hans on the look out.

Martin ducks under the vestibule and bustles about, dragging something across the ground and kicking out sand. One minute later he emerges, proudly holding one black winter boot as long as he. He reenters, grabs the other boot and brings it out.

“Gosh darn it, Martin!”  yells Hans. “I know you have a thing for practical footwear, but what are we going to do with those, genius? Anything else?””

“They were blocking the door. Now that the entry is clear, I will proceed,” Martin huffs as he goes back to the vestibule.

Hans hears some guttural grunting, the zipper opening slowly, and his comrade hopping on the tent floor. Marin then marches out of the tent with a box of dried hummus. They tear open the package, taste the yellow powder, and spit it out. Hans gives Martin a disgusted look. “What do you call that?! Rancid flour?”

“Hummus, Martin. Dried hummus. The migrating birds have told me about it.  But certainly not what I imagined. Let’s go see if there’s roadkill.”

With the flap of their wings, Hans and Martin head west, leaving the scene to be discovered first by the arctic fox and then Becca and Christine, returning from work.

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The scene.

Or at least, that’s how I picture it going.

Hans, Martin, and their friends are becoming frequent visitors to our campsite. They circle each tent on foot, inspecting them, and  managing to enter mine that one time.  In addition to being obnoxiously loud and impressively large, ravens are highly intelligent. In fact, they belong to the most intelligent family of birds in the world, the corvids, which also includes jays and crows.  Problem solving is their forte. Expert juice thieves, they gulped down some orange juice after punching out the container’s spout.

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Ravens got into the orange juice by  tearing out the spout.

We have now taken proper precautions to deter further unwanted behavior (don’t leave dried hummus in your tent!).

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Raven and fox tracks leading to a securely closed cooler.

Photo credits: Becca Novello and Christine Urbanowicz

I always feel so conflicted at the end of a field season. I have grown so accustomed to life here in Kangerlussuaq that the thought of living without my tent, our trusty Toyota Hilux, or the amazing views of the Greenland Ice Sheet seems foreign. But at the same time, the thought of heading back to Hanover, where fresh food, friends, and summer are waiting is really quite exciting.

After driving this Toyota Hilux every single day for 6 weeks, I'm definitely going to miss it.

After driving this Toyota Hilux every single day for 6 weeks, I’m definitely going to miss it.

The last two days in Greenland are always full of small yet necessary tasks. Take down the tent. Clean out the truck. Fuel the truck. Pack science equipment. Return all keys. Return the satellite phone. And the list goes on. Generally I try to complete these annoying errands as quickly as possible so I can check them off the list. But the one small task that made me pause was packing all the soil samples I’ve collected over past six weeks. Each small plastic bag of soil brought back the memory of working in the field that day, at that particular site. Will I return to that site again? Or is this soil all I have to remember that spot?

I really do hope I get to see some of these views again. For now, I at least have pictures (and samples) to remind me.

I really do hope I get to see some of these views again. For now, I at least have pictures (and samples) to remind me.

While some of my thoughts were this nostalgic, I also started thinking ahead. What will these samples tell me? What story about biological soil crust will I learn after analyzing these hundreds of bags of soil? And this is what got me excited about heading home. The end of the field season is only the beginning: I have data to enter, soil and rock samples to analyze, and so much new information to process.

This week it seemed as though animals were coming to say goodbye. We had multiple close encounters with arctic hares -- amazing!

This week it seemed as though animals were coming to say goodbye. We had multiple close encounters with arctic hares — amazing!

So as much as I will miss the frequent animal sightings, the breathtaking views, and the camaraderie of the field, I have things to look forward to. But the data will have to wait until I unpack, eat fresh food, and adjust to New England summer. I’m ready!

Each year, one of the highlights of coming to Greenland is working with American, Danish, and Greenlandic high school students in the Joint Science Education Project (JSEP). JSEP is collaboration among the three nations, and aims to further the students’ interest in science, introduce them to science projects occurring in Greenland, and teach them about the cultures of the three nations. During their two weeks in Kangerlussuaq, the students get to interact with the scientists – glaciologists, botanists, geologists, ecologists – working in this area. I am always jealous of the wide range of activities the students get to experience while here.

Teaching American, Danish, and Greenlandic high school students out in the field.

Teaching American, Danish, and Greenlandic high school students out in the field.

Although this is the third year I’ve worked with JSEP, this was the first year I led a project based on my own research. This made the experience both more challenging and rewarding, since I felt so invested in teaching the students about the importance of soil erosion. In planning the activity, I wanted to give the students a feeling for all parts of my research – from big picture questions to hands-on data collection to computer-based analysis. Fortunately, lichenometry data doesn’t need a lot of processing, so we were able to collect and analyze our data in just one afternoon!

Setting up a lichenometry transect for the students to measure.

Setting up a lichenometry transect for the students to measure.

We started with the big picture – observing some eroded areas and thinking about the implications soil erosion might have for carbon cycling, plant growth, and herbivores. As the pictures show, it was quite a blustery day, so it wasn’t too hard for the students to grasp how important wind can be in shaping the landscape we see around Kangerlussuaq.

Thinking about the different events that shaped this landscape.

Thinking about the different events that shaped this landscape.

The big picture led us to my methods, and I introduced lichenometry, a dating technique that uses the diameter of Rhizocarpon lichen to estimate age of rock exposure. Each group got to experience what Phoebe and I do everyday – we set up five transects perpendicular to the active edge of the eroded areas, and the students measured lichen diameters along each transect.

Helping one group with their lichen measurements.

Helping one group with their lichen measurements.

Back in town, we graphed the results, combed through the data, and made some calculations to come up with a rate of soil erosion for each transect. I really had no idea what to expect for, so I was blown away when the students’ results were all within the range of soil erosion rates I had measured last year. Success! Not only had they collected and analyzed data, but they had done so with enough accuracy to produce meaningful and useful results!

Wrapping up after each group had calculated a rate of erosion, in centimeters per year.

Wrapping up after each group had calculated a rate of erosion, in centimeters per year.

As always, it was such an inspiring experience working with these motivated and curious students. As we drove back to camp for the evening, I felt exhausted, yes, but I also felt uplifted by their energy and driven to continue teaching. Many thanks, JSEP!

This week it felt hard to decide what to write a blog about. “Nothing has changed,” I thought, “I don’t have anything new to say.” But that’s when I realized that simultaneously, everything and nothing had changed. And that seems like a good thing to blog about.

By saying that everything has changed, I mean that five new people have joined us; three will be staying at camp with us until I leave.

So many new people have joined us! It's great to be out in the field with everyone and hear about so many different projects. Here Lauren tells us about nitrogen isotope sampling.

So many new people have joined us! It’s great to be out in the field with everyone and hear about so many different projects. Here Lauren tells us about nitrogen isotope sampling.

We have an enormous palatial tent at camp now where we can sit and relax, eat, and enjoy each other’s company without the company of so many mosquitoes.

The big new tent at camp required a new sketch. What luxury!

The big new tent at camp required a new sketch. What luxury!

And the biggest change for me is that Phoebe has joined me as my field assistant. I now have a companion all day in the field – work goes so much more quickly with another person!

It hailed on Phoebe's first day of fieldwork! She didn't seem to be too upset about it.

It hailed on Phoebe’s first day of fieldwork! She didn’t seem to be too upset about it.

But in most ways, nothing has changed. And although this may seem boring, it is actually a good thing. My science depends on repetition, and this means that most days feel exactly the same. While Becca was still working with me, we took some pictures to document what we do at each site. Although it may seem tedious to do the same thing again and again, there is something soothing about it as well – while things at camp may be changing and hectic, I know exactly what to expect when I walk up to the next deflation patch.

 

Step One: Take numerous photos of the deflation patch. I'll use the photos back at Dartmouth to create a three-dimensional model of the patch. From this, I'll be able to calculate the volume of soil loss due to wind erosion.

Step One: Take numerous photos of the deflation patch. I’ll use the photos back at Dartmouth to create a three-dimensional model of the patch. From this, I’ll be able to calculate the volume of soil loss due to wind erosion.

Step Two: Set up a transect running perpendicular to the active margin of the patch. We collect soil samples and measure lichen diameters along this transect.

Step Two: Set up a transect running perpendicular to the active margin of the patch. We collect soil samples and measure lichen diameters along this transect.

Step Three (A): Collect samples of the biological soil crust that develops within the eroded patches. Measure the thickness of the crust at each sampling location.

Step Three (A): Collect samples of the biological soil crust that develops within the eroded patches. Measure the thickness of the crust at each sampling location.

Step Three (B): At each soil sampling location, measure the strength of the soil crust with a handy soil penetrometer. The soil crust strength may determine how the crust helps or inhibits plant growth within the eroded area.

Step Three (B): At each soil sampling location, measure the strength of the soil crust with a handy soil penetrometer. The soil crust strength may determine how the crust helps or inhibits plant growth within the eroded area.

Step 4 (A): Record lichen diameters along the transect. The diameter of the lichen tells us how old it is -- this in turn can tell us about the age of the eroded area and how quickly the erosion occurred.

Step 4 (A): Record lichen diameters along the transect. The diameter of the lichen tells us how old it is — this in turn can tell us about the age of the eroded area and how quickly the erosion occurred.

Step 4 (B): Record all the lichen diameters in the lichenometry binder. I'm sure looking forward to entering the hundreds of pages of data we've generated this summer! And that's just the beginning...

Step 4 (B): Record all the lichen diameters in the lichenometry binder. I’m sure looking forward to entering the hundreds of pages of data we’ve generated this summer! And that’s just the beginning…

The best part about nothing changing is the knowledge that with each new deflation patch, I’m adding a site to my collection. By doing the exact same thing at each patch, each and every day, I can compare patches and look for patterns. And the patterns I find won’t be a product of anything I’ve done differently at different sites; I can be confident that they represent a real part of the landscape. So yes, it’s nice to have new people in camp, the new tent is rather lovely, and it’s great to be spending the day with Phoebe, but I’m glad my days haven’t changed one bit.

Tundra Gardens

This time of year, I love walking across the tundra, seeing buds turn into flowers, new growth spring from dried plants, and the hills change from brown to green. In the past two weeks, we have seen summer arrive to the Kangerlussuaq tundra: the ice is gone from Long Lake, baby birds are begging for food in their nests, and new flowers are appearing every day.

Baby Lapland longspurs in their cozy nest: one of the many signs that summer has arrived to Kangerlussuaq.

Baby Lapland longspurs in their cozy nest: one of the many signs that summer has arrived to Kangerlussuaq.

Although I am here to study soil erosion, I easily get excited by the flowers – the erosional features I visit daily never visibly change, yet new flowers emerge overnight, transforming the landscape. Each year I’m here, I am delighted to find my first patch of Arctic Bell Heather – an old favorite, but rare – and each year, I seem to discover a new flower. This year, flame-tipped lousewort seems to be everywhere I go, even though I never noticed it before.

Cassiope tetragona * Arctic Bell Heather * Issutit One of my all-time favorite arctic flowers.

Cassiope tetragona * Arctic Bell Heather * Issutit
One of my all-time favorite arctic flowers.

Flame-tipped Lousewort * Pedicularis flammea * Ulannerusaq This flower keeps catching my eye everywhere I turn!

Flame-tipped Lousewort * Pedicularis flammea * Ulannerusaq
This flower keeps catching my eye everywhere I turn!

I know that flowers change quickly (Christine, who actually studies the plants here, is racing against the clock, trying to accomplish everything before berries form and seeds disperse), but it always startles me when flowers seemingly appear out of thin air. Since I return to the same sites every few days, I notice when something new opens. Or then there was the day we returned to camp and niviarsiaq (Greenland’s national flower) was blooming between our tents and camp chairs.

Alpine Catchfly * Viscaria alpina Just days before I took this photo, there were no signs of these striking pink flowers.

Alpine Catchfly * Viscaria alpina
Just days before I took this photo, there were no signs of these striking pink flowers.

River Beauty * Chamerion latifolium * Niviarsiaq The niviarsiaq around camp is just waiting to be captured by camera or sketchbook.

River Beauty * Chamerion latifolium * Niviarsiaq
The niviarsiaq around camp is just waiting to be captured by camera or sketchbook.

When we arrived, Lapland rosebay dominated the landscape, setting the hills ablaze. Now, not even three weeks later, the flowers are wilted, making way for other flowers to take center stage. The timing of when buds form and flowers open – the plant phenology – is something that I try to key into each year. Although I think I know what to expect, the tundra always surprises me, new flowers appearing when I least expect them. This is what makes each hike exciting; each discovery, each new flower, invigorates me as I walk across the hills to my field sites.

Lapland Rosebay * Rhododendron lapponicum * Oqaasaq When we arrived, the fields of Lapland rosebay were breathtaking.

Lapland Rosebay * Rhododendron lapponicum * Oqaasaq
When we arrived, the fields of Lapland rosebay were breathtaking.

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