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For one month in Greenland, our most important scientific instrument was a paint brush.

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Painting pollen onto Dryas integrifolia.

With our brushes loaded with pollen, we brushed the stigmas of hundreds of flowers, essentially acting as human pollinators. I am using this pollen-supplementation experiment to figure out if flowers could produce more seeds if there were more insects visiting flowers.

One flower we are studying is Dryas integrifolia, which is a butter-colored flower in the rose family (Rosaceae). It blooms early in the season, which is important for early emerging insects that are potential pollinators, including flies, bees, and yes, even mosquitoes.

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Working with Dryas early in the season requires down jackets and a good attitude!

Once we were done painting, we waited for the flowers to close up and produce seeds. Dryas seeds are wind-dispersed, like dandelion seeds. So there was a narrow window of time in which we could collect the seeds before they flew away!

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If Dryas produces seeds, it creates little twirls that remind us of unicorn horns or troll hair (right). If the stem aborts, it creates little white tufts (left).

Great news: today we successfully collected the last of the seeds! Other news: now I have thousands of seeds to count! [ Volunteers welcome :)  ]

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Collecting the last of the Dryas seeds right near the margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

For the past few years, my time in Kangerlussuaq has been very busy and well organized. Last year, in order to measure over 11,000 lichen diameters and collect over 300 soil samples, I maintained a strict schedule, spending full days in the field and taking only one day off per week (in order to shower, download photos, write blogs, and do laundry). After all, when your field sites are so far from home, and your field season is so short, you better make the most of it.

This year, however, since my soil erosion project is wrapping up, I have had minimal field goals. My focus, instead, has been working with the JSEP students, a group of awesome high schoolers from Denmark, Greenland, and the US.

JSEP students roast marshmallows during their camping trip. Working with these high school students has been a highlight of my field season.

JSEP students roast marshmallows during their camping trip. Working with these high school students has been a highlight of my field season.

With my mind not consumed by the frenzy of data collection, I’ve had time to think big. I’ve had time to wonder, ponder, question, plan, dream, devise. Time to imagine the science questions I’d ask if resources were unlimited. I’ve been pondering the difference between north- and south-facing slopes, wondering about the hydrology of such an arid landscape, devising systems to monitor the permafrost. I’ve been dreaming of returning here in the winter to look at snow cover, planning experiments to test how well shrubs can colonize eroded patches.

Big thinking is best done with colleagues. Here Rebecca investigates the soils around Kangerlussuaq, getting to know the dry soils so different from other Arctic systems.

Big thinking is best done with colleagues. Here Rebecca investigates the soils around Kangerlussuaq, getting to know the dry soils so different from other Arctic systems.

Big thinking is very different from the detail-oriented thinking of fieldwork, but it’s just as critical to good science. The creativity required to ask new and interesting questions is a skill often overlooked, rarely taught or discussed. During our fast-paced field seasons, stopping to ponder may seem like a waste of time. Yet how will we devise our next project unless we do? Returning home now, full of new questions and ideas, I’m pledging to always push myself to think big.

I've also had more time to sketch during this field season -- an activity that helps me to think big by forcing me to look at the landscape from new perspectives.

I’ve also had more time to sketch during this field season — an activity that helps me to think big by forcing me to look at the landscape from new perspectives.

Dartmouth College researchers have been teaching polar science to an awesome group of high school students from the USA, Greenland, and Denmark. The students are part of the Joint Education Science Project and are here in Greenland to learn about research and the Arctic. And we have the incredible opportunity to teach and mentor them! This is hands-on, field-based learning to the extreme! We have been tweeting about these experiences, so I will let the tweets speak for themselves. By the way, you can follow us on Twitter at @dartarctic, and you can experience Greenland through the eyes of eager high school students via @JSEP_GL.

Not many incoming PhD students have the opportunity to visit field sites before taking any classes, much less travel to three major Arctic field stations in less than two months. I guess I am just lucky that way. Or perhaps more accurately, I am benefiting from existing Dartmouth research initiatives, like IGERT, that explore and research polar regions. My previous experience in northern systems has focused only on interior Alaska, so when my new adviser Dr. Ross Virginia asked if I would want to visit Sweden and Greenland, I jumped at the opportunity. I also then smiled and asked if I could visit Toolik, Alaska too because I still had to finish moving my life from Fairbanks, AK to Hanover, NH. He agreed, plane tickets were bought, and the now I am hiking around Greenland!

Hiking through the Brooks Range in Northern Alaska in 2011 brought me across arctic tundra and deep river valleys.

Hiking through the Brooks Range in Northern Alaska in 2011 brought me across arctic tundra and deep river valleys.

With only two weeks in Hanover to prepare, I immediately became swept away into the land of “cool science that matters”. An exploratory trip to Abisko Naturvetenskapliga Station in Northern Sweden with Dr. Matt Ayers allowed me to brainstorm research ideas and consider what I would like to study. While there, we connected with researchers  from the Climate Impacts Research Center (CIRC) of Umea University. It was inspiring to meet with the numerous graduate students, post-docs, and other researchers at CIRC and I learned a lot about the numerous ongoing research projects addressing climate change, permafrost thaw, community ecology, and biogeochemical cycling.

Grazing reindeer in the alpine tundra above the mountain birch stands ourside of Abisko, Sweden.

Grazing reindeer in the alpine tundra above the mountain birch stands outside of Abisko, Sweden.

After about five days of asking questions, looking for insects, and collecting plant and soil samples, Matt and I headed down to Stockholm to meet with Ambassador Mark Brzezinski at the US Embassy in Sweden for a luncheon to discuss US-Sweden scientific collaboration in the Arctic. We met with numerous Swedish and American scientists, policy makers, and members of the media, and even a Sami reindeer hearder. Lunch ended and then I immediately headed to the airport, still wearing my business attire, in order to catch a plane to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Phew!

Scouting for field sites near Russell Glacier outside of Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.

Scouting field sites near Russell Glacier outside of Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.

I now have been in Greenland for about a week and it is fascinating to see how diverse climates and ecosystems can vary around the Arctic, even though they are located at similar latitudes. In Sweden it rained 4 out of 5 days, and “tall” mountain birched reigned the hills. I then arrived in Kanger to find record-breaking dry heat, constant sunshine, and dwarf-shrubs growing on siltly, sandy soils. I now often find myself thinking about how water balance and moisture play a large roll in controlling the distribution of plants, and that increasing temperatures in the Arctic might have different repercussions for different areas. For example, Abisko might see warmer temperatures and more moisture, leading to more anoxic soil conditions in certain areas, while Kangerlussauq may be getting warmer and drier, which might lead to more water stressed vegetation. Both are likely to change vegetation distribution, but likely in different ways. I guess that is why I am here, to find the similarities and differences between different places in the Arctic and think about how they might respond to climate change.

Next stop: Toolik Lake, Alaska. Stay tuned!

Every summer, the serene tundra around Kangerlussuaq is transformed for a few weeks into a swarming hunting ground for mosquitos. This occurs when the larvae hatch around mid-June. Towards the end of last summer, just before they died, the females laid their eggs in the edges of the many ponds that are found around Kanger. The marshy areas that surround a lot of these are also ideal sites for mosquito eggs. Winter arrives, and the mosquitos are in the pupa stage. They hibernate during the long frozen season, and only develop into larvae when the water begins to thaw and the snow begins to melt.

 

Since the summer here is so short, the mosquitos mature, feed, and reproduce at top speed. In order to develop eggs, females must have a blood meal. That’s where we come in – besides muskox, caribou, and birds, humans are one of the staples in the Greenlandic mosquito’s diet. And since we pollination biologists are out in the field all day, sometimes sitting still for long periods, we’re easy targets. Luckily, we’ve come up with some good ways to keep them at bay, or at least off our skin:

  1. Mesh head-net: A must. Keeps your face and neck covered.
  2. Fingerless gloves: Since we work with plants (such as the arctic blueberry) that produce tiny flowers, we need dexterity. However, we also want to protect our hands from bites. Fingerless gloves are the perfect compromise, but we do end up with a weird tan just on our fingertips!
  3. Long pants and sleeves: We have to keep our whole bodies covered, even when it gets hot.

 

Mosquitos aren’t all bad though. They may actually act as important pollinators during the Greenlandic flowering season. Males, or females that can’t find a blood meal, often visit flowers to drink the sugary nectar that gives them energy, and pick up pollen at the same time. Despite the fact that mosquitos can carry only a little pollen on their scrawny bodies, their sheer numbers could cause them to be a significant help to the reproduction of many flowering plants in the tundra.

We still get bitten sometimes!

We still get bitten sometimes!

Christine gets covered on Blackridge

Christine gets covered on Blackridge

This year Dartmouth begins a new NSF-sponsored partnership with JSEP, the Joint Science Education Project. We have been working with this program since 2011 and now take more of a lead role in directing the science programming in cooperation with Kasper Busk from the Government of Greenland.

IGERT graduate students have already been working with the very inspiring group of JSEP high school students from Denmark, Greenland, and the US. On Tuesday we briefly shared our science projects and on Saturday, the 4th of July, we’ll work with them as mentors and help develop and carry out science projects that look at environmental change in the ecosystems of the Arctic.

Please follow us on twitter. We will be sharing our experiences and knowledge in three languages- Kalaallisut, Danish, and English. Also, tweet to us if you have any questions about what we are doing and learning.

2015

Dartmouth IGERT fellow Jess Trout-Haney, and her field assistant, Zach Wood, discuss lake ecosystems with JSEP students.

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Purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) started to welcome summer. And then came the snow…

One day I was taking pictures of the first flowers of summer, the next morning I was brushing my teeth in the snow. We just had a couple of snowy days here in Kangerlussuaq – hopefully nature’s last act of sleepy defiance before it greens up and grows!

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Our campsite

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“Seahorse lake!” Getting snowier…

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A lake near the edge of the ice sheet (you can just make out the ice sheet in the background), where we sampled mosquito larvae the week before. At this point, there were a couple inches of snow. I know the serenity is ephemeral – soon the katabatic winds will be whipping across the landscape and mosquitoes will be swarming – but I think at this moment, this was the most peaceful environment I have ever been in.

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