Archive for the ‘Places’ Category

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.

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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.

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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!


Our campsite


“Seahorse lake!” Getting snowier…


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. When I took this picture, there were a couple inches of snow. I know the serenity is ephemeral – soon the katabatic winds will be whipping across the landscape again 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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Life in the Valleys

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From “Open House for Butterflies” by Ruth Kraus and Maurice Sendak

        Whether or not they intended to, perhaps the beloved Kraus and Sendak offered important scientific advice. Ground-time in the field, particularly when logistics involve helicopters transport and unpredictable weather, is truly precious. We fill pages of notebooks in anticipation of our field work– detailed schedules, lists of goals, back-up plans. Then we step off the helicopter and the proverbial timer starts. We have 1 week, or maybe 5 days, or often 4 hours to make all those plans happen. Whatever the case, it’s difficult to escape the urgent pressure to make every second count. But one of many gifts in working with a partner in the field is that we may remind each other to stop for a moment, and dedicate some time to quietly observing our incredible surroundings. In this spirit, Ruth and I designated our first task to becoming “acquainted” with the valley.


Ruth sits perched on a hilltop in the center of the expansive valley, taking it all in.


Vibrant mats appear along streams, even a shallow trickle such as this one.

As we walk around, one of the most prominent features is the myriad of twisting little streams. Some are audible if you are very quiet, though often the wind drowns that out. We stumbled across tiny ones, requiring me to squint inches away to even tell it was moving, and others that were wide enough we were unable to cross. From the helicopter they are hardly visible. Yet they create an extensive network of interconnecting waterways, like arteries, weaving in and out of ponds and feeding vital resources to a desert landscape. As we get close, colors and textures began to stand out. Along the stream edges, colorful mats, and sometimes even moss patches, grow in thick clumps.

It seems strange at first- finding red, green, and orange life forms in a desert like this. But as water penetrates the ground underneath the stream bed (called the ‘hyporheic zone’), a damp area is formed adjacent to the stream. This allows for things like algae, cyanobacteria, and microbes to be active in these wetted areas. In this way, water bodies can be extremely influential on where, when, and what types of organisms thrive in the valley.


Black and orange growth at the shoreline of a pond reveals underwater bubbles, a sure sign of physiological activity.


Many of these streams are currently monitored by researchers in the LTER project, where they examine flow rates, sediment discharge, water chemistry, and composition of the biological communities.


A patch of moss grows in a spot perhaps moistened by melted snow

While Ruth sampled soils throughout the valley, I’ve been focusing on the water. Water bodies here are unique for many reasons. One of which is that many of them are frozen most of the year. These harsh conditions limit the underwater community to just the hardiest species, and many cyanobacteria excel at just this. With abilities such as withstanding freeze-thaw cycles, these organisms are of particular interest to me. So while I’m here I am collecting water from lakes, ponds, and streams, and when I return to Dartmouth I will analyze these samples, including things like who’s living there, in what abundances, and their potential for toxic metabolite production.


Even under the ice, layers upon layers of leafy mats are able to scavenge enough light and thrive.


Under the water of a small pond on Hjorth Hill reveals a productive world of algal and microbial mats.

For a frozen desert landscape, it’s incredible how much life persists here. We are back in McMurdo now, but eagerly await our next adventure. Hopefully this week! Until then, thanks for your interest!

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Southern migration.

After four days of bouncing through airport terminals, Ruth, myself, and the members of the LTER soils team (http://www.mcmlter.org/) have come to our southernmost Antarctic destination at last!

Now, truly seasoned travelers (i.e., polar scientists…and Arctic terns) have come to find such a commute pretty standard fare. Yet for an Antarctic newbie like myself, this level of perpetual motion left me feeling as though we had traveled to the bottom of the earth. Fittingly, we’ve ended up just there. A mere 30+ hours in the air has landed us at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Route Boston to McMurdo

But let’s backup for a moment.

Up until leaving New Zealand, our travels had all been standard commercial airlines. But for NSF funded projects such as the McMurdo LTER in which we’re participating, travel to the field happens on Air National Guard LC-130 cargo planes. So in preparation for this we all spend a day in Christchurch, NZ at the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center), where we are briefed with orientation videos, our computers are security checked, and we are outfitted with our polar gear.


When we arrive at the CDC, we step into a large changing room where two orange duffle bags sit waiting for each person.

Gradually we pull out piece after piece of cold weather clothing. This ranges from giant puffy jackets and white rubber “bunny boots”, to silky long underwear and wool socks. The warehouse here is impressive and fully stocked.

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After all of our gear preparation is finished, Ruth and I take to the streets of Christchurch. Walking downtown it’s immediately evident that the city is still in recovery, even three years after their devastating earthquake. Piles of rubble are fenced off on city blocks, and large open spaces are left where hotels, restaurants, and apartment complexes used to stand.



We walk through the city’s new “shipping container-chic” shopping centers, where fallen buildings have bee replaced by funky colored shipping containers selling street food, clothing, books, and jewelry.

In the evening, we walked to nearby Hagley Park to bring in the New Year. Crowds of people sat in the grass swaying to the sounds of local cover-bands singing Jonny Cash in Kiwi accents. Finally, per New Zealand tradition, we were all enchanted by the Arch Wizard of Canterbury as he casts an explosive (fireworks were involved…) spell on the crowd for coming year.


The Arch Wizard is projected onto a giant screen as he casts his spell.


The next day, we go back to the CDC to don our polar gear, check our bags, and get briefed by the ANG on flight to the ice. It’s a toasty ride for those 8 hours to McMurdo, as we have to wear our big red jackets, snow pants, and bunny boots on the plane.20150101_112747



Soon enough, we feel the plane glide onto the ice and we step out into a blindingly white world. The team has officially arrived in Antarctica.

Photo credit: Ruth Heindel

Stay tuned for updates on the science we are now preparing to do!

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Today we hiked from Pangboche to Periche, only a 2 hour hike.  Yesterday we hiked about 5 hours down to the valley floor, crossed the river, and then came back up, gaining only 200 m net elevation. From now on we’re going up so taking care to build in a little rest time. The plan is to acclimatize here in Pheriche (4240m) overnight then hike up to Pyramid (4970 m), the worlds highest meteorological station (I think). Well spend two nights there acclimatizing and then head to the Changri Nup base camp and start the data collection!

For reference, here’s the last part of our trek in. You can see Khumjung where we were 2 nights ago, Pangboche where we were last night, and Pheriche where I’m writing from. Pyramid Station is also labeled, near the ring finger in this pic.


Yesterday on the trail I saw one of my boxes of scientific gear go by! This box contains a 400 MHz ground penetrating radar as well as a few other instruments. Masters student Josh Maurer is on the left.


Pheriche in the distance

Pheriche in the distance

On the way to Pheriche this morning

On the way to Pheriche this morning

I’ve been enjoying the hike in (very different from taking a plane or helicopter to my field sites) and am looking forward to our day at Pyramid when we’ll be programming temperature sensors, etc. for the field.
Prof. Mike Dorais (BYU geology prof) has been teaching us about the geology along the way. The first night we all sat around a geologic map of Nepal and learned about how the Himalayas formed (and why there’s a yellow stripe of sedimentary rock at the top of Everest!). And he’s pointed out a few neat rocks along the trail.

I’ve enjoyed hiking and socializing with such accomplished scientists on the trek in and have been having very enlightening conversations about the importance of collaboration in science, why different people chose careers in glaciology, what the other grad students see as being next for them, etc.  Thanks for reading! Will update again when possible!

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Alexandra is on her way to the remote field site in the Khumbu Region. She only has intermittent internet access and managed to email us some photos of her journey. Scroll down for a sight of Mt. Everest!

Morning in Khumjung

Morning in Khumjung

On the trail

On the trail

Another trail shot

Another trail shot

Me at our first view of Everest (on the left!)

Me at our first view of Everest (on the left!)




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