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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.

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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!

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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. 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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A few weeks ago, I was setting up some curious equipment that looked like sunny-side-up eggs on wires. One hundred of them on the tundra overlooking a glacier.

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They were for the Global Dryas Project, which is a collaboration among arctic scientists and residents to study pollination and seed production of Dryas flowers. The sunny-side-up eggs were pollinator sticky traps made to resemble these beautiful white and yellow flowers.

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Dryas flowers

I wondered if pollinators around here would actually fall for the faux flowers.  They did! When I brought the “flowers” out to the study area, it was like bringing free pizza to starving grad students. Flies started landing on them before I even had a chance to set up the plots.

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Flies on the faux flower sticky traps.

With the sticky traps, we now have a better idea of what insects visit and potentially pollinate Dryas in Greenland. These results and other data will be sent to the project organizers at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

It is great to squeeze as much as much science as possible out of a Greenland field season and to learn more about pollination across the Arctic. I look forward to seeing the results from the other participants.

More information about the Global Dryas Project:

http://www.helsinki.fi/foodwebs/dryas/index.htm

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/345/6196/492.full (need Science subscription).

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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 [Edit: The hypothesis around the station is that an ice dam broke.] 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.

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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.

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“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

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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!

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