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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.

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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!

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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

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We arrived in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland three days ago, flying into a brown landscape that is patched with snow.  The weather feels like a hot-apple-cider autumn. Best of all, the mosquitoes are still dormant on the edges of frozen ponds.

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Melting pond

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The coats of the caribou are light tan and white right now. I think they are transitioning over to their summer coats.

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Caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus)

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Kangerlussuaq Fjord covered in ice.

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Bare willow (Salix glauca) branches with last year’s catkins.

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My awesome research assistant at the top of Sugerloaf. The fjord is in the distance.

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A frozen lake.

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Yesterday I saw green dwarf birch (Betula nana) leaves starting to unfurl. Things around here are about to change drastically.

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This post was originally featured on the Dartmouth Biological Sciences Foreign Study Program blog.

B”H

We’re not in Greenland anymore.

That thought has been passing my mind on a daily basis since I arrived in Costa Rica to do biological research in the tropics as part of Dartmouth’s foreign study program. For six weeks, we’ll be going  across the country, jumping from field station to field station as we conduct scientific research from the planning stage to the final paper. Having focused my research on the Arctic up until this point, I was both excited and curious to start my coursework.

The minute we got off the bus at our first station – the Palo Verde National Park – I immediately felt a wall of intense heat smack me in the face. This was an experience unnatural enough to be having in January, but do be doing research in anything but chill weather seemed alien to me.

  1. As I continued with my week, I was struck at the similarities I felt between my work in Greenland and the Tropics. These regions might not be that different after all.Soil research is deeply relevant to understanding both ecosystems – yet soils aren’t usually the first parts of the landscape that come to mind when people think of either the Arctic or the rain forest. I definitely wasn’t expecting to be doing more soil research upon arriving in Costa Rica – just as I wouldn’t have expected to be doing soil research in the tundra as Julia’s field assistant – and yet that’s exactly what I found myself doing. Here are Julia and I collecting samples in July 2013:
    998583_10201263848072499_1188912330_n dscf4061 And here I am in Costa Rica, measuring soil moisture in the same way I analyzed our Greenlandic samples back in Hanover! IMG_2234 DSCF4141
  2. Both the Arctic and the tropical rain forest are incredibly beautiful. Research is pretty distracting when faced with these views: This photo was taken in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland at 1AM:DSCF3865
    And these ones were taken at sunset at Palo Verde, Costa Rica: DSC_0703 DSCF4180
  3. The vegetation types, while on opposite extremes, are entirely different from what you’d see back home. While in the tundra you can see miles and miles into the distance – and the immense span is shocking… DSCF3655
    … here in the tropics, the trees are bigger than I’ve ever seen anywhere – especially in primary forests. And you can barely see 100 feet ahead of you when the forest is thick:
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  4. Both regions are significantly affected by climactic changes. Arctic and tropical ecosystems are some of the most vulnerable to tipping points and thresholds, wherein global warming may cause irreversible changes to our environment. Interestingly, though, I haven’t heard talk of either region among both communities of researchers.

    I still have so much to learn about these regions and others around the world, all of whom contribute to a better understanding of climate change. (Stay tuned for more reflections as the weeks pass by!) As a budding climate scientist, I recognize how important it is to acknowledge that our world is deeply interconnected – from the poles to the equator. And I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to conduct research in these places, hoping to gain the skills that will form my work as a scientist, understanding the world’s collective future.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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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Back at Dartmouth, we have some fellow grad student friends who are currently Graduate Fellows in Dartmouth’s GK-12 Project. This is a great program which funds graduate students to partner with local middle school teachers in the region to gain teaching experience. Through this project, they get to spend time in the classroom, help develop curriculum, and brainstorm creative ways to introduce middle school students to the exciting world of science! So Ruth and I thought it would be fun to dedicate a few blogs to answering questions sent in by these middle school students on what it’s like to work in Antarctica.

 The following questions were sent in by middle school students in Windsor, VT:


  1. What is the distance to Antarctica from Windsor, VT?

It is 9,577 miles from Windsor, VT to McMurdo, Antarctica. This would be like traveling the length of Vermont 61 times! And because it’s such a remote place, it actually takes us multiple days to get from the US to Antarctica. We spend over 30 hours just in the air. And since the conditions are harsh and the environment is very sensitive, we first have to travel to New Zealand to get outfitted with special cold weather clothing and training before we can even step foot on the continent. Ruth and I left the airport in Boston on Dec 28 and arrived in McMurdo Jan 1st!

Here is our route from Boston, MA to McMurdo, Antarctica. Also notice that there’s an 18 hour time difference between here and back home…so we’re always one day ahead of Vermont.

  1. Do you have alarm clocks to keep track of time during the 24 hour daylight?

Definitely…we’d all be pretty lost without clocks or watches out here! It’s a lot harder to keep track of the time of day. But even though there’s constant light, the light does change in subtle ways, taking on different shades and hues and brightness throughout the day. So although we DO sometimes have to do wear our sunglasses at night, the light in the evening is usually a lot dimmer. Also, McMurdo operates 24 hours a day, so there are lots of people living here who work at night and sleep during the day. That’s when you definitely need an alarm clock.

  1. How do you sleep when it is so light?

Well, one thing you notice right away is that it’s easier to stay up late every night! It’s amazing how long your body takes to get tired without darkness. But eventually staying up late catches up with you, and everyone tends to find their own special method for dealing with sleep in the light. People who live here at McMurdo have bedrooms with thick shades that they pull down when they need to sleep. But when Ruth and I are out in the field it gets a little trickier…we usually sleep in orange tents that shine like glowing orbs when laying inside trying to sleep. Ruth likes to lay something over her eyes to help her sleep and I sometimes pull the hood of my sleeping bag over my head to block out the glow. But like anything, eventually your body just gets used to the light and it gets easier to sleep while it’s bright out. It also helps when we’re totally exhausted at the end of a busy day!

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Here’s my orange tent in the evening out in the Dry Valleys. We camped right next to a lake called Lake Frixell, and in the background you can see the edge of the large Commonwealth Glacier.

  1. Do you ever need to get soil samples in the winter?

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    Ruth collects soil samples with a scoop and places them into a plastic bag to bring back to the lab.

Great question! Getting soils in the winter would be way cool! Not much is known about what soils are like in this time of year, and it would be really interesting to study how the tiny organisms living in these soils are able to survive the harsh winter conditions. But since the soils down here are frozen in the winter, collecting samples during that time would be really tough.

  1. How much snow is there in Antarctica?

There is a lot of snow in Antarctica. Most of the continent is covered by a giant ice sheet that’s more than a mile thick, and this ice is covered with layers of snow. But actually, living in Vermont you get much more snow per winter than here in Antarctica. In fact, Antarctica is a desert and only gets only about 150 mm of precipitation every year, most of which comes down as snow. But unlike Vermont where the snow eventually melts, in Antarctica it’s cold enough that what snow does come down usually sticks around.

We actually do research in a pretty unique area of Antarctica called the Dry Valleys. In this area there’s very little snow on the ground except for the mountain tops. In fact, just last week we got stuck out here for a couple days because of some unusual weather…there was a “snow storm” and snow accumulated on the ground! Of course, it was really only a dusting and you could still see the soil through snow. So in Vermont you probably wouldn’t think twice about something like this, but out here in the Dry Valleys, this was considered a lot precipitation.

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Here is the campsite during our “snow storm”!

  1. Do penguins distract you when you work?

Well…there are occasionally Adelie Penguins on the coast around McMurdo, but not nearly as many in other areas of Antarctica. The biggest Adelie Penguin colony is about 20 miles north of where we are. So we occasionally see them out on the ice, but not in large numbers. We do see a lot of seals. They like to haul themselves out of the water and lounge for hours out on the ice. But seal-watching isn’t exactly an action packed activity. Once they are out lounging, they don’t move very much at all. From a distance they sort of look like giant slugs scattered across the ice, occasionally rolling over or stretching, and then right back to lounging.

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Those little black dots out there on the ice are all seals.

But the animal we probably get most distracted by is the Skua. These brown seabirds are scavengers, eating whatever they can, whenever they can. They are powerful, crafty, and hungry. When given the chance, penguin eggs are a favorite delicacy of the Skua. But around McMurdo their favorite spot to hang out is outside the Galley building, where the cafeteria is located. From their perch, they quietly watch and wait for unsuspecting humans to exit the building. Then, they’ll choose their target and swoop down at someone’s head, frightening them into dropping any bags of goodies they’re carrying. And while the person is trying to figure out what just happened, they fly away with their lunch. In fact, when we first arrived at McMurdo, avoiding Skuas was actually part of our training! So although they’re not penguins, we definitely do get distracted by birds.

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This Skua was very curious and followed us for a while we took a hike. Probably hoping we’d drop a granola bar.

Thanks for all the really great questions! Keep ’em coming!

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