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Posts Tagged ‘Arctic’

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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You’ve seen the Arctic once, that vast, white nothingness, so you’ve seen it all, right?  Not quite.  After spending 6 months in the Arctic, transitioning from Greenland to Alaska half way through, I realized how different various parts of the Arctic could be from one another.

White Tundra
A view of the tundra just outside of Barrow, Alaska from a helicopter.

In Greenland this summer, IGERT Fellow Julia Bradley-Cook and I trekked and camped in the stunning mountainous region of tundra bordering the Greenland ice sheet near Kangerlussuaq (67° 01’ N, 50° 42’ W), collecting samples for her research on soil carbon dynamics in the area.  Kangerlussuaq is more of an outpost than a town; mainly existing to support the international airport located there, the scientific community, and a growing tourist economy.

Russel glacier
One of our many stunning lunch spots, at Russell Glacier near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.

Barrow, Alaska (71° 18’ N, 156° 44’ W), on the other hand, is a booming city compared to Kangerlussuaq.  The city is the seat of the North Slope Borough’s government and has a population of around 5,000 people, approximately 60% of whom are Alaskan Native Iñupiaq Eskimo.

Barrow by helicopter

Barrow, Alaska

When I arrived in Barrow I was stunned to see a completely flat horizon line in all directions, the Ocean to the North, and the openness of the “slope” to the South.

The community also seemed improbable: hundreds of houses built on stilts, plopped down on a dirt patch.  There are no paved roads in Barrow (due to permafrost), but there are a number of stoplights and no shortage of cars, ATVs and snowmobiles.

My street in Barrow
My street in Barrow.

During my three-month stay in Barrow I worked as a community outreach intern for the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC) through the Dartmouth Stefansson Fellowship program.  Up until very recently BASC provided logistical support for researchers visiting Barrow and functioned as a bridge between the scientific community and the local community through weekly outreach events.  I came onboard to start up a new outreach effort targeting local k-12 students.

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A researcher heading out into the large patch of tundra that makes up the Barrow Environmental Observatory.

What really surprised me in my work with students was the lack of awareness for the wealth of research taking place in Barrow (since Barrow is one of the major hotspots for Arctic research). With the support of the school district, I was able to connect students to visiting scientists and local science organizations via small group field trips and class visits. In the three months we organized and ran 33 field trips and set up a framework to continue the program throughout the school year and into the summer. It is my hope that this internship will continue either with BASC or with another local logistics organization so that teachers and students can take advantage of all the special opportunities and resources in their community.

Field trip with Archaeologist Anne Jensen
Middle School Students on a field trip with local Archaeologist Anne Jensen.

While my experiences in Greenland and Alaska felt like polar opposites, together they gave me a bigger and better picture of Arctic life!

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A couple Arctic Foxes enjoying the first snow of the season in Barrow.

If you would like to see more of what I was up to in Barrow, you can check out the blog I was keeping during my time there: http://above66degreesnorth.wordpress.com/

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