Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » Amy Breen Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 Trees among the tundra Tue, 14 Oct 2008 18:20:54 +0000 Amy Breen TOOLIK FIELD STATION, ALASKA– Balsam poplar is the northern-most tree species in North America. In Arctic Alaska, it occurs sporadically in isolated stands often adjacent to perennial springs or on south-facing slopes. Join our field crew as we venture into one of these stands north of Toolik Lake. Our aim is to investigate a report from a colleague, Dr. John Hobbie (the former director of the Arctic LTER), of an errant spruce tree. Spruce, specifically white spruce, reaches its northern-most limit south of the Brooks Range. If a spruce tree is indeed present, it would be a significant find.

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Trucks on the Tundra Fri, 22 Aug 2008 18:46:30 +0000 Amy Breen TOOLIK FIELD STATION, ALASKA– The field station maintains a small fleet of trucks to access field sites adjacent to the nearby Dalton Highway. These trucks have camp names such as, “Blue Dog, Bandit, Cadillac and Turtle.” Most are old clunkers, like the truck in this video (Blue Dog, GMC c. 1986). Join our field crew as we ponder the possibility that our beloved borrowed truck will not start to safely return us to the field station. If we can’t return to Toolik Lake via the camp truck, are we forever stranded on the tundra?

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Blue Dog.

Sayuri, me, and Joel.
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Ptarmigan Tue, 19 Aug 2008 17:02:53 +0000 Amy Breen TOOLIK FIELD STATION, ALASKA– We often encounter ptarmigan hidden among the lichen-covered rock and tundra plants at Toolik Lake. Ptarmigan live year round in the Arctic. They are well camouflaged in both the winter and summer seasons. In the summer, their plumage is brown with dark stripes. However in winter, they are completely white to blend into the snow-covered landscape.

We rarely know a ptarmigan is near, until a quick movement reveals its presence. While ptarmigan do fly, we most often see them walking on the tundra foraging on plants and berries.

To catch a glimpse of a ptarmigan, watch this video.

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Digging Soil Pits Fri, 08 Aug 2008 19:06:46 +0000 Amy Breen TOOLIK FIELD STATION, ALASKA– The northern foothills of the Brooks Range, including Toolik Lake, received nearly 15 cm of rain over the past several months. In Fairbanks, the rivers are at levels not observed since 1967. The tundra is fully saturated with the recent precipitation. Because of the underlying permafrost, these waters don’t penetrate deep into soils. Instead, the water sits stagnant. This phenomenon affects our efforts to sample the tundra soils adjacent to our vegetation plots.

Often, soon after we dig a soil pit, it fills with water from the surrounding saturated tundra.

Watch this video, to see how we remedied the problem on a recent snowy and blustery day.

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Musk Oxen Wed, 06 Aug 2008 18:50:09 +0000 Amy Breen TOOLIK FIELD STATION, ALASKA– Last week, we encountered a herd of musk oxen rambling on the tundra. The herd was adjacent to the Dalton Highway, or the Haul Road, north of Toolik Lake.

Watch this video to learn how these oxen’s ancestors immigrated through Ellis Island.

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Mysterious Ground Ice Feature Wed, 30 Jul 2008 20:17:45 +0000 Amy Breen TOOLIK FIELD STATION, ALASKA– Earlier this summer, my friends and I encountered a curious ice feature north of Toolik Lake near the Kuparuk River. While we all study in the Arctic, none of us are too familiar with permafrost dynamics. Since the ice feature occurs at a familiar site, we knew it was newly exposed ice. So, we set out to learn just what this feature is and how it formed.

Ken Fortino stands atop the ice feature in his bug jacket. Ken and Dendy Lofton first noticed exposed ice beneath the tundra in late-June.

Two weeks later, even more ice is visible as the tundra thaws and sloughs away from the ice mound.

Our first question was, ‘How old is this ice? Has it existed since the last glacial maximum (~25,000 years ago)?’ This was the late-Pleistocene epoch – the most recent Ice Age when large mammals, such as woolly mammoths, scimitar cats and the giant beaver, roamed in the far north.

To find out, I contacted Dr. Skip Walker at UAF’s Alaska Geobotany Center. Dr. Walker recently lead a field trip in northern Alaska for the 9th International Permafrost Conference that was held in Fairbanks in late June.

The Arctic is underlain by continuous permafrost. These soils remain perennially frozen. However the upper-most layer of the tundra, or the active layer, thaws each summer. Plant roots penetrate the active layer and a suite of insects, fungi and microbes thrive within these annually thawed soils. The depth of the active layer varies across the tundra landscape. At Toolik Lake, the average maximum thaw depth in early August is about 75 cm.

An important landscape feature that influences the depth of the active layer is the overlying plant community. For example, in the tundra within the vicinity of the field station those areas with peat moss (Sphagnum spp.) will have a shallow depth of thaw. The peat moss insulates the permafrost below and these soils remain largely frozen. For this reason, a simple disturbance of the tundra vegetation can significantly affect the permafrost beneath.

When the permafrost thaws extensively, large depressions can occur in the tundra. We call this phenomenon “thermokarst.” Thermokarst originates when the ice-rich permafrost thaws and the ground beneath collapses. On slopes and riverbanks, thermokarst results in chunks of tundra sloughing into the valleys below.

Last week, we took advantage of a snow day to visit the ice feature again. The site is accessible via the maintenance road that parallels the Trans-Alaska Pipeline north to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean.

The tundra continues to slough and even more of the ice feature is exposed.

I sent Dr. Walker these photos and identified the ice as, ‘a curious ground ice feature.’

His e-mail response began, “Oh, that’s a CGIF.”

I panicked and thought to myself, “What’s a CGIF? Is that an acronym I should be familiar with?”

I re-read my initial inquiry and realized CGIF was an acronym for our original terminology; ‘curious ground ice feature.’

We learned from Dr. Walker that this ice is not old. It likely formed over the previous year. Dr. Walker hypothesized that these features form when water flows between the peat moss and the mineral soil. This water then freezes and the tundra heaves upward during the winter months. Apparently, these types of ice features are quite common in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range.

The ‘CGIF.’

Although CGIFs are common, they do not have a formal name. Collectively, the field trip participants called them, ‘ice-cored mounds.’

I must admit, I was disappointed that the ice was so young. I yearn for a glimpse of the last Ice Age. While I may never see a live giant beaver, it is still possible that I will one day see, touch and taste ice that formed during the late Pleistocene.

Yup, I did indeed eat an ice-cube size chunk of the CGIF.

A polar grass (Arctagrostis latifolia) inflorescence bends under the weight of our recent July snowfall.
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In Pusuit of Sour Dock Fri, 25 Jul 2008 04:47:42 +0000 Amy Breen Rumex arcticus) is a perennial herb native to Alaska...]]> QUINHAGAK, ALASKA– After my final ethnobotany lecture, I offered to help Cecilia, a co-teacher and Yup’ik elder, collect sour dock leaves. Sour dock (Rumex arcticus) is a perennial herb native to Alaska. It is related to rhubarb in the Polygonaceae, or buckwheat family. The leaves are high in vitamin C and have a sharp sour-lemon flavor. As the plant matures, the leaves become more and more sour as the acidity within the plant increases.

The young leaves are eaten in salads or cooked like spinach and frozen to eat in the winter months. The leaves are also chopped and cooked with a base of lard and sugar to make a dessert called ‘Eskimo ice cream’.

Sour dock has a tall inflorescence (stem of flower clusters) of reddish-brown flowers. The long narrow leaves at the base of the plant are gathered, boiled and preserved by the Yup’ik.

The Yup’ik believe the leaves, or the vegetative part, of the sour dock plant are female. In contrast, the inflorescences, or reproductive structures, are male. Our aim was to collect young green leaves: female sour dock.

To do so, we traveled up the Kanektok River with Gloria and Jackie, two students in the class. The Kanektok River flows about ninety miles from its headwaters through the nearby Ahklun Mountains. It joins the Bering Sea at the village of Quinhagak.

Cecilia awaits our put-in in Jackie’s little boat.

Jackie is a native of the village and we were grateful to have her as our guide. Both her and her grandmother collect sour dock along the river in mid-summer.

Sour dock is but one food Jackie and her grandmother gather. Here, king salmon harvested from the Kanektok River dries in the sun beside Jackie’s grandmother’s smokehouse.

Jackie recently cut salmon strips from their smoked fish to eat during the winter months.

Armed with our plastic grocery bags for collecting, we journeyed up the river. We were fortunate to find two places where sour dock was abundant among the riparian vegetation (plants by the river).

Me standing among the riparian vegetation with gathering bag in hand. Tall red sour dock plants in flower are visible in the foreground.

Cecilia and I vigorously collected leaves at the first area until we came upon a very recent (and tremendous!) grizzly bear track. We swiftly joined the other two and convinced them to set out on the river to collect elsewhere.

A Grizzly bear track in the mud along the river bank.

Together, Cecilia and I gathered three overflowing bags of sour dock leaves.

Beautiful Cecilia takes a break from collecting. A tributary of the river is visible in the background.

The typical vegetation of the wetter sites along the river. The yellow flowered plant with rounded leaves is marsh marigold (Caltha palustris).

A bouquet of handsome flowers from the wintergreen plant (Pyrola asarifolia).
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Using Indigenous Plants Tue, 22 Jul 2008 21:07:54 +0000 Amy Breen QUINHAGAK, ALASKA– Along with two elders and six students, I journeyed to a field camp near the Yup’ik village of Quinhagak last week. Dr. Kevin Jernigan, from University of Alaska’s Kuskokwim Campus, and I collaborated to co-teach a college-level class titled, ‘Introduction to Ethnobotany’.

The Yup’ik, the native peoples of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta region, have lived at this site since at least 1,000 AD. The village is located at the mouth of the enchanting Kanetok River, on the shore of Kuskokwim Bay of the Bering Sea.

Our field trip to the Bering Sea coast to collect seashore plants.

What is ethnobotany? It is the study of how people of a particular culture use indigenous plants for provisions such as medicine, food, shelter and religious ceremonies. Botany, or the study of plants, forms the foundation for ethnobotany.

The aim for the course was to survey basic concepts of botany and ethnobotany, with emphasis on the native flora of Alaska and how people use these plants. I was paired with Kevin, an ethnobotanist, to introduce students to the fundamentals of plant biology and taxonomy (classification). My aim was to teach students to recognize regionally important plant families based on field characteristics and by using scientific keys. We also discussed methods of plant collection, including curation and ethical collecting concerns relating to plant conservation.

In the classroom, a student examines various plants representing common tundra plant families.

In the field, students collect tundra plants. The tundra is carpeted with an endless sea of the tufted fruits of cotton grass (Eriophorum russeolum).

In turn, I learned from Kevin the general principals of ethnobotany, including its history and importance in traditional and modern culture. We were fortunate to also be accompanied by two Yup’ik elders, Annie from Quinhagak and Cecilia from nearby Chevak. With their guidance, we discussed the cultural relevance of the native flora to the Yup’ik, as well as its traditional use for food and medicines.

Annie and Cecilia.

Although I was an instructor for the class, quite often I also played the role of learner. Not only did I learn from Kevin, I also learned from both the elders and students about their dependence upon the regional flora. Moreover, I quickly learned that I must adapt my university honed teaching philosophy. The class was taught in English, however the elders’ native language is Yup’ik. Furthermore, nearly every student was bilingual. Our discussions alternated between languages and required translation both to and from Yup’ik. I found this process absolutely fascinating.

Annie shares a beautiful bag constructed from a common seaside grass, or tapernaq in Yup’ik (Elymus arenarius).

On one occasion, I shared a plant with the class that Cecilia recalled from her youth. The plant, marsh five-finger (Potentilla palustris), is prevalent in wet tundra in western Alaska. She clutched the plant in her outstretched hand and asked quietly in her timid English, “Where did you find this plant?” I shared that I collected it nearby in the tundra surrounding the village. As she admired the plant, she shared her story about the marsh five-finger in Yup’ik. While the language was unfamiliar, her enthusiasm about and her high regard for the plant was apparent. I learned through translation that she remembered her grandmother collecting the plant when she was a very young girl. It was collected, dried, ground and drank in a tea as a substitute for coffee.

We had many similar plant encounters throughout the week; it was truly a dynamic learning experience for us all.

I was befriended by a local Yup’ik boy while I collected plants. He greeted me each afternoon with a bouquet of tundra plants. Usually, soon after I accepted his offering he shyly ran away.

My new friend with a twig from a felt-leaf willow (Salix alaxensis).
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Inventorying Arctic Vegetation Wed, 09 Jul 2008 19:51:33 +0000 Amy Breen TOOLIK FIELD STATION, ALASKA– To understand how the Arctic tundra changes over time, we are inventorying long-term vegetation plots established in the vicinity of Toolik Lake nearly twenty years ago.

We will compare the plant community composition (or variety and abundance of different plant species) of the initial survey to the data we are collecting now. This allows us to see how the quantity and variety of plants here have changed over the past decades. We will monitor these changes in groups of plants such as shrubs, herbs, grasses and lichens.

To inventory the vegetation we use the ‘point-frame method’, where a one square meter frame is placed above the plot on legs sunk deep into the tundra. The point-frame contains a grid of fishing line that forms 100 points placed every 5 centimeters. At each of these points, we identify the top and bottom plant species, the plant height, whether the plant is living, and, for woody plants, if the part of the plant at that point is vegetative or woody. Occasionally, we must diverge from the task to identify unknown plants.

In this video meet my field partners, Joel and Sayuri, as they proceed with the inventory amidst the rolling tundra, mosquitoes and a resident Lapland Longspur.

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Harbinger of Eternal Daylight Mon, 19 May 2008 15:56:29 +0000 Amy Breen FAIRBANKS, ALASKA– The snow only just melted in interior Alaska last week. Signs of spring abound here: the sky is light for almost twenty hours a day, leaf buds are nearly bursting on the trees in the endless boreal forest, and an array of birds migrate north in the morning sky. Atop pick-up trucks, the dog boxes used by mushers are gone and have been replaced with canoe racks. Yesterday, I ran on the university trails sans snowshoes for the first time since last autumn. Indeed, the brief Arctic summer will soon be upon us. However, as I write in the comfort of my office at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, my thoughts of the upcoming field season are largely abstract.

Toolik Lake camp, Photo by Cody Johnson
Camp by Toolik Lake, our research site.

This will be the eighth year I return to study tundra plants in Arctic Alaska. This season, I will work with a field crew at the Toolik Field Station. We will conduct a survey of long-term vegetation plots established by my mentors Drs. Skip and Marilyn Walker in the late-1980s and early-1990s in collaboration with the International Tundra Experiment– or ITEX– project.

Field site
Our field experiment. The snowfence allows snow to accumulate in the winter at our study site and the open-top chambers act as greenhouses to warm the tundra 1-3°C higher than normal. The Brooks Range to the south is visible in the background.

As I have been involved with this project since 2001, my outlook for the field season is from the perspective of an old hand. To accomplish our experimental objectives, I have the knowledge and expertise gleaned from seven years of field work. Despite this, my excitement and anticipation to return to the Arctic has not waned.

Honestly, I am happiest and at my best immersed within the arctic landscape. This ecosystem has bewitched me, and in turn I have fallen deeply and truly for the vast beauty and allure of endless rolling arctic tundra.

Photo by Miyuki Tachibani
Claytoniella bostockii (Portulacaceae). While found in the tundra surrounding Toolik Lake, this charming diminutive wildflower is rarely encountered in far-northwestern North America.

Next week, another harbinger of spring will take place, and with it will come the promise of the eternal daylight of the arctic summer: My field partner and friend, Joel, will arrive in Fairbanks. He will be coming from Puerto Rico where he is a graduate student with our project leader, Dr. Bill Gould. Joel will participate in an Arctic Field Ecology course at the University of Alaska prior to our beginning fieldwork in late June. His arrival will help my view of the pending field season transition from abstract to concrete and tangible. Ready or not, summer is almost here.

Joel and I celebrating completion of our final vegetation plot of the season in late-August 2007. Identification of Sphagnum spp., or the peat mosses, is a difficult task but we rose to the challenge.
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