Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » Ken Tape Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 “Pack it up, Pack it in…” Wed, 08 Oct 2008 18:28:49 +0000 Ken Tape Journal Entry 18: Monday, August 11, 2008

COLDFOOT, ALASKA– After a weaving flight through the mountains beneath the cloud ceiling, we are back at Coldfoot, beer-in-hand and sun-in-face. Should it end any other way? Well, in fact, it shall; Remember that, ultimately, we are out here trying to understand the heterogeneity of vegetation change in the arctic, much like sea ice scientists are trying to understand the heterogeneity of the disappearing sea ice. So, I’ll still be holding my breath until I can see, in figures resulting from these expeditions, the differences between expanding and stagnant shrub patches. Knowing these differences will help us understand and predict where, presently and in the future, shrubs are expanding or stagnating. This should yield greater insight into how the carbon cycle will be affected by changing arctic vegetation.

Left to right: Ty, Greta, Ben, and all the gear packed into the plane.

Thanks for checking out the blog.

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The Home Stretch Thu, 02 Oct 2008 21:33:36 +0000 Ken Tape Journal Entry 16: Thursday, August 7, 2008

COLVILLE RIVER, ALASKA– The science has reached the home stretch now, as has the entire summer’s field effort. We got a break in the cloudy weather last night, and sat around a fire labeling sample bags and weighing/organizing samples. Today, another long day of sampling, and tomorrow, we only need to execute some exploratory sampling before packing up and floating down for the pick-up. Yeehaw!

Greta, Ty, and Ben organizing, weighing, and labeling samples next to the fire.

Journal Entry 17: Sunday, August 10, 2008


We awoke to a headwind several days ago and the last section of floating down to Umiat – which we anticipated to be the metaphoric victory lap of the trip – was, in fact, just another lap.

We landed and deflated the raft at Umiat, a remote logistics outpost with a couple dozen workers, most from Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC). Greta and Ben walked the half-mile from the river to the camp, and they returned with a truck driven by an Inupiat guy I knew from my high school days in Fairbanks.

Not exactly.

As before, in the village of Noatak, we are again camped at the end of the runway in Umiat. Abe Stein and the rest of the small crew at Umiat have been very welcoming, allowing us to hang out in heated buildings and utilize the internet connection and solitary phone. On a walk one morning, Greta and I saw a large, lone black wolf, purportedly the Alpha of the pack.

Umiat is a fitting end to our journey, because the old aerial photographs that we’re using to guide our sampling were actually flown out of Umiat in the late 1940’s. Back in those days, Umiat was a Navy base used as a staging ground for geologic reconnaissance and resource exploration. Not too much has changed. Again, the U.S. is at war, and again there is considerable oil and natural gas exploration staged out of Umiat. Now, though, the logistics are being run by an Inupiat outfit (UIC), instead of the military. Amazingly, a dozen or so of the old military Quonset huts still remain here, and the old two-storey tower near the runway has a fresh coat of paint.

I think this plane is called a “skyvan,” and you can see why. Also note the old (but operational) Umiat runway control tower, next to the “Wien” (an old name in Alaskan aviation) Quonset hut.

These expeditions seems to end in stages, making it hard to clearly delineate a point in time when we can all breathe a sigh of relief. One sigh comes when the sampling is complete, one when the boating is complete, one when the flying is complete, and so on and so forth. Our work won’t truly be done until we have some substantial scientific figures and can make those available to a broader audience. So, at the end of each stage is a small sigh of satisfaction and a recognition of the road that lies ahead. At least this next stage will put an end to the persistent food and (now) beer fantasies!

Joking aside, it is Day 18, and we are down to <2/3 liter of fuel and a few freeze dried meals, so the clock is ticking. Umiat is stocked with food, but lunch is $40 and dinner is $60, so hunger is knocking on the door. We had the option to fly out from any gravel bar on the river, and in spite of the outrageous cost of food, we are grateful for the safety net.

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“Here Comes the Rain Again” Tue, 23 Sep 2008 17:44:01 +0000 Ken Tape Journal Entry 15: Tuesday, August 5, 2008

COLVILLE RIVER, ALASKA– We awoke this morning to rain, wind, and 35? F temperatures. Immediately the remaining sampling lost most of its appeal, but we inhaled our coffee and oatmeal and staggered forth through the wet brush and tussock tundra. Though we are weary of the repetitive sampling, the ideas and importance of vegetation change in the arctic are still alive and inspiring.

For example, certain vegetation communities are more apt than others to foster alder shrub seedlings, and there is agreement between our observations on the ground and the sites identified as expanding or stagnant using the photos. This is a pattern we’ve observed, or moreso absorbed unavoidably, by traversing across and spending time in the various shrub communities. It is a visceral mode of learning that relies on observation and experience to reveal patterns and correlations, not unlike the development of indigenous knowledge. In that sense, I think all of us on the trip are getting a little flavor of indigenous knowledge by being out here and basing critical logistical decisions on wilderness properties like weather patterns, game migration routes, and vegetation patterns, much as the Inupiat have done for thousands of years. It strikes me that the Inupiat dependence on the landscape (and seascape) for survival fostered a close relationship between man and landscape, one that relied primarily on a catalogue of observed patterns.

Two bull caribou grazing, and several more lying down in the background.
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Massive Permafrost Exposure Sat, 20 Sep 2008 01:14:43 +0000 Ken Tape Journal Entry 14: Sunday, August 3, 2008

COLVILLE RIVER, ALASKA– Days drift by on the river. The wind of the previous entry indeed subsided that evening, and we paddled from 11 PM to 5 AM, stopping for an hour to gape in awe at a massive exposure of permafrost (frozen ground) towering above the river. It was the most massive body of permafrost any of us had ever seen. There is some orange coloring to the photo from the 3 AM sunset colors on the other side of the sky, and you can imagine how active the erosion is when the sun hits the ice.

This location has exotic plants, ice formations, and soil erosional features. Ben even pointed out the possibility that plants at the foot of the wall germinated from seeds of extinct plant species that had been frozen in the wall for thousands of years before eroding into a fertile soil. There were indeed places where we observed ancient green plant material frozen into the wall.

Massive ice exposure adjacent to the river, 3 AM. The vertical walls of frozen ice and silt are 10 to 12 m high throughout most of the exposure. Ben is standing in front of the wall near the right edge of the bluff.

Several long river days later, we are nearing our other sampling sites. The long trip down was punctuated by frequent cliffs hosting rough-legged hawks and peregrine falcons. Sandbars came and went endlessly, and much time was wasted on bad 80’s songs and every imaginable food fantasy. The week-long transit from the upper sites constituted the bulk of the adventure portion of this trip, and we will soon be camped at our final site and returning our focus to the science of shrub expansion.

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“Out in the Cold Rain and Snow” Tue, 16 Sep 2008 17:00:13 +0000 Ken Tape Salix Lounge” (Latin genus for willow). We’ve spent 36 hours watching the river flow backward – upriver. It has granted us time to catch up on some of the scientific literature, so we’ve been discussing the changes underway in North Slope river floodplains...]]> Journal Entry 13: Thursday, July 31, 2008

COLVILLE RIVER, ALASKA– Finally, there is time to journal, as we are still relaxing in the “Salix Lounge” (Latin genus for willow). We’ve spent 36 hours watching the river flow backward – upriver. It has granted us time to catch up on some of the scientific literature, so we’ve been discussing the changes underway in North Slope river floodplains. We showed awhile back that encroaching vegetation is stabilizing floodplains and apparently causing the rivers to shift gradually from a braided regime to an anastomosing regime. That is another way of saying that gravel bars are becoming more vegetated, thus stabilizing current channels and often preventing new channel formation. Floodplains are difficult for drawing inferences about climate, because change is a natural process in floodplains, but floodplains are focal points for plant and animal diversity, so are they also often focal points of our discussions.

With the constant north wind, we are now thinking about switching our paddling hours from the middle of the day to the middle of the night, in hopes of catching calmer weather and a bit of mileage downriver.

2:30 AM that night. The raft is parked while we execute a sampling technique called the “pebble count” to understand river morphology.
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Against the Wind…We Were Paddlin’ Against the Wind Mon, 08 Sep 2008 19:11:39 +0000 Ken Tape Journal Entry 12: Wednesday, July 30, 2008

COLVILLE RIVER, ALASKA– Aha! Windstorm #2, and we have ducked into some willows after the wind halted our downriver progress. This morning was crisp and clear, but the wind produced swells and breaking waves moving upriver, to the point that if we stopped paddling, we would float upriver!

We arduously lined the boat downriver, against the current, as described earlier and as shown in the picture below. Rounding the corner, the boat was being blown onshore, preventing even lining. This stretch of river is at least one mile long, and should be flowing northward, obliquely into the prevailing wind. Truth be told, the Colville has been lower and slower than we anticipated, and the backward-flowing conditions of present are a radical example of this.

Pulling the boat downriver, against the wind. The whitecaps in the background are waves flowing upriver.
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Alpine Tundra Yielding to Shrubs Fri, 29 Aug 2008 20:50:06 +0000 Ken Tape Journal Entry 11: Tuesday, July 29, 2008

COLVILLE RIVER, ALASKA– Another day of fieldwork and floating later, we are camped on a big bend in the Colville, across from cliffs and peregrine falcons. Yesterday saw more science, including clear evidence of shrubs colonizing alpine tundra.

As I mentioned during the first trip, because of the lack of large-scale disturbances like fire, the vegetation up here exists in a delicate equilibrium with climate. When large-scale changes in vegetation are observed, as is the case with the repeat photography covering much of northern Alaska, the changes can be attributed to climate. So, after spending years poring over these old and new photo-pairs, it is exciting to be on the ground, actually seeing the multitude of small new shrubs that collectively signify a sweeping change in vegetation.

Today, we diverted from our sampling protocol to execute a small experiment looking at the relationship between alder shrubs – nitrogen fixers – and adjacent birch and willow shrubs. Many times the alder shrubs have rings or “halos” of birch and willow shrubs encircling them. But why?

Our suspicion is that when the alder colonize new areas, they improve growing conditions for birch and willow shrubs in two ways: First, the alders increase the nitrogen content of the surrounding soil during the summer. And second, during the winter the alders drift snow, providing physical protection and warmer ground temperatures in their immediate vicinity.

To test the nutrient-enhancing capability of alder, we sampled leaves of alder at the center of halos, leaves of birch and willow within the halos, and leaves of birch and willow not located in halos. If the birch and willow leaves within the halo are found to have more nitrogen than in the outlying birch and willow shrubs, then we can confirm that nitrogen from the alder shrub is being utilized by birch and willow.

Expanding shrub patches overlooking the Colville River.

Today we awoke to 40? F and no bugs. The freedom from constant harassment was rewarding, even after eight hours of paddling in the rain at that temperature. As we broke camp, rain turned to snow, and we ducked into the group tent for a memorable dinner of fried polenta over mac&cheese with re-hydrated mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, and cheddar. Already the conversations are shifting toward food. The question “What’re we having for dinner?” comes earlier every day.

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Science Underway in the Tundra Tue, 26 Aug 2008 01:36:28 +0000 Ken Tape Journal Entry 10: Sunday, July 27, 2008

COLVILLE RIVER, ALASKA– The four-person crew for this second float of the summer is led by Greta Myerchin and myself, both veterans of the first trip (Nimiuktuk/Noatak) and familiar with the science and wilderness protocols. We’re joined by Ben Gaglioti, a graduate student in biology and master of Arctic vegetation, and Ty Spaulding, an undergraduate biology major at University of Alaska Anchorage with an obsession for wolves that is revealed in sprawling tattoos.

Our first sampling site and campsite. Yes, this is actually a river, not a lake, as it sometimes seems.

The new crew quickly became familiar with the sampling protocol, and science is underway in the remote Arctic tundra. We are sampling in locations where old and new photographs of the same landscape show that changes in vegetation have occurred in certain areas, while others are unchanged. Specifically, we are interested in comparing plant, soil, and environmental properties between areas that have changed and those that have not changed. Because we seek to generalize about large parts of the Arctic, we are floating across Arctic Alaska and sampling where this ‘repeat photography’ is available.

After one day of field work, we broke camp in the morning and loaded the raft to head downstream. Besides abundant bird life, we saw a lone bull musk ox on a sandbar and observed him through binoculars before continuing.

At the end of the 11-hour float – on the last corner – we faced the monster of all headwinds and actually had to get out of the boat and “line” the raft downstream against the backward-flowing surface current. “Lining” is where one or two people walk in shallow water, pulling the boat by the bow line, while another person uses a paddle to keep the boat from beaching. The windstorm crescendo-ed as we broke camp in the meager protection of shrubs, and we experienced the strongest summer windstorm of my time in the Arctic (thankfully, from inside our sturdy tents).

Today was a successful science day, and we are all tired. I get the sense, for better or worse, that there will many long days of science, and many long days of boating.

The old photo is from 1949, and the new one is from 2001. Our second campsite is just off the left-hand side of the photo, and we spent several days traversing and studying the facing slope pictured.
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Into the Wilderness, Part Deux Thu, 21 Aug 2008 18:37:22 +0000 Ken Tape Journal Entry 9: Thursday, July 24, 2008

COLVILLE RIVER, ALASKA– Welcome back and thanks for tuning in for the second science adventure of the summer.

Scientifically, the premise and protocol on this trip is similar to the first trip, but this one is considerably longer – 18 days instead of 12 – and further north. We’ve got a number of sites scattered along 200 miles of the Colville River, in Northern Alaska, so we expect the coming days to be packed with science and boating.

We rode up the Dalton Highway (the “Haul Road”) from Fairbanks yesterday with a truck and driver from Horst Expediting. This morning brought clear weather in Coldfoot and an almost-prompt departure in a bush plane flown by Dirk Nickitsh at Coyote Air. The only hitch was that our gear didn’t fit in the 1953 DeHavillande Beaver plane – a common roadblock at this stage in the trip.

Hmm…kind of a bummer since our whole plan relies on floating our science gear down a river to access sample sites. We are underweight, but clearly oversized. After some debate and considerable consolidation, we kept the raft and left the inflatable canoe and some gear behind before the doors were closed on our tightly-packed gear and bodies.

The flight path took us from the southern edge of the Brooks Range obliquely across the mountains for about an hour-and-a-half, across Gates of the Arctic National Park. During the flight, newcomers to the Arctic and all were struck by the vastness of the place – a place with no evidence of mankind.

A view from the ground of Gates of the Arctic National Park.

A gradual descent began as the mountains mellowed into the broad North Slope uplands, and we headed toward the headwaters of the Colville River. Dirk put us gently down on a sandbar adjacent to the river – a real treat after the portages of the previous trip – and we eagerly inflated and loaded the raft, pleased that we could manage the load without the boat left behind in Coldfoot.

The bush plane leaving us and our gear on a sandbar.

Fours hours on the river later and we are at our first sampling site and campsite. Along the way, we marveled at the solitude and scale of the giant landscape, one that is slowly yielding its timeless qualities to the forces of climate.

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Bringing It All Back Home Thu, 07 Aug 2008 18:29:20 +0000 Ken Tape Journal Entry 8: Monday, July 7, 2008, 12:30 AM

NOATAK VILLAGE, BROOKS RANGE, ALASKA– Our wildlife list so far includes moose, grizzly bear, musk oxen, dall sheep, rough-legged hawk, peregrine falcon, and a whole bunch of smaller birds and rodents. No caribou this time of year, and Mark pointed out that probably much of the game vacates the region during bug season. Ricky verified this, and explained that people and animals migrate to the coast during mid-summer, where the breeze is more reliable.

We ate breakfast with Ricky and he toured us through a small family picture album – a veritable history of the entire region that bridged seamlessly to the caches and other evidence of ancient habitation that we’d seen along the way. Ricky embodied at least a vestige of the old native way, and we all learned a lot from him during our short stay.

Two scorching days later, here we are camped at the end of the runway in the village of Noatak. I think it is day 12 since leaving Kotzebue, and also day 12 of the midnight sun. I think it rained for a total of 30 minutes during our entire time out here, but the huge break in weather was easily offset by the viscous mosquitoes. Along those lines, here is some wisdom to heed: Don’t come to the Arctic during the growing season if you’re looking for enjoyment.

Mosquitoes swarming at 1:00 AM.

On the other hand, if you’re searching for answers about changing climate and changing Arctic vegetation, our strategy of using repeat photography to guide the scientific sampling seems to be fruitful. Although the analysis still lies ahead of us, our impression is that we can identify areas that are changing, and areas that are not changing, based on a host of parameters that we sampled. Ultimately, we’d like to extrapolate what we’ve learned across large areas, in order to understand better the heterogeneity of vegetation change in the Arctic, and the consequences of that change on the global climate system. Thanks for following along, and check back shortly for reports from the upcoming Colville River trip.

The whole crew flying out of Noatak village. We really look disappointed to be out of the mosquitoes!
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