Friday, July 13, 2018

What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic

Dr. Katie Spellman’s left eyebrow arched into an exclamation point above the wide frames of her glasses. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.” The room full of educators and youth leaders from rural and indigenous communities around Alaska and the Lower 48 chuckled in agreement. This eclectic and passionate group of people had converged on the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) from Alaskan communities north of the Arctic Circle, down on the Kenai Peninsula, and from the town of North Pole. For the first time at this workshop, educators from out of state had also come from Oregon, Montana, Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, and Hawaii. We were all here for a week-long workshop called “Climate Change and My Community.”

Dr. Katie Spellman and Dr. Elena Sparrow explain a permafrost mystery that these participants in the Climate Change and My Community workshop are about to investigate. Photo by Emily Stone. 

To emphasize her point, Katie highlighted some of the connections we’d all just drawn on a huge concept map. Rising temperatures topped the board, but a web of lines connected to issues like thawing permafrost, diminishing sea ice, declining snow cover, vegetation shifts, and melting glaciers. Within the map were also less obvious connections: expanding marine shipping, increasing access to resources (like oil and gas), enhanced agriculture and forestry, and loss of hunting culture.

This course, run through the Arctic and Earth SIGNS program, is designed to help educators and community leaders learn more about all of those “impacts and feedbacks of a warming Arctic, braiding multiple ways of knowing and observing climate change from their elders, from satellites, and from their own observations, and making a difference on a climate change issue important to their community.” Learning about the far-reaching effects of climate change without the support of a community can sometimes send people into paralysis and despair. In this workshop, upbeat mantras like “there’s a leader in every chair,” and “your observations are truth,” seemed well-placed to inspire people toward hope and action. 

“Why should everybody care about melting permafrost?” continued Katie. For Alaskans, the answer is as practical as frost-heaved roads, tilting buildings, and failing infrastructure. For us from the Lower 48, the carbon cycle is key. Permafrost is soil that’s been below freezing for more than two years. It contains lots of stored carbon in the form of dead-but-not-decomposed plants and animals. If the soil warms and decomposition restarts, then significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane will escape into the atmosphere. These additional greenhouse gases will increase warming, which will lead to more melting permafrost and more carbon release. It’s a positive feedback loop with global impacts.

To better understand permafrost, we took a field trip to the US Army Corps of Engineers Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility. Excavation of a hillside during the gold rush allowed researchers to tunnel straight into a frozen hill in 1963. We oohed and aahed over frozen mammoth bones, a mat of ancient sedges still showing a hint of green, roots dangling from the ceiling, and lenses and wedges of ice. Permafrost—when it stays frozen—is so stable that the tunnel does not need additional supports. On the other hand, thawing permafrost is about as unstable as you can get.

Participants in the Climate Change and My Community workshop gather for a safety talk before entering the US Army Corps of Engineers Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility. Photo by Emily Stone.

Excavation of a hillside during the gold rush later allowed the US Army Corps of Engineers to tunnel straight into a frozen hill in 1963. Important science has been done in the Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility. Photo by Emily Stone. 

For some in the class, permafrost is more than a field trip. It has a direct impact on their lives. Ken Stenek has been the high school science teacher in the town of Shishmaref for 19 years. This town of about 700 people is located in northwestern Alaska on a barrier island that’s only one-quarter of a mile wide in places. Tilting utility poles are a visible sign of unstable ground due to thawing permafrost in Shishmaref. That’s just the beginning, though. The effects of climate change are so dramatic here that this little town has its own Wikipedia page where the main topic is global warming.  

Thawing permafrost in combination with declining sea ice means that their roads are at risk, their coastline is falling into the Chukchi Sea, and the airport landing strip—their main connection to the world—is at risk of becoming inaccessible. Despite the intense storm damage this little town has sustained, they’ve been unable to get FEMA money because of a lack of data. Ken is working to change that.

A few years ago, Ken worked with Dr. Kenji Yoshikawa, a professor from UAF, to install a frost tube. This ingenious device consists of a PVC pipe sunk several meters into the ground and strung with a clear plastic tube filled with colored water. To monitor the depth to permafrost, you can simply pull up the tube and measure where water meets ice. One student raised their hand to ask Kenji, “Is permafrost thawing even in undisturbed areas?” He replied, “It is becoming THE disturbance in some areas.”

Dr. Kenji Yoshikawa demonstrates how to record the depth to frozen soil using a frost tube he installed on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. Photo by Emily Stone.

Many places seem to be near a tipping point, where they are just barely staying frozen. These frost tubes are useful monitoring tools. NASA agrees. Several years ago, they worked with Kenji to add frost tubes to their GLOBE protocols. The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program is an international (118 countries!) science and education effort that provides students and the public worldwide with the opportunity to participate in data collection and the scientific process. Teachers gain access to tools, supplies, sampling protocols, lesson plans and support. Kids participate in meaningful, hands-on science, and NASA uses the data to ground-truth its satellites. Learning about the various GLOBE protocols was a major part of the workshop. As the week progressed, teachers were making plans for their students to study the timing of green-up and berry ripening, snow depth, rainfall, air temperature, soil moisture, cloud cover, and more.

Teachers and youth leaders from rural and indigenous communities use an infrared thermometer to take the temperature of a soil sample. Photo by Emily Stone.

Near the end of the week we took a few minutes at the beginning of class to revisit our concept map. Students integrated layers of new learning, and the web of connections grew even messier. “There is an immense amount of knowledge in this room,” one of the facilitators declared. Very soon there will be an immense amount of knowledge—as well as hope and action—outside of this room, too. After all, “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”

Emily is in Alaska for the summer! Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog:

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Wildflowers in Denali

Frost sparkled on the picnic tables at the Alaska Geographic Field Camp in Denali National Park and the thermometer still read 30 degrees Fahrenheit even though the sun had risen four hours earlier at about 3:00 a.m. In pairs and trios, ten women bundled in puffy coats and winter hats emerged from tent cabins tucked into the white spruces and converged on a small yurt where Susan, our Alaska Geographic naturalist, had just brought out the coffee.
Alaska Geographic runs several types of educational programs in Denali National Park. Susan—a recovering microbiologist—was our host for this course. 
Over hot cereal topped with pecans, cranberries, and yogurt, we discussed our plan for the day. The cold snap had fueled doubt among us students that we would find many wildflowers blooming in alpine areas. Carl Roland—botanist for Denali National Park—just smiled knowingly. Spotting a small, white flower with a bluish cast to the undersides of its six, cream-colored petals gave me hope, though. Carl identified it as windflower—Anemone parviflora—and we put the first species on our list for the Wildflowers of Denali field course.

By the time we arrived at the place where Tattler Creek intersected Park Road, abundant sunshine had raised the temperature considerably. Here, Carl pointed out a yellow anemone—Anemone richardsonii—hiding under the willow shrubs. Then we crashed uphill through thickets of thigh-high dwarf birch with dime-sized leaves, stopping often to look at new plants.

This species of yellow anemone grows on both sides of the Bering Strait from Russia, through Alaska and Canada and into Greenland! 

It was a relief to climb out of the brushy ravine and emerge onto the open tundra with low growing mats of vegetation. Turning to look around at the snowcapped peaks of the Alaska Range, I reflected on how far I’d come since leaving Wisconsin.

Glancing down, though, I spotted the familiar ovate leaves and bell-shaped flowers of a blueberry bush. With a blueish cast and more rounded shape, these leaves did not belong to the common Wisconsin species of lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), but its cousin, bog blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum). Still familiar to me, I’d come to know this plant while canoeing in northern Minnesota and wetland monitoring in Maine. Someday I’ll travel to Iceland, Scotland, Scandinavia, the Alps, Russia, and Japan to visit my little friend in all of those places.

This pattern is known as circumpolar distribution. Bog rosemary, bearberry, cottongrass, twinflower, and stiff clubmoss are some other of my favorite Northern Wisconsin bog species who share a similar global range. Their adaptations to severe cold, short growing seasons, and other challenges help them thrive both at high latitudes (circling the North Pole) and high altitudes further south. If you tilt a globe and look at it with the North Pole in the center, you also see that there’s a lot of land up there. Plants don’t recognize international boundaries.

This species of blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) is rarely found in northern Wisconsin, but it is actually widespread around the top of the globe—a pattern known as circumpolar distribution. Map from
Beyond the blueberries, a scattering of creamy flowers with bright yellow centers nestled into a mat of hearty, dark green leaves. These rose-relatives are called mountain avens. Immediately I thought about my friend Caitlin who did her graduate research on flowering phenology across the continent in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Mountain avens are her favorite flower.

This species, Dryas integrifolia (as well as the two anemones we saw earlier), is considered “amphiberingian,” which means that its distribution spans the Bering Strait in North America and northern Eurasia, but doesn’t extend into Greenland or Europe. The Bering Strait was a land bridge that connected Alaska to Russia when sea levels fell during times when more of Earth’s water was locked up in glacial ice. Plants, animals, and even people may have used this temporary travel route. Because it was ice-free and kept relatively warm by the ocean, it was also a refuge where plants could escape the grind of glaciers.
Mountain avens is a tough but beautiful flower of the tundra and alpine areas. While hiking in Denali we often walked over dense carpets of its leaves punctuated by its blossoms dancing in the breeze. 
Sunshine warmed us on the tundra, and we spent hours on our knees and bellies identifying carpets of alpine flowers. I needn’t have worried that we find enough to look at—these plants know how to make the most of a short summer.

As we crashed back through the brushy ravine of Tattler Creek, Carl pointed out ruffled leaves and fuzzy buds that would soon bloom into a bear flower—Boykinia richardsonii. This showy stalk of white flowers is a remnant of Alaska’s Tertiary Period forests. It has been growing here for more than 2.58 million years—since mammals became dominant and the continents moved into their current locations.

In Denali, there are 233 plant species—29 percent—who are considered circumpolar. Throughout the park, sparsely vegetated alpine areas support higher plant diversity than lower, warmer places with higher productivity. Doesn’t that seem backwards? Shouldn’t the higher, colder, more extreme environments support fewer plants?

The key here is that during the past 300,000 years, treeless, steppe-and-tundra-like landscapes have been a constant. Other habitats—and their plants—disappeared. The plants that stuck around at the edge of the glaciers were pre-adapted to the conditions in the current alpine zone. They may not have always existed right here on the slopes above Tattler Creek, but their journey to get here would have been a whole lot shorter than mine.

Emily is in Alaska for the summer! Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog:

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Natural Connections From Juneau

An eagle was soaring over the ocean as I pulled into the parking area at Eagle Beach north of Juneau, Alaska. After grabbing my camera and notebook I hurried over to the white-haired man dressed in a naturalist’s uniform of fleece jacket, hiking pants, and a big backpack with tripod hanging off the side. As I reached my hand out to introduce myself, I noticed that his beige baseball cap had a hummingbird on the front.

The mouth of the Eagle River snakes through gravel and out into the Lynn Canal north of Juneau, AK. Frosted peaks in the Chilkat Mountains tower above the scene—a collage of natural connections. Photo by Emily Stone.
Bob Armstrong has written more than 27 books about the nature of Alaska. He left his studies at the University of Washington early because the brand-new Alaska Department of Fish and Game was hiring biologists. After 20 years he retired so that he could follow his own research interests.

“Do you mind if we kinda go slow along the edge here and look for crab spiders?” Bob asked as we made our way down the strawberry-blossom-lined trail. Crab spiders are one of the species that caught Bob’s interest after he retired. In one of his many investigations using his two GoPro cameras, he recorded their activities. I was happy to help him look, since I’ve been fascinated by these beautiful critters, too. Crab spiders are smooth, not hairy, and they can change slowly between yellow and white in order to camouflage themselves on their floral perch. They don’t need to build a web, because they just nab insects attracted to the flower.

Sometimes crab spiders capture bees or other pollinators—I witnessed that earlier this spring—which can be detrimental to the flower’s chance at getting cross-pollinated. On the other hand, if a flower comes under attack by a “florivore,” (an insect that eats flowers), it can pump out extra volatile chemicals—this spider’s version of the Batman Signal—and a spider may come to the rescue.

Passing by the gnarled trunk of a small alder, Bob stopped to look at it thoughtfully. After a minute I asked what he was looking for. “These are red-breasted sapsucker sap wells,” said Bob. “They are the first story in my Connections book.” Just like yellow-bellied sapsuckers in the Midwest, these colorful birds drill shallow holes into tree bark and either lap up the sap or eat the insects that are attracted to the sugar.

“The wells they drill are thought to be a critical early-season food source (both sap and small insects) for migratory hummingbirds, which may even time their arrival with that of sapsuckers,” wrote Bob in Natural Connections in Alaska.

This beautiful book, co-authored with Mary F. Willson and available as a PDF on his website:, is the reason I’d contacted Bob. I’d been tipped off that he’d written a book with almost the same title as mine, and he’d been gracious enough to say ‘yes’ when I asked if he’d go for a walk with me to talk about the natural connections of Alaska. I became even more excited to meet him once I talked with the naturalist guide Tim Hemme in Ketchikan, and Tim mentioned Bob’s books, too.

The sapsucker wells were no longer active, so we meandered out onto the gravely floodplain of a glacially fed river. The rich-brown, bell-shaped flowers of chocolate lily nodded above patches of green. Tim had given me their name, and from their color I’d deduced that their pollinators are flies or beetles. Bob pointed out bright yellow pollen dusted on the insides of the petals, and mentioned that blow flies crawl in—attracted by the scent of rotting meat to match the maroon color—and pick up those grains on the backs of their heads.

Chocolate lilies look beautiful, but smell like rotting meat. The combination
of their color and scent attracts flies as pollinators. Photo by Emily Stone.
Being near the river got Bob talking about fish, and about all the observations he’s made with waterproof GoPro cameras. He’s used a dive weight to secure one into the rocks a low tide, then allowed the camera to do its magic while the tide came in. Later, when the tide was out again, Bob collected the camera. Among other things, he captured underwater images of seals playing, as well as sleeping on their sides, eyes closed.

“Do you want to see beach marmots?” Of course I did. We looked for crab spiders as we walked. Instead, I spotted an iridescent blue-green fly on a strawberry flower. Bright yellow pollen bedecked a patch of hairs behind its head. “That’s the blow fly with chocolate lily pollen,” confirmed Bob. I was struck by its beauty.

This iridescent blow fly sports pollen from a chocolate lily on its furry head, even while foraging on a wild strawberry blossom. Flies and beetles are more common pollinators than bees in chilly Alaska. Photo by Emily Stone.
The water-washed beach graded into a thick field of grass and flowers, and those butted up against the rocks of the highway bank. We sat quietly in the sun-warmed grasses and watched the rocks for movement. Before too long, the white snout, brown face, and bleach-blonde fur of a hoary marmot poked out of a crevice, and another one scurried below. We could have watched them for hours. With the endless daylight of the north, it was hard to tell that the hour was getting late, but our watches indicated that more than a couple hours had passed.

Hoary marmots live both in alpine areas and along the beaches of Alaska. Photo by Emily Stone.
Back at the parking lot, I thanked Bob for the walk and handed him a copy of my book. He said he enjoyed the walk too, and added “I can think of only one other person on Earth who can stroll that slowly and look at things.” It was, indeed, a natural connection.

Alaskan naturalist and author Bob Armstrong has an incredible wealth of knowledge developed from years of good, old-fashioned observation. Photo by Emily Stone. 

Emily is in Alaska for the summer! Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog:

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.

Friday, June 22, 2018

A continuation of Ketchikan...(bonus post)

Despite only carrying my camera and a rain jacket, the Lunch Creek Trail was calling my name. I decided to forgo a backpack full of water and snacks and just hike.

The density of life was stunning. Every tree was covered in moss, covered in the climbing rhizomes of bunchberry, covered in moss, lichen, blueberry, fungi, etc. Every stump had either a little grown of blueberry leaves glowing in the peeking sunlight, or a full-on tree with gnarled roots stilting it up and anchoring it down.

The hike paralleled a river with numerous small waterfalls (the biggest falls were down by the beach.) 

The sound of water rushing and water dripping made me need to pee, of course. As I squatted off to the side of the trail I was tempted—for just a second—to use the large thimbleberry-like leaves for toilet paper. In the Boundary Waters, thimbleberry leaves are prime wilderness toilet paper. Luckily I remember in time that these plants, although having similarly shaped a leaves, are not thimbleberry. Devil’s club isn’t even related to thimbleberry, though, it’s a closer cousin of wild sarsasparilla. And, it bears spiky thorns on its stems and even the ribs of its leaves. Ouch!

I walked through huge patches of western skunk cabbage. Their crazy spathe and spadix flowers were covered with little Ocellate Rove Beetles mating, pollinating, and feeding. I also spotted two different white banana slugs—a rare color most often seen around Ketchikan (according to Bob Armstrong).  Wikipedia: “The Pacific banana slug is the second-largest species of terrestrial slug in the world, growing up to 25 centimetres (9.8 in) long,[5] and weights of 115 grams (4.1 ounces).”

The best part of my hike was when I popped out in to an opening and discovered myself in the middle of a muskeg. So many old friends to greet! So many new friends to identify!

The bright pink flowers of bog laurel were first to catch my eye.

The inrolled leaves of Labrador tea were unmistakable, although smaller than at home.

The frilly flowers of deer cabbage (a new one for me) were covered with the same Ocellate Rove Beetles and also a bee-mimicking fly. I did not see any actual bees doing the pollination up here, but this pair of beetle and fly seemed to be everywhere. This flower is in the family Menyanthaceae, related to Bog Buckbean I’ve seen in Wisconsin. It also grows in Japan, as does bog buckbean, which I did not see here.

A beautiful sedge reminded me of wetland monitoring in Maine.

A stalk of white orchids caught my eye through the green.

White flowers clearly related to marsh marigold lined the boardwalk. Later identified it as: Caltha leptosepala, the white marsh marigold, twinflowered marsh marigold, or broadleaved marsh marigold.

A new species of starflower – later identified as the Arctic starflower (Trientalis europaea L. var. europaer) also caught my eye. It grows in Scotland and Northern England as well, and is the provincial flower of Värmland province in Sweden.

Many different species of blueberries and huckleberries were in bloom all along the trail!

And I even saw round-leaved sundew on a rotting log in the sphagnum!

I heard the lifeguard-whistle-like calls of varied thrushes all along my hike, but only saw this one. It had a beak full of insects for its babies! I also heard a barred owl, with mixed feelings.

I’ve seen many little leaves and flowers that I can only guess are related to Pyrolas (shinleaf) from back home.

The bunchberry I saw had bracts that were greener than ours, and flowers that were darker in the center. It might be Cornus suecica or a cross.

Wikipedia: “Where Cornus canadensis, a forest species, and Cornus suecica, a heath or bog species, grow near each other in their overlapping ranges in Alaska, Labrador, and Greenland, they can hybridize by cross-pollination, producing plants with intermediate characteristics.”

After my hike I headed back into town, met Tim for dinner to interview him, and then watched a lovely sunset over the ocean from right down the shore from my campsite. Ketchikan is beautiful!

Catching up to a Naturalist in Ketchikan (main article)

The Tongass Highway wound north out of the remote town of Ketchikan, Alaska. To my left, rocky beaches and protected coves showed themselves through a light mist. To my right, densely forested hills climbed out of sight into the fog. Just before the northern terminus of the Tongass Highway, I pulled into the small loop road of Settler’s Cove Campground.

First I took advantage of a break in the rain to set up my tent, and then I set out for a short wander down to the beach with my camera. The cove was a stunning mix of green marsh, gold seaweed, and angular rocks washed by a river flowing out of the forest. Layers of smoky hills faded into the distance. My wandering brought me back up to the park road, where a sign for waterfall viewing along a Lunch Falls Loop Trail caught my eye.

As I hiked through this temperate rainforest of huge trees and dripping moss, the faint odor of skunk perplexed me . . . until I realized that muddy spots along the trail were dominated by lush gardens of skunk cabbage. 

Faint voices wafting through the enormous trunks of Sitka spruce and western red cedars also puzzled me, until I came around a corner and spied an all-too-familiar sight: a group of hikers standing high and dry on the trail, while an energetic naturalist sank up to his rubber-booted ankles into a mud hole just beyond. Just a couple months ago I stepped off a trail into a snowdrift for a similar purpose.

The guy looked a little younger than me, and wore an Alaska-style uniform of a flannel shirt, rain pants, and waterproof boots. “I love talking about mud puddles,” he was saying as I approached. I’m not sure how his family of four clients felt about that statement, but I was intrigued. Noticing me, he motioned to the group to let me pass. “Or,” he added amicably, “you could tag along.” Not sure if he was serious, but too curious to be more polite, I replied, “I just might do that!”

Tim Hemme, as I later discovered was his name, guides E-bike and hiking trips for the Ketchikan Kayak Co. These small group tours are a nice alternative to bus tours for cruise ship visitors stopping in port. Tim is a self-taught naturalist, and started reading books like “The Nature of Southeast Alaska,” by Robert Armstrong (who I’ll tell you about next week) just for personal edification.

Although this Missouri native came to Ketchikan on a whim, without a job or a plan, Tim soon found work on a fishing boat in Sitka. That experience only lasted 24 hours. He flew in, the boat sank (it had a hole from being parked on a rock when the tide went out,) and he flew back to Ketchikan. Now he often tends the boat for commercial divers bringing in sea cucumbers (a delicacy in Asia) and geoducks (a species of clam) by the ton. When his friend opened the guide business, Tim agreed to help out.

Still standing in the puddle, Tim went on to explain that water-soaked soils, paired with the acidifying action of sphagnum mosses, create enormous patches of muskegs as you go inland from the coast. In these cold, acidic, oxygen-poor environments, the decomposition rate slows to almost nothing. In the Northwoods, of course, we call these bogs (or maybe poor fens if you want to get technical.)

On the other hand, the lush upland forest adjacent to his mud puddle (just the tip of a muskeg, he explained), exhibits an extraordinary rate of decomposition. The huge trunks of fallen trees are soon broken down into rich, brown sponges, and seedlings use them as nurse logs and nurse stumps to begin their tiny lives. Water-soaked lichens fall from the canopy and their decaying bodies return nitrogen to the soil. Muskeg vs temperate rain forest: these water-soaked neighbors have their differences.

As we climbed out of the small hollow, the twisted trunk of a giant tree caught someone’s eye. Tim explained that this was a western red cedar. The fibrous bark definitely reminded me of northern white cedars at home, and craning my neck I could see the cedar’s fans of lace-like needles silhouetted against the bright gray sky. The split-open trunk revealed the tree’s twisted grain. “Western red cedars are better than any other tree at withstanding high winds,” commented Tim. “Their spiraling grain allows them to load up the wind’s force like a screw, and then spring back. Load up; spring back. It prevents them from just falling over.”

We eventually popped out at the beach, and Tim stopped to stare thoughtfully across the ocean. “You have to know what you’re doing to take a boat through the passage,” he advised. “Irregular spires of shallow rocks mean that at high tide you’re fine, and at low tide you’re sunk.” Tim didn’t tell his clients the story about his first experience on a fishing boat, but clearly that was on his mind.

All too soon we reached the end of the Tongass Highway where the group’s E-bikes were parked. I thanked them for letting me tag along and turned back toward the woods. Skunk cabbage, cedars, bogs, and a naturalist: I was giddy from the combination of familiar friends and a spectacular new place.

Emily is in Alaska for the summer! Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog:

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.