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.