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Above The Arctic Circle
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From Toolik Lake you can see the Brooks Range: Photo by Breck Bowden From Toolik Lake you can see the Brooks Range: Photo by Breck Bowden After years of debate politicians are accepting the idea that the earth is warming. Governor Rell recently signed landmark global warming legislation. And both Presidential candidates are backing federal policies that would cap carbon emissions. But the science behind climate change takes years to gather and analyze, often in remote locations. Such as the Arctic, where climate change is happening more rapidly than just about any other place in the world. WNPR’s Nancy Cohen is heading to a research site in the Arctic, known as Toolik Lake, in Alaska.

Toolik Lake is more than 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. But this time of year it’s surrounded by rolling green tundra and embraced by a stretch of snow covered mountains. John Hobbie, a microbial ecologist who discovered and established the research site in 1975, spent the previous 4 years at a more bleak spot on the Arctic Ocean: called Point Barrow. That’s the northern-most point in the United States.

“It was just a gravel spit. It was a great place to work because there was nothing else to do there so when people wanted to go away they just walked out in the tundra which is absolutely flat . It was just a rather desolate place”

John Hobbie removes cellulose disks from the tundra. Disks were incubated in the soil for seven weeks to collect fungi: Photo by Jerry loomerJohn Hobbie removes cellulose disks from the tundra. Disks were incubated in the soil for seven weeks to collect fungi: Photo by Jerry loomerAfter completing his research there Hobbie headed inland south of Prudhoe Bay on a rough gravel road that had just been built to construct the Alaska Pipeline. He was looking for a new research site with a lake deep enough to support fish.

“After two days we came to this one lake and it was thawing a little bit that means there was a moat of water all around the lake. I took a little rubber raft and went out to the middle of the lake, dragging this raft behind me because I didn’t know how strong the ice was going to be. And when I went to dig down through the ice I found about 25 meters of water. So we said this should be the place.”

Thirty-three years later that place, called Toolik Lake, is the site of a Long Term Ecological Research project directed by the Marine Biological Laboratory and funded by the National Science Foundation. John Hobbie is the principal investigator there. In the early days scientists cooked their own food or ate military rations. But today things are different. There’s a cook staff, several trailers for laboratories, tents to sleep in. And even a sauna. But for those of us from the lower 48 it still sounds pretty rustic.

“You make it sound very cushy. ‘We have dry rooms. We have labs.’ But as I understand it you can’t take a shower every day. Do you ever feel like you’re denying yourself when you go up there?”

“Well, I’ve been going to the Arctic since 1955 so this is just about the plushest we’ve ever had it… Not only do we have wonderful food and heat, but we have power. And for scientists this is great. “

Graduate students Heidi Rantala and Stephanie Parker collect benthic samples from the Upper Kuparuk: Photo by Jonathan BensteadGraduate students Heidi Rantala and Stephanie Parker collect benthic samples from the Upper Kuparuk: Photo by Jonathan BensteadScientists, like Hobbie, are studying how natural ecosystems at the site are responding to global warming. Such as the tundra and permafrost.

“When you look at the tundra it’s all green during the summer. And the matt of vegetation and there’s small plants. And down beneath that it never thaws. You get down to 18 inches and it’s permanently frozen. It never thaws. It goes down 100 meters or more of this very cold ground.”

But the permafrost isn’t permanent anymore. Hobbie says more and more of it is thawing every year. Scientists at Toolik have found that as the permafrost thaws the carbon that’s stored in the sediments is released. This could further increase global warming.

But last July there was a new indication of climate change. Just north of Toolik lightning sparked a fire in the tundra, presenting a new opportunity for research.

“It’s a huge event . It probably results from the fact that last summer, 2007, was the warmest and driest year since we’ve been keeping records at Toolik Lake.”

Plant ecologist Gaius Shaver, is a long time researcher at Toolik.

Gaius Shaver measures soil moisture at the Sag River, site of a tundra burn in 2004:  Photo by Breck BowdenGaius Shaver measures soil moisture at the Sag River, site of a tundra burn in 2004: Photo by Breck Bowden
“It burned for about a month and almost went out. And then in September it rejuvenated itself and spread very rapidly… burned over 200 square miles in about 3 days. It burned a total of over almost three months of 400 square miles which is an area about the size of Cape Cod.”

Just as climatologists predict with global warming there’ll be more hurricanes in the Atlantic, they also say there will be more fires, like this one, in places like the Arctic. Shaver says it’s the largest fire ever recorded on the north slope of Alaska.

For scientists like Shaver it presents an opportunity to look at the effects of fire on vegetation and permafrost, part of which is expected to thaw on the fire site.

“One of the interesting questions is how far will this go, how far will the melting go? One of the things that might counter this increase is melting of permafrost is much more rapid growth of plants on these burned sites… So we’re trying to understand how fast the vegetation can re-grow and reestablish this insulation between the atmosphere and the permafrost that will ultimately re-establish a new equilibrium.”

Shaver says a fire like this will not only have an effect on ecosystems, but on people. How do you build a house on frozen land that’s melting? And if the lichen that the caribou depend on has been burned what happens to the native people who depend on caribou for their food supply?

WNPR's Nancy Cohen packed lots of wool socks and insect repellant for her trip to the Arctic: Photo by Nancy CohenWNPR's Nancy Cohen packed lots of wool socks and insect repellant for her trip to the Arctic: Photo by Nancy Cohen
Shaver says scientists will put a huge effort this summer into gathering baseline data on the impact of the fire on ecosystems. They’ll have to fly into the fire site from their comfortable base at Toolik Lake.

“From the camp on the shore of the lake we can look south at the mountains, the Brooks Range, with snow and small glaciers at the tops of the mountains. The glaciers are shrinking, but it’s a wonderful place to work and to always be able to look south at the mountains and be inspired.”

This time of year the sun rarely sets at the Toolik Field Station and scientists are working long days, asking questions about changes in the climate. And with time and a lot of data, they’re able to measure the changes.

WNPR’s Nancy Cohen's visit to the Arctic is part of a science writer’s fellowship sponsored by the Marine Biological Laboratory.