Thereâ€™s little debate among scientists that the climate is changing. But in order to measure the changes and predict the impacts scientists still need to gather lots of data on-the-ground, in remote locations. WNPRâ€™s Nancy Cohen recently visited a research site run by the University of Alaska where scientists work, and play hard.
Imagine being far-away, 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, so isolated thereâ€™s no place to spend your money. There are no trees, a big sky, only one road to speak of , wild sheep, bear, and at the Toolik Field Station plenty of company.
â€œThereâ€™s about 95 people or 94 people in camp right now. So the golden rule applies. Be nice to people so that theyâ€™ll be nice to you.â€
Camp Manager Chad Diesinger is giving his Toolik introduction shpiel to a couple of newcomers. Being friendly here is essential. In the short summer, the place hums with researchers working long days in close quarters on the edge of a mile long lake.
â€œThe sauna schedule is posted on the side of this cooler thatâ€™s right out the door here.â€
Thatâ€™s right. Thereâ€™s a sauna, phones, internet access, and diesel generators that power the labs and computers. By field camp standards this place is plush. But thereâ€™s at least one thing thatâ€™s rationed.
â€œUse as little as water as possible. Drink as much as you want, but two showers per week. Use the submarine style shower technique. So turn the water off while youâ€™re scrubbing up.â€
The water comes from the lake, But every drop of waste water has to be trucked 140 miles away to reduce the human footprint in this pristine landscape. Being sweaty and grimy become the norm. But scientists come here to get dirty...and sometimes...fishy.
â€œI see ya. I see yaâ€
Youâ€™ve heard of a horse whisperer? Well aquatic ecologist Cody Johnson is a kind of fish whisperer. In a rubber raft on a small lake, he and research assistant Melissa Sanders are gently untangling arctic grayling from a net.
â€œOh we got a big one. Oh come here you...â€
â€œThe purple and yellow cat eyes I think theyâ€™re the prettiest fish we catch.â€
Sanders and Johnson will tag and weigh each of these fish...and then pump their stomachs to get samples of what they eat. Theyâ€™re studying the role fish play in the ecosystem. The scientists carried this boat, all their equipment, and a big lunch about an hour through the tundra to get here. But Johnson whoâ€™s 32 and working on his PHD is having the time of his life.
â€œYouâ€™re just going nonstop for several months and I donâ€™t know it almost is like an endorphin thing. Itâ€™s stamina. You got to be able to work long physically demanding days in the field and come back and still work late at night with the samples and do that 6 days a week. And what do we do on Sunday? We go for long strenuous hikes in the Brooks Range and come back and do it all again on Monday.â€
Some days in the field it rains. Or snows. And there are bugs.
â€œI just want to make a note here thereâ€™s a lot of mosquitoes. Like a lot.â€
Well, not by Toolik standards.
â€œThis isnâ€™t really that bad. On really really bad years they are actually maddening.â€
Johnson isnâ€™t the first scientist to put up with the hardships here. Heâ€™s part of a kind of Toolik lineage. He and his advisor from Utah State both studied with John Oâ€™Brien. Oâ€™Brien is a University of North Carolina biology professor and --- one of the very first researchers to come to Toolik back in 1975. At first Oâ€™Brien and his colleagues camped out. Then they got a few trailers.
â€œIt was much harder. We had no phones... Often times we would not get food on time. Never got mail on time. We had no contact with home. In the early days it was a kind of bunker mentality that kind of brought us all together.â€
Overtime the researchers have learned a lot about how Arctic ecosystems function. Now theyâ€™re looking at the impact of a warmer climate. Oâ€™Brien, who at 65, still works in the field here remembers the early days as a time of discovery.
â€˜It was newer and fresher. Every pond might hold some new creature, but now I can walk up to a pond and almost predict without sampling the pond whatâ€™s going to be there. So in that sense it was more of an intellectual adventure, personal adventure. It was wilder, more remote. Itâ€™s more of a job than an adventure now. Back then it was more of an adventure than a job.â€
But itâ€™s still a job far from home. Those who run the Toolik camp understand what the scientists need to do their work.
â€œItâ€™s just a chocolate torte. It has cinnamon thrown in, a little bit of cayenne.â€
Toolik cook Rob Taylor says good food is good for morale. Heâ€™s squeezing butter cream frosting on top of Mexican brownies.
â€œI was going to do a brown sugar frosting on these, which Iâ€™ve never done before and I was kind of psyched, but whipping cream is on the truck that hasnâ€™t arrived yet so change of plans.â€
Making due with what youâ€™ve got not only inspires the food, but the recreation.
â€œIs that fun?â€
â€œItâ€™s very therapeutic.â€
21 year old Ashley Fenn from Colorado State University is taking a break from analyzing her field data. Sheâ€™s slapping the air with a battery operated bug zapper that looks like a tennis racket. Fenn says it gives her a sense of revenge.
â€œAfter a whole day of getting bitten and trying not to get bitten and knowing you can do something about it.â€
Mosquito zapping is one kind of fun. And there are more conventional kinds.
About 30 people are crammed into a tent. Some sing along. Some are sipping beer. A stream ecologist plays the violin. A guy from the kitchen strums the guitar. And thatâ€™s Cody Johnson, fish whisperer on the banjo.
Long time researcher John Oâ€™Brien says it takes a certain kind of person to be here.
â€œThe one thing I always tell my students it can get hard after a long summer here. Here you are in this wilderness and yet if you really think about it youâ€™ve never had less privacy in your life.â€
The remoteness seems to bring people together. But most researchers are heading home soon. The first snow has fallen, the tundra plants are taking on an autumn hue.The camp will remain open though, through the dark season for those who seek a lonelier kind of research.
WNPRâ€™s Nancy Cohen recently returned from a science writers fellowship at Toolik, sponsored by the Marine Biological Lab and funded by the National Science Foundation. The NSF also funds some of the research there.