Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Barrow Bound

A team studying drained thaw lake basins on Alaska’s Arctic coastal plain through the unusual bifocal lens of science and philosophy heads to Barrow this week for its last field effort under the current NSF grant.

Principal Investigator Wendy Eisner (U Cincinnati) is visiting Barrow in part to present research results to the community that has supported her work for the last three years (and prior to that, even). Community elders have worked closely with Eisner, a geographer, and U Cincinnati colleague Ken Hinkel, a geoscientist, and Chris Cuomo, Uof Georgia philosophy professor and Institute for Women’s Studies director, to transfer their historic and cultural knowledge of thaw lakes to the researchers. With information from the Iñupiat elders who have contributed to the study, the researchers have built a Global Information Systems data base that locates the thaw lake basins and collects information on their formation, ecology, and drainage. The research team also uses other information, like soil cores, satellite images, and vegetation samples, to further understand landscape processes in this lake-decorated land.

A recently drained thaw lake basin at center. When a lake drains, vegetation begins to grow, so scientists can tell when a lake drained by the amount and kind of plants occupying the basin. This basin, photographed several years ago, would look very different this season.  Photo: Wendy Eisner

A recently drained thaw lake basin at center. When a lake drains, vegetation begins to grow, so scientists can date the drainage event by the amount and kind of plants occupying the basin. This basin, photographed several years ago, would look very different this season. Photo: Wendy Eisner

Thaw lakes form when meltwater from snow is trapped on the surface by underlying permafrost. When the ice in the permafrost thaws, the barrier it creates disappears, allowing the water to drain from the basins. As more permafrost melts under a warming climate regime, more thaw lakes may drain, robbing the Iñupiat of traditional fishing grounds. The research undertaken by Eisner, Hinkel and Cuomo will aid predictions of how the landscape may continue to change–information that may help the Iñupiat adapt to new challenges. In addition, the traditional knowledge component of the research helps with Iñupiat cultural preservation efforts.