Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Beyond the Surface

When PFS’ Jason Neely, whose construction team is finishing maintenance and upgrade projects at Toolik Field Station, sent us the following pictures, we initially lost ourselves in their beauty.

Looking south at the Brooks Range from Toolik, the changing colors indicate the changing seasons. Photo by Jason Neely

Looking south at the Brooks Range from Toolik, the changing colors indicate the changing seasons.

Autumn colors sweep across the tundra near Galbraith Lake. Photo by Jason Neely

Autumn colors sweep across the tundra near Galbraith Lake.

This seasonal transition happens early in Alaska (Jason took these photos Aug. 23), and the stunning colors nearly convinced us to shut off our computers and book the first flight north.

Instead, we hit the Internet to learn a little more about tundra and permafrost. Tundra refers to areas where frozen soil inhibits tree growth, and the tny plants that thrive include moss, heath, and lichen. Beneath the tundra, a frozen layer of soil known as permafrost lies between 9 and 35 inches under the surface.

Scientists look to permafrost for evidence of increasing temperatures and melting, and some of the dynamics between permafrost and climate change have been documented. A comprehensive overview can be found at www.permafrostwatch.org, the site of the Geophysical Institute Permafrost Laboratory. Headed by University of Alaska at Fairbanks Professor of Geophysics Dr. Vladimir E. Romanovsky, the lab “deals with the scientific questions related to the circumpolar permafrost dynamics and feedbacks between permafrost and global change.”

Studies in progress can be found at the Web site’s project page.  Many of these receive funding from the National Science Foundation, and support from CH2M HILL Polar Services; we can therefore testify that Professor Romanovsky is one very busy scientist.

Kenji Yoshikawa, also from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, has a grant from NSF to establish and maintain long-term permafrost and active layer monitoring sites adjacent to schools in remote Alaskan communities. Professor Yoshikawa’s project has a strong outreach component, as he trains students and teachers in the communities he visits to download data and monitor the experiment.  During a long, long, long field season, Yoshikawa travels tirelessly by snowmachine, dogsled, small plane, train, boat, automobile (and super suit) all over the Arctic to bring his permafrost message to the world. He maintains a blog on the UAF permafrost Web site that is as lyrical as it is interesting. And his Tunnel Man videos (also available via the  UAF site)–well, just watch them. Not for nothing do they enjoy a cult following. 

 Elsewhere, Jerry Meehl of the US government’s National Center for Atmospheric Research at Boulder, Colorado, was quoted by the New Scientist on Sept. 2 telling attendants at the World Climate Conference in Geneva that unless humans curb their greenhouse gas emissions “there will be zero permafrost by 2100.”

According to the article, many speakers at the conference indicated melting permafrost will likely accelerate global warming through the release of large amounts of methane.