Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Postcard from the Stinking Hills

Before he was a colleague, PFS science project manager Cody Johnson was a customer, conducting ecological research around Alaska’s Toolik Field Station. He recently took time off from managing science support to get back to doing science field work. Lucky for us, he recorded his experience in words and pictures.

Cody Johnson, filthy yet happy, after several days of sampling with Yuri Shur. All photos: Cody Johnson

Just returned from a fantastic field campaign with Yuri Shur. The PIs on this project are over the moon with how well things went in the field. There were lots of early challenges figuring out how to accomplish the sampling, but on the last day Yuri said he was going to hang a banner from my tent that said “Mission Accomplished.”

On Tuesday, May 8th, my wife Amy [Breen, a post-doc Fellow at the University of Alaska] and I drove from Fairbanks to Toolik with a team of permafrost researchers. The team consisted of Yuri Shur and Misha Kanevskiy (co-PIs from University of Alaska Fairbanks) [on this NSF grant], Daniel Fortier (a young rising star professor at the University of Montreal and a former post-doc of Shur’s), Kevin Bjella (an engineer working with CRREL in Fairbanks), and Jens Straus (a Ph.D. student from the Alfred Wegner Institute in Plons, Germany). After a long drive to Toolik, we unpacked the ~2500 lbs of field gear and sorted it into three loads for the shuttles to our field site located approximately 70 miles northwest of Toolik Field Station.

The following day we met our charter, a DeHavilland Beaver operated by Coyote Air, at the Galbraith Lake airstrip ~10 miles south of Toolik. Coyote Air is a small, two-person operation based in Coldfoot Alaska run by Dirk Nickisch (one of the best bush pilots I have ever had the privilege of flying with) and his wife Danielle Tirrell. Their Beaver was perfect for this group. It had retractable skis capable of wheel landing at the Galbraith airstrip and ski landing on the snow at our field site.

Unloading the Beaver at the field site.

Three shuttles and many hours later we had our field camp set up. Larry [Gullingsrud] and Matt Irinaga thought of everything with regards to the field camp, and the gear performed flawlessly. At about 7 pm we had camp set up, scarfed down some quick dinner, and anxiously went to check out the 100 ft. cliff that we would be sampling for the next five days. It was here that we encountered our first challenge.

With a southwest aspect the cliff was getting a lot of solar gain during the day. Even though air temperatures were below freezing, the dark cliff face was thawing rapidly during the day and massive blocks of soil and ice were falling from the cliff. We realized it was going to be far too dangerous to approach the cliff face during the heat of the day, and decided to put ourselves on third-shift, sleeping during the day and waking up ~1:00 am to start work (depending on whether it was sunny or overcast we could work until between 10:30 and noon before it became too dangerous).

Our sleeping tents with a lone pingo, the mound in the background.

We gathered for meals and planning in the community tent (left). We could keep equipment out of the weather in the gear tent (right).

Standing at the bottom of the cliff face was nothing short of awe-inspiring: 100 ft. columns of Pleistocene-aged permafrost bracketed on either side by equally massive ice wedges. According to Shur this is the largest known Yedoma exposure in the world, and Amy and I would spend the next several days sampling profiles down the face. However, the next step was to build some solid anchors. Cue the engineer.

Bjella lead the effort to use a SIPRE Auger to drill ~2 ft. cores in the frozen ground. Next we put 4 ft. pieces of rebar in each hole, filled the hole with a slurry of sand and water, and let the slurry freeze overnight to make solid anchor points.

Standing at the bottom of the cliff face was nothing short of awe-inspiring: 100 ft. columns of Pleistocene-aged permafrost bracketed on either side by equally massive ice wedges. According to Shur this is the largest known Yedoma exposure in the world, and Amy and I would spend the next several days sampling profiles down the face. However, the next step was to build some solid anchors. Cue the engineer.

Bjella led the effort to use a SIPRE Auger to drill ~2 ft. cores in the frozen ground. Next we put 4 ft. pieces of rebar in each hole, filled the hole with a slurry of sand and water, and let the slurry freeze overnight to make solid anchor points.

D) The 'Stinking Hills' a 100 ft. exposure of yedoma, E) Bjella and Kanevskiy using the SIPRE Auger to drill into the permafrost, F) Rebar securely frozen into the ground with a standard three-point climbing anchor.

With the anchor system in place and an ‘in theory’ sampling plan it was Game On!

The goal was to collect two profiles, one down the yedoma face and another down the ice-wedge adjacent to it.

For the yedoma sampling I rappelled down the face to different heights. Once I reached a good spot to sample I would quickly hammer two pitons into the frozen wall. The pitons were used to secure me to the wall while I took samples, but I was always on-belay from Amy below. Once I was secured to the wall a tool bucket on a pulley system (containing sample bags, a drill with a hole saw, a hammer and chisel, and a pickaxe) was brought up to me.

I had to sample the original surface (not soil that had sloughed off from above). To this end I would use the pickaxe to chop away at the frozen wall until I got down to the original surface (sometimes ~1ft into the wall). Once the original surface was exposed I would use the hole saw to drill three separate cores ~3″ into the wall. I would then use the hammer and chisel to dislodge the core, drop the core into a sample bag, label the bag with a Sharpie, drop the sample into the bucket and move down to the next level. I spent two days sampling with around five hours each day hanging in my harness.

G) Me sampling the yedoma face, H) Self photo while hanging on the cliff, I) Looking 100 ft. down the cliff.

Amy had a similar protocol for the ice-wedge sampling. However, being on ice she was able to use more traditional ice-climbing instruments. Amy would rappel to a good sampling height, then use two ice-screws to secure herself to the wall. As with me, once she was secure, we would raise a tool bucket up to her. Rather than using a hole saw, Amy was able to sample the ice wedge by drilling ice screws into the face and collecting the ice core made by the screw.

J) Amy sampling at the top of the ice-wedge, K) Close up of Amy sampling the ice-wedge.

After three days of sampling the cliff we were exhausted, filthy, completely screwed up with regards to a sleep schedule, but otherwise successful! The attitude in the camp could only be described as jubilant. However one of our biggest challenges still was ahead of us.

As we prepared for our camp take-out, the winds shifted from the north and low clouds and snow followed shortly. To have enough room for the aircraft to take off into the wind we had to move our entire pile of gear, all 2500 lbs of it, almost half a mile across the snow (remember that pingo in the third picture? Past that). To add insult to injury the snow had also warmed and become incredibly sticky over the days that we had been camped. This was problematic because when Dirk landed his aircraft the skis would almost instantly freeze into the wet snow. Dirk gave us the low-down on how we would have to rock the aircraft free in order to take off. For the first shuttle (Amy, Kevin, Jens, Daniel, and little gear weight) and the second shuttle (Yuri and a lot of gear weight), Misha and I were instructed to rock the aircraft by pushing on the strut while Dirk pushed it to full throttle. I can now add push-starting a plane to my resume.

Unfortunately, after two shuttles of people and gear our weather window closed, and Misha and I were left out for one more night. We knew this was a possibility and we were well prepared for another night in the field. The next morning the clouds had lifted, and Dirk had Misha and I back to Toolik with the remainder of the field gear by lunch time.

This was truly a trip of a lifetime. For more info on the Stinking Hills check out the blog in Nature http://blogs.nature.com/frontier_scientists/permafrost/ —Cody Johnson

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