Tag Archives: Northeast Science Station

Polaris Project: Why we do this

Cotton grass

Team Polaris Project walks across a meadow of cotton grass near the Kolyma River. Photo: Mark Paricio

Doing research in the Siberian Arctic is difficult. Just getting there is a grueling 5-day, sixteen-time zone journey around 3/4 of the earth for any American. But for the 33 American and Russian students and faculty of the NSF-funded Polaris Project, the over-the-top travel schedule just bookends a month of intensive scientific discovery in Cherskiy each summer. Since 2008, Max Holmes (Woods Hole Research Center) has led Polaris. Below he outlines some of the challenges and rewards of project involvement in a July 23 Polaris Project journal post.

“I’m sitting on the Barge, drinking a cup of coffee, watching snow whip across the Panteleikha River. More than 24 hours of rain and snow have turned the dirt runway in Cherskiy to mud, threatening to delay our trip home (which is supposed to begin later today as we fly from Cherskiy to Yakutsk). A delayed flight out of Cherskiy would have many ripple effects (lots of rebooking of flights, hotels, buses, etc; lots of disappointment as our reunions with family and friends are postponed; and lots of additional expenses, potentially reaching $50,000…).

Moscow bus

Catching some much-needed zzzzs on a Moscow bus. Photo: Max Holmes

There are many easier things to do in life than to lead a group of 33 people to the Siberian Arctic, so why do I do this?

I’ve been asking myself that question this morning, intertwined with thoughts about missing my 6 year old son and 3 year old daughter, and facing the prospect of missing my wife’s 40th birthday on July 27.

Fortunately, there is an easy answer: This is the most important thing I can imagine doing. The Arctic is at the epicenter of global climate change, and how the Arctic responds to warming will have a huge influence on Earth’s climate system (and therefore human society) over the coming years and decades. The permafrost of the Arctic contains vast quantities of ancient organic matter, and nowhere is it more concentrated or more vulnerable than in the region I’m looking at now through the window of the Barge. Though our group of 33 is huge in some senses (such as when thinking about rebooking flights across 16 time zones…), it is tiny when compared to the magnitude of challenges facing scientists – and society – as we grapple with trying to understand the Arctic. So, I’ll keep hoping that our flight departs as scheduled this afternoon, but if not, I – and the larger group – will rally and use our extra time here to pry a few more secrets from this remarkable, challenging, critical, and beautiful environment.”

Undergraduate students from any college or university are eligible to apply to the Polaris Project. Application materials are usually due in January and participants head to Siberia around the beginning of July for a month of field work. Students develop their own field research experiments under the guidance of Principal Investigators and Postdoctoral Fellows. Focusing on one component of the Arctic System – for instance boreal forests, permafrost, wetlands, lakes, streams, rivers, uplands, invertebrate animals, or satellite observations—students dive into hands-on studies while exploring connections between all components.

Ludda Ludwig (St. Olaf College) prepares her soil samples for analysis.By studying enzyme activity in the soil, Ludda hopes to understand the rate at which soil microbes respond to tundra wildfires. Photo: Mark Paricio

Based out of the Northeast Science Station, built and operated by Russian scientist Sergei Zimov, participants live aboard a barge on the Kolyma River during their tenure. The barge also becomes a mobile lab (with the help of a tug boat) when the group explores other areas along the river. When not in the field, students work in one of the station’s labs (a converted television receiving station) and relax in their unique dorm.

Dr. Mike Loranty (Colgate College) and Logan Berner reach the Kolyma River shore across a path of logs from the barge (Home Sweet Home). Photo: Mark Paricio

Prior to arriving in Cherskiy, this season’s students ramped up with reading and participated in several webinars that fostered background learning and discussion. While awaiting their flight to Yakutsk in a Moscow hotel, the group engaged in “speed-dating science” wherein students talked with one faculty member about their research ideas and then “switch!” By the time students arrived in Siberia they were ready to hit the ground running first by shoring up field plans in small teams of 2-4 students and then setting up and calibrating new lab equipment.

After-dinner meeting
Max Holmes briefs the group on the day’s upcoming activities after breakfast.  Photo: Mark Paricio

Student Sam Berman (Clark University) shared his first impressions in a July 1 journal post.

“Now it feels like Siberia. With our arrival in Cherskiy, we see things start to unfold and project ideas becoming planned activities. The realization of where you are in the world takes a while to set in. The landscape goes on forever and the mental preparation does not do the landscape justice. Projects continue to come along, some members are setting up in the aquatic and terrestrial labs and running equipment, while others are gathering fuel for doing controlled burn experiments. Timelines are starting to form and our schedule for the day is set with equipment set up and some field trips. Gathering tonight at dinner and hearing how the first full day of science goes will be interesting. Seeing everyone absorbed into their specific work shows the immense planning that has gone into peoples’ projects and the incredible and surprising results that will be obtained.”

Sam and Karen collecting samples

Packing the inflatable raft with equipment for sampling chlorophyll biomass makes for some tricky logistics. Sam Bermen (Clark University) and Karen Frey (Clark University) discuss. Photo: Mark Paricio

Over the next several weeks, students were up to their ankles, knees, and waists in mud, bogs, and bugs and loving every minute of it. PolarTREC teacher, Marc Paricio, who teaches physics at Smoky Hill High School in Leadville, Colorado, cited the weather, perhaps not surprisingly, as the biggest challenge to carrying out Arctic research and in communicating Polaris research to his students back home via the station’s “inter-nyet.”  In his PolarTREC journal he writes,

“Even in the middle of the short summer, the Siberian Arctic is a ruggedly wild and constantly changing landscape. From freezing snow to hot summer days, we experienced a considerable range in our short time. This is a land that is never far from winter but breathtaking in its expanse and variability.”

Drilling a borehole

PolarTREC teacher, Mark Paricio, helps with drilling a borehole in the permafrost. Photo: Mark Paricio

Despite the usual Siberian challenges in transportation and weather, 2012 Polaris Project was, indeed, a success both scientifically and personally. Miles Bergen (Western Washington University) reflects on his experience after returning home.

“In the grand scheme of things, a month is hardly a blip of time, but something about the Polaris Project allows those four weeks to seem like 12, all while flying by in the span of one endless day. There was something kind of poetic about seeing night time for the first time as we woke up in Moscow to fly home. Having graduated in March, I kind of viewed this summer as a victory lap or a culmination of my undergraduate career. And while I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pump my fists once or twice realizing where I was, I’d be naive to think that this summer didn’t help me start something new.”

For more information on the Polaris Project including application materials, 2012 journal posts, and multimedia visit the Polaris Project website. http://www.thepolarisproject.org/

“It Began After Last Night’s Dinner…


Sergei Zimov, Russian scientist, Northeast Science Station director, force-of-nature. Photo: Chris Linder

… when Sergi Zimov hauled a giant mammoth tusk into the barge, let it crash onto the floor, and encouraged us to examine it. It weighed a ton, and was far heavier than any of us could have imagined. He then informed us that it was only half a tusk of a young mammoth, and proceeded to give an impromptu talk on his brainchild, Pleistocene Park. Following the lecture, we heard excited cries from outside that an owl had landed on the walkway to the barge. We all ran out just in time [t]o see a beautiful, giant owl flying away holding its prey.” –Joanne Heslop, University of Nevada, Reno

What do you get when you take an international team of 27 scientists and students and drop them on a barge on Siberia’s Kolyma River for nearly a month? Very compelling blog posts, for one thing. And for the participants, an unforgettable research odyssey, a good portion of which is spent in the company of the indefatigable and charismatic Russian scientist, Sergei Zimov. And more generally, the NSF-funded Polaris Project, now in its final week at the Northeast Science Station.

Polaris director, Max Holmes (WHOI), writes in a July 12 blog post, “The Polaris Project is interested in the transport and transformation of carbon and nutrients as they flow with water from uplands to the Arctic Ocean.” During the intensive three-and-a-half week field course, now in its third year, undergraduate and graduate students from the United States and Russia break into research groups to focus on one aspect of the Arctic System:  the boreal forest, permafrost, wetlands, lakes, streams, rivers, invertebrate animals, or satellite observations. Students engage in hands-on research and develop individual research projects under the guidance of Polaris’ Principal Investigators and Postdoctoral Fellows.  Researchers encourage students to explore connections between systems.  

Max Holmes is an accomplished scientist and a natural educator. Polaris developed from an earlier collaboration with Russian students and teachers called Student Partners. Photo: Max Holmes

During the course the group is based at the Northeast Science Station in Cherskiy, Siberia, built and operated by Sergei Zimov. The station has two labs and three houses and a year-round staff of six (including Zimov’s wife and son). Polaris Project participants live on a barge on the Kolyma River. Not only does the barge provide a unique dorm, it also serves as a mobile lab – the team can tow the barge to various locations on the river for different studies.

The moon rises over the Northeast Science Station near Cherskiy, Siberia. Photo: Chris Linder

PI Andy Bunn, Western Washington University, plays his guitar on the deck of the live-aboard barge. Photo: Chris Linder

Polaris’ American contingent left from Dulles airport on 2 July. They spent the 4th staving off jet lag by exploring downtown Moscow – Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Spiritual Center of Russia. Next, they travelled to Yakutsk where the group was treated to a tour of a permafrost station/museum. After travelling four days and sixteen time zones, the Polaris Project team made it to Cherskiy on July 6. 

During their first week at the Northeast Science Station, instructors familiarized students with arctic systems through a series of evening lectures. Meanwhile, students were busy choosing projects, getting to know team mates, and exploring Cherskiy. These days, the group is knees deep in water, bogs, and bugs and enjoying every minute of it.

Travis Drake (left) and Max Janicek collect water samples. Photo: Chris Linder

“Going into the project I anticipated the amazing research and field experience that I would gain, and trust me I have in no way been disappointed, but already it’s turned out to be so much more. The research is one thing, it’s more exciting, invigorating and in depth than I ever imagined, but the opportunity and resource that comes from being in such close quarters with this kind of scientific community is something I think I’ve fallen in love with! My fellow students have a drive for common passions that is encouraging and driving to my own. And really it’s nerdy but awesome to go from chatting about the latest movie release to discussing the creation processes of the lakes we happened to be flying over! We’re all so different and from all over the US, but the Polaris Project has brought us together!”  — Melissa Robbins, University of Nevada, Reno

2009 Polaris student Kayla Henson, processing water samples, demonstrates that science really is fun. Photo: Chris Linder

Barge plunge into the Kolyma River. Photo: Chris Linder

The Polaris crew is a social bunch. Follow them on Twitter, Facebook and via the (fantastic) Polaris Web site Blog. Photos, video, and tales abound and astound.–Marcy Davis

A note on the photos in this post: Chris Linder, professional photographer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution research associate, and Polaris team member, accompanied students and teachers on the 2009 field course in Russia, taking most of the photos shown here. More of his work is found in the Polaris Web site’s 2009 photo gallery.  For more, visit Linder’s page on the WHOI Web site or his work on the NSF-funded IPY project, Live from the Poles.  Linder’s professional site is also an eyeful.