Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

‘The more you look, the more there is to see!’

While many teachers excuse their classes for the year in June and become civilians for the summer, a handful of carefully selected PolarTREC teachers gear up for a special learning experience in the Arctic.  Chosen by the Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S. (ARCUS) to accompany NSF-funded researchers on field expeditions, over the next month or so, these teachers will pop up in Alaska, Greenland, Siberia, Norway and on research vessels exploring the Arctic Ocean. Two researchers are at Toolik Field Station now. Join their adventure virtually at ARCUS’ PolarTREC website: http://www.polartrec.com/. Enjoy the below account of one teacher’s 2011 PolarTREC adventure.

PolarTREC teacher John Wood shows off school flags at the study site outside Healy, Alaska. Photo: John Wood

Only a handful of PolarTREC teachers can call themselves bipolar—that is, they’ve been to both the Arctic and Antarctic—but Huntington Beach Middle School teacher, John Wood, is perhaps the most bipolar of them all. As a biology student from Chapman University, Wood saw his first polar ice in 1978 when he became a general field assistant for the National Science Foundation-managed U.S. Antarctic Program at McMurdo Station. Ten antarctic field seasons and 21 years of teaching later, Wood traveled north instead of south in 2011 as a PolarTREC teacher. Last spring, Wood worked in Healy, Alaska, with postdoctoral candidate, Susan Natali (University of Florida, Gainesville) on a new experiment investigating the possible responses of the tundra ecosystem to climate warming.

Back in the 1978 antarctic summer season, Wood met a number of scientists, including a group from Scripps Institute of Oceanography with whom he studied sea otters in Prince William Sound the following summer.  In 1979 Wood returned to Antarctica as an assistant lab manager, aiding scientists working in biology, earth, and atmospheric sciences. For the next six years, he acted as facilities manager for all U.S. antarctic bases and in 1989-90 he headed the underwater construction team at McMurdo and Palmer Station (on the Antarctic Peninsula). Of the submarine work, he recalls, “jackhammering underwater is not much fun.”

During the next 10 years, Wood pursued a career teaching science in southern California. But in 2008, the opportunity to return to Antarctica as a PolarTREC teacher presented itself. Wood worked with volcanologist Dr. Phil Kyle (New Mexico Tech), living on the edge of the active volcano, Mt. Erebus, running a series of seismic experiments for five weeks.

“The experience at Mt. Erebus was really fantastic!” says Wood. “Not only did my time there really add to my geology background, but it really helped me teach kids about volcanoes. Students are really impressed that I lived and worked on an active volcano and get really engaged in the projects and activities we do about volcanoes in the classroom.”

Wood during a midnight sample collection at Mt. Erebus, Antarctica. Photo: Tim Burton

Wood’s northern experience last spring was slightly more tame, but it was a great experience, nonetheless. Living in a remote cabin near Healy, Alaska, with a generous host family who raises sled dogs, Wood and the scientific team spent six weeks studying a five-acre section of tundra abutting Denali National Park just a few miles from the homestead. In three plots, the team is heating and/or drying sections of tundra to gauge how the tundra will respond to warmer temperatures. Each plot is divided by a snow fence which allows winter snows to build up on the leeward side. The snow acts as an insulator and keeps the ground a few degrees warmer than on the other side of the fence.

Wood and Jade at the homestead in Healy, Alaska. Photo: John Wood

When Wood arrived at winter’s end, it was time to clear the snowpack down to the level of the control side of the plot so the snow would melt evenly on both sides of the fence. This meant many long days spent shoveling and hauling snow away from the study sites. Prior to moving snow the team of graduate students and researchers took snow depth measurements and measured ground temperatures on either side of the fence at 5, 10, 20, and 40 centimeters depth. The snow clearing also exposed sensors left in the ground all year.

Measuring snow depth at Site A. Photo: John Wood

“It took the better part of a week to clear snow off all three areas—shoveling snow into a plastic sled and taking it away—my back was barking by the end of week,” says Wood.

Next, the team removed the snow fences  to avoid shading the plots during the summer. By Wood’s second week in the field, the remaining snow began to melt and Wood saw the tundra plants for the first time.

“I cannot get over how really cool the tundra is!! Every time we hike across it or I just get a moment to stop and look at it there is always something different and interesting to see,” Wood wrote in a PolarTREC journal entry.  “Before I came to Alaska I thought that tundra was mostly frozen ground that supported a few small plants, which all pretty much looked the same. Boy was I wrong. Walking over it is like flying low in a small airplane as you pass over endless stretches of dense jungle with an ever-changing variety of shapes and colors. The more you look, the more there is to see!”

Measuring carbon dioxide. Photo: John Wood

The team installed summer warming chambers, 60cm2 plexiglass boxes open on the top and bottom. The boxes act as small greenhouses that warm the air by a couple of degrees. Plant growth is monitored within the chambers and compared with plants outside. They also placed several CO2 flux chambers at each site. Within each flux chamber, sensors detect changes in carbon dioxide during the day, when plants photosynthesize, and the nighttime, when plants give off CO2 as they respire. Some areas were surrounded by a metal frame and water pumps that will help keep out the water and dry plants on the interior. Warming and flux chambers were also set up in the drying plots so that changes in carbon dioxide and plant growth are compared to the wetter plots. These measurements allow scientists to determine whether carbon is ultimately being released or absorbed into the atmosphere and determine how a drier climate might affect growth and decomposition.

Wood also drove the Dalton Highway (aka the Haul Road) to the Arctic Circle and then spent two days exploring Barrow.

“I have been across the Antarctic Circle many times and have even worked at the South Pole on several occasions, but this was the farthest north for me so far and my first time in the Arctic itself. It was a memorable moment, and very different than what I have experienced and from what I had expected,” wrote Wood.  “I expected the Arctic to be very similar to the Antarctic in the way that it looked and felt.  Instead I found many more plants  and flat land along with a feeling of being much less remote, at least around the Barrow area.  I think the biggest difference was the natives that live in Barrow.  There is such a rich history and culture that does not exist down south.”

Bipolar, indeed! Wood in Barrow, Alaska. Photo: John Wood

Now that he is back in California, Wood hopes to convey his experiences effectively to his students.  Wood plans to infuse his lesson plans with newly acquired data and work with students from Healy’s Tri-Valley School on a joint climate change experiment. He will also be teaching climate change workshops for other teachers and the public.

“While I was away, the students were learning about biomes and climate change. We sort of learned it together. It is so cool to see the kids change: questions start off goofy and as they learn more about the science, the questions get better and better and better. One student thought there was no way to do experiments out in the field like this—that they could only be done in a lab. But, they really had a chance to latch on to the experiment first-hand through PolarTREC.”—Marcy Davis

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