Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Toolik Fellows

Journalists Go to Science Summer Camp

William (Breck) Bowden of the University of Vermont leads MBL Science Journalism fellows to the site of a newly emerging tundra thaw slump, or themokarst, near the Toolik Field Station. Bowden heads a large new project funded by NSF that will quantify the number of thermokarsts and their ecological effects. Photos: Chris Neill

A group of 10 international science journalists learned about cutting edge climate research during a hands-on fellowship in June at Toolik Field Station.

The Marine Biological Laboratory’s program combines lectures from scientists and visits to work sites in the field with a crash-course in how to conduct climate change research — everything from measuring carbon dioxide uptake by plants to calculating the flow rate of a river, and then crunching and analyzing that data.

The goal is for journalists to leave with a better understanding of Arctic climate science and what it takes to do the research itself. And scientists get to chat with journalists in a relaxed atmosphere, which will hopefully make them feel more comfortable the next time they’re interviewed. The journalists also get a taste of what life is like for scientists working at a field camp: sleeping in tents, eating surprisingly tasty food and making due with a conspicuous absence of flush toilets. Word is that this year’s fellows escaped the dreaded omnipresent giant North Slope mosquitoes due to a dry start of summer and little standing water on the tundra.

MBL Science Journalism fellows haul a plexiglass chamber over boardwalks near Toolik Field Station to measure how the movement of carbon dioxide into and out of tussock tundra responds to warming and the increased abundance of Arctic shrubs.

Christopher Neill, a senior scientist at MBL and the director of the fellowship, wrote in an email from Toolik that he highlighted projects this year that examine changing seasonality in the Arctic. Warmer temperatures earlier in the year have created changes in plant growth, river flow and animal activity. The journalists looked at a project studying how changes in the timing of water flow and insect emergence in the Kuparuk River are impacting grayling fish, as well as a study of the timing of bird reproduction.

MBL Science Journalism fellows Victoria Barber (l) and Susan Moran collect invertebrates in the Kuparuk River to determine how the foodwebs of arctic rivers may to respond to small increases in the supply of nutrients likely to be released by warmer temperatures and thawing of tundra.

The group also got to visit and learn about the site of a massive 2007 fire along the Anaktuvuk River. The burn has caused numerous thermokarst failures — the slumping of ground when the permafrost underneath melts.

“We took a great trip to a thermokarst in the Anaktuvuk River Fire area,” fellow Benjamin Shaw, a producer with National Geographic Weekend, wrote in an email from camp. “It is still sloughing into Horn Lake and it was a very visible example of thawing permafrost. … I cover global warming on a regular basis, but I wanted to head into the field to look at specific changes happening on a local level in a part of the world where climate change seems to be having a great impact.”

The journalists visited Toolik from June 18 to July 1. Neill says there’s funding to continue to send journalists there, but probably not the full 10-person complement of the past three years (when a National Science Foundation outreach and education grant bolstered the program).

Many of this year’s fellows have been blogging about the scientific research at Toolik as well as their adventures there.

Vienna-based freelancer Chelsea Wald posted a story on Scientific American’s Web site about her visit to a thermokarst study site: “I was nearly eaten by a thermokarst. I just stepped in and, before I knew it, I was sucked in up to the top of my big rubber boot.”

And Gretchen Weber, associate producer for Climate Watch with KQED Public Broadcasting in San Francisco, described the drive from Fairbanks to Toolik this way: “Between the frost heaves caused by the alternate freezing and thawing of the ground, and those Ice Road Trucker tires chewing up the road, driving the Haul Road is more like an amusement park ride, at least from the back seat of a 15-person van.” –Emily Stone

Emily Stone is a Chicago-based freelance writer and was a 2009 MBL Science Journalism Fellow at Toolik.

For more stories from the MBL science journalism fellowship, visit the blog, A Toolik Field Journal.

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