Extreme Chemistry: Arctic Edition

Greetings from (nearly) the top of the world! I’m sitting in a tent full of science journalists at the Toolik Field Station, NSF’s long-term ecological research in northern Alaska. In the summer months, there are upwards of 120 scientists and support staff on site doing a range of research related to climate change. IMG_1694

The writers are here as guests of the Marine Biological Laboratory, which sponsors an annual science journalism program. The idea of the program is give journalists a glimpse of the research going on here not just by talking to folks in the field, but by also getting our hands dirty. Actually, hands, clothes, gear—it’s all dirty. We’ve been tromping through the tundra, wading into streams, sliding on aufeis, all in the name of science.

Yesterday, we hiked through the tundra to see a thermokarst, a gulley formed when an ice wedge melts beneath the thick layer of permafrost, causing the soil to erode. We took samples of the water and soil, then came back to the chemistry lab (tight quarters in a trailer), and analyzed them for nutrient content. The fear is that there’s so much organic matter trapped in the permafrost that this kind of rapid melting will only accelerate climate change. In the next week or so, we’ll be heading out to several locations in and around camp to get a flavor of the wide range of research happening here.

It all may sound rather straightforward, but consider this: in a given day, the temperature can fluctuate from below freezing to above 70ºF. Getting to the sampling site may require a several-mile hike carrying a ton of equipment, possibly even a drop-off by a helicopter. Once arrived at the sampling site, it could mean wading waist-deep into the water while combating a swarm of mosquitos. And did I mention that showers are only allowed twice a week here?

So I throw it out to you, readers. Is there any pressing area of climate change research you’d like to learn about? Any questions about the camp (or life at the camp) itself? I’m here for another week and a half, so fire away.

Author: Lisa Jarvis

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  1. Sorry — it’s not a climate change question, but… it’s my understanding that pesticides and the like that have relatively high vapor pressures end up in the Arctic. Is this true? If so, are you seeing/detecting evidence of such?

  2. chemjobber–the short answer is yes, they are seeing pesticides show up in their measurements. I’m hoping to talk to someone tomorrow that can provide a bit more detail. keep the questions coming!


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