Arctic Dispatch: Playing With Permafrost

The first field tests in the tundra look at the effects of nitrogen levels on permafrost

Toolik Lake
The team hikes to the research sites above Toolik Lake. Christine Dell’Amore

Toolik, as I discovered this morning, takes mealtime almost as seriously as research. At 8:30 a.m., I walked into the cozy, perpetually humming dining hall to steaming plates of lemon cream cheese pancakes, turkey sausage, hash browns, and fresh-brewed coffee. And that's on top of the 24-hour supply of cereals, desserts, dairy delicacies, fruits, and miscellaneous snacks that, according to the camp manager, usually add a few extra pounds to the Toolik researchers during the summer. (Guess I won't need my dark chocolate stash, which I bought to tide me over in what I thought was a dessert-free arctic.)

Overall the accommodations are comfier than I'd imagined: our Weatherport sleeping tents are well insulated, with mini-heaters. Though we're encouraged to only shower twice a week (and only two minutes at that) to save scarce water, the bathrooms and showers look more than presentable. It's also much warmer than I'd anticipated, hovering around 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

This morning's hearty breakfast was easily walked off on a trek to the research sites above the lake. A tangerine-colored fox scampered across our path and paused to watch us as we slowly traced the narrow, single plank that weaves through the delicate tundra. This boardwalk allows researchers to access the sites without trampling the vegetation. (Check out more photos of today's experiments.)

Here ground-hugging plants such as bog rosemary, dwarf birch, Arctic cloudberry, Labrador tea, and lingonberry blanket the earth in a colorful floral mosaic. At one point, Gus Shaver, one of the Marine Biological Laboratory researchers, gave me a knife to "stab" some of the permafrost. I was amazed to find that the knife plunged into the spongy earth for only 10 centimeters, and then hit the rock-hard layer of ice that never melts. We broke up into partners to try our hand at some of the long-term experiments in the tundra, most of which focus on adding light, high temperatures, and nutrients to an environment that lacks these factors.

Marilia Juste, of the Brazilian news Web site G1, and I were assigned to measure the permafrost depth in two places: a plot brimming with shrubs that had been treated with nitrogen -- basically a natural fertilizer -- and a control plot that had not been altered. As we worked, the cry of the yellow-billed loon, the rarest loon species in North America, often echoed from the lake downhill.

After taking 20 measurements in both the plots, we came back to the lab to compare our results. We found that the plot treated with nitrogen had shallower permafrost than the control plot. After speaking with Gus, we discovered the explosion of shrubs and the resulting shade made the ground cooler, which didn't melt the permafrost as much as the control plot. Nitrogen, the MBL scientists explained, can encourage certain plants to boom and thus edge out other species – a real concern as nitrogen pollution enters the environment in the form of fertilizer runoff and fossil fuels.

Tomorrow I'll check out more research sites in another type of tundra, but to cap off today, it's time for the sauna by the lake.

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