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From the Field: Ten Days on The Tundra. Amanda Morrison

By Amanda Morrison

133 miles south of Prudhoe Bay lies the Toolik Field Station which is part of University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Institute of Arctic Biology.  Scientists from around the globe travel here to study many aspects of the tundra ecosystem.  I am on board as the Education Coordinator for NREL, bringing teachers from around the country to engage in tundra research, and helping them bring what they experience in the arctic back to their classroom.  The teachers and I are here to do “the pluck”.

The pluck is part of a long-term study lead by Dr. Laura Gough, Dr. Gus Shaver and Dr. John Moore to determine the effects of nitrogen and phosphates on the tundra, which will increase as the tundra thaws due to progressing global climate change.  On day one, the researchers led 8 science teachers from Colorado, Michigan, and Maryland and myself on a hike atop boardwalks over the tundra to the study site, where over many years study plots have been treated or left untreated with varying amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus.  It is from these plots that we would take samples of tundra each day, bringing them to an indoor lab where we literally plucked them apart.  Over the next week the above ground crew worked 12-14 hour days plucking and identifying up to 12 species of plants, lichen, and mosses from blocks of tundra.  Once species were sorted and plant parts separated further into roots, rhizomes, and leaves, the plant parts were placed into paper envelopes to be dried and weighed within a few weeks time. This biomass data will be used to determine how tundra plants respond to increased nitrogen and phosphates from thawing tundra. The days are long but we hardly notice because the sun doesn’t fall below the horizon.

While the pluck was going on to collect data on plants, Dr. Moore, 2 teachers, a lab tech, and a graduate student looked at the below ground food web. This part of the project aimed to determine how increased nitrogen and phosphorus affect arthropods, and how they in turn impact the food web.  This crew extracted arthropods using Berlese funnel buckets, and measured bacteria, fungi, and protozoan biomass using soil slurries.  The crew also tested the soil for nitrogen levels, DNA, and enzymes.

By looking at tundra plants and microbial food webs, both crews gathered data for the unique and comprehensive research happening in this ecosystem. This area is a part of the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network, with 26 sites around the world.  Long-term research collects enough data to study the long-term patterns and trends of whole ecosystems that might not be apparent from short-term research. Here at the Toolik Field Station scientists are studying everything from carbon dioxide release by plants, fish species composition in nearby lakes and rivers, to small mammal and bird predation of aquatic insects.

This is the fourth LTER site I have been able to visit in the past year. I am fortunate that my work in science education at NREL has taken me to the Shortgrass Steppe and Niwot Ridge sites in Colorado, the Kellogg Biological Station in Michigan, and now the Toolik Lake Field Station in Alaska.  These experiences have helped me to better understand science in the field as well as improve my understanding of the different ecosystems, thus making me a better science educator.  I hope the teachers we brought here feel the same way.

<All photos taken by Amanda Morrison.  Check out more in the slide show.>[slideshow]