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Biology major studies climate change in Alaska

Laura Jardine

Oklahoma City University biology major Laura Jardine participated in an environmental science research project in Alaska in the spring and summer of 2017. Jardine and a team from the Woods Hole Research Center based in Massachusetts traveled to Alaska to study the thawing of permafrost in Arctic regions as a result of climate change.

Jardine provided the following insight of the project, which was featured in a special report in The New York Times in August.

Tell us about the Woods Hole Research Center

The Polaris Project is run through Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), a private, nonprofit organization that’s not affiliated with a university or public agency. As a part of this project, I lived in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and worked at WHRC for several weeks.

Being able to work at the research center was almost as inspiring as being on the tundra. It’s been ranked as the top climate change research institution in the world for several years, and just being in the same environment of so many fantastic climate scientists was super energizing.

In addition to the research WHRC is doing, there’s a big focus on translating science into policy. President (Barack) Obama’s science advisor, Dr. John Holdren, worked on the same floor as the research center’s lab, and he’s just one of many scientists from there who have advised policy makers in Washington, D.C. Doing good scientific work is worthwhile, but being able to initiate action in realms outside of the research community is where the rubber hits the road.

This is also an intersection where a liberal arts curriculum like OCU’s is incredibly valuable. During my time with the WHRC scientists, I learned so much about effective science communication and now consider it one of my most significant responsibilities as a scientist.

How did you find out about the project and become a part of it?

I was searching for summer jobs last December and happened upon the Polaris Project website. I applied to it and about 10 other jobs because I knew it would be extremely competitive, and I didn’t have a lot of experience in the type of research previous participants had done. I’ve done research projects on things like bumblebee physiology and fire’s impact on small mammal communities, but the Polaris Project has more of a biogeochemical focus.

I got an email in February with the job offer and I was absolutely thrilled to say yes. However, it was a bit frightening to jump into a new scientific field, especially knowing that there was no Google to ask questions of on the tundra!

Was there a training process before you went?

Polaris Project Training
Polaris Project training at WHRC

Yes. March through May, the team had regular video meetings where we learned about each other, discussed logistics, and brainstormed research ideas. Additionally, we all met in Falmouth during April for arctic safety training. This was also an important weekend because we got to know the people who we were going to be dropped off with in the middle of nowhere come July!

How long were you there?

The Polaris Project ran throughout the month of July. I was in both Anchorage and Bethel, Alaska, for several days before flying out to the field site.

Getting from OKC to Bethel was just a long line of commercial flights. We camped and worked in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta about 50 miles north of Bethel, and we got to take these amazing Beaver float planes that are around 60 years old. The take-off and landing were so smooth, and I’ll never forget gliding over such a foreign landscape as the pilot was reaching across me to operate the tiny aircraft.

I did field work for 2 weeks and then processed samples at WHRC in Massachusetts for two weeks. I’ll be processing samples and analyzing and interpreting data for at least a few more months though.

Did the project change or rearrange your plans after graduating, as far as what you’d like to study? Were you able to make connections that might help after you earn your degree?

Polaris Project moss
Deep moss layer

Absolutely. Once I held a piece of permafrost, I had so many questions, and they haven’t stopped since. Just pulling up a piece of thousands-of-years-old frozen ground is such a high. Then you look closely and see these stunning ice lenses and intact grasses and sedges. It’s amazing to think about all of the cycles of life and death necessary to form that piece of frozen ground.

On the other hand, it’s terrifying to think that we are in the process of losing so much of it because of climate change. The permafrost we sampled was so dark, just like the rich potting soil you might grow flowers in. This is because it is chock full of organic matter. Once this organic matter is no longer frozen, microbes can go to town. Like us humans, they respire, releasing carbon dioxide and sometimes methane into the atmosphere, exacerbating the climate change that led to the original thawing.

It’s a lot harder to ignore the impacts of our warming earth on a permafrost-dictated landscape. In many places, I walked on cracked, bouncy, and slumped ground which was caused by the loss of the stabilizing permafrost. We did a lot of work in a lake that would often emit bubbles of methane when we stepped — not a good sign in a place that’s been storing massive amounts of carbon for thousands of years.

A particularly sobering moment was when we inserted temperature loggers into permafrost. My coworkers and I expected to see temperatures several degrees below freezing. Surprisingly the permafrost was less than half a degree below zero. I think that witnessing this vulnerability can either scare you away or scare you into action. I have too many questions about how this thawing permafrost impacts the landscape and the globe to stay away. Graduate school has been my plan for several years, but I now have a lot more direction in what I want to study, not to mention motivation.

As far as connections and networking, this experience was unparalleled. I feel ridiculously fortunate to work with some of the best climate scientists in the world. Being in the field is such a unique work environment and the role of a coworker or research advisor shifts. In many ways, the field creates a more level environment.

The Polaris team consisted of about 20 people — undergraduate and graduate students, senior scientists, camp support staff, a filmmaker, a social scientist, physicians from Massachusetts General, and Henry Fountain, the NYT reporter. All of us battled mosquitos, did yoga on unstable moss mounds, drug each other out of deep mud, fought over Snickers bars, and brushed our teeth side-by-side for weeks straight. As a result (or despite) these experiences, we all walked away from this experience with strong professional relationships and also friendships.

The NYT story mentioned that some of the students had projects of their own – Did/do you, and will you be returning to continue your research?

Polaris Project permafrost
New permafrost core

Every student developed and executed their own project. It was amazing to watch these independent projects develop both individually and collectively as a general picture of the processes governing this unique tundra ecosystem.

My project is focused on how fire impacts nitrogen availability in terrestrial communities. I collected vegetation, soil, and permafrost samples from 45- and 2-year-old burn scars as well as unburned sites and looked at how much and what forms of nitrogen were in these places.

I’m hypothesizing that fire will lead to both short and long-term permafrost thaw which will result in more nitrogen available to plants. I am continuing to work on preparing samples for analysis and interpreting data. I’ll present what I’ve learned at the American Geophysical Union Meeting in December, and this project will likely serve as a stepping stool for my future research in graduate school.

Any other thoughts about the research (and the trip itself) would be appreciated, including anecdotes that you consider particularly memorable.

Tundra in the evening light

Walking on the tundra is an otherworldly experience. One student likened it to another planet. First, the terrain is so different from anything I’ve ever walked on. The moss can be over a foot deep, and it’s a bit like walking on a giant sponge. I joked that I should have trained for tundra endurance by using a stair stepper for hours each day! Though the sunlight is there day and night, the angle of light hitting the earth is very different — it’s nearly impossible to estimate distance and make out faraway objects.

The tundra’s a pretty unforgiving place, and I’ve never been so conscious of my safety and that of the people around me. We went out with trash bags to use as makeshift sleeping bags, clothing for rain and cold, water treatment, extra food, bear repellent, satellite phones, and personal locator beacons which, if deployed, initiate a search-and-rescue mission. When working, there was always one person completely devoted to scanning the horizon for bears. On several days, we used a helicopter and loaded and unloaded while the rotors were still powered up. Though scary, these things were integral to the experience I had.

Polaris Project team
Polaris Project team in Alaska

The array of wildlife I got to witness was absolutely incredible. One day we had a grizzly bear visitor near camp, and another day a muskox galloped a few hundred yards away from my tent. We had a fox friend in camp nearly every day, and the migrating birds like Sandhill Cranes and Arctic Terns were constantly present.

I, like many OCU students, have moments of annoyance over all of the general education requirements that I have to fulfill. However, there was a moment one night on the tundra that convinced me that I should treat those classes with the same gravity that I approach my science classes with. The team was gathered in our common tent after dinner, and we were discussing the challenge of initiating a public response to climate change. The conversation wasn’t getting too far because no one could pinpoint how to make people care about such an overwhelming challenge. I remembered my final paper for last fall’s Honors Seminar with Dr. (Jerry) Vannatta, “Medicine and Literature.” I wrote about the physician’s responsibility in facilitating a “good” death for their patients. The concepts that I learned and developed in preparing that paper directly applied to the conversation happening in our little tent.

Note: Laura Jardine was recognized among the honorable mentions in the 2017 Goldwater Scholarship Competition. The highly selective scholarship program is designed to encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering. It is the nation’s premier undergraduate award in these fields.

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