World class science: Summer in the Arctic
by Marie Gilbert, Institute of Arctic Biology
Would you take a job offering stunning views of Alaska's Brooks Range, helicopter transport to scenic vistas, 24-hour daylight, abundant wildlife and tundra for miles in every direction?
Ryan Long did. After completing his freshman year studying biology at UAF in 2002, Long spent his first summer in Alaska working with UAF Institute of Arctic Biology Director Brian Barnes studying the arctic ground squirrel. Long's work that year involved 14 weeks at Toolik Field Station (TFS) in the foothills of the Brooks Range on the North Slope of Alaska. Along with fellow undergraduate, Ryan Wilson, he worked with Barnes again in the 2003 summer research season.
Long's research deals with how ground squirrels regulate their body temperature during the summer. Barnes and Wilson's work focuses on understanding the squirrels' ability to lower its body temperature below freezing during its lengthy hibernation. Scientists hope to find ways to mimic the squirrel's "supercooling" ability and apply that knowledge to victims of a shooting or a heart attack by placing them into a squirrel-like hibernation that could extend the "golden hour" - the time before a victim's blood pressure plummets and brain damage sets in. Other potential applications involve astronauts and preserving donated organs.
Countless research possibilities attract scientists to TFS from every state, 25 countries and every level of academia. Researchers studying at Toolik scientists are among the world's leaders in the study of global change, plant and animal adaptation to extreme environments and how light, water and nutrients interact with plants, animals and microorganisms to determine the structure and function of arctic ecosystems. Established in 1975, TFS's global prestige as an internationally renowned arctic research site lies in its location, its untrammeled landscape and, most importantly, in its wealth of long-term, continuous environmental data.
At last count, scientists and students produced more than 350 peer-reviewed publications, two books and 46 theses featuring work from Toolik.
Located about 370 miles north of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus near the Dalton Highway, TFS serves as a research facility for scientists working in and around Toolik Lake, as well as the nearby Brooks Range, the arctic foothills, the arctic coastal plain and along the gravel highway which runs through boreal forest, taiga and tundra from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay.
Continuous permafrost, the absence of trees, 24-hour daylight during the short summers, periods of continuous darkness during the long, cold winters and pristine lakes and streams characterize TFS's surroundings.
Toolik may exist far from civilization, but its significance to science is regularly in the headlines.
It's not only TFS's location along the Dalton Highway that gives it a long-haul reputation. Toolik is also home to the National Science Foundation's Arctic Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site.
A major goal of the Arctic LTER project is to predict how and why the arctic environment will change and how these changes can feed back on the Earth's climate.
For example, the Arctic acts as a "sink" for carbon dioxide through the absorption of CO2 in plant biomass. As the climate warms and permafrost decreases, biological decomposition increases and more carbon dioxide is released. The released CO2 contributes to additional climate warming.
In one of the longest-running experiments of its type in the world, researchers from IAB and the NSF's Arctic LTER will continue a long-term tundra plant removal experiment at TFS to determine how the distribution and productivity of species may be affected by climate change.
In another LTER-sponsored TFS project, a 20-year, low-level phosphorus fertilization experiment on the Kuparuk River provides insight into how effects of subtle changes in nutrient loading, a result of climate change, may dramatically alter the plant and animal composition of arctic streams.
Todd Sformo, a UAF biology Ph.D. candidate, collects insects at TFS as part of his research into antifreeze proteins (AFPs) that enable some insects to survive temperatures near -50ºC. Researchers hope to apply their knowledge of AFPs to developing better preservation techniques of human organs for transplant and environmentally safer de-icing fluid. Sformo has master's degrees in creative writing and biology, both from UAF.
Ohio State University Researcher Yu-Ping Chin studies how persistent organic pollutants from more southern latitudes settle in the Arctic. Evidence shows that bioaccumulation of these pollutants may pose a threat to indigenous people.
University of Washington researcher John Wingfield studies high-latitude breeding, hormones and behavior in arctic breeding birds. Wingfield's research uses unusual techniques to assess the effects of climate change on arctic animals. Each year Wingfield has observed more bird species appearing at Toolik that in past years flew only as far north as Fairbanks.
And there's Ryan Long. Recently awarded the Joel Wiegert Award for outstanding senior man, Long expects to graduate in May 2004 with a bachelor of science degree in wildlife biology. IAB Director Barnes has high praise for Long's work.
"Along with providing tireless assistance on our main project in the field, Ryan created a research project on his own," Barnes said. "He is extremely independent in learning how to analyze his data and compare it with similar studies in scientific literature. Ryan is a very smart, motivated student who knows where he is going. UAF is lucky to have him."
Learn more about research at UAF.