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Visiting scholar's Alaska roots run deep

Submitted by Marie Gilbert
Phone: 907-474-7412

11/20/08

While scientist Gaius "Gus" Shaver has logged nearly four decades of work in Alaska, he is experiencing his first winter in the 49th state.

Shaver, a senior scientist at The Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., is serving as a visiting scholar at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology for the 2008-09 academic year.

Shaver's Ph.D. research on plant root growth began in Barrow in the 1970s. "The problem to be answered was how do plants grow in very cold soils. We used to think plant life in the Arctic was dominated simply by the cold," Shaver said. He collected plants that fellow ecologist and IAB professor F. Stuart "Terry" Chapin III used in his Ph.D. thesis. "My connections with roots, Alaska and Terry are deep."

Shaver's work in Alaska has included more than 20 years as co-principal investigator of the Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research project at the IAB Toolik Field Station on Alaska's North Slope. He has witnessed physical changes in Alaska's tundra as well as changes in how scientists understand the tundra.

"There have been several important changes over the last 30 years about how we think about arctic ecosystems," said Shaver. "The Arctic used to be viewed as a place where individual plants interacted mainly with the physical environment and not much with each other."

Plant-to-plant interactions are now considered significant processes in arctic ecosystems, which is important to the explanation of why species are where they are and their relative abundance, according to Shaver.

Scientists also assumed that the carbon cycle was the driver for the other nutrient cycles, he said. "People used to think that if they understood the carbon cycle everything else would fall into place."

Shaver's original research at Barrow and continuing research at Toolik Field Station demonstrates that nutrient limitation, as well as the cold and dark, is an important factor in the tundra ecosystem.

"We showed that the productivity of tundra is limited by nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements and that the carbon cycle is not driven strictly by the effects of the physical environment on photosynthesis and respiration," he said.

Shaver said the most exciting scientific thing in his life now is his Anaktuvuk River fire project. Shaver and co-investigator Syndonia "Donie" Bret-Harte, an IAB research assistant professor, are investigating the effects and recovery of tundra following a massive, 400-square-mile fire which burned on Alaska's North Slope between July and October of 2007.

CONTACT: Gaius Shaver, senior scientist, The Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Mass., and principal research associate, UAF Institute of Arctic Biology, 907-474-6646, gshaver@mbl.edu or ffgrs@uaf.edu. Marie Gilbert, IAB public information officer, 907-474-7412, marie.gilbert@uaf.edu

ON THE WEB: www.iab.uaf.edu