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Studying Siberia: The Polaris Project
Each summer since 2008, several hard-working college undergraduates wrap up their spring semesters, take their very last final and pack their bags for the summer destination they’ve anticipated for months: sunny Siberia. These students have a unique interest in arctic research, which is why they were chosen for the Polaris Project, an annual month-long expedition into northeast Russia funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The program unites professors, researchers and students who are on the cutting edge of climate change research.
“If you want to see the impact of global warming, the arctic is the place to look,” said Polaris Project founder Max Holmes. “It’s the canary in the coal mine.”
The Polaris Project is based at the Northeast Science Station in northeast Siberia, just south of the Arctic Ocean. The station facilitates arctic research and provides a boarding house for those brave enough to do it. Holmes, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, first visited the station in 2003, and four years later accepted a project grant from the NSF. He wanted to see more undergraduates interested in ecology and climate change doing arctic research in Russia.
The research in Siberia focuses on the movement of carbon and other nutrients in the ground, water and atmosphere. Permafrost acts as a carbon sink – the frozen soil stores billions of tons of carbon by some estimates. When temperatures rise and the permafrost melts, it multiplies the effect by releasing the sequestered carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, accelerating the warming cycle even more.
Carbon can also wash into nearby watersheds, such as the Kolyma River which flows right by the Northeast Science Station. The Kolyma River is part of the only major river basin in the world to be completely underlain by permafrost. Two-year Polaris Project student Erin Seybold and Polaris Project faculty member John Schade studied what happens to carbon that enters the watershed.
They tracked carbon and other nutrients that come from thawed permafrost substrate in small headwater streams high in the watershed. As these nutrients move through water, microorganisms can change their form, either into a gas or a different chemical compound. The stream could also simply move these nutrients to larger bodies of water and eventually out to the ocean.
“I think a lot of climate scientists and people who are interested in knowing what the effects of global warming will be are looking at this area to see how these stored soil carbons will respond,” Seybold said.
To track the nutrients, Seybold used a chloride tracer tracked with a YSI Pro Plus meter using the conductivity probe to see where it was in the stream. The YSI meter held baseline data that was later used to perform analyses.
While the climate research being performed at the Science Station is of incredible importance, it’s not the only beneficial outcome of the program.
Many Polaris Project undergraduates never performed their own research before entering the program, much less in the arctic tundra. Schade said the faculty wanted to focus on undergraduate students because they still have an open mind and are not yet attached to a specific research niche. However, they have an independent drive to learn, especially those of Polaris Project mettle.
“What we’re trying to do here is train the next generation of arctic researchers,” Schade said.
Polaris Project faculty members recently submitted a paper based on Seybold’s research for publication – a rare accomplishment for an undergraduate student.
Though environmental research is the heart of the Polaris Project, Holmes also looks for team members with non-science backgrounds who wish to incorporate science into their career. Photographer and oceanographer Chris Linder, research associate at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, epitomizes this balance. Linder has shot videos and photographs on several arctic assignments. He has captured the beauty of the Arctic from the decks of ships and underwater in a wetsuit, but Siberia is the only place he had to wear a head net.
“It’s the hottest arctic location I’ve ever been in,” Linder said. “If the wind’s not blowing, the bugs are all over you.”
Summer temperatures in Siberia can climb to the high 80’s (degrees Fahrenheit) during the day, something that shocks many of the students. However, temperatures at night can plummet, requiring researchers to don the parkas and sleeping bags they expected to use.
“I usually say that on average they will be perfectly comfortable, but they will never actually achieve that state,” Holmes said.
Linder has the advantage of watching the group grow from awkward strangers at the beginning to close friends by the end of the month. Through a harsh climate and late nights in the laboratory, the total immersion experience of Polaris brings the individual students together to form a tight-knit group of friends.
“You really bond with the people you go through this with,” Seybold said. “Not only are you in this crazy remote place that most people will never see, but you’re living on a barge.”
Group dynamics certainly come into play when unpredictable arctic weather takes a turn for the worse. In 2010, the students took a boat trip to another part of the tundra. The weather that day was so warm, Schade and Holmes said, that the group was swimming in the Arctic Ocean. Just as they were preparing to leave, storm clouds rolled, the temperature immediately dropped 30 degrees and all the mosquitoes disappeared. As the rain began to pour, the Northeast Science Station director and his son panicked and left to seek help. Though Schade trusted them to return, he was concerned that the students may also be panicking. Instead, they were laughing around a fire they built. The group ate fish they caught from the ocean that night and slept body-to-body on the floor of a fisherman’s cabin.
“It just showed me how remarkable this group is and how they came together as a unit,” Schade said. “It gives you a different idea of what ‘hardship’ means.”
For the students, the Polaris Project is a formative experience that matures them both socially and professionally. Seybold said that students from her two years in Polaris travel to conferences, attend graduate school and write papers on arctic research. Seybold is now a Fulbright Scholar, continuing her arctic research in Norway.
“Polaris really supports students to launch a career,” Seybold said.
Faculty members and organizers hope the Polaris Project will continue to support itself by churning out unprecedented climate change research that can only come from the arctic and fostering a new generation of students excited about science. Linder in particular enjoys capturing the story behind the research to excite others.
“Earth science field work is half adventure and half lab work,” Linder said. “The adventure side of it is often overlooked.”
The Polaris Project team will continue to have adventures for at least another three years, thanks to another NSF grant, time enough to continue making strides in climate change research in the arctic.
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons, Enryū6473