Ten Days on the Tundra (6)

Mushrooms grow among mosses and Ledum plants as part of the tundra.

The word tundra refers to treeless ecosystems where winters are long and cold, and summers are short and cool.  It comes from the Finnish word tunturi which means treeless plain.  Where trees stop growing at the northern latitude of about 65 degrees North, the biodiversity of plants and animals decreases.  From here north to about 72 degrees latitude live low shrubs, lichens, mosses, sedges, and grasses.  Our location at Toolik Lake is roughly 68 degrees North latitude and in the Arctic Foothills ecoregion.

Wildlife sightings are not so common as species like caribou, wolves, musk ox, dall sheep, lemmings, and voles are spread out over the vast expanses of land here.  We were fortunate to see many bird species and a herd of caribou but most often we saw evidence such as scat, antlers, or burrows that told us these animals were here.

Caribou wandering the tundra in a small herd.

On a day trip south over Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range we were fortunate to spot dall sheep on a distant cliffy mountain.  Short-eared owls seemed to be in abundance in the lower lands, hunting voles and lemmings from a few feet above the vegetation.  A herd of roughly 200 caribou passed by the northeast edge of the field station one morning, giving us all a great look at the different ages and sexes of these animals.  On a bike ride north of the lake I was fortunate to see a bull moose hi-tailing it across the tundra.

In Toolik Lake live the Arctic Grayling, a cold-water fish species closely related to salmon and trout.  On one of the work days, one of our teachers was able to go out with the fish sampling crew to help with fish capture.  That same day I was fortunate to be out with the aquatic invertebrate crew to sample insects [hatching and living] above the river that are thought to be what the fish are feeding on in late summer.

Ecoregions of Alaska

As one moves north and into the Arctic Coastal plain, the plant and animal diversity changes.  Read more about that in my next post.

Ten Days on the Tundra (1)

“So why are you coming to Alaska?”

Two teenage faces stared at me, waiting patiently for an answer as I racked my brain for words that I could use to explain the next 2 weeks to a 14 and 15-year-old. I remembered a workshop I attended for fun at my university last year where scientists and graduate students packed a room for a morning and made painfully slow progress at putting together a 2 minute summary about their research that could be understood by their grandmother, someone from the media, or even their significant other. Communicating Your Science the series was called. I needed to communicate science.

Our conversation took place en route to Anchorage where I was headed in order to meet 8 middle and high school teachers who are flying in on Sunday from Maryland, Michigan, and Colorado. My boss and 2 other researchers will also come and when our team has arrived, we will fly to the Arctic Circle, north of the Brooks Mountain Range. Once there we’ll stay at a research station with about 100 other research scientists and their lab folks, all of whom are collecting data on everything from birds to soil microbes. Our team will be working on soil sampling, sorting and identifying. For two weeks we will have our faces toward the ground, in the field and in tent-like labs. The goal is to better understand what lives in the tundra environment, and what changes are currently happening with the permafrost thawing as our planet warms.

Much to my surprise, the boys’ eyes lit up and I was bombarded with question after question for much of the 5 hour flight. These kids were sharp! And educated well in salmon, whales, migratory birds, and bears. They told me everything they knew about these animals, native Alaskan culture, and described to me how their part of the planet rotates around the sun in an attempt to increase my understanding about 23 hours of daylight in mid-July. After giving me tips on where to see migrating birds, they proceeded to pick apart my working life, probing for details about wildlife research and education experiences I have had. I don’t believe I have ever had a more captive audience or have held anyone’s attention for so long.

The older teen was watching me with my face glued to the airplane window for an hour as we raced above mountain peaks poking through a thick blanket of clouds. Behind me I heard a child ask his father if what he looking at was snow or clouds. A long, snake-like glacier appeared below us, flanked by the two new mountain ranges it was creating, and feeling its power brought tears to my eyes. I turned to look at the teenage boy sitting next to me. He looked steadily at me and with a tiny smile said, “It’s pretty amazing, huh?” Our eyes met and I nodded, unable to communicate what this experience was already making me feel.