Experiencing the Arctic landscape

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I recently returned from a site visit to Alaska;
just one week, yet I saw NSF-funded research programs and facilities throughout
the State. Stops included the University
of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of Alaska Anchorage, the North Slope of Alaska
at Toolik Field Station and Barrow as well as Seward where the R/V Sikuliaq is
stationed. I heard from researchers, state and local leaders, and had a unique
opportunity to experience the amazing Arctic landscape.

In Fairbanks, I toured the Permafrost Tunnel
owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Cold Regions Research
and Engineering Laboratory. At Toolik Field Station I flew over the permafrost
landscape in a helicopter, observing the disturbances to the land known as thermokarsting
that occurs as permafrost melts. Seeing the structure of the landscape – from within
and above – also provided clear context for some of NSF’s biological and
geological research investments. Toolik and Barrow are both target locations
for the National Environmental Observatory Network (NEON) program. Toolik is also
home to the Arctic Long-term Ecological Research site, as well as many
individual and collaborative research projects. I talked with researchers about
the fate of the considerable amount of carbon stored in the tundra system as
things change, and saw firsthand adaptations to environmental conditions and change
by plants, mosses, birds and mammals.

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While in Barrow, I was honored to participate in
a Nalukataq, a celebration of food sharing after a successful whale harvest.
Although it was too rainy to hold the traditional blanket toss, I enjoyed
speaking with local people and helping distribute traditional foods. The last
leg of my trip, in Seward, included an extensive tour of the R/V Sikuliaq. One of NSF’s newest
additions to the academic research fleet, Sikuliaq
begins next week supporting research in Alaskan coastal waters and marginal ice
zone of the Arctic sea ice.

Nothing can replace a first-hand site visit to
Alaska to understand the implications of being one of eight Arctic nations,
particularly as the U.S. takes over chairmanship of the Arctic Council. As chair
of the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, I look forward to
fostering interagency efforts ongoing and needed to address U.S. research needs
in the Arctic.  

Photos (top to bottom): Shot of R/V Sikuliaq, credit Jena Petersen, Seward AK; aboard the research vessel in Seward, credit: NSF

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