The Arctic researchers who gathered at the MBL in late February found the village in a winter deep-freeze, but this hardy group seemed nonplussed by the cold and piles of snow.
They were in Woods Hole for the Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) annual meeting, hosted by Gaius Shaver and other scientists from the MBL Ecosystems Center. Shaver directs the Arctic LTER—a consortium of environmental scientists from around the country who base their research out of Toolik Field Station, a remote outpost on the North Slope of Alaska.
“You are in the middle of nowhere,” says Samuel Miller about Toolik, which is operated by University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “Besides researchers, nobody goes up there but hunters and oil workers. It’s about as pristine and undeveloped as you can get in the United States.”
Miller, a Ph.D. student with Albert Colman in the University of Chicago’s Department of the Geophysical Sciences, went to Toolik last summer to collect soil samples from various plant communities and from plots of tundra of different glacial ages.
His research taps into a central concern at the Arctic LTER: How do soil microbial communities interact with the vast stores of carbon that are locked in the permafrost (frozen soil), and what will happen to that carbon as the climate warms?
“In a way, the fate of that reservoir of Arctic carbon is the fate of humanity,” Miller says. “It would be a huge positive feedback [to global warming] if a significant portion of it were released from the soil as methane or CO2,”—gasses that trap heat in the atmosphere.
Miller is using leading-edge methods of extracting proteins from his samples to assess the soil’s biology. “Hopefully, we can get some insight into what controls microbial processing of ancient organic matter stored in Arctic soils,” he says.
Along with other scientists, Miller showed his Toolik data at a poster session/reception in Loeb Laboratory. For much of the meeting, the 65 scientists discussed the major insights gained from the last six years of Arctic LTER research, which focused on interactions between climate and ecosystem disturbances, such as tundra wildfires. They also worked to chart a course for the next several years at the LTER, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.
John Hobbie, retired director of the Ecosystems Center, founded Toolik Field Station in 1975 with a small band of pioneers of Arctic long-term ecosystems studies. Recently, Hobbie and George W. Kling edited a volume that synthesizes forty years of Arctic LTER research at Toolik Lake, including valuable contributions to the emergent field of climate change science.