Preparing For The Arctic: Field Training For Field Success

By Katrine Gorham

As the sun returns to the far north and days get longer and warmer, preparations for the busy Arctic field season are already in full swing at lower latitudes. With a team of polar experts who specialize in planning and implementing field logistics, Polar Field Services (PFS) plays a critical role in preparing researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a successful field season. As part of the PFS risk management program, custom Arctic Field Training (AFT) courses are provided for individuals, small groups, and large teams deploying to the Arctic. PFS is proud that interest and demand from the research community continue to grow each year.

The PFS AFT course prepares researchers and students for the challenges of living and working at high latitudes. Pictures from the 2017 Polaris Project field camp in Alaska. Photo credit: Kevin Pettway.

Arctic field work is often conducted in remote, inhospitable, and challenging locations where participants are exposed to intense environmental conditions, wildlife challenges, sensitive ecosystems, and rugged camping. Recognizing that a successful field season requires comprehensive planning and advanced preparation, the PFS AFT course is designed to help researchers and students mitigate challenges on the front end, to ensure that time in the field is productive and positive. Working directly with Principle Investigators and team leaders, the PFS team determines what topics are most relevant and important for each group, and designs and delivers custom curriculum to meet those needs. Each course offers hands-on and classroom training covering a wide range of topics, including bears and wildlife, driving, field planning, cold and heat, gear and tents, communications, hygiene, injuries and first aid, minimizing environmental impact, and risk assessment. Additionally, added to the curriculum in 2018 is discussion of respect, inclusiveness, and bullying and harassment awareness. Feedback from these courses has been tremendously positive, with seasoned Arctic veterans and Arctic first-timers benefiting and participating collaboratively in a constructive learning environment.

Day-to-day activities that may seem routine in your normal life can be daunting and complicated when working, living, and camping in far flung remote locations. The PFS AFT trainers navigate these topics in an encouraging and positive learning style that fosters a community of trust, respect, and good stewardship practices.

Polaris Project students learn how to setup tents during the PFS AFT course. Photo Credit: John Schade.

Working in partnership, PFS’s Kevin Pettway and Matt Irinaga traveled to Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts to provide AFT training for the Polaris Project, as they prepare for their annual research expedition to a remote area of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska. Since 2008, the Polaris Project has engaged diverse groups of undergraduate students in cutting-edge research, providing them encouragement, mentoring, and opportunities to continue pursuing Arctic studies. Undergraduates work with a team of scientists to explore global climate change, studying the fate of permafrost locked carbon as global temperatures increase, melting and releasing carbon to the atmosphere.


Map of Alaska showing the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta where the Polaris Project expedition will camp during summer 2018. Image credit: Polaris Project.

As the Polaris Project Expedition Leader, Sue Natali will lead a team of 18 students and scientists – including 10 undergraduate students from nine different institutions - traveling to Alaska in late June. Located in the Kuka Creek area 40 miles northeast of Bethel, AK, and only reachable by helicopter and float plane, the field camp is remote and provides an ideal setting for students to have an authentic and meaningful research experience. Coming from diverse backgrounds, for many of the students it will be their first time to Alaska, first time camping, and first time living in a close-knit field camp community.


PFS Alaska Operations Manager and AFT trainer, Matt Irinaga, observes Polaris Project student deploy a practice canister of bear spray. Photo credit: John Schade.

Having worked closely with the NSF and PFS for several years, Sue Natali has seen first-hand the benefits of the PFS AFT course. She comments that, “The course helps students feel more confident and less stressed before the trip because they get exposed to the conditions they’ll experience in the field.” Particularly for the Polaris Project, with participants joining for across the country, Sue Natali appreciates that, “…it’s an opportunity for our team to get to know each other, which I think is critical for group dynamics, communications, and overall safety.” She also reflects on student performance and safety awareness, commenting that, “Overall, I notice the students looking out for each other in the field, making sure we all stop to eat and keep hydrated, and they take the bear watch and radio communications very seriously.”

Interested in learning more about the Polaris Project at Woods Hole Research Center? Learn more about the project, see pictures of the team, and follow their progress through the 2018 field season:

Where to next? The next stop for the PFS AFT course is the University of California Santa Cruz to work with PI Beth Shapiro to provide training for students and researchers participating in the Arctic Ecology and Environmental Change field program. The 2018 PFS AFT course schedule is available at

Interested in planning an AFT course for your next trip to the Arctic? If you are a NSF researcher and would like to participate in an AFT course, stay tuned for courses offered for the 2019 field season. Announcements and planning for 2019 AFT course schedule will be begin fall 2018. Funding for NSF grantees is available to cover course costs and travel. Plan ahead and contact PFS early to start organizing your custom AFT course!

What the Humble Blade of Grass Can Tell Us about Environmental Change, Farming and Human Ecodynamics in Iceland

A landscape scene from the Myvatn area. Photo: Astrid Ogilvie Grass probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the foundations of Icelandic culture and society. But the humble blade of grass has played an incredibly important role in Iceland since the early days of settlement.

For centuries, the fate of the grass and hay crop was literally tied to the lives of farmers and their families who raised and depended on livestock. Historically, changes in weather and climate could mean prosperity or famine and despair. Today, the outcomes of the grass and hay crop aren’t quite as vital to life in the island nation as they used to be. However, there’s a lot to be learned from how environmental and climate changes impacted the hay crop and Icelandic communities in years past.

Astrid Ogilvie, research fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and senior scientist at the Stefansson Arctic Institute in Akureyri, Iceland, is leading a multidisciplinary team to investigate the long-term sustainability of rural farming in Myvatn. Myvatn is a region in northeastern Iceland with a rich farming history. Their research is focused primarily on the time period between 1700 and the mid-1900s.

Team members (from left to right) Astrid Ogilvie, Viðar Hreinsson, Ragnhildur Sigurðardóttir and Árni Daníel Júlíusson conferring on the project in Reykjavik. Photo: Astrid Ogilvie

In addition to Ogilvie, who is a climate historian and human ecologist, the project team members include: Ragnhildur Sigurdardottir, ecosystem ecologist and geologist who grew up on a Myvarn farm; Arni Daniel Juliusson, environmental and agricultural historian; Vidar Hreinsson, literary scholar; and Megan Hicks, zooarchaeologist.

The National Science Foundation-funded pilot project, titled Investigations of the Long Term Sustainability of Human Ecodynamic Systems in Northern Iceland, is well underway.  Ogilvie talked to Field Notes about this collaborative effort that has participants doing everything from unearthing archaeological artifacts to studying Iceland’s songs and poetry.

Field Notes (FN): What do you hope to learn about the sustainability of rural farming in Myvatn?

Astrid Ogilvie (AO): We have one overarching research question—we are looking at the varying factors that influenced the success of the hay crop, grazing, and the sustainability of these resources.

The reason why we are so interested in hay and grass is that grass was really the only crop in Iceland in the past. The crux of the matter was that there had to be enough grass or hay to feed the livestock over the winter. Many, many times there were famines and farmers didn’t have enough hay. That meant that the livestock could die and, in consequence, so could people. So, grass and hay were really serious issues.

By looking at this one specific aspect of the economy, we also hope to gain a broad understanding of ways in which societies constantly change, adapt and develop, and also maintain and renew their cultural memories with regard to the environment.

FN: Are there any other things you are hoping to learn along the way?

AO: We do have several other goals associated with this project and we’re hoping to have quite a few results. I’m particularly interested in producing very detailed analyses of the effects of weather, climate, and the presence of sea ice on the grass and hay yield. The presence of sea ice means lower temperatures, which impact grass growth.

We’re also looking at the historical developments of different systems of land management and the success or failure of strategies associated with these. To do this, we’re looking at farms in the region and why some failed and others didn’t, as well as changes in livestock management systems.

The project also considers human perceptions of agricultural and environmental change as reflected in poetry and other forms of literature in the overall context of folklore and cultural memory. You’d be surprised how many poems and songs were written about grass!

FN: Tell us a little about the agricultural history of the region. Do people still actively farm the land in Myvatn today?

AO: Myvatn’s history is very interesting, as it was one of the first areas in Iceland to be settled beginning in the late 800s AD. Unlike other areas, it’s been farmed continuously.

Location Map of the Myvatn area

Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly the rich natural resources of the area, and the region is unique in the way that it has practiced sustainable natural extraction for its most vital resources for an extended period of time. People are still actively farming the land, although tourism is rapidly increasing as an additional form of livelihood.

I also have to mention the unique ecology of the region! Myvatn is a wetland region that was designated a protected area in 1974, and in 1978 placed on the RAMSAR list of wetlands of international importance. The name "Myvatn" literally means "Midge Lake" and refers to the large number of midges in the area. The midge population is of vital importance for the local ecosystem, providing food for the migratory and native water birds that flock to the area, as well as for the fish in the lake.

FN: What types of data are you and your team collecting?

AO: The major emphasis of the project is on documentary historical data. These come from all sorts of different written accounts that give very detailed information about the progression of change over the project time period. We have this information because Icelanders kept unusually good and detailed records from early settlement times onwards.

A document in the local archive at Husavik, not far from the Myvatn area, that shows information and meteorological observations for the very cold year of 1880. Photo: Astrid Ogilvie

In regards to the documentary records, I want to share a little bit of historical information first. Iceland was governed by Denmark for a long time—until 1944. From the 1700s up to around 1900, officials from around the country were required to send in reports to the Danish government every year. There are reports on everything—reports about the weather, the hay, the livestock trade, fisheries, vegetables grown, people’s health, and so on. I am making a specific study of these reports. They are a fantastically rich data set!

We are also very privileged to have access to another set of unique historical documents that have never been used before. These are provided by project Co-PI Ragnhildur Sigurdardottir from the unpublished archives of her ancestors. These documentary data will be complemented by data from the archaeological record.

Archaeological information is also very important for the project, as it helps to illuminate the documentary records and provides further insights into the characteristics of sustainable or exploitative economies. The project also benefits from the collaborative international archaeological work that has been ongoing in the Myvatn region for over three decades. We are particularly interested in zooarchaeological data, which involves looking at animal bones. We want to know more about the ratio of different animals that were kept in the past. There were mostly sheep, cattle and horses, but over time there were different emphases on the types of animals that were kept.

The project has a significant archaeological component. The photo shows team member Megan Hicks, a zooarchaeologist, at work. Photo: Astrid Ogilvie

FN: Are there some initial findings you can share with us?

AO: Yes, it’s really quite clear that weather and climate did have an impact on grass growth and hay yield. It’s also quite easy to prove that statistically. Bad weather—either very wet weather or very dry, or even early winter storms and snow—had a negative effect on the hay and grass crop. Variable weather with alternating frosts and thaws could also have a very bad effect. Also, in years when a lot of sea ice drifted to the coasts from Greenland this had a negative effect on the grass. This was mainly because the ice has the effect of lowering temperatures on land.

FN: What can we learn from this project, and from the past, about living in a time of environmental change?

AO: I hope that we can find some sense of how to farm and live sustainably in a particular environment. Even though what we are looking at with this project happened in the past, there are still a lot of lessons for the present and the future. The past can teach us how people once coped with difficult situations and environmental change.

In more general terms, we can already see that by collecting and synthesizing different forms of data relating to one specific aspect of the economy—the hay and grass—we are building up a lot of information on critical connections between society and the environment—the ecodynamics emphasis of the project.--Alicia Clarke

For more information about Astrid Ogilvie and this collaborative project to understand the long-term sustainability of human ecodynamic systems in northern Iceland, visit

Endangered Archaeology: Climate Change Threatens to Swallow Paleo-Inuit Sites from Alaska to Greenland

A site used by a paleo-Inuit people known to science as the Dorset threatens to fall into the sea. Photo: John Darwent When John Darwent returned to a remote corner of northwestern Greenland in 2012 to search for the remains of a paleo-Inuit culture that had occupied the area millennia ago, he found the site dramatically changed from the previous visit in 2006. Several meters of the coast had disappeared, chewed away by storm waves that had assaulted the permafrost. A rare archaeological find would soon be swept out to Baffin Bay.

A year later—and about 1,500 miles away—erosion along shoreline bluffs of the Chukchi Sea at Walakpa, about 12 miles from Barrow, Alaska, revealed an ancient sod house on an archaeological site once considered mined of all of its secrets back in the late 1960s. Anne Jensen and a small team of archaeologists raced to the area to conduct an emergency excavation, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), before the structure fell away when the next big storm pounded Alaska’s North Slope.

A storm in 2013 caused erosion along a bluff about 12 miles south of Barrow, Alaska, revealing an ancient sod house that has been dated to as early as 500 AD. Photo: Anne Jensen

These events are not isolated, insist archaeologists. Countless archaeological sites are under threat from climate change around the world.

In the Arctic, the pattern has become a familiar one. Sea ice—a buffer between the coastline and open seas—is retreating earlier and returning later each year. That leaves the shoreline vulnerable for longer periods of time to angry storm waves, which pummel permafrost weakened by warmer temperatures like a battering ram on the walls of a castle long under siege. Large blocks of sod then tumble into the ocean along with human artifacts, even whole structures, buried within the soil for centuries if not millennia.

“Every archaeological site in the Arctic is eroding, and we can’t stabilize all of them,” says Genevieve LeMoine, curator and registrar of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College in Maine.

LeMoine is principal investigator on a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation, in collaboration with Darwent, to recover artifacts from the Late Dorset culture that are entombed at the historic Inughuit village site of Iita, located in Foulke Fjord, in northwestern Greenland. The team will head to the site in June. (RAPID grants are NSF research awards for which funds are set aside for projects with severe urgency, such as a proposal to study the aftershocks of an earthquake.)

Researchers Hans Lennert, Hans Lange and Justin Junge excavate Late Dorset culture artifacts from Iita in Greenland. The site served as a crossroads for various paleo-Inuit cultures crossing into Greenland. Climate change is endangering its long-term viability, so archaeologists are racing against time to save what they can. Photo: John Darwent

“We’re starting to realize this is a broad and inevitable crisis, and we’re trying to figure out how to cope with this impending loss of lots and lots of archaeological data,” LeMoine adds.

Spreading east

The Dorset represent a distinct culture of the High Arctic that were broadly part of what scientists refer to as the Arctic Small Tool tradition. ASTt people, as the name implies, employed small tools made of flint or quartz—a useful technology for a highly mobile culture. Waves of these paleo-Inuit spread eastward from Alaska and Canada into Greenland as long as 4,500 years ago.

The Dorset people had ventured as far as northwest Greenland by 700 AD. Primarily hunters who preyed on seals through holes in the sea ice, the Dorset preceded another culture known as the Thule, whose own migration eastward from Alaska began around 1200 AD. Their move into Greenland occurred rapidly, according to Jensen, perhaps within one or two generations. The modern natives of Greenland are descended from the Thule, who had distinctive technologies that enabled them to hunt whales.

Iita, also known as Etah, was a crossroads for these paleo-Inuit migrations and cultures. Its location on the edge of the Northwater Polynya, an area of open water in sea ice, served as an ideal outpost to hunt marine mammals like walrus. A nearby bird colony of dovekies, or little auks, was also a valuable resource. In the past, Arctic fox and hare had also been plentiful in the area.

“It was a good base camp, and it had resources at different times of the year,” LeMoine notes.

Saving data

How did the Dorset Culture use those resources? What were their lives like—and what led to their eventual demise? What interaction, if any, occurred between the Dorset and Thule people? The answers to a number of such questions may be awaiting discovery just below the surface at Iita.

“The potential importance of the site for looking at Late Dorset culture is very high because it is rare to find stratified sites in the high Arctic,” says Darwent, who was on the team of scientists in 2006 that first discovered signs of Dorset Culture at Iita on an expedition originally focused on Thule excavations.

In particular, Darwent, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, is referring to the layering of artifacts like layers in a cake, thanks to a trick of the local geography. He described the area in a brief project summary following a 2012 expedition funded by NSF:

Iita sits on an alluvial fan created by a fast running creek; however, prior to the creation of the fan, during the time when ice still ran down the fjord, a steep-sloped deposit of gravel was left along the wall of the fjord, known as a kame. This kame is now eroding because of its steep slope; sand, gravel, and cobbles from it now flow down onto the alluvial fan, creating the stratigraphy now present at the site. ... First an open surface exists that develops vegetation … then this surface is buried, and then another surface with vegetation develops. And upon these surfaces people lived.

“What makes the deposits special at Iita is not only the Late Dorset material stratigraphically below the Thule occupations; there are three distinct layers of just Late Dorset materials,” Darwent explains during an email exchange in May. “In essence, we have three snapshots of different times within the Late Dorset use of the region.”

Elation at such a discovery has been tempered by the precarious conditions that threaten to plunge Iita into Foulke Fjord. As luck—bad in this case—would have it, the most complex and informative deposits are located close to that erosion face, according to Darwent.

Archaeologist Justin Junge works to recover artifacts at Iita, Greenland. Photo: John Darwent

“As for timing, I would imagine in the next decade the stratified deposits could be gone,” he says, adding that the whole site is very large and there are some areas that will not be affected. “This summer will give us a good opportunity to see if substantial loss has occurred over the last four years. I am actually apprehensive that a large erosion event could have occurred already.”

Going all out

A lead scientist at Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC) near Barrow, Jensen used funds from her RAPID grant to collect and analyze samples from Walakpa. As late as 2013, the site at Walakpa appeared stable when the face of the bluff sloughed off, exposing a sod house, which has since been dated to as early as 500 AD. The Iñupiat people have inhabited the region for at least 3,500 years.

“There are a number of sites that are very important, and if we don’t get to them fairly soon, they will no longer contain all of this really cool data,” says Jensen during a phone interview from Alaska where she has worked for more than 20 years.

As late as 2013, the site at Walakpa appeared stable when the face of the bluff sloughed off, exposing a sod house, which has since been dated to as early as 500 AD. The Iñupiat people have inhabited the region for at least 3,500 years.

Researchers look over the eroded bluff where a storm in 2013 revealed an ancient sod house. Photo: Anne Jensen

“It’s not just important because it has the cultural heritage of this area,” she adds. “It’s a place that’s been used consistently for a very long time.”

A storm over the 2014 Labor Day weekend took out as much as 11 meters of the coastline along a 100-meter front. More of the site was lost the following year in a different storm. Jensen is leading an all-volunteer effort later this summer to recover as many artifacts and material as possible before more of the coastline breaks away. She’s even donating airline miles to help defray travel costs for colleagues.

“We’ll probably have people staying at my house,” she says.

Reaching beyond archaeology

Jensen’s impassioned advocacy goes beyond archaeology. She says human occupation at many of these sites can provide the sorts of ecological and environmental insights that are often the dominion of ice cores, sediment cores, and tree rings.

For example, at Walakpa, people have brought fish, whales, and other prey to the same site for thousands of years. Tissue samples from those animals are preserved in the permafrost, like meat in a freezer, waiting to be extracted and analyzed.

“You have a frozen tissue archive with several thousand years of time depth,” she notes. “Museums don’t have that.”

Experts can look at DNA and tease out information about animal population dynamics, speciation, even how diets changed and the food web evolved in response to environmental upheavals. It’s even possible now to extract corticosteroids from bone samples to determine if an animal experienced stress during its lifetime, Jensen explains.

“You can date it all,” she says. “You can start to put your food web together and see how they changed over time.

“A lot of it is not just social science data,” she adds. “A whole lot of the data I’m talking about is not going to answer social science questions; it’s going to answer natural science questions.”

Racing against time

It’s difficult to race against time to save the world’s archaeological treasures if there’s not even a starting line: There is no comprehensive list of endangered sites or even a catalog of how many are under threat at this time.

“The scope of the problem is so big,” LeMoine notes.

Jensen says there is momentum in the scientific community to prioritize sites worldwide and create a vulnerability index, based on a variety of factors, from cultural value to preservation cost to the assessed level of endangerment. Pragmatism must be observed in some cases. “There’s nothing you can do to protect some of these things,” Jensen says.

In the meantime, Jensen is advocating for a campaign to collect as much data as possible from archaeological sites, even forgoing analysis in the short term. She says a similar program to collect ice cores from fast-disappearing glaciers in the mid-latitudes captured invaluable data in the form of ice cores before the ice melted away in many places.

“Something similar needs to happen with archaeological sites,” Jensen says. “If you do it in the normal science order, you will get far less data. In 50 years, we’ll get far less data than we would have if we had gotten the primary data and curated it properly.”

Weathering change

How much time is left is anyone’s guess. However, the Arctic is changing more rapidly than scientists have predicted.

Alaska just experienced its warmest February ever and second warmest winter ever in the modern record, according to NOAA. Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the country. Average annual temperatures have increased by 3 degrees Fahrenheit with winter temperatures increasing by 6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Arctic sea ice is at the tipping point, setting a record low maximum extent in 2016 for the second straight year, according to scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colo., and NASA. Sea ice extent over the Arctic Ocean averaged 14.52 million square kilometers on March 24, beating last year’s record low of 14.54 million square kilometers over the 37-year satellite record.

The longer absence of sea ice is detrimental to the coastline, even in areas like Alaska’s North Slope where permafrost is still relatively stable, according to Vladimir E. Romanovsky, head of the Geophysical Institute Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which maintains a network of permafrost monitoring sites in North America and Russia with NSF funding.

Scientist Vladimir Romanovsky studies changes in the permafrost around the North Slope of Alaska in 2007. Warming climate is causing the active layer – the upper portion of the soil that thaws and freezers each year – to deepen. Warmer permafrost is partly allowing coastal erosion around the Arctic, endangering archaeological sites. Photo: Vladimir Romanovsky

That’s because wave energy has more space and time to build up intensity. “It’s going to accelerate the rate of coastal erosion,” he says. “Degradation of permafrost is mostly coastal erosion in the Barrow area.”

In far northern areas like Barrow in Alaska and Iita in Greenland, little of the permafrost is fully thawing, Romanovsky says. However, the permafrost is warming and the active layer, the upper part of the soil that thaws and freezes annually, is slowly deepening, he adds.

Under a “business as usual” climate model where human impacts from atmospheric carbon dioxide remain steady, temperatures in Alaska will climb by as much as 8 degrees Celsius by century’s end. “In this case, according to this scenario, permafrost will be thawing even on the North Slope of Alaska,” Romanovsky says.

Additionally, the high salinity content of some soils in Greenland and Alaska, particularly along the coast, means liquid may already exist in some areas. Where there is water, there is life – microorganisms decomposing organic material. The temperature in the permafrost doesn’t need to reach 0 degrees Celsius before frozen earth in saltier soils thaws, ruining Jensen’s ecological archive of frozen animal tissue as the microbes go to work.

“These things have transitioned from perfect organic preservation to bone mush – there’s nothing that you can recover,” she says. “It’s a very rapid transition. It’s not like we have a lot of time here.” —Peter Rejcek

For further information about the scientists and their work, visit their blogs, visit:



GrIT Situation Report 7

16 May 2016In and Out of Summit Station

GrIT team looking well-rested after a short respite at Summit Station. (L-R) Ben Toth, Galen Dossin, Robin Davies, Pat Smith. Photo: Kaija Webster

The Traverse arrived at Summit 08 May and departed 15 May.

Battling All the Way

The crew endured a few rough days prior to reaching Summit. Snow conditions caused a loss of traction, requiring the tractors to crawl along at 3 mph.  Although the GrIT crew said they did less double-hauling on the last leg into Summit than in previous years, they still made slow progress with the snow conditions and load configurations. Continuing the 4th crew member on the night shift allowed the men to keep forward momentum and they leap-frogged the cargo at night to stay on track.

Within 70 miles of Summit, the Case 500's turbo failed due to an improperly factory-installed nut, which worked its way loose and jammed into the turbo vanes.

The Case in the shop at Summit. Photo: Robin Davies

The GrIT team repaired the Case, but a hydraulic leak developed days later. Undeterred, the team made some field welds, and finished the journey, arriving at Summit mid day on 8 May. The ailing Case went into to the shop almost immediately.

Summit Off and Onload

Weather took a turn, with whiteout and north wind conditions limiting and/or preventing work (because north winds blow Summit's air "footprint" into the clean snow sector, we avoid running machines in those conditions).  The mechanics completed full vehicle checks while many GrIT tasks waited for better weather. Once the winds shifted, the GrIT team and Summit staff unloaded the various cargo packages.

To help with cargo offloading, the Summit group built a snow berm, the GrIT vehicles were positioned alongside, and the top layer of cargo removed. The team then shaved down the berm to make it even with the next layer, pulled that cargo off, and so on.

The group worked for several days, and everything was offloaded successfully, including some big cargo pieces as shown in the pictures just below.

Next, the crew recovered a GrIT tractor and sled that had wintered outdoors at Summit and prepared it to return to Thule. It took several days to dig out the tractor and cargo sled, and then another to thaw the vehicle enough to start it. Since it wouldn't hold a charge, the mechanics replaced an alternator--a small cost for wintering outside in -80F degree temperatures.

On the horizon, the pile of snow moved to dislodge the sled and tractor. Impressive! Photo: Robin Davies

Heading Back to Thule

At first, the GrIT vehicles moved along well, at about 6.5 to 7 mph.  Unfortunately, after several hours, the Tucker operator noticed an oil leak on the vehicle's front axle. Upon inspection, the GrIT team found iron filings clinging to the magnetic tip, indicating the Tucker’s pinion bearing had collapsed.

The fuel sled loaded for the return to Thule. The Tucker was loaded on this sled. Photo: Robin Davies

The Tucker is tuckered out, so it rides as cargo the remainder of the journey.

The crew is carrying fuel to support two research groups, so GrIT will pause to place a fuel cache at a designated site en route to Thule. Otherwise, it's horse to barn, or GrIT to Thule. Depending upon progress, the GrIT team estimates arrival at Thule between 27 May and 04 June.--Julie Raine

GrIT_logo_2016The Arctic Research Support and Logistics Program within the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs funds the GrIT. CH2MHILL Polar Services and Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratories are working together with the NSF to develop the traverse infrastructure and route to Summit Station. The 2016 spring traverse delivers cargo to Summit Station, and continues efforts to optimize mobility, GrIT will provide direct science support to several projects, retrieving instruments for a soon-to-be-completed effort, and laying fuel caches for upcoming projects. Follow GrIT’s progress here:

Mapping Community Exposure to Coastal Hazards in Northern Alaska

The remote northern Alaska coast has some of the highest shoreline-erosion rates in the nation. Photo USGS (Click here for the page hosting the photo.) Communities along the far northern coastlines of Alaska are witnessing some of the highest erosion rates in the world. Less and less sea ice cover results in the direct exposure of coastal soils to the destructive blunt force of powerful wave energy. That, coupled with permafrost thaw and sea-level rise, means the region can lose upwards of 50 feet of coastline per year in some locations.

Such a dramatic loss of coastal lands along Alaska’s North Slope has serious impacts on the villages that call the region home. Erosion is putting valuable community assets—like traditional lands, industrial sites, military infrastructure, and municipal utilities—at serious risk.

Community Mapping

Michael Brady, a doctorate candidate at Rutgers University in the Geography Department, is leading a National Science Foundation-supported project to document and map community exposure to coastal climate threats.

His project, titled Mapping Community Exposure to Coastal Climate Hazards in the Arctic: A Case Study in Alaska's North Slope, integrates Geographic Information Systems, remote sensing, and other mapping tools to identify areas most at risk. What makes it particularly unique is that residents of the communities where he works are active participants in the research process.

“I do community mapping. I develop an erosion risk database in the North Slope, and then I create maps from that data to engage communities to both verify the maps, expand on them, and make sure the maps I create are locally usable,” Brady explained.

Ultimately, the map products that result from his work will be valuable resources to help communities and local officials plan for their needs in the face of a rapidly changing landscape.

Where Erosion and Valued Lands Overlap

Brady’s research takes a deeper look at areas where high erosion rates overlap with things people value.

“Near villages I'm working in, the erosion rates are severe, though not as severe as in other areas. Where I’m looking, we are seeing erosion rates of up to 10 feet per year in some places,” he said.

Over the past 2 years, Brady has conducted dozens of open-ended and semi-structured interviews with residents in Wainwright, Kaktovik, Barrow and Nuiqsut to get a better idea of where erosion is affecting people’s lives most.

During these conversations he and the participants highlight areas of high risk on paper maps. A number of themes emerged from those initial discussions.

“Traditional land use areas were a primary concern. In addition to Native Allotments, there are a lot of archaeological sites and cultural heritage resources that are significant. These are places where there still tends to be heavy activity. For instance, during the summer months communities often still use many of these places,” he said.

Residents also worry about the impact erosion may have on potentially contaminated Cold War sites that are near the marine habitats villagers often use to fish and collect other sources of food.

A cabin along the Arctic Alaska coastline was recently washed into the ocean because the bluff it was sitting on top of was eroded away. Photo: Benjamin Jones, USGS

Utility infrastructure was the final major area of concern. “In Barrow, there are important pump stations for the utility company that if water gets into the system, the whole multi-million dollar operation is disrupted and would need major repairs,” Brady said. “At this point they are literally throwing dirt at it during the heaviest erosion months!”

Collaborative Exchanges

With the information identifying the assets at risk from erosion that villages cared most about in hand, Brady moved the next phase of his work—inputting this into a database and then developing accessible, web-based applications called story maps to share it more broadly.

Brady returns to these North Slope communities this spring with large, 10-foot long printed erosion risk maps of the region to verify the information in the database and speak with more community members about areas experiencing high erosion.

“This is collaborative, community-based research. An important tenant of that process is that it’s not just communities in the North Slope that are learning from the experience of being engaged with this research; I, as the researcher, am learning as well,” Brady said. “So this is reflexive research where there’s a mutual learning process. I’m learning and fine tuning my methods as I learn from people I work with in the field.”

Thawing permafrost accelerates erosion. Photo: USGS

More Applications

While Brady is in northern Alaska, he will also host usability workshops with local officials to explore how this spatially detailed erosion hazard risk information can be applied.

“At the end of this process, what I hope we all walk away with—and that other scientists can learn from, too—is the value of community engagement in research. I hope this process creates long term relationships that continue to grow, as they are the key to long term engagement on this issue,” Brady said.

For more information about Michael Brady and his project to map community exposure to coastal hazards in northern Alaska, visit —Alicia Clarke

GrIT Situation Report 6

29 April 2016Halfway To Summit Station

Crew members working to re-fasten the pouches to the decks. Photo: Robin Davies
Crew members working to re-fasten the pouches to the decks. Photo: Robin Davies

Sastrugi Encounters

The crew has surpassed the horrible sastrugi zone, which continued to cause our ARCS (Air ride cargo sled) pouches to detach from the decks.  The battens pulled away from the decks so the crews had to improvise a different strapping method.

Before they left the sastrugi behind, the WeatherPort tent sustained additional damage, with several new tears allowing snow to blow into the team's shelter.  The crew used a Speedy Stitcher sewing awl to repair the tent, closing it off to the elements.  They also moved cargo cages away from the tent wall to prevent further damage.

Left: inside the WeatherPort, patches repair tears in the tent wall. Right, sideview: tears are visible in the white WeatherPort, fabric,. The green helium cage is being moved back on the deck to prevent further damage. Gas cylinders must be enclosed in these cages for safety reasons, but they fill up with snow, adding unwanted weight to the decks. Photos: Robin Davies

Sled Mobility Optimization Tests

A new air manifold system developed this season to reduce the amount of time needed to check and maintain pressure in each airbeam pouch (which underlay and support the decks) has been less than a ringing success.  Staff designed a manifold system that fed out of the pouch opening and extended to the side of each deck, allowing the operators to make quick checks to better maintain stable pressure.  Unfortunately, several of the valve stems have snapped off, likely due to cold temperatures causing the material to become brittle. Broken stems allow air leaks, causing the pouches to lose pressure.  The team has gone back to the original method of checking and filling the pouches directly from the airbeam valves.

Left: the red hose of the manifold at the deck corner was intended to provide easy access to all of the airbeams within the pouch. Right: without the manifold, GrIT operators have to unfold the pouch and access each valve individually. Photos: Robin Davies

The old pontoon, removed from under the deck. Photo: Robin Davies
The old pontoon, removed from under the deck. Photo: Robin Davies

In addition to the manifold issues, some of the airbeams migrated backwards, dislodging from under the load.  The crew had to pull them forward into place – not uncommon, but undesirable.  Finally, one pouch had to be fully replaced with our spare because the broken valve stem could not be fully repaired and continued to leak.

Once all of these repairs were made and the GrIT moved beyond the sastrugi, the loads seemed to settle in and the tractors started to tow them more easily. The D7 was loaded onto its own HMW sled riding on top of tires mounted to the Durabase.  Our team reports that this configuration seems to be hauling very well, and may be a new way to approach heavy equipment transport.  The tires protect the Durabase, which provides a solid platform to which the equipment may be mounted. The D7 has not shifted and they are happy with this load.

From left: The D7 loaded on its tire/Durabase sled before leaving Thule, and on the road packed with snow. Finally, a Case tractor hauling the cargo sled (seen in rear view mirror) passing the D7 sled . Photo: Robin Davies


More Field Repairs

Next, the Case 500 tractor developed  a hydraulic leak when a steel return line cracked at a point where the bracket was welded. Having encountered a similar issue on a previous traverse, the crew carried a spare, but because it was manufactured for another Case model, the crew had to braze the part to fix the leak.

Night Shift

To leverage the advantages of having four crew members, the team decided to add a night shift to "leap frog" loads forward. Three GrIT members move sleds forward through the day while Ben sleeps, and he continues at night. This strategy has helped the GrIT stay on track, literally: at night, Ben packs a trail for the cargo sled to follow during the day. Coupled with improved weather conditions, the team has made steady progress, even gaining 35-40 miles on several days.

The view of the packed road resulting from the night shift. Photo: Robin Davies
The view of the packed road resulting from the night shift. Photo: Robin Davies

Science Support Update

The crew has retrieved several data cards from weather stations installed by Zoe Courville's project, SAGE, an U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded study of sunlight absorption and firn compaction.  Some stations are deeply buried and will require significant effort when it is time to remove them later this season.

Left: The buried weather station. Right: Once we excavate the station, we retrieve the data card. Photos: Robin Davies.

--Julie Raine


The Arctic Research Support and Logistics Program within the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs funds the GrIT. CH2MHILL Polar Services and Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratories are working together with the NSF to develop the traverse infrastructure and route to Summit Station. The 2016 spring traverse delivers cargo to Summit Station, and continues efforts to optimize mobility, GrIT will provide direct science support to several projects, retrieving instruments for a soon-to-be-completed effort, and laying fuel caches for upcoming projects. Follow GrIT’s progress here:

Setting up Camp

Staff Make it Happen Near Tutakoke, Alaska Each spring for as long as we can remember, we've installed a field camp for Jim Sedinger near Tutakoke, in southwestern Alaska. Sedinger's field team works there all season to continue a long-term, NSF-funded study of Black Brant geese. Since 2014, we've also built a camp nearby for Karen Beard's NSF-funded ecology experiment.

Spring 2014: Clearly conditions in Chevak do not favor using snowmobiles for put-in. Photo: Matt Irinaga

But unusual spring weather in the last few years has challenged our plan to haul the field camp gear behind snowmobiles from the storage van where they have wintered in the village of Chevak, to the field site 20 miles away.

We've had to devise alternatives to work around early spring thaw, poor snow conditions, and flooding rain, resorting to boat rentals or small plane charters to reach the field site, Never a dull moment,

But this season, conditions cooperated, and we completed the put-in with snowmachines.  Larry Gullingsrud sent pictures to prove it.

AK-Tutakoke-SedingerPutinSnowmobiles-LarryGullingsrud04 11 2016-04 17 2016Gullingsrud

The research sites are within ~100 yards of each other on the coast; both flood during fall/winter when Bering Sea weather creates storm surges that crest the beach. Though we anchor and strap gear down at the close of each season to keep it from floating away, when we return in the spring, we contend with gear enclosed in ice and snow, as shown in the pictures below.

AK-Tutakoke-SedingerPutinGettingBOatOut-LarryGullingsrud04 11 2016-04 17 2016

Support includes skiffs and outboards for research activities and transportation. The boats are stored over winter on the Niglikfak River with the Chevak village boats. This winter, the river flooded, freezing the boats into a block of ice. At right, PFS staff uncover a skiff to allow the sun to melt the ice on the inside of the boat. We will then lift it clear. The boat will be towed on a sled the 20 miles to the Tutakoke field camp so the research groups can get back to Chevak after the river ice breaks up in late May. Or earlier.

The Beard camp (below, left) features a drainage ditch leading from the main WeatherPort tent to the river bank. This allows the meltwater to escape the depression that was created when we chipped out the ground below the floor panels, thus preventing flooding in the tents. Given these structures will be home to a group of scientists for the long summer, that's an important step.

GrIT Situation Report 5

April 18, 2016The Continuing Slog

The Greenland Inland Traverse (GrIT) team has left the crevasse zone and is headed to Camp Century [about 150 miles from Thule Air Base].

Small sastrugi caused by winds. Photo: Julie Raine
Small sastrugi caused by winds. Photo: Julie Raine

The GrIT team has been fighting weather and poor snow conditions the whole way.  They had another stalled day in a Condition Charlie storm, sitting tight and waiting for the winds to die down.  They’ve also had to deal with the worst sastrugi they have ever encountered in this area.

Gl-GriT 7 QmutTractorCrossingSastrugi-Julie Raines
Gl-GriT 7 QmutTractorCrossingSastrugi-Julie Raines

These long wind rows of blown snow are 5-6 feet high, creating a rough passage through this zone as the tractors climb one side and then descend the steep back side to cross over.

The custom-built sleds are suffering as well. The weight of the cargo loads cannot be distributed evenly across the airbeam/pouches, causing wear and failure of some of the pouch attachments to the decking.  In addition, on the descent of one sastrugi, the two fore decks were pinched too closely together, so the helium cylinders on the front right deck got too close to the WeatherPort tent on the front left deck and tore a hole in the tent side.  This WeatherPort is the only covered shelter for materials and work space, so a new hole will allow more snow and wind to penetrate this area.

Recovering Data

Ben Toth retrieving data card from a weather station. Photo: Robin Davies
Ben Toth retrieving data card from a weather station. Photo: Robin Davies

Our team has been able to do the direct science support tasks planned for this part of the trip. They retrieved a data card from an instrument site installed in 2014 by Zoe Courville's team for SAGE, an NSF-funded study of sunlight absorption and firn compaction.  Data from this and other SAGE instruments, retrieved and forwarded to the researchers, will be used for modeling and analysis.

More Weather at Thule

The GrIT prep crew has finally departed Thule. Held up by cancelled planes and weather, they took advantage of the additional time on station to put away equipment, tools and ensure the transition work area was battened down ahead of the huge wind storms that pounded the area last week. Eighty knot winds blew fiercely, causing lots of the surrounding sea ice to blow out, bringing large patches of open water near base.  In addition, the Thule roads melted under a warm wind in 4 hours, bringing mud season in a month early.  Our staff erected a snow fence prior to the storm, to try to learn how to better harvest blowing snow and create a snow mine near the work area which they could then spread out on their work pad, providing space for the sleds to be set up.  The first attempt was a success, forming snow drifts 3-4 feet high after just one storm.--Julie Raine

Combined Snow Fence Pic with Caption
Combined Snow Fence Pic with Caption

The Arctic Research Support and Logistics Program within the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs funds the GrIT.  CH2MHILL Polar Services and Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratories are working together with the NSF to develop the traverse infrastructure and route to Summit Station. The 2016 spring traverse delivers cargo to Summit Station, and continues efforts to optimize mobility, GrIT will provide direct science support to several projects, retrieving instruments for a soon-to-be-completed effort, and laying fuel caches for upcoming projects. Follow GrIT’s progress here:


Arctic Grayling May Find It Hard to Go with the Flow Due to Climate Change

The research team’s remote field camp above Iminus Lake in Arctic Alaska. Photo: Mark Urban It seems that global climate change is becoming predictably more unpredictable every year. That’s especially true in fragile regions like the Arctic where even small changes in temperature or precipitation can have big effects on the ecosystem.

When Mark Urban and his team of biologists arrived in the foothills of Alaska’s Brooks Range last May, for example, they were disconcerted to see tundra green and not the lingering snowfields of winter. The spring thaw had begun unseasonably early. The scientists faced logistical hurdles to hurry to their field sites along the upper Kuparuk River and nearby watersheds where they are studying the effects of climate change on a species of fish called Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus).

“It’s so hard to plan. It’s so hard to know what’s going to happen next. It’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen next season,” noted Urban, who co-wrote an editorial in the New York Times with Linda Deegan earlier this year about the abrupt and alarming changes that they have witnessed in the extreme northerly reaches of Alaska.

“In some ways, [unpredictability is] becoming everyday life,” said Urban, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut. He is principal investigator (PI), along with co-PI Deegan of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, on a 3-year, NSF-funded project to track the seasonal migration of Arctic grayling in an environment becoming increasingly more difficult for the fish to maneuver as warmer summers bleed the streams dry during critical periods.

“At some point, you stop becoming surprised,” Urban added, of what he and Deegan dubbed the Heat Age in the NYT piece. They just happened to arrive on the hottest May ever in the 91-year record for Alaska’s North Slope in what would turn out to be the hottest year ever for the planet in the modern meteorological record. The average temperature last May on the North Slope was nearly 9 degrees Fahrenheit (4.9 degrees Celsius) above normal.

“There are indications that things are warming up now rather than later,” said Cameron MacKenzie, a research assistant with Deegan’s lab at MBL.

Such abrupt and rapid changes make it more difficult for the scientists to do their jobs—both logistically and scientifically. Lack of snow and the fragility of the tundra mean researchers must use more expensive means to reach remote field sites—catching rides on helicopters rather than using snowmobiles to move equipment and people.

MBL research assistant Cameron MacKenzie awaits a helicopter delivering supplies to a field camp that the researchers would normally use snow machines to transport. However, warm and dry conditions in May precluded using snow mobiles. Photo: Mark Urban

More challenging is the effort to understand and eventually predict how grayling will respond to a changing climate when the baseline is already shifting positions faster than a politician in election season.

Nobody is overly concerned that Arctic grayling, a circumpolar species, is in any danger of extinction. However, the fish serve as a key species in the region, and local extinctions or changes in individual fishery populations could affect the ecosystem in that area of Alaska’s North Slope. In particular, the fish play a vital role in linking deep-water habitats where they overwinter in lakes to the streams and tributaries where they migrate to breed.

“The seasonal migration of the grayling acts as a subsidy to these lakes,” MacKenzie said. In other words, after the Arctic grayling feed and fatten up as they migrate to and from their breeding grounds, they return to places such as Green Cabin Lake off the upper Kuparuk River where deep water serves as a winter refuge. A relative of salmon, Arctic grayling are food for lake trout, and their poo is a much-needed nutrient that stimulates the nutrient-poor food web of the freshwater Arctic ecosystem.

But warmer summers are temporarily turning streams like the Kuparuk—where some populations migrate as far as 50 kilometers—into dried-out boulder fields. That’s not a problem until winter approaches, and the Arctic grayling need to return to deeper water to avoid freezing to death in the shallow streams.

The top image shows grayling crowded together while trapped in a pool below a dry channel in the Kuparuk River. The two figures below show the extremes of the dry and wet conditions in Arctic Alaska. Graphic: Cameron MacKenzie

In August 2011, during a previous phase of the current project, known as Fishscape, a lingering drought caught thousands of fish on the wrong side of a dry section of riverbed. A typical 2-day journey from the summer habitat to the lake took the Kuparuk grayling on average 30 days to complete. The stranded fish “were subjected to extra stresses from increased predation, crowding, and loss in accrued mass over the summer because invertebrate production shuts down in the fall,” MacKenzie said.

Mother Nature helped out when the first snowfall of the season re-flooded the stream just in time for the stranded grayling to retreat back to Green Cabin Lake.

“We were worried they were going to freeze solid in the stream. The timing of these drying events is very critical to their mortality,” MacKenzie said. “We are working on describing what impacts these stresses to the migrant grayling population have on the lake community dynamics and grayling reproduction and mortality in subsequent years. “

The team is able to monitor the grayling using remote-sensing data received from passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags, which track the movement of individual fish as they pass by a far-flung array of antennas along the shore.

The team is also using other methods to tell the life story of Arctic grayling in the waterways of the North Slope. For example, genetics can speak to the connectivity within and between watersheds based on genetic differences among grayling populations in different locations.

In addition to the Kuparuk River, the new phase of the project encompasses two other stream systems—Oksrukuyik Creek and the Itkillik Tributary. The former experiences more extreme conditions—in 2011, 271 grayling trapped between dry areas on the creek died—while the latter is well connected to headwater lakes and the main Itkillik River.

Understanding the genetic variation between the populations in these watersheds is much more than an academic exercise, according to Urban. It is an important step in understanding how populations move, mingle (or not), and meet different challenges. For instance, are some populations more resilient to water temperature changes?

“We can dive down in this history book in the DNA and see the effects of past migrations,” Urban explained. “There’s pretty strong genetic variation.” The genetic work is being led by Heidi Golden, a PhD student at the University of Connecticut.

Another method of investigation involves scanning grayling otoliths with a laser to look at the composition of the fish’s ear bones. Studying otoliths is a bit like reading tree rings. Instead of recording a year-to-year environmental record, however, the ear bones contain chemical tracers that can be matched to specific water chemistry of a stream.

“We can not only get the long-term view of migration [using genetics], we can get the short-term view in terms of the individual fish life by looking at the chemistry of the streams,” Urban said. “We’re kind of the NSA [National Security Agency] of fish. We want to track these things wherever they go, wherever they’ve been, and really understand that. From that, we can predict what might happen as the streams begin to dry.”

Urban said the effects of climate change can be more easily quantified in terms of changes in temperature, precipitation, and even sea-level rise. The more complex questions involve how individual species and populations within a species will handle threats to genetic diversity—if not survival.

“Trying to understand these effects to nature are really important because they can also have profound effects on the services nature provides humans,” Urban said.

One easy prediction: Urban, Deegan and their team will show up a little earlier in Alaska this spring as they return for another field season.--Peter Rejcek

Link to UConn YouTube video:


GrIT Situation Report 4

April 12, 2016Storms and Snowballs

Nice camping spot on the first night out of Thule Air Base. Photo: Robin Davies

All is well with the Greenland Inland Traverse (GrIT) team as they make their way through the crevasse zone [the first ~70 miles of the journey to Summit, where the fractured edge of the ice sheet leads to the unbroken ice cap].

During the past two days the team has encountered the steeper hills requiring "double hauling" (using two tractors to pull loads up hills) and "holding back" (having one tractor hold the load back as they go downhill).

Inside the back tractor ‘holding back’ the Microturbine load seen through the windshield on a downward slope ahead.

They did get stopped by Condition Charlie [i.e., severe] weather all day Saturday with very high 70 knot winds and snow, and had some issues with snow clogging the Onan generator that is supplying heat to the microturbine.  The team had to work in very strong winds to fix the issue, but were able to get it done.  Below is an excerpt from the GrIT daily log that illustrates some of the challenges the team is having with mother nature:

Big storm during the night and all day.

The Onan generator quit during the night [because] the air filter was choked with snow. Removing the air filter is not an easy task. With the air filter thawed out and dried it still would not start. The hermi [herman nelson heater] was some distance away … and the drifts too big for us to move it by hand. We used the Tucker to drag it, but it took a while to start the Tucker as the engine bay was completely filled with snow….

6” of snow in the [large WeatherPort] tent, blowing in through where the roof overlaps the end wall.

Everything is well drifted in so it will take a bit of work to get everything moving when this blow is over.

The wind is just starting to ease although it's still snowing quite heavily.

Snowballs accumulating on the fuel bladders. Photo: Robin Davies

Another issue they have encountered are giant snowballs that build up in the open space in between bladders.  This happens frequently when the tractors pull along steeper side slopes and the snow pushes in.  The crews need to stop and clear them out occasionally to prevent them from causing trouble with the fuel bladders.

Despite losing a day to weather, the crew has progressed 50 miles past the Needle area [where crevasses create a narrow passage safe to traverse, leading GrIT members to compare driving this section to threading a needle]. They were preparing for more of the same over the next few days, with possible slower progress due to “Fresh, deep, and soft tractor ruts 6 to 14 inches, occasionally deeper.”--Julie Raine

The Arctic Research Support and Logistics Program within the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs funds the GrIT.  CH2MHILL Polar Services and Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratories are working together with the NSF to develop the traverse infrastructure and route to Summit Station. The 2016 spring traverse delivers cargo to Summit Station, and continues efforts to optimize mobility, GrIT will provide direct science support to several projects, retrieving instruments for a soon-to-be-completed effort, and laying fuel caches for upcoming projects. Follow GrIT’s progress here:


GrIT Situation Report 3

April 7, 2016GrIT Departs for Summit

GrIT 2016 heading on to the ice sheet. Photo: Julie Raine

GrIT 2016: Galen Dossin, Robin Davies, Pat Smith, Ben Toth. Photo: Julie Raine

The GrIT team headed out into the wild white yonder today. Over the next 7-8 weeks, our team will pull a giant load of outsized cargo to Summit Station, assist at Summit with science support, and then turn around and return to Thule Air Base, caching en route a fuel supply for a science traverse that will launch later this season. The team aims to be off the ice by the last week of May to avoid slogging through slush.

Last Minute Challenges

Reports filed by GrIT project manager Julie Raine offer glimpses of the challenges the team has faced to get to this point. Late last month, one of the Case tractors broke down, requiring replacement parts unavailable at Thule. "We had a whole cadre of support folks ensuring that the parts were available [at a U.S. vendor], could ship to McGuire Air Force Base, and fit on the plane to Thule," Julie writes. Thanks to the efforts of many, the GrIT mechanics got the parts and made the repairs. All's well that ends well.

But not so fast. "When we took the repaired tractor out for a test drive late on Saturday, it ran for just one mile before it seized," Julie reports. "The crew then spent the next five hours in the elements disassembling the work they'd just completed to limp the tractor in two wheel drive back to the shop." With just three of four planned vehicles, the GrIT team had to take a hard look at the carefully packed cargo sleds, one of which had to go.

The GrIT prep crew The GrIT crew is so dedicated that when the prep crew heard the tractor was not going, they jumped in to help haul the load to Summit themselves.. (Ben Toth, Dave Weimer, Tara Kramer, Nick Romano) suggests an alternative to the downed Case tractor haul the load to Summit themselves. Photo: Julie Raine

Over the weekend, the team re-worked the sled loads to pull the critical cargo and enough fuel for the round trip behind just three tractors.  The new loads will require additional effort—for example, two tractors will have to work together to "double haul" the heaviest sleds through deeper snow and up hills—but the GrIT team was determined to go, and they are off.

Life on the Road

Out on the ice sheet, cargo tends to freeze hard and get buried in snow, making it difficult to access and handle. To provide a covered workspace and storage for items needed daily, the traverse infrastructure includes a WeatherPort, a sturdy tent made of tough plastic canvas.

But even this field staple required special preparation to handle traverse conditions. "The WeatherPort is not designed to be set up above ground, as it usually uses a layer of snow along the bottom to provide a seal to the outside," Julie notes.  "Our carpenter team designed a clever split batten for the door opening that will hopefully provide a tight enough seal while closed, but still allow for easy entry without having to disassemble each time someone wants to enter." Inside, large, light-weight plastic crates hold "tools, parts, hoses, batteries as well as pizza makings and flank steak for the crew," Julie explains.

Ride Along with the GrIT

Bandwidth is at a premium out on the ice sheet, so we may hear little from the team before they reach Summit Station. But thanks to GPS tracking technology, we can follow GrIT's progress here:,--Kip Rithner

The Arctic Research Support and Logistics Program within the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs funds the GrIT.  CH2MHILL Polar Services and Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratories are working together with the NSF to develop the traverse infrastructure and route to Summit Station. The 2016 spring traverse delivers cargo to Summit Station, and continues efforts to optimize mobility, GrIT will provide direct science support to several projects, retrieving instruments for a soon-to-be-completed effort, and laying fuel caches for upcoming projects.


Couldn't Get Much Higher

Ozonesonde ascends 39 km into atmosphere over Summit Station Launching a balloon with an instrument package to detect springtime atmospheric ozone levels--an ozonesonde--at Summit Station. Photo: Jason Johns

Benign weather last week led to perfect conditions for launching instrumented balloons at the NSF-funded research station in the middle of Greenland's ice sheet. In fact, atmospheric conditions allowed the balloon to fly higher into the atmosphere than usual. We heard from science technicians at Summit, Marci Beitch (PFS) and Jason Johns (NOAA), who were suitably impressed by the flight.

We asked Marci and Jason if they could calculate how big the balloon got in the thinning atmosphere. Here's their response.

"This particular balloon (which by the way, got higher than any balloon since the super pressure balloons of the 60's - we are told by our ozone guru back in Boulder) had a pressure drop from about 650 mbar at Summit to about 3 mbar at 39 km. That means that the volume of the balloon had to expand by a factor of 650/3=217. We then wanted to see what a 217 increase in volume meant for the diameter. We calculated that it was about a 6-fold increase. We estimate that the initial diameter of the balloon was about 1.5 m, so it would be 9 m at 3 mbar of pressure. A pretty big balloon!"

Ozonesonde flights are launched weekly at Summit Station, and sometimes more often if conditions or other experiments warrant it. The information is part of a group of baseline measurements--data collected routinely that is archived for the general use of the scientific community.

In February, scientists predicted that atmospheric conditions in the Arctic may be ripe to enable concentrations of atmospheric ozone to reach record low levels in 2016--potentially opening a so-called ozone hole. (Here's what that could mean to you.) You can monitor the status of Arctic atmospheric ozone via the Ozone Watch website.  Meanwhile, stock up on the sunscreen. --Kip Rithner

The U.S. National Science Foundation funds and manages Summit Station in cooperation with the Government of Greenland. CPS operates the station year-round for the NSF. 

Racing Against Change in the Sport of Dogsledding

Musher Curt Perano pulls into Pelly Crossing, Yukon, during the 2014 Yukon Quest, about 741 miles into the race when the temperature was around minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Photo: Arthur T. LaBar It seems rugged and even romantic to the armchair adventurer: A man – or woman these days – charging across the remote Alaskan winter wilderness with a team of loyal dogs tirelessly pulling a sled.

Such is the enduring myth that perhaps inspired some of the 23 men and women who pulled out of Fairbanks, Alaska, on Feb. 6, with dogsled teams to tackle the 1,000-mile-long Yukon Quest this year. No doubt the race was as exciting for the participants and crowd as the first contest in 1984.

But things have changed in the 33 years since the first Yukon Quest, which celebrates the Yukon River as the super highway of its day, when prospectors raced to the area at the turn of the 20th century to find gold and make their fortune. The sport is changing. The dogs have changed. And, most certainly, the climate is changing.

The 2014 Yukon Quest gets under way in Fairbanks, Alaska. Photo: Arthur T. LaBar

John Schandelmeier recalls that mushers used to run the Yukon Quest and other dogsled races for the opportunity to test themselves and to be with their beloved dogs in the Arctic hinterland.

“Today’s world is quite different. In today’s world, a lot of people only have dogs to race,” says Schandelmeier, a two-time Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race champion. He and his wife, Iditarod veteran Zoya DeNure, live in the Delta Junction area about two hours from Fairbanks where they run Crazy Dog Kennel, which trains and rehabilitates unwanted sled dogs.

A native Alaskan who spends every moment possible in the outdoors, Schandelmeier says for him racing dogs is like a vacation.

“It’s great to be out there with our dogs and have no distractions – just focused on the dogs, focused on what you’re doing. It’s an experience that’s hard to duplicate anywhere else,” he explains. “When you’re on the Yukon Quest, there’s nothing to intrude. It’s just you and the dogs and moving.”

In the past, what some might call the “old days,” people employed their dogs in everyday tasks like hauling water and wood, in conditions that were likely pretty harsh. As dogsledding became a sport – a very competitive sport – sled dogs were bred more for their speed and stamina. The dog generically known as the Alaskan husky is a totally different animal than it was just a few decades ago, according to Schandelmeier.

For instance, Sonny Lindner, the first Yukon Quest champion, finished the race in a little more than 12 days. Compare that to this year’s eventual champion, Alaska’s Hugh Neff, who came across the finish line in Yukon, Canada, in a time of 9 days, 1 hour and 25 minutes.

Musher Hugh Neff heads toward Nordale Road Bridge in North Pole about 18 miles from downtown Fairbanks, which is the start of the Yukon Quest, during a previous race. He won the Yukon Quest for a second time in 2016. Photo: James Brooks

“The dogs are faster, stronger, can go with less rest than before,” Schandelmeier says. “It amazes me that they seem like they can endlessly get up and go, with minimal rest.”

Such endurance has rightfully earned sled dogs the reputation as one of the animal world’s great athletes. It has certainly earned them the respect of Dr. Michael Davis, a professor and veterinarian at the Oklahoma State University who has conducted research on these animals for about 15 years.

“They’re the Arctic equivalent of an Ethiopian marathon runner,” notes Davis, who was originally interested in studying the canines to understand exercise-induced asthma in human athletes.

The opportunity to work with sled dogs came in 2001, when officials with the Iditarod – dogsledding’s version of the Tour de France – agreed to let Davis have access to the animals if he would help them with a gastric ulcer problem that was killing two or three dogs each year. It turned out that the dogs weren’t great models for the asthma study, but Davis was eventually able to devise a strategy of medication and treatment that was nearly 100 percent effective in preventing the ulcers.

He then turned his attention to what made Alaskan huskies such superb athletes. “Everything that I think that makes them unique is in their muscle,” Davis explains.

The dogs are more efficient at getting fuel from their bloodstream into their muscle cells. They also have a much greater capacity to burn energy once it’s in the muscle, possessing five times as much mitochondrial content in their cells as a human and twofold that of the average racehorse. Mitochondria are specialized units within a cell, surrounded by a membrane, that serve as a sort of cellular power plant that uses oxygen to generate most of the cell’s supply of adenosine triphosphate, which it uses as a source of chemical energy.

In a way, Davis explains, the dogs are freaks of nature, an anomaly in evolution. Evolution is a bit like a frugal car buyer, almost always favoring the standard model, eschewing all the bells and whistles that come with an upgrade. The Alaskan husky racing dog is an overbuilt car with an engine – muscle – teeming with idle proteins waiting to be revved up.

“With the right kinds of stimulus and nutrition, a sled dog can get fit very, very quickly – far faster than what a human can do … When they’re not fit, their muscles seem to be waiting around to become fit,” Davis says. “It’s totally inefficient from a pure resource viewpoint.”

Davis notes that the ability of sled dogs to adapt quickly to exercise may also explain why they live longer than a canine of similar size. Dogs generally age inversely proportional to size; the larger the dog, the shorter the lifespan.

“Our contention is that the biological process that allows them to adapt so quickly to extreme stresses is also responsible for them to be more resistant to aging,” says Davis, noting that federal agencies from the Department of Defense to the National Institutes of Health are interested in learning more about such adaptability and what implications it may have for two-legged animals.

How well the dogs and the sport of dogsled racing in general will adapt to a changing climate is just as difficult to understand and predict.

It’s no secret that Arctic climate is changing. Climate models predict continued warming throughout Alaska including the Yukon Quest course, according to Rick Lader, a PhD candidate with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy. ACCAP is housed inside the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Over the entire 90-year instrumental record available for the Southeast Interior of Alaska, temperature has increased 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit per decade while precipitation is relatively flat, Lader says. The Yukon Quest course generally skirts the northern edge of the Southeast Interior before diving south into the Yukon.

The average temperature in the region around Fairbanks and part of the Yukon Quest trail has risen 0.3F per decade since the 1920s. Photo: NOAA

“The future warming indicated is at a faster rate than what has been observed and this could be due to a loss of snow/ice and its reflective properties,” Lader explains. “The change to winter precipitation is less certain, and underlying these future trends will be year-to-year variability. So while next year could very well end up being colder than normal and snowier (particularly since we may have transitioned to a La Niña), the trend over time will be for warmer temperatures, less snow, and increasingly unstable ice.”

Perhaps nobody knows better how the weather and long-term climate affect the Yukon Quest course along the river than Patrol Sgt. John “Mitch” Mitchell of the Canadian Rangers. Each year, Mitchell and his team use snowmobiles to break a trail for the Yukon Quest on the Canadian side of the race as part of their winter training exercises.

“The only thing about a trail that is constant is change. It’s always changing, day to day, hour by hour,” Mitchell says.

Certainly each year is different. There are winters with deep snow and winters with snow so thin that the Canadian Ranger patrol has recommended against using parts of the course due to the danger to both mushers and dogs to run the race safely.

The level of the river is particularly crucial to the safety and viability of the course, according to Mitchell. If the river starts to freeze while still high, it will take longer to turn to ice – and the ice will be much thinner. Warmer temperatures cause the ice to break and then jam down river in a domino effect.

In general, the winters seem a bit warmer, Mitchell says. “I think it’s a gradual trend.”

This year’s finish line in downtown Whitehorse was moved to Takhini Hot Springs due to deteriorating trail conditions, though that was mostly because of local conditions specific to the area around town, according to Mitchell.

Schandelmeier doesn’t dispute the realities of climate change in Alaska – willows and cottonwoods grow bigger and in greater numbers in his favorite trapping grounds – though he is skeptical that it directly affects the Yukon Quest. In 1984, the first year of the race, sections of the course had open water along the river, he recalls.

On the other hand, Davis insists the warmer winters affect both the course and the sled dogs, which can overheat and become dehydrated if the musher doesn’t manage the conditions correctly.

“Ultimately, it does slow the race down some,” he says. “You’re spending more time cooling the dogs down and less time running.

“The effect of climate change on sled dog racing is becoming more and more apparent as we have to dodge more and more open rivers,” Davis adds. “It’s definitely a bit of a concern.” —Peter Rejcek

GrIT Situation Report 2

March 13, 2016GrIT_logo_2016 SCAT UPDATE

The SCAT team has continued to make good progress.  They started on their overnight trips into the Crevasse Zone March 7th, setting up their first camp at the B3 area, and moving just a few days later to B5a.  When camping, they take along their living modules, which provide berthing, cooking facilities and heated shelter.  The Crew Quarters has solar power capability; however, at this time of year, the sun angle is so low that the solar panels mounted on the top of the roof don’t fully charge. So the SCAT team relies on non-renewable energy sources as well.  The Crew Quarters has bunks for four people, a kitchen and dining area, and a shower room.  It is akin to an RV, but is missing the pop-out living room.

Once a route is found, hauling heavy loads through the crevasse zone is still a difficult task. Hills require ‘double hauling’—attaching two tractors to a load of cargo to pull it uphill, and  connecting  a tractor in the back to keep a cargo load from gaining too much speed on the downhills. In addition, part of the route goes along the side of a hill, requiring extra vigilance to prevent cargo from tipping.

One of the sleds we have to haul this year is intended to provide a moveable base for a mobile science structure at Summit.  The sled has been named the ‘Smobile’ (Small Mobile) sled and was delivered to Thule via cargo ship last summer from Norfolk, VA.  At Summit, the sled will support the Smobile building, an insulated 14' x 40' multipurpose building  which has been used as a laboratory, berthing, recreation space and a workshop. The Smobile sled is mounted on a more traditional ski base versus GrIT's standard black plastic HMW sheets.  This ski set-up works for short distances around Summit, but it is not as suitable for long hauls through the deeper snow on the ice sheet.  Hauling the Smobile behind our sled train through the crevasse zone could also prove difficult.

GrIT Operator Ben Toth showing Smobile sled's low clearance.

Knowing this, we decided to take advantage of the hauling capacity of the SCAT team and have them move the Smobile sled using their more nimble tractor set-up to eliminate some of the towing weight for the heavily laden GrIT tractors.  We loaded the Smobile with plywood and tractor parts, making it as light to tow as possible (though it still weighed in at nearly 20,000 lbs).  The sled was then staged at the SCAT camp B3, where the SCAT team would pick it up and drop it off after they’d reached the top of the area known on the map as Dog Lady Hill.

SCAT team adjusting GPR boom – mounted on an arm in front of the Tucker, it is our first method of crevasse detection. Photo: Robin Davies

The SCAT team continued forward, and moved to their third camping spot, B6, late in the week. There they staged to begin the tricky B8 section of the route. The B8s have traditionally been heavily crevassed, causing lots of trouble.  This year it seems the area has continued to change, as the SCAT team has come up against some difficult crossings, and started looking NW of the planned route in hopes of finding a safe path through.  They continue to explore forward.

Route view with SCAT camping spots noted.


The team based in Thule has also made great progress getting cargo and sleds ready for transport.  A necessary part of any traverse is fuel, and in our case, we require fuel for our tractors as well as fuel to deliver to Summit Station.  Fuel is hauled via 3000-gallon bladders that ride on top of a black HMW sled.  Each year, we have to inspect each bladder to be sure there are no holes or abrasions that could cause leaking.  The bladders are unwieldy and difficult to store, and they don’t respond well to cold temperatures. Due to our limited storage space, we have to roll them up and keep them in our cold warehouse between use, and this can often cause rubbing/cracking along the seams.

We have found that working with fuel bladders inside heated buildings allows for the best inspection and patching, but heated buildings are at a premium in cold environments.  The Air Force Base has been kind enough to allow us to work inside one of their giant aircraft hangars (a building big enough for a C-17 to park inside), giving us the space needed to lay out and inspect our bladders.

The crews inflated each bladder using a whitewater raft pump, allowed the bladders to sit for several days, and then observed their inflation pressure to identify leaks. They also visually inspected the bladders for holes, and prepared some patches in the warm environment. The true test will come once we haul the bladders to the transition and load them with fuel, but we have to wait for the SCAT team to verify the safe route has been found before that last step can be done.

Julie Raine telling Thule residents about GrIT transport and Air Ride Cargo decks Photo: Allan Delaney

In addition to the work done for the GrIT, the crew invited Thule residents out to see our operations at the edge of the ice sheet. About 100 people visited the transition to see what we have been doing. Many were curious about our tractors and cargo sleds and found our wind/solar-powered emergency shelter quite keen. They also enjoyed walking just over a quarter mile on to the ice sheet via our GPR’d route despite the frigid temperatures and windchill hovering at -23F!

--Julie Raine, GrIT Manager

The Arctic Research Support and Logistics Program within the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs funds the GrIT.  CH2M HILL Polar Services and Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratories are working together with the NSF to develop the traverse infrastructure and route to Summit Station. The 2016 spring traverse delivers fuel and cargo to Summit Station, and continues efforts to optimize mobility, GrIT will provide direct science support to several projects, retrieving instruments for a soon-to-be-completed effort, and laying fuel caches for upcoming projects.


GrIT Situation Report 1

March 7, 2016GrIT_logo_2016 Welcome to the Greenland Inland Traverse (GrIT) Situation Report.  This report is designed to provide progress updates throughout the field season. In cooperation with the Government of Greenland, the NSF funds and manages much of the U.S. research effort on the world’s largest island.

The GrIT team arrived in Greenland in early February and has been at Thule Air Base preparing for the traverse to Summit Station for the past month. In addition to the traverse team, a support crew has been assembling sleds, preparing cargo, fuel, and food, and doing everything necessary to get the traverse out the door.

Our Strategic Crevasse Avoidance Technicians (SCAT) team kicked off the FIELD season earlier this month by heading out to find a safe route through the 60 mile heavily crevassed zone.

The path to the ice cap, from Thule Air Base on the left edge of the image through the crevasse zone. The red line shows the 2014 route. The SCAT team used ground penetrating radar to ensure that the heavy GrIT tractors could proceed safely through this very active part of the ice sheet edge. This image makes a useful reference for the SCAT progress updates to come over the next days.


The SCAT team began day trips out of Thule on March 1.  Initial imagery analysis showed possible areas of concern around the B0 and B1 areas; however, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) imagery did not identify anything significant. We think the heavy snow year has acted in our favor, filling the areas of concern. The crew successfully profiled multiple cracks, using findings gained from holes drilled into the ice to verify GPR data. A route to their first camping site (B3) was confirmed, and the team departed for the overnight portion of their trip one day ahead of schedule on March 7.


While the heavy snow year has helped fill in crevasses, it has also filled in work spaces and covered roads, requiring a lot of digging and snow removal. We are constantly shoveling out from the night time snow drifts, and often digging our way out of drifts along the road to get to work.  Nevertheless, the weather has been fairly cooperative, hovering in the +15 to -20F range, with only a few days of difficult 20 - 40kt+ winds in total.  The operators have done a great job preparing the site.

Upon arrival in early February, there was very little snow on the ground, which is required to move our sleds.  We have learned to become snow farmers, harvesting snow from nearby deposits (both intentionally placed, and from natural features) and have re-worked the pad to provide ample coverage for our work space.

The crew has made amazing progress in assembling the Air Ride Cargo (ARCs) sleds that will haul Summit materials. It is difficult work in the cold temperatures, and the black plastic HMW (high molecular weight) sled material that is used is extremely slick, stiff and hard to work with in the cold. Attaching bolts to the rubber pouch material and the hard HMW plastic material requires a lot of fine motor skills.

Last week the team moved the Summit Mobile Garage (SMG) floor panels out to the transition work site where the crew will assemble them into cargo decks that will ride on top of the pontoon system. These floor panels are to be used at Summit Station for a new facility; however, we will transport them as part of our decks as well as part of our cargo.

For more information on the GrIT, please visit these links: Tracks and current locations:

Download the data:

--Julie Raine, GrIT Manager

The Arctic Research Support and Logistics Program within the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs funds the GrIT. CH2M HILL Polar Services and Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratories are working together with the NSF to develop the traverse infrastructure and route to Summit Station. The 2016 spring traverse delivers fuel and cargo to Summit Station, and continues efforts to optimize mobility, GrIT will provide direct science support to several projects, retrieving instruments for a soon-to-be-completed effort, and laying fuel caches for upcoming projects.

Polar Technology Conference - 21-22 March

Abstract deadline: 11 March PTC poster 3-7-2016a

Polar scientists and technology developers gather at Polar Field Services in Denver later this month for the 12th Annual Polar Technology Conference (PTC). During the two-day event, attendees exchange information on research system operational needs and technology solutions that have been successful in polar environments.

Two keynote speakers will address the PTC. Kelly Brunt, a University of Maryland research scientist associated with NASA’s Goddard Space Center, will present on LiDAR technology. Lars Berg Larsen, the University of Copenhagen’s field coordinator for the upcoming Renland ice cap drilling project in Greenland, will speak about ice core technology.

Additional topics include hybrid airships, unmanned aircraft systems, laser technology, renewable energy advances in polar environments, and more.

For further information on the PTC, visit

Looking in the Margins for Clues About Economic Inequality and Environmental Change in Medieval Iceland

During the middle ages, Iceland’s recently settled landscape saw many changes—everything from the transition to an agricultural society to the adoption of Christianity. These changes altered and shaped the rolling hillsides and the people of Iceland to their cores.

Kathryn Catlin, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University’s Anthropology Department, is digging in Iceland’s soil for clues to the impacts of these changes. She is now in the second year of a National Science Foundation-funded project to uncover how manmade environmental changes impacted the lives of medieval Icelandic farmers who scratched out a living on highly eroded farmland. The project, titled The Archaeological Investigation of Erosion and its Effect on Social Processes in the Arctic, focuses on medieval farms in Hegranes, an island in Skagafjörður, north Iceland.

This month, Catlin speaks with Field Notes about her research in to the connections between soil erosion and economic inequality and what we can learn from them now, as our own landscapes undergo dramatic manmade changes.

Field Notes (FN): What did the Norse settlement of Hegranes Iceland look like circa 870?

Kathryn Catlin (KC): Iceland in the middle ages was a lot like Scandinavia. The settlers brought a Scandinavian-style social structure with them. There would have been a chieftain who had several followers living and working on his farm.

During the medieval period, what we have were isolated farms dotting the landscape. Some of these farms were large and more powerful. Then there were these more peripheral, dependent farms where the farmers owed some sort of rent, tribute or labor to the central farm. I’m interested in the peripheral, marginal places.

FN: What do you hope to learn by studying the remnants of these smaller medieval farms in Iceland?

KC: I’m interested in looking at a series of abandoned structures that are still visible on Iceland’s landscape. These places are located in the marginal areas, between the more viable lands where the soil is deeper. The marginal areas are highly eroded; there’s barely any soil left at all.

I want to understand what the people were doing in these areas, how they related to the more successful farms, and how this was related to the human-driven environmental changes that were happening during this period of time.

FN: What was happening in medieval Iceland? Why were the first 500 years after settlement so dynamic and full of social change?

KC: The environment was changing quite a bit at this time, especially during the first 100 years of settlement. People began to deforest the landscape. They cleared land for homes, they set animals out to pasture in the highlands, and they cut down trees for fuel and for construction.

There was a really big push to change the land and make it similar to the agricultural landscape they had created in Norway and elsewhere in Scandinavia. At the same time, there were related social changes that were happening where people begin to establish large farms and then smaller ones.

According to the Landnámabók, a medieval text that describes the settlement of Iceland, by about the year 930 the land was “fully settled.” We usually take that to mean that just about all the viable land that people could farm and live on had been claimed and turned into the property of one powerful family or another.

On top of everything I just mentioned, around the year 1000 Iceland officially became a Christian country. So there was a lot going on!

FN: What are the connections between soil erosion and economic inequality?

KC: There’s actually a relatively large body of research and literature to do with erosion and social difficulty. Studies, particularly some done in Africa, show that places where people are living in poverty tend to also be areas that are eroding.

It’s all tied in to the economic infrastructure of the region. The powerful groups often benefit from the exploitation of the land. At the same time, this exploitation destroys the livelihoods of the people that live on areas becoming degraded.

Along with the loss of trees in medieval Iceland, we are able to see rapid erosion and changes in the soil profile.

FN: How do you collect data to shed light on the relationships between erosion and economic inequality in a settlement that’s over a thousand years old?

KC: One of our major methodologies is soil coring. We do over a thousand soil cores every summer. We use a core that can extend up to 120 cm. This gives us a soil profile that contains information on how the landscape formed and the degree of erosion. It also helps us locate turf used for construction and midden areas where trash was disposed. We will be collecting more cores this summer, as well as many 1m by 1m test excavation units to learn more about each site and to collect materials (primarily charcoal) for carbon dating.

FN: What types of data do you collect? Do you find many artifacts?

KC: We actually find very few artifacts. In the places I’m looking, the people would have been on the lower side of the social scale. They may not have had that many objects, and the majority of the things they had would have been organic—made of bone, cloth, or wood, all of which tend to degrade over time. We often find butchered animal bones, mostly sheep and some cows. Additionally, Iceland’s soil is not very good for making ceramics, so there isn’t much of a ceramic tradition on this island. Occasionally we’ll find metal objects—things like jewelry, nails, arrowheads, and other kinds of iron workings.

Most of the construction in Iceland during this time was made from cutting turf out of the bogs and letting it dry. You can still see numerous historical sites where people built these types of structures. Once the turf gets buried in the sod, you see a very red iron signature in the soil. This tells us where the structures were on the landscape.

We also look for areas where they deposited trash—like charcoal, peat ash and animal bones. So these are the things we look for to tell us what was going on at these sites, when sites were established, and when they were abandoned.

FN: Can what you learn about medieval Hegranes tell us anything about how environment changes shape social and economic standing today?

KC: I’ve thought about this a lot! Infrastructure is something that’s created by the powerful to maintain a particular relationship with the environment and that feeds the economic resources back to those in power. Everyone living within that infrastructure tends to support the ongoing status quo that may or may not be environmentally sustainable.

My hope is that we can think about our modern-day infrastructure in these terms and consider how we can build and shape people’s practices more toward sustainability rather than away from it, which is what I think is happening now.

For more photos and information on Kathryn Catlin’s archeological work in northern Iceland, visit and –Alicia Clarke

Three field seasons in four minutes

Check out this fun video highlighting the field glaciology portion of a multi-institutional, interdiciplinary project focused on ice-ocean interaction in west Greenland. The video features GPS and seismometer installs, maintenance, and teardown on Rink Isbrae, Umiamako and Kangerdlugssup Sermerssua glaciers with lovely views (and puppies!) from the team’s base in Uummannaq. 

Familiar faces include Leigh Stearns (University of Kansas) and students Steve Foga and Logan Byers, Ginny Catania’s (The University of Texas at Austin) students, Lauren Andrews, Mason Fried, and Denis Felikson, post-doc Tim Bartholomaus, and technician, Dan Duncan. Look for PFS’s own Kathy Young about 1:03.

Video footage, contributed by Tim Bartholomaus along with still sequences from helo pilot, Jan Blaeisild, was stitched together by megafauna biologist (and Tim’s wife), Sophie Gilbert (University of Alberta). We’ll keep our fingers crossed for future collaborative creative efforts from Tim and Sophie once they are settled in their new faculty positions at the University of Idaho later this year! Until then – enjoy!

Digging for clues: The wreck of the NEVA

“Lands beneath the bow!”

The shouted warning wakes the captain of the Russian frigate, NEVA, from his afternoon nap as the ship runs aground in narrow, cliff-bounded Sitka Sound.

It is a cold day in December 1812, and the NEVA is on its last leg to Sitka, capital of Russian America in the Alaskan panhandle. In an attempt to keep the ship from washing farther up on the rocks, the anchor is thrown over, but the line is not secured. Precariously, the NEVA perches on the rocks for several hours. Women and children are put in the longboat, but their rescue craft breaks up on the rocks. All on board are lost.

Punctuating this tragic loss, the NEVA’s stern begins to break away. The survivors that remain on the NEVA hold on to anything they can as the bow then breaks apart and they are set adrift. At the end of the day, 28 of 60 make it to shore; 2 die later of hypothermia.

NEVA Project Principal Investigator, Dave McMahan, taking notes in a completed excavation block. Photo: Gleb Mikhalev

The NEVA has since been the stuff of legend, lore of the sea. People have been looking for the wreck site and survivor’s camp for two centuries with little progress. Over the last few years, however, David McMahan, a retired Alaska State Archaeologist who has been interested in the NEVA for years, has mounted a more successful search. The initial work was a partnership of the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology, the U.S. Forest Service, the Sitka Historical Society, NOAA, and the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation.

“The ship was legendary in Sitka, even in the 1800s, due to its role in the Battle of Sitka in which the Russians drove out the Tlingit for control of the island,” says McMahan. “We researched the stories, recorded survivor accounts, and Russian records. We looked at historical tide and weather data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), studied aerial photos and satellite images. An abalone fisherman told us about finding a cannon of the right vintage in the 1980s and showed us where he found it on the chart.

All of the information we had amassed over the years finally converged, and in 2012 we went looking for the NEVA and her survivor camp. In June of that year, we walked the shoreline in the alleged vicinity of the wreck during the lowest tide of the year. We used a metal detector and found a cache of nine Russian-made axe heads that were stacked, like they had been in a wooden crate that had eroded. At this point, we knew we had something, so we applied for funding from NSF,” McMahan explains.

In August 2012, McMahan’s team attempted to find the NEVA, but the challenges were too great. Despite a shallow water depth of only about 50 feet, the rocky pinnacles, strongly surging current, and dense kelp forest hindered progress. The group tried to find the wreckage using a marine magnetometer on loan from NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

NEVA Project divers returning from a search in thick kelp for evidence of the wreck. Photo: Dave McMahan

“We tried to use a professional metal detector underwater, but had the same problem as a group who did a similar survey in the 1980s. Both of our attempts failed because the rocks are iron-rich volcanic rocks, so we couldn’t separate a signal coming from boat wreckage from the signal coming from the rocks,” says McMahan. “We also tried to use sonar methods. But, the air in the kelp negatively affects the data, and we couldn’t see anything.”

In May 2015 the team attempted several scuba dives with assistance from marine archaeologists John Jensen (University of Rhode Island), Brinnen Carter (Sitka National Historical Park), and Travis Shinabarger, but the effort was plagued by weather and boat problems. (They plan to try again in March or April 2016 before the summer kelp growth season.)

Group Photo (L to R): John Pollack, Dan Thompson, Sean Adams, Dave McMahan, Yury Likhin, Ty Dilliplane, Gleb Mikhalev, Artur Kharinsky, Evguenia Anichtchenko

A few months later, in July of 2015, McMahan, along with an international team of six from the United States (Timothy Dilliplane, Massachusetts Maritime Academy; videographer Gleb Mikhalev; archivist and underwater archaeologist Evguenia Anitchenko; historical archaeologist Daniel Thompson), Canada (John Pollack and Sean Adams, Institute for Nautical Archaeology), and Russia (Artur Kharinsky, Irkutsk State Technical University; Yury Likhin, Taltsi Museum of Architecture and Ethnography,) returned to the beach where the axe heads were found. Tribal representative Bob Sam came out twice during their 20-day stay.

Canadians Pollack and Adams first mapped the area in detail and laid out a grid for the planned excavation. Along the shoreline, several blocks of contiguous one-meter squares were subjected to detailed excavations. McMahan admits it’s a confined area to work in.

“This is a really high-energy shoreline. There has been a lot of undercutting and erosion. Much of the site has been lost to the sea. Even so, we found several hearths along the shoreline. With 28 people they would have had several fires in close proximity. One survivor attributed a pistol and its French gunflint to their survival. With it, they were able to start a fire. In fact we found flint flakes and carbonized grass, which we’ll attempt to radiocarbon date, in one of the hearths.”

After sieving soil through a quarter-inch mesh screen, the team used a professional metal detector to go over sifted piles and double check for smaller material. Other artifacts include lead shot whittled down to fit in a smaller weapon, animal bones that will be analyzed by zooarchaeologist Megan Partlow, and a piece of copper, probably ship’s sheathing modified into a fish hook. The survivors gathered what they could find. Some things, like a barrel of butter, washed up from boat stores and were used as is. Other things, like the copper ship siding, were fashioned into tools.

“Our best find was a nautical divider, a tool that was used to measure distance on a chart. It was a great find because it ties the site to the ship,” says McMahan. “Everything we found is consistent with a survivor camp. There are no glass or ceramic artifacts – things that would be consistent with a 19th century settlement or village.” Still, the archaeological record is complicated by subsequent visits to the site (probably by salvors) during the first half of the 19th century. 

NEVA survivors spent nearly one month at the camp. They were rescued in early February after one survivor ran into a native boy and offered to buy him a new shirt for a boat ride to Sitka. A rescue party was dispatched shortly after their arrival.

McMahan says the group will return to continue their excavation in the July 2016. McMahan and Russian-born Anichtchenko, an Anchorage maritime specialist and doctoral candidate at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, have already studied archival materials in London and St. Petersburg. This has provided details on the ship’s English roots and the way the ship was outfitted for around-the-world voyages. Archaeometallurgist Corey Cooper (Purdue University) will study metal artifacts. English archaeometallurgist Peter Northover, who specializes in copper sheathing from 19th century ships, will analyze samples as well. Bob Sam will accompany McMahan to Russia to present findings in April 2016.

“Artifacts will help us piece together how people dealt with Alaska’s remote and harsh winter environment,” says McMahan. “Their ingenuity, improvisation, and grit helped them survive, so we can learn a lot from them.”—Marcy Davis