Bayou to Barrow: A PolarTREC Teacher Studies Permafrost


“I’ve lived in the South my whole life. PolarTREC exposed me to a world I never would have known otherwise. I want my students to know that their teacher is a dynamic person who gets excited about discovery. Hopefully, this will motivate them to take advantage of opportunities in their own lives. Even students and staff at Schwarz can be recognized and get to do something extreme.”— Josh Dugat

Inner City School

Josh Dugat is the only science teacher at Schwarz Academy, one of two alternative schools for the Recovery School District in New Orleans. Schwarz serves students who have been expelled from other schools or who have been found guilty of Class III infractions, or incarcerated for drugs, violence, and other offenses. Dugat’s inner-city classroom can be a revolving door as students come and go throughout the school year.

Into The Wild

It's a long way from his sweltering classroom to the Arctic, but this year Dugat participated in the PolarTREC program as part of a team working on the Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring (CALM) network.

Established in 1991, CALM includes researchers from fifteen countries and 175 sites across the Arctic, Antarctica, and several alpine locations where scientists study permafrost.

Arctic Exploration

Dugat’s summer adventure took him about as far from the Gulf Coast as a person can get: First stop, Anchorage, where Dugat, along with Elliot Upin and Kelsey Nyland, attended the North Slope Training Cooperative “Unescorted North Slope” Safety Orientation.


Required of anyone headed to the northern Alaskan oil fields, the daylong training covered accident prevention, emergency response, the dangers of hydrogen sulfide, as well as what to do upon meeting polar bears or other arctic wildlife.

The next day, after a few more training videos at the British Petroleum building downtown, Dugat spent a rainy day with other members of the research team visiting the Anchorage Museum, Independence Gold mine, Eklutna Historical Park and finally, eating a dinner of reindeer sausage at George Washington University graduate student, Ellen Hatleberg’s house. The next day they visited the Portage Glacier and the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Into the Field


From Anchorage, Dugat, Upin and Nyland, along with GW Post-Doc Dmitriy Streletskiydrove to Fairbanks, picked up a few more of the project’s scientists—Anna Klene (University of Montana) and Cathy Seybold (USDA)—and headed up the 400-mile Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay.

Along the way, the team stopped at two soil monitoring sites to record soil and air temperature, moisture content, precipitation levels, and solar radiation levels. The focus of these sites is to observe conditions affecting the active layer, the upper layer of soil that exists above permafrost and freezes and thaws with the seasons.

Probing the Permafrost (Tour de Alaska)


That was only the beginning of Dugat's relationship with permafrost. At CALM sites in and around Prudhoe Bay, he became an "active layer prober," taking two measurements of the active layer depth every 100 meters on 1 square km grids, totaling 242 measurements per grid! In the video below, Dugat explains how it all works:

Permafrost on YouTube

Between stints in Prudhoe Bay, the team checked in at Toolik Field Station. From there they took helicopter shuttles to access remote ‘flux’ sites, where soil and air temperatures are continuously recorded. Dugat spent most of his time repairing tripods and data loggers damaged by interested animals.

Final stop: Barrow. From the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC), Dugat and the team took a final round of thaw depth measurements on grids established in the 1960s. They also measured the tundra surface with Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) instruments, which use reflected laser light to produce very detailed images.

A Teacher's Perspective

During the next couple of days in Barrow, Dugat toured the science lab at Barrow High School, and visited the Inupiat Heritage Center. Among his other unusual stops, he also gathered data from a temperature monitor scientists maintain in a permafrost meat cellar.

BASC station manager, Lewis Brower, explained to Dugat the life of a whaling captain (allowing him to taste muktuk - whale blubber and skin). In his last day in town, Dugat caught the end of the Barrow Whalers football game against the Valdez Buccaneers and went for a “Polar Bear” swim in the Arctic Ocean.

Home Again

Now, back in his New Orleans classroom, Dugat is charged with sharing his experiences with his students. He says he wants to inspire them to investigate the unexpected parallels between tundra and bayou.

Climate Change and Katrina

“There’s definitely a climate-change connection, particularly for students who experienced Katrina. Engineering problems associated with land subsidence here in Southeastern Louisiana relate to building concerns for those designing structures on permafrost,” explains Dugat. “Albeit for different reasons, land in both regions exhibits subsidence.”

Dugat also mentions the industrial similarities between the North Slope and Gulf Coast. BP is the primary operator for North Slope oil wells, and has a particular presence in the New Orleans area, given the events surrounding last spring’s Deepwater Horizon Spill.

Portrait of a Teaching Career

After Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans public school system in 2005, many doors were opened for education reform in the city. Dugat came to New Orleans in 2009 as one of many Teach for America teachers. Once Dugat completed the Teach for America certification program, which trains K-12 teachers and places them in high-need areas, Dugat became passionate about student achievement in the Crescent City.

Teaching at an alternative school has its own unique brand of challenges. Dugat doesn’t always know how long a student will remain in his class or when another will show up. Consequently, engaging his 9th-12th grade students in complex topics like climate change can be difficult. Exposure, Dugat says, is key. Parlaying his experience into a teachable moment helps the students contextualize the information.

“It is doubtful they would ever hear about it (Arctic climate change),” explains Dugat. “It’s debatable whether permafrost directly influences their daily lives, but if students are made aware of its presence, then they are made aware of the world between here and the Arctic, and that everything in between is connected. It’s important for them to read about and hear about things they and the people they know have never done before.”—Marcy Davis