Bugged by Thermokarst Lakes


If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times:  research in the polar regions is not for sissies.

Muggy, buggy conditions greeted a team of two visiting Alaska’s Seward Peninsula for a few days in June.

"Things went really well on the Seward Peninsula. It was really hot and really buggy (see photo) but [that] didn't deter us from the work. We got all of our sensors except two and were able to sample a lot of lakes,” wrote Guido Grosse.

The team also found some artifacts—a wooden kayak paddle and wooden spears with stone tips. They told the park service about these finds.

The pair were part of (U Alaska) Katey Walter Anthony’s and Guido Grosse’s  NSF-funded study of thermokarst lakes.  The lakes form over permafrost rich in organic material when the top layers melt due to warming and the water, prevented from draining by still-frozen layers deeper down, pools on the surface.  When the water drains through stream channels or other processes, a basin remains that, for a time, supports additional plant growth and contributes organic material, and so on.  Walter Anthony’s team is studying the evolution of thermokarst lakes, focusing on the cycling of organic material freed from the melted permafrost, as the carbon-based stuff breaks down into carbon dioxide and methane (“greenhouse” gases known to trap heat in the atmosphere).

Thermokarst lakes are abundant in parts of the Arctic, and growing ever more so as the region warms, so information about the carbon cycle in thermokarst ecology is clearly of interest.   The researchers were visiting instrument sites installed around Cape Espenberg last year during a big field campaign. In addition to conducting maintenance on their instruments and installing additional one, they took some permafrost samples and sediment cores.

A larger team will return in August, spending about two weeks camping and conducting more extensive sampling activities. Here’s hoping high mosquito season will have passed.

Thermokarst lakes on Alaska's North Slope region. Image courtesy NASA