Get Ready for the Polaris Project 2014

Zimov's barge at Cherskiy sleeps 20 people, and is the home of the Polaris Project students and faculty during the summer. All photos: Chris Linder Aaah, spring! We’re all ready this year, aren’t we? Flowers, garden vegetables, sunshine, and…summer science cargo. That’s what’s been on the minds of Sue Natali, Polaris Project Research Coordinator and Assistant Scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center, and John Schade, Polaris Project Education Coordinator and Associate Professor at St. Olaf College. They are preparing a big shipment to Siberia to support the seventh year of the Polaris Project, a National Science Foundation-funded, multi-national, multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary summer field experience aimed at training the next generation of Arctic scientists.

Natali, Schade, and Mike Loranty, assistant professor at Colgate College, will lead this year’s nine core students—new undergraduates—across 16 time zones and around three-quarters of the planet to Northeast Science Station in Cherskiy, their home for the month of July.

Kayla Henson and Max Janicek point at all of the stopping points on the 2009 flight route to Cherskiy.

Polaris Core Students

Core students represent a wide range of scientific disciplines and research experience. In past years participants have come from schools solely represented by faculty, but this year that’s true of only three students – the others come from schools all over the country.

“It’s really exciting that we are including some other schools this year. There are some challenges and to meet those we are getting a head start on the summer. To get acquainted we’re having online meetings, discussing science and potential projects. We have a really great group this year!” Natali says.

Scientific mentoring in the field

Core students will be mentored by nine returning and graduate students as well as visiting scientists and post-docs. Dynamic middle school and former PolarTREC teacher, John Wood, will also join the group this year.

Tasked with bringing Polaris science to his students back home, Wood will work closely with core students to develop classroom activities based on their research projects. Photographer Chris Linder will join the group again this year to document the season through his beautiful images and video.  WHRC GIS manager, Greg Fiske, will be joining the group as well to provide GIS training and to manage the increasing Polaris datasets.

Safety preparation

Safety is always a concern in remote field areas, so this year Polaris participants gathered at Woods Hole in early May for a field safety class offered by PFS. There, students will learn the basics of wilderness first aid with a focus on Arctic issues.

“This class will be a great chance for us to get to know each other and for us to learn to work together should we need to respond in an emergency situation. We will also learn about potential problems specific to the Arctic environment like bear safety and hypothermia. We’ll round out our training with some basics like setting up tents and starting a fire,” explained Natali prior to the course.

“We will also have with us Massachusetts General Hospital  physician, Michael Vander Meulen, who will travel with the core students," Natali continued. "The hospital’s Chief of Wilderness Medicine, Stuart Harris, will also make a visit this year. Physicians from this group have been traveling with Polaris since 2012.  There’s a small hospital in Cherskiy but the language barrier can be tough. Even small problems can be difficult to treat in Siberia so it’s nice to have a doctor in the group.”

Extended field studies

Sample vials hold specimens of benthic invertebrates from Siberian aquatic ecosystems including lakes and streams.

In 2013 faculty extended the field season from June to September. This year some scientists will arrive before the core group or stay afterward to work on their own studies to stagger scientist deployments. During July, when the program is in full swing, some will overlap to incorporate student projects.

“Our scientists and faculty are constantly evolving and expanding, which really adds to the program,” says Natali. “When Polaris started, we had many faculty doing aquatic-type studies and now we are more focused on permafrost and system-wide linkages. That said, we really integrated the aquatic and terrestrial systems research-wise so that it’s tough to be just one or the other.”

Life in Cherskiy

Core students and faculty will still bunk in the barge dorm while remaining scientists and visitors will stay in the station’s on-shore facility. Improvements to the Northeast Science Station’s lab space include the addition of more drying ovens and equipment for measuring trace gas fluxes in the field. Students will conduct independent research supported by new continuously recording weather stations to increase Polaris’ time-series data. Typically, the group takes a mini-barge up-river to a site on the tundra where they run two days of studies. This year, the plan is for an extended two-week stay while the students conduct their main research projects. There’s even talk of developing a more permanent tundra field site in coming years.

Every year brings exciting changes to the Polaris Project, and 2014 is no exception - the forward momentum continues with the ever-expanding program. We can’t wait for a full report of this year’s field season! —Marcy Davis