Notes from the field: PolarTREC, Arctic Wolf Spiders, and more

Self portrait. Chicago-based science teacher is spending the summer in Toolik, Alaska, as part of the PolarTREC program. Photo: Nell Kemp Leave it to a middle school science teacher to explain the complex food chain in Alaska’s tundra in thorough simplicity.

That’s exactly what Nell Kemp, a teacher at Chicago’s Kenwood Academy and a PolarTREC participant is doing on her project blog. (PolarTREC is a National Science Foundation-funded initiative managed by the Arctic Consortium of the U.S.; "TREC" stands for Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating.)

From the Windy City to the tundra

We're not in Chicago, anymore. Views, views, and more views. Photo montage: Nell Kemp

Kemp is spending her summer working with Amanda Koltz, a PhD candidate at Duke University. Koltz is studying the extent to which arctic wolf spiders influence the structure of food webs in the tundra and measuring whether the wolf spiders’ impact on the community is changing with warming.

Koltz’s research is supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation and National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration.

More about the significance of Koltz’s research in a minute.

Science explained

For the moment, imagine you are a teenager who has never left Chicago, who has heard about this thing called “climate change,” and who may have no idea what a wolf spider is or why you should care. Kemp aims to make research that takes place thousands of miles and worlds away from her classroom relevant to her students, the “future leaders and decision makers.”

“I offer Amanda a way to connect her research to students so they can understand that science isn’t a big, scary process,” Kemp said in an interview before leaving for Alaska in late June. “How do you get inner city kids to understand the relevance of something that is so far away?”

Start with the kinds of journal posts Kemp has been publishing regularly since her arrival in Alaska in late June.

Tundra 101

One science plot, with Toolik Lake in the distance. Photo: Nell Kempk

She starts with tundra: “When people think of tundra, especially in Alaska, most people think the place is roaming with bears, caribou, musk oxen and wolves...Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen an arctic fox or two, the arctic ground squirrel, a few loons and a ptarmigan or two. The greatest terrestrial (found on land) life in the tundra exists just where the vegetation exists –the soil.”

Bacteria = life

She moves on to bacteria: “That means that this place is crawling with bacteria, fungi, lichen and insects. Think about it – if flowers and grasses are abundant in the summer, then some living thing needs to be there to help them survive (think pollinators, decomposers, etc), right? If you think about it, most ecosystems store a lot of their biomass (i.e. the collective weight of every living thing in that area) in the soil, so those little critters are pretty special. Stay tuned for future posts to learn more about how these tiny creatures help to keep the tundra ecosystem running.”

Permafrost, nature’s freezer

Then she delves into permafrost: “The other cool thing about permafrost is that it acts like a giant freezer, storing lots and lots of interesting stuff. I mean, these soil layers have been frozen for TENS of THOUSANDS of years. Besides storing cool fossils, permafrost can also store something else – CARBON. How? The first thing to realize is that a permafrost ecosystem is different from a ‘normal’ soil ecosystem. If you think about ‘normal’ soil, you need to think about what’s in the soil – i.e. plants (and all sorts of other microorganisms). When plants die, they are broken down by organisms known as decomposers (things like bacteria, fungi, etc.) and, in the process, CO2 is released into the atmosphere (they respire, or breathe out, CO2, just like we do). This is a part of something called the carbon cycle. In the permafrost, things are a little different. Since it is so cold, sometimes that dead plant material is broken down really really really slowly (or not at all), so all of that CO2 that would normally get released into the atmosphere just gets trapped in that permafrost layer.”

Wolf spiders as indicators of climate activity

A wolf spider rests on the snow. Image courtesy of Kiki Contreras.

And then she ties it together as she explains Koltz’s research: “There are LOTS of tiny little creatures in the soil that help to break down the dead material in the soil, which range from bacteria and fungi (decomposers) to mites, springtails, beetles and more (detrivores). De-what? Decomposer? Detrivore? There’s a difference? Yes.”

She continues to say that wolf spiders, tiny spiders that are prevalent in the Arctic, eat anything, including detrivores. She asks: “So how does the wolf spider influence the structure of this detrivore web? And does our changing climate impact their role within this web? Remember, the permafrost here in the tundra has a lot of stored carbon, and the decomposers and detrivores have a pretty important role in releasing and recycling that carbon. Since many scientists believe that the permafrost is thawing at a slightly accelerated rate these days, there are a lot of questions that have arisen about the detrivore food web. These are the questions that Amanda is hoping to answer through her research here at Toolik.”

Climate change and ecosystem functions

Research assistant, Sarah Meierotto, left, and Amanda Koltz Amanda identify spiders (and other critters) recovered from pitfall traps under high powered microscopes. Photo: Nell Kemp

Ultimately, Koltz aims to understand the impacts of global climate change on an ecosystem level.

Kemp aims to explain her work to an audience that extends beyond academia and the scientific community.

PolarTREC: Opportunity of a lifetime

It’s a role Kemp, an environmental science teacher, was thrilled to get. She applied to PolarTREC after logging 10 years in the classroom because she wanted to combine her love of adventure with her desire to inspire her students.

“I see the importance about educating our youth about climate change,” said Kemp. “But inner city Chicago kids don’t understand much beyond their worlds. I think it’s really important that my students can experience the Arctic through me.”

Teaching nature in the concrete jungle

One of the biggest challenges to teaching environmental science to city kids is that few students have experienced nature as anything beyond city limits.

“You want environmental education to be experiential, and in a city that’s really difficult,” said Kemp. “My students don’t understand the nuances of climate change—that just because it’s hot out, that’s not climate change.”

Educating the future leaders

Kemp said she hopes her PolarTREC experience gives her more tools to better teach the difference between weather and climate and to help her students understand that a climate that warms one or two degrees can have a substantial, worldwide impact.

More, she hopes that some of her students will be inspired to pursue their own scientific studies.

“If we get them now, hook them, and get them interested in science, well, they are the future decision makers of our country,” said Kemp. “I want them to have access to data. I also want them to see Amanda is a normal person and that what she does in the field, they can do.”

Ultimately, she said that working with a scientist for the summer will make her a better teacher, and that stands to benefit her students.

“To be a scientist you really have to want to work hard and know how to solve problems,” said Kemp.  —Rachel Walker

Keep up with Kemp’s adventures at her PolarTREC page.