Polaris: Rising stars of the Arctic

Seeing stars. Polaris Project students from the inaugural 2008 class. All photos from The Polaris Project Web site unless otherwise noted. The Polaris Project Web site is a lively spot this time of year, as a group of American and Russian undergraduate students, escorted by faculty from their universities, conduct field work in the Kolyma River Basin in Russia’s remote and lovely far northeast--and then share their adventures via a project blog. The Polaris Project aims to draw budding scientists (the rising stars) to arctic research. Its centerpiece is the Russian High Arctic field course now engaging 10 undergraduates in an odyssey focused on studying the area while living (and sometimes traveling) aboard a barge afloat in the Kolyma River.

The live-aboard barge.

The students have devised eight different research projects this year, each studying some aspect of carbon cycling in the ecosystem of the Kolyma River Basin. The mosaic of subjects includes the area’s lakes, rivers, permafrost, microbes, and more. The team works in new labs at the Northeast Science Station, a small and important Siberian research facility directed by the legendary Russian scientist, Sergey Zimov.

Three students collect lake water samples to study macroinvertibrate diversity.

In addition to research conducted around the station, the group has taken side trips down the river, including a multi-day trip to Duvannyi Yar, where mammoth bones and other Pleistocene-area remnants adorn the landscape, which is underlain by thawing permafrost. Thanks to the mammoth and other large animals that roamed the ancient lanscape, the permafrost harbors massive stores of organic matter. Nearby, a group of scientists led by Zimov have created Pleistocene Park, an experiment attempting to recreate and study the grassland ecosystem that disappeared 10,000 years ago, Zimov suspects, due less to climate warming than to human overhunting.

On the return to Cherskiy and the Northeast Science Station, faculty member Sudeep Chandra analyzes water samples while photographer Chris Linder sorts myriad photographs (enjoy them on the Polaris site!).

The National Science Foundation-funded Polaris Project is the brain child of Max Holmes of Woods Hole, whose work on river water transport and chemistry in the High Arctic a few years ago forged a very fruitful collaboration with Russian students and colleagues (called PARTNERS and then Student Partners), and showed Holmes has a knack for engaging young people in research.

While his Polaris rising stars work in Russia, Holmes remains at Woods Hole, monitoring his team's progress remotely. The reason: protostar Sophie Jane Holmes, one month old today. Congratulations, Max!