Postcards from Toolik

Emily Stone is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She's on a 16-day science journalism fellowship at Toolik Lake through the Marine Biological Lab (MBL).

This is the small stream that leads into the Toolik River that formed a thermokarst several years ago. The green on the left side is actually the stream, which looks more like a marsh. Just below that, the stream opens up into a muddy canyon where the ground falls away in the thermokarst.

The trick with having a surface that sits on ice – which is what permafrost tundra is – is that if that ice melts, the ground falls away.

That's what's happening across the arctic in a phenomenon known as thermokarst. The underground ice melts, the water rushes away and the ground collapses into a sinkhole. That's bad news for any buildings or roads that straddle a thermokarst. Now scientists are starting to study what it means for the ecosystems around the holes.

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Breck Bowden of UVM is leading a team of 25 researchers studying the impact of thermokarsts around Toolik on everything from nearby rivers and streams, the microbes in the soil, the vegetation and the atmosphere. The group arrived on station and started their work in late June.

In a previous study, Bowden looked at old aerial photos of the area around Toolik from the mid-80s and compared them to satellite photos from 2006. He found twice as many thermokarst depressions in 2006 than 20 years earlier.

The journalist fellows visited a thermokarst this week on a stream that feeds into the Toolik River. Above the thermokarst, the stream looked like a marsh as the water ran through tall, bright green grass. At the thermokarst, the stream suddenly opened up into a large, muddy chasm clear of plants. It was obvious that an enormous amount of soil had fallen into the stream. Researchers are interested in what that soil is doing to the water in the stream and in the Toolik River just below it.

We took water samples and started running tests on them to see what the difference in nutrient levels was above and below the thermokarst. We've just started analyzing the data, but it looks like a significant amount of the nitrate in the Toolik River is coming from the thermokarst. More nutrients like nitrates likely mean increased algae and moss, which can quickly change the composition of the insects and fish in the river.