Polaris Project: Why we do this

Cotton grass Doing research in the Siberian Arctic is difficult. Just getting there is a grueling 5-day, sixteen-time zone journey around 3/4 of the earth for any American. But for the 33 American and Russian students and faculty of the NSF-funded Polaris Project, the over-the-top travel schedule just bookends a month of intensive scientific discovery in Cherskiy each summer. Since 2008, Max Holmes (Woods Hole Research Center) has led Polaris. Below he outlines some of the challenges and rewards of project involvement in a July 23 Polaris Project journal post.

“I’m sitting on the Barge, drinking a cup of coffee, watching snow whip across the Panteleikha River. More than 24 hours of rain and snow have turned the dirt runway in Cherskiy to mud, threatening to delay our trip home (which is supposed to begin later today as we fly from Cherskiy to Yakutsk). A delayed flight out of Cherskiy would have many ripple effects (lots of rebooking of flights, hotels, buses, etc; lots of disappointment as our reunions with family and friends are postponed; and lots of additional expenses, potentially reaching $50,000…).

Moscow bus

There are many easier things to do in life than to lead a group of 33 people to the Siberian Arctic, so why do I do this?

I’ve been asking myself that question this morning, intertwined with thoughts about missing my 6 year old son and 3 year old daughter, and facing the prospect of missing my wife’s 40th birthday on July 27.

Fortunately, there is an easy answer: This is the most important thing I can imagine doing. The Arctic is at the epicenter of global climate change, and how the Arctic responds to warming will have a huge influence on Earth’s climate system (and therefore human society) over the coming years and decades. The permafrost of the Arctic contains vast quantities of ancient organic matter, and nowhere is it more concentrated or more vulnerable than in the region I’m looking at now through the window of the Barge. Though our group of 33 is huge in some senses (such as when thinking about rebooking flights across 16 time zones…), it is tiny when compared to the magnitude of challenges facing scientists – and society – as we grapple with trying to understand the Arctic. So, I’ll keep hoping that our flight departs as scheduled this afternoon, but if not, I – and the larger group – will rally and use our extra time here to pry a few more secrets from this remarkable, challenging, critical, and beautiful environment.”

Undergraduate students from any college or university are eligible to apply to the Polaris Project. Application materials are usually due in January and participants head to Siberia around the beginning of July for a month of field work. Students develop their own field research experiments under the guidance of Principal Investigators and Postdoctoral Fellows. Focusing on one component of the Arctic System – for instance boreal forests, permafrost, wetlands, lakes, streams, rivers, uplands, invertebrate animals, or satellite observations—students dive into hands-on studies while exploring connections between all components.

Based out of the Northeast Science Station, built and operated by Russian scientist Sergei Zimov, participants live aboard a barge on the Kolyma River during their tenure. The barge also becomes a mobile lab (with the help of a tug boat) when the group explores other areas along the river. When not in the field, students work in one of the station’s labs (a converted television receiving station) and relax in their unique dorm.

Prior to arriving in Cherskiy, this season’s students ramped up with reading and participated in several webinars that fostered background learning and discussion. While awaiting their flight to Yakutsk in a Moscow hotel, the group engaged in “speed-dating science” wherein students talked with one faculty member about their research ideas and then “switch!” By the time students arrived in Siberia they were ready to hit the ground running first by shoring up field plans in small teams of 2-4 students and then setting up and calibrating new lab equipment.

After-dinner meeting
Max Holmes briefs the group on the day's upcoming activities after breakfast.  Photo: Mark Paricio

Student Sam Berman (Clark University) shared his first impressions in a July 1 journal post.

“Now it feels like Siberia. With our arrival in Cherskiy, we see things start to unfold and project ideas becoming planned activities. The realization of where you are in the world takes a while to set in. The landscape goes on forever and the mental preparation does not do the landscape justice. Projects continue to come along, some members are setting up in the aquatic and terrestrial labs and running equipment, while others are gathering fuel for doing controlled burn experiments. Timelines are starting to form and our schedule for the day is set with equipment set up and some field trips. Gathering tonight at dinner and hearing how the first full day of science goes will be interesting. Seeing everyone absorbed into their specific work shows the immense planning that has gone into peoples’ projects and the incredible and surprising results that will be obtained.”

Sam and Karen collecting samples

Over the next several weeks, students were up to their ankles, knees, and waists in mud, bogs, and bugs and loving every minute of it. PolarTREC teacher, Marc Paricio, who teaches physics at Smoky Hill High School in Leadville, Colorado, cited the weather, perhaps not surprisingly, as the biggest challenge to carrying out Arctic research and in communicating Polaris research to his students back home via the station’s “inter-nyet.”  In his PolarTREC journal he writes,

“Even in the middle of the short summer, the Siberian Arctic is a ruggedly wild and constantly changing landscape. From freezing snow to hot summer days, we experienced a considerable range in our short time. This is a land that is never far from winter but breathtaking in its expanse and variability.”

Drilling a borehole

Despite the usual Siberian challenges in transportation and weather, 2012 Polaris Project was, indeed, a success both scientifically and personally. Miles Bergen (Western Washington University) reflects on his experience after returning home.

“In the grand scheme of things, a month is hardly a blip of time, but something about the Polaris Project allows those four weeks to seem like 12, all while flying by in the span of one endless day. There was something kind of poetic about seeing night time for the first time as we woke up in Moscow to fly home. Having graduated in March, I kind of viewed this summer as a victory lap or a culmination of my undergraduate career. And while I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pump my fists once or twice realizing where I was, I’d be naive to think that this summer didn’t help me start something new.”

For more information on the Polaris Project including application materials, 2012 journal posts, and multimedia visit the Polaris Project website. http://www.thepolarisproject.org/