By the time we reached Galbraith Lake, North Slope, Alaska, the low light of the solstice sun to the north was casting shadows on the peaks of the Brooks Range, which finally lay to the south of us after hours of driving. Although rain showers had passed through earlier in the day, the lingering clouds were just cotton in the sky, lit to the orange color of hot coils of a stove. Our trip was planned for three days, and our mantra was to have “nowhere to be, and all day to get there”! We observed, absorbed, and enjoyed the birds, flowers, and beauty of the Tundra during solstice. Due to the many photos from the trip, the results will be broken into two chapters, “Solstice, Solitude, Soliloquy”, and “Birds and Blossoms of the Tundra”. I hope you enjoy this first installment!
During the day we drove the Haul Road to various hiking destinations. A creek bed, a bird sighting, or a nice pull-off were all excuses to hike around and check out a new region. Although the road was busy with traveling semi-trucks and tourists, as soon as you walked away from the road the solitude was immediate. Few others hike around on the tundra at this time of the year, and its vast expanse ensures that even if they do, you do not have to see them unless you choose to. Since creek beds offer a natural hiking corridor through and around ankle twisting tundra humps, tussocks, we used them often. The small, bubbling rivers bottoms flowed through rockfields created by spring melts, and were just a fraction of their size during the melt a few weeks prior. However, flow was higher than normal for the time of year, as a snow storm just 10 days earlier fed them from the mountains. I was drawn to the colors and sizes of rocks on the stream beds, and the mountains behind them which birthed the running waters.
At the end of each day we set up camp on the tundra, targeting soft patches of sphagnum moss for our sleeping pads. The mattress companies of the world should take note of the comfort of the tundra – it is unparalleled in soft-yet-supportive sleep. From our camp we took small hikes to check out the local flora and birds. The hikes always brought something new to see and experience. Near one of our camps we discovered this baby longspur (either a Smith’s or Lapland) on the tundra. It perched on the moss in the warm sun, and was likely waiting for food from its parent. Unable to escape, this baby bird’s instinct was to sit as still as possible. I snapped a few shots, and then stepped away so its parents could rejoin and feed it.
As we walked around each night I looked for settings to put up a solstice timelapse. The advantage of a timelapse over a single shot is to show the traveling path of the sun as it reaches the horizon and then curves back into the sky. Over the Brooks Range, being so far north, the sun stayed far above the horizon – it hadn’t dropped below the horizon there for over a month. This was in stark contrast to shooting at Finger Mountain about 15 miles south of the Arctic Circle where the sun just dipped below the curve of the earth. The resulting shots from each location have been fused together, and shown individually below. The lighting of the composite shots, in particular, I believe is very striking. Since each image is made of 8-10 shots over time, each plant has been lit from many angles. Because of this, extreme detail can be seen in each flower in the tundra foreground.
A trip to the Tundra will bring as much to experience as the eye can behold and the brain can perceive. I’m looking forward to the next chapter of birds and blossoms!
I’m just back from an exceptional three days at the Toolik Field Station (http://goo.gl/NlH6e6). My travels up north are a fulfillment of a childhood dream. This field station is located over the Brooks Range, on the North Slope Tundra of Alaska. It’s a 10 hour trip up the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to this very remote location. The area had just had its first snow of the year which was slowly melting off the Tundra, but in my opinion it was there to stay in the mountains. Apparently, it’s typical for snow to start to hang around by the middle of September! Temps were dropping down to the low 20s at night, and were only raising up to about 35 during the daytime. Late fall and winter are already setting in this far north, and should be headed towards the U.S. 48 any day! The trip up there was part of my graduate orientation. I was accompanied by 7 other new graduate students. Our goal was to enjoy the arctic, understand the Toolik field station and get to know everyone in the group.
Toolik is located above the arctic circle which is 66′ 33″. This arbitrary line is determined by the latitude where the sun can be seen at midnight during the summer solstice. Hence, once you cross in the arctic you are officially in the land of the “midnight sun”. The dark nights are famous in this area and are very difficult for some to cope with. However, without further ado I’m looking forward to taking you along the journey up the Dalton Highway and to the Toolik Field Station!
GEOLOGY and TUNDRA-ISTICS
One of the great pieces to this trip was the knowledge of the staff and personnel who were with us. I learned a lot about the geology of tundra features. One of the prominent features on the tundra were the Thermokarsts. These features are formed when permafrost (ie: ground that stays frozen) begins to thaw and collapse. Some thermokarsts are capable of sinking 10s of feet, while others may only drop several inches. The significance of this is that a large amount of carbon is released from the soil as it thaws and collapses. The released carbon can cause changes to the ecology, biology, and communities around the thermokarst. As much as 1/3 of the tundra across the world is made up of material that would collapse in a warming world. So, what do these thermokarsts look like? Here you go:
Each of the images that you are looking at are examples of a specific type of Thermokarst. They are “active detachment layers”. The active layer is the permafrost that thaws each year. In these spots the permfrost has thawed in the top layer and had begun to slide down the hillside. This landslide is occurring overtop of the still frozen soil below.
During a 6 mile hike up the Atigun Gorge we encountered another feature that were looking for. Geodes and fossils. The geodes found in the area ranged from golfball to watermelon sized. Once you cracked them open the crystals inside looked like many small diamonds! We also found an a shale area laden with fossils of shells from ages past. I have never seen a concentration of fossils like that!
PLANTS OF THE TUNDRA
Everything regarding plants happens slowly in the Tundra. Dwarf birch may stand 8 inches tall and be 50 years old! The trees in the tundra are limited by the growing season and nutrients in the soils. However, they still cover manyof the areas that you walk in. In the pictures here you can see the dwarf birch in the reds and yellows throughout the area. Hopefully it demonstrates the blanketing of these plants as well as the height. Notice the caribou antlers for Scale? These pictures were taken in Atigun Gorge, Finger Mountain and along the Dalton Highway.
Another common species of tree is the black spruce. It’s the iconic tree of the boreal forest and is VERY slow growing. Fully mature trees may be only 6 inches in diameter and over 100 years old! Here you can see the different sizes of spruce. The growth rings on the tree are so tiny that I couldn’t even count them. Scientists age these tress while alive by taking a core sample of the tree. The plug resembles a skinny pencil.
One of the common berries that we found were the low-bush cranberry. Some of you may be familiar with these berries from Minnesota in the bogs. These plants have a tart red berry which is loaded with vitamin C. I thought that the tundra berries didn’t have as much flavor as the ones that I found in bogs. Perhaps a research project in the making?? We also found cloud berry, blue berry, crow berry and bear berry. All of those berries are edible, but the cloud berries are by far the best! There is also several species of peas found in the tundra. I couldn’t find any with pods, but I guess they get them. The pea plants are found among rocky outcrops and are very low to the ground.
Cotton grass is aptly named for its cotton like heads. This grass is very common through the tundra, and during the right times of year will cause the tundra to look like a cloud with all of the fluffy white heads.
THE ALASKA PIPELINE
The Alaskan pipeline is HUGE. I’ll just start by saying that. It also is an engineering marvel. The pipeline is prevalent along the entire Dalton Highway and continues to to run north past Toolik another 120 miles up to Prudhoe Bay. The pipeline was built back between 1974 and 1977 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Alaska_Pipeline_System), it’s nearly 40 years old. It is earthquake resistant as well as cooled to avoid melting into the permafrost. Many of the poles have heat vents coupled with refrigerator coolent. These radiators keep the pipe from thawing the soil. The pipe is suspended on teflon pads, and the pipe can slide over the pads during an earthquake, which gives it a lot of security. In the case emergency a pump station can shut down the flow of the pipe in any given spot. However, spills are pretty uncommon, and the only one that anyone talked about was an incident involving a drunken man with a gun who managed to shoot a hole through the pipe. Most of the pipe is layed above ground, but there are certain sections that are underground. It’s also necessary for the pipe to cross many rivers, including the Mighty Yukon.
LIFE IN TOOLIK FIELD STATION
The scenery never truly stopped no matter where you looked throughout the station. The TFS houses up to 150 scientists in the summer, but tapers of to 10 – 15 throughout the winter. The remote setting ensures that only a skeleton crew is left to man the needs of the researchers and facilities. The TFS sits to the north of the Brooks range and offers unprecedented views of the mountains. Wildlife abound in the area and yellow-billed loons live on the lake. Wolves, caribou, wolverines, musk ox, ground squirrels and many other species of animal may be found in the area.
This research looked at the response of the tundra to fire. In 2004 and 2005 over 6 millions acres of Tundra burned which is an unheard of number! Black spruce, which may have been growing for 200 years were torched. The research found that the tundra actually recovered pretty fast, and that the amount of carbon released was the equivalent to the accumulation of about 30 years. So, overall it might have been worse. However, an increased fire regime is expected on the tundra due to the warming climate, so more fires like these 8 years ago may occur.
We were incredibly blessed when we got there. The sky had just cleared off after nearly a week of foggy, rainy, snowy weather. The first night the Aurora appeared about 12AM. It started as light green haze in the sky and continued to intensify until ribbons of pink and green floated for miles around us. Areas of the aurora would build and fade so quickly it was hard to take it all in. As my eyes dashed about the sky there was always something else to see. However, it was almost impossible to comprehend. In some regards it can be related to a Rainbow because as you stand and look at it it connects to the earth and you feel there is a source to the light. However, chasing it would never yield a starting location. I’ve throught a lot about the best ways to describe how I felt the first night that it boomed and loomed over my head. Here’s some of the inadequate descriptions that I thought of:
Undulating Jelly fish
On the night we had a bonfire which can be seen in many of the aurora photo. Again, it started in a light green haze that continued to grow and become saturated. The aurora the second night was so much different that the first! Rather than the organized bands it saturated everything and damped out the skies. You can see in the ground that the snow was green from the surreal light above! Again, words truly cannot describe how these lights effect your senses, your mood and your heart. Everything in in your person is drawn to them and you cannot help but watch.