Frontier Scientists

Photo by Astronaut Jeff Williams, NASA Earth Observatory

The Frontier Scientists blog is for travelers, teachers, students, aspiring scientists, and anyone interested in scientific discovery in the Alaskan arctic.

Come here for videos, photos and summaries that put you in the front row for breaking scientific news in the Far North. Research by our team of Alaska-based scientists includes 10,000-year-old archeological finds, photos of active Cook Inlet volcanoes taken from the space station, climate change, Denali Park’s grizzlies, the nexus of Russian and native artistic traditions, and more.

Come along as scientists themselves are startled by the unexpected in field locations so remote researchers are often the first modern visitors to set foot in them.

Contact Liz O’Connell at liz@frontierscientists.com

Predicting the effect of anomalous sea ice loss and increasing sea surface temperatures on global storm systems - 4/15/2014 8:48 pm

The ground changing under our feet – Thermokarsts - 4/8/2014 2:24 pm

Snowy Owl Irruption - 4/2/2014 7:40 am

Tram Powered International Tundra Experiment - 3/25/2014 5:40 pm

Modeling shifting oceanscapes; a collective pursuit - 3/18/2014 6:29 pm

Iditarod sled dogs’ fat burning capabilities - 3/12/2014 11:04 pm

68 million ton landslide in Alaska: Mount La Perouse - 3/5/2014 7:34 pm

Feeling the heat? 2013 fourth warmest year on record - 2/27/2014 4:23 pm

Alaska bucks the global temperature trend

Fairbanks, seen here at minus 40 during January 2012, is one of many Alaska places that — unlike most of the world — leaned to the cold side during the first decade of the 2000s.: Photo by Ned Rozell.Fairbanks, seen here at minus 40 during January 2012, is one of many Alaska places that — unlike most of the world — leaned to the cold side during the first decade of the 2000s.: Photo by Ned Rozell.

by Ned Rozell

This just in: 2012 was the coldest year of the new century in Fairbanks, and the second coldest here in the last 40 years.

Fairbanks isn’t the only chilly place in Alaska. Average temperatures at 19 of 20 long-term National Weather Service stations displayed a cooling trend from 2000 to 2010, according a recent study written up by Gerd Wendler, Blake Moore and Lian Chen of the Alaska Climate Research Center.

The rest of the world has not been going Alaska’s way. For the 36th consecutive year, the yearly global temperature in 2012 was warmer than average.

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A Walrus at the Edge of the Ice

Adult female walruses on Chukchi Sea ice floe with young.: Courtesy USGS, photographer S.A. SonsthagenAdult female walruses on Chukchi Sea ice floe with young.: Courtesy USGS, photographer S.A. Sonsthagen

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

Sea ice is the foundation of an entire Arctic ecosystem. Algae flourishes where the ice is active, providing sustenance for hordes of zooplankton. Birds feed on schools of small fish sustained by the zooplankton. There are species of seabirds which live here and nowhere else, and others whose natural rhythms are dictated by presence or absence of ice. Fish populations support a variety of seals and larger fish. Bowhead whales filter-feed on tiny zooplankton, while orcas prowl for bigger prey. All these organisms live and die, drifting down to the seafloor where their detritus helps make a new meal for bottom-dwellers like mollusks and tubeworms.

Large walrus on Bering Sea ice. (Odobenus rosmarus divergens): Courtesy NOAA, photographer Captain Budd ChristmanLarge walrus on Bering Sea ice. (Odobenus rosmarus divergens): Courtesy NOAA, photographer Captain Budd Christman

Walruses live here. Blubberous and ungainly on land, adroit swimmers in water, the big toothy pinnipeds are iconic in the cold north, an Arctic keystone species.

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Carbon in permafrost and tomorrow's atmosphere

Ice heaves can cause mounds in permafrost. Pictured are partially melted and collapsed mounds forming stone circles in Svalbard, northern Norway.: Attribution: Hannes Grobe (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic License)Ice heaves can cause mounds in permafrost. Pictured are partially melted and collapsed mounds forming stone circles in Svalbard, northern Norway.: Attribution: Hannes Grobe (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic License)

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

Carbon is the building block of life.

Our knowledge of current climate change, however, has us counting how much carbon enters the atmosphere. We burn fossil fuels, adding anthropogenic (human-caused) carbon dioxide to the air. Meanwhile, natural processes also add carbon to the air. We know that methane can arise from warming lakes and oceans. Methane traps heat roughly twenty times as efficiently as does carbon dioxide. Methane and carbon dioxide are also hiding in permafrost, the layers of frozen soil found in very cold places like the Arctic. Permafrost layers can measure up to 5,000 feet thick.

One gigaton equals one million tons. Earth’s current atmosphere holds about 850 gigatons of Carbon. Permafrost is estimated to hold 1,400 gigatons of Carbon.

Permafrost has a misleading name. As our world warms, permafrost that has lasted tens of thousands of years or more is beginning to melt.

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Bison Bob a big discovery on the North Slope

by Ned Rozell

As she scraped cold dirt from the remains of an extinct bison, Pam Groves wrinkled her nose at a rotten-egg smell wafting from gristle that still clung to the animal’s bones. She lifted her head to scan the horizon, wary of bears that might be attracted to the flesh of a creature that gasped its last breath 40,000 years ago.

In the type of discovery they have dreamed about for years, Groves and Dan Mann, both researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in summer 2012 found in the thawing bank of a northern river almost the entire skeleton of a steppe bison that died during the last ice age.

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Triumphs of the endangered Bowhead Whale

Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus) fluke, Foxe Basin in Nunavut, Canada: by Ansgar Walk (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License)Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus) fluke, Foxe Basin in Nunavut, Canada: by Ansgar Walk (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License)

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

Each spring, wildlife biologist Craig George stands where shore-bound sea ice meets open water at Point Barrow and counts whales. Barrow Alaska is the northernmost town in the united states. The lookout point, accessed daily via snowmobile, is no more than a canvas windbreak atop a pile of ice. Warming spring temperatures thin and break apart the near-coastal sea ice just north of Barrow, forming a narrow open passage preferred by migrating whales. And for eight weeks beginning in early April, Craig George and other researchers working with the North Slope Borough's Department of Wildlife brave the arctic weather, straining to spot glimpses of Bowhead Whales.

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Climate change and the people of the mesa

The Mesa Site in northwest Alaska: Photo courtesy Mike KunzThe Mesa Site in northwest Alaska: Photo courtesy Mike Kunz

by Ned Rozell

Alaska was once the setting for an environmental shift so dramatic it forced people to evacuate the entire North Slope, according to Michael Kunz, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management.

About 10,000 years ago, a group of hunting people lived on the North Slope

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Dust on the sun's mirror

Ice Melt: (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license) Attribution: Mike PenningtonIce Melt: (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license) Attribution: Mike Pennington

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

Imagine yourself on a Colorado mountain slope. Bumblebees buzz happily around dwarf bluebell blossoms, and the spring sun is bright. Except not all is well. The flowers bloom a good seven hundred feet upslope of where they grew five years ago, forcing bees ever higher. Bright petal colors are faded: the flowers are past their prime, plants already flagging.

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Dramatic report card for the Arctic in 2012

by Ned Rozell

Northern sea ice is at its lowest extent since we've been able to see it from satellites. Greenland experienced its warmest summer in 170 years. Eight of 10 permafrost-monitoring sites in northern Alaska recorded their highest temperatures; the other two tied record highs.

2012 was a year of “astounding” change for much of the planet north of the Arctic Circle

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Extreme Weather, Extreme Christmas Tree

By Liz O'Connell for Frontier Scientists

A Ponderosa Pine grove towers over my house roof.  The 100 foot trees grow naturally and swiftly east of the Cascades in Oregon.  Before Thanksgiving, extreme winds blew over the Cascade mountain barrier and whipped around central Oregon. The night after, I checked my yard from a window—dried pine needle & pine cone litter but nothing unusual.  I didn’t see it until I walked out into the yard.  A ten foot tree-top lay next to the house.

Hmm, I thought, looks like a Christmas Tree.

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The oceans are our neighbors too

Close-up of the symbiotic vestimentiferan tubeworm Lamellibrachia luymesi from a cold seep at 550 m depth. The tubes are stained with a blue chitin stain to determine growth rates. Approximately 14 mo of growth is shown by the staining here: Charles Fisher in PLoS Biology: Public Library of ScienceClose-up of the symbiotic vestimentiferan tubeworm Lamellibrachia luymesi from a cold seep at 550 m depth. The tubes are stained with a blue chitin stain to determine growth rates. Approximately 14 mo of growth is shown by the staining here: Charles Fisher in PLoS Biology: Public Library of Science

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

Deep sea oceans, once believed lifeless, teem with an astounding biodiversity.

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Moviemaker James Cameron Speaks to Scientists

Liz O'Connell for Frontier Scientists

James Cameron seamlessly merged the movie-making world with the science world in his talk at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) December annual conference in San Francisco.  While movie goers suspend disbelief as they immerse themselves into this director’s blockbuster worlds in The Abyss, Alien, Avatar, and Titanic, skeptical scientists need the proof, the method, and evidence of ground breaking discoveries to be impressed.

The Mariana TrenchThe Mariana Trench

Matching the deepest dive record in the Mariana trench

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Alaska’s Ned Rozell reads in SF at Writers With Drinks

Snowmobiles: OsopolarSnowmobiles: Osopolar

Liz O'Connell for Frontier Scientists

Who isn’t thirsty when it comes to good prose? Ongoing San Francisco’s Writers With Drinks mixes it up Saturday, December 8, 2012, at the Make-Out Room, 7:30pm.

Ned Rozell, science writer from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, will read from his book Finding Mars.

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Science Kids at the Exploration Station

NASA Mars Rover Curiosity: inflatable modelNASA Mars Rover Curiosity: inflatable model

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

After snapping a few photos with the full-size inflatable model of the Curiosity rover, I went directly to the Discovery Dome, an inflatable planetarium. “We Choose Space!” was playing, a planetary show about human space exploration. A 360° panorama of the moon greeted me, an astronaut to one side, the moon buggy to another, and pristine moon dust under a black starry sky all around. The moon explorer talking about his experience spoke with the same reverence as John Muir held when he spoke about what is now Yosemite National Park. Sitting inside and staring up, just as much in wonder as all the little children and their families sharing the space, I felt awed by all that we have accomplished and the discoveries to come.

I was attending the Exploration Station

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New UAF program draws young artists into science

by Marie Thoms

Artists and scientists often share a common goal: making the invisible visible. Yet artistically talented students, especially girls, often shy away from scientific careers.

A new four-year program led by the University of Alaska Fairbanks blends the art, biology and physics of color into a series of summer academies, science cafes and activity kits designed to inspire art-interested students to enter careers in science.

“Research suggests that girls who gravitate toward art often have strong visual-spatial abilities that would serve them well in science careers,”

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Guillemots, and the Edge of the Ice

Nesting Black Guillemots: © Copyright Ross and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Part of the Geograph project.Nesting Black Guillemots: © Copyright Ross and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Part of the Geograph project.

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

The Bering Sea region hosts over 90% of seabirds breeding in the continental United States. Most of those birds are hardy migrators, breeding on Alaska's coast in the warm season and then departing south, chased away by the cold weather. One group which remains is Guillemots, a type of seabird species which belongs to the auks -- the family includes murres, murrelets, auklets and puffins.

Guillemots are special. They don't migrate

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A far-off place, all for the birds

by Ned Rozell

HALL ISLAND — On this windy, misty August day, there are perhaps one million birds clinging to the cliffs that buttress this Bering Sea island. These seabirds, crazy-eyed and with bodies both sleek and clumsy, need solid ground for just a few months to hold their eggs. When their summer mission is complete, the birds scatter to the vastness of the sea.

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ARSC Fish: CRAY Supercomputer Enables Scientific Discovery

Fairbanks, Alaska, November 6, 2012-- The Arctic Region Supercomputing Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks

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Scientists identify likely origins of vertebrate air breathing

by Marie Thoms

University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists have identified what they think is the ancestral trait that allowed for the evolution of air breathing in vertebrates. They presented their research at the 42nd annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience Oct. 17 in New Orleans.

“To breathe air with a lung, you need more than a lung, you need neural circuitry that is sensitive to carbon dioxide,”

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Know your land: Alaska maps

North Polar Map: Adolf Stielers Handatlas 1891North Polar Map: Adolf Stielers Handatlas 1891

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

Over eight thousand historical maps of Alaska are now available to the public through the United States Geological Survey's Historical Topographic Map Collection. The collection includes maps of Alaska crafted as long ago as 1899

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A Portal to Toolik Field Station

Brooks Range from Alaska National Wildlife Refuge: Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife ServiceBrooks Range from Alaska National Wildlife Refuge: Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Laura Nielsen for FrontierScientists

We know that the Arctic holds unique climate conditions and a complex carbon balance. Tundra fires and thawing permafrost release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while unique ocean currents and cold waters prompt higher levels of ocean acidification. Methane emerges from sea and soil. The Arctic sea ice cover shrinks to increasingly startling extents. Plant life changes in response to altered conditions, and wildlife struggles to adapt. Understanding Arctic systems is a vital piece of climate science that can provide policy makers the knowledge they need to predict and manage biological systems in an increasingly climate-uncertain world, yet the remote locations and harsh conditions of the Arctic create challenges for scientists.

Visit Alaska's remote Toolik Field Station, where hundreds of scientists undertake research projects in the field.

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