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

What I learned this Earth Day, 2014 - 4/22/2014 7:16 pm

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

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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Ocean Acidification

Clown fish at Sharm El Naga beach: Photographer Dino van Doorn (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)Clown fish at Sharm El Naga beach: Photographer Dino van Doorn (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Will ocean acidification spell a watery grave for vital parts of marine ecosystems? Marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, named ocean acidification global warming's "equally evil twin." *

Burning fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas — cutting down forests and other post-industrial revolution human activities have added more than 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere over the last 200 years. This anthropogenic (human-caused) increase in CO2 and other greenhouse gasses continues to influence dangerous climate change. The ocean acts as a carbon sink, meaning that it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. This causes ocean acidification

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Cray Inc. provides “Fish” for Arctic Region Supercomputing Center (ARSC).

Fairbanks, Alaska, October 2, 2012-- “As Alaska’s Research University UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks) must continue to provide the best tools, ARSC is one of the most important tools available,” said Brian Rogers, Chancellor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. And the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center’s new tool is a Cray supercomputer dubbed “Fish.” Watch the video a Cray Supercomputer Called Fish.

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Alaska’s view of the new sea-ice minimum

by Ned Rozell

As the northern end of the globe nods away from the sun at fall equinox, the amount of sea ice floating on the northern oceans is now at the lowest amount ever detected by satellites, a period that goes back to 1979. This new sea-ice minimum follows an extremely cold Alaska winter that led to the formation of thick ice off the northern coast. In spring 2012, it looked like old times for ice floating off northern Alaska.

Matt Druckenmiller tows a sled over sea ice in Barrow this spring. His sled contained instruments that measured the thickness of the ice: Photo courtesy Hajo Eicken.Matt Druckenmiller tows a sled over sea ice in Barrow this spring. His sled contained instruments that measured the thickness of the ice: Photo courtesy Hajo Eicken.

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International Polar Week and Climate Predictions in Ice

Ice cores loaded onto a plane in Antarctica: Photo by Heidi Roop (PolarTREC 2010), Courtesy of ARCUSIce cores loaded onto a plane in Antarctica: Photo by Heidi Roop (PolarTREC 2010), Courtesy of ARCUS

This week is International Polar Week, September 16 - 22, 2012. The event coincides with the Fall Equinox, when 12 hours of daylight will light every location on the planet. Polar Week aims to involve the public with research going on in the Artic and Antarctic through educational activities and engaging webinars. Do you know any students who would benefit from learning about polar science? You can find free activities and resources

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Glaciologists help with recovery of human remains

by Ned Rozell

It’s not often that glaciologists help with the recovery of long-lost human remains, but military officials recently enlisted Martin Truffer for that purpose. The University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute professor and graduate student Dave Podrasky came up with useful information on a Southcentral glacier that held plane wreckage and the remains of military men killed in a crash 60 years ago.

Colony Glacier, about 50 miles east of Anchorage, flows beneath the impact point of a military transport plane that crashed into 10,000-foot Mount Gannett in 1952. Because the accident site is so remote and rugged, no one had been able to recover the plane or the remains of its crew and passengers. Over time, Colony Glacier has churned the accident debris 14 miles

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Modeling Arctic Waters from the Bering Sea through the Bering Strait to the Arctic Ocean.


Fairbanks, Alaska, September 4, 2012--- Three videos introduce the oceanographic modeling work from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). The video Modeling Ice in the Arctic, shows a regional ice model coupled with a global climate model.

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Fire is a natural part of the boreal forest ecosystem

Spruce fire in Kenai National Wildlife Refuge: U.S. Fish & Wildlife photo by Karen MurphySpruce fire in Kenai National Wildlife Refuge: U.S. Fish & Wildlife photo by Karen Murphy

by Ned Rozell

With their mushroom clouds topped with cauliflower crowns, plumes from wildfire smoke are again a common sight in Interior Alaska, which — with barely a sprinkle of rain — just experienced one of the driest Mays in the 100-year written record.

Though it’s a normal human reaction to think of wildfire as a bad thing, fire’s occurrence on the landscape predates the arrival of people to the boreal forest by a long shot. The forest doesn’t function well without it.

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Arctic lakes getting a closer look

by Ned Rozell

Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but Alaska has more than that in the great expanse of flatlands north of the Brooks Range. These ubiquitous far-north bodies of water — most of them formed by the disappearance of ancient, buried ice that dimples the landscape as it thaws — make the maps of Alaska’s coastal plain look like Swiss cheese.

A large group of scientists are now taking a closer look at Alaska’s “thermokarst” lakes, some of the fastest-changing landforms on the planet.

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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) Fly in the Aleutians

Fairbanks, Alaska, August 14, 2012--- Three videos detail the Unmanned Aircraft work from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). In March, Greg Walker, UAF's Unmanned Aircraft Program Manager, led research in the Aleutians. Walker flies the UAVs in just about all conditions except freezing rain which would stick to delicate equipment. “We’ve regularly flown in showers, we’ve flown in snow and 25 knot winds,” said Walker.

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Making sea ice 300 miles from the ocean

by Ned Rozell

Marc Mueller-Stoffels unscrews the top of a glass jar and invites a visitor to smell the powder inside. A sniff evokes the image of kayaking Prince William Sound or walking a beach in Southeast.

“We call it ‘Instant Ocean,’” he says, returning the lid to the jar.

Sea ice made by Marc Mueller-Stoffels, who suspended chunks of fresh-water ice in salty brine at below-zero temperatures. He took this photo of a thin cross-section of ice using a polarizing filter. Individual shapes are ice crystals: Photo by Marc MuelleSea ice made by Marc Mueller-Stoffels, who suspended chunks of fresh-water ice in salty brine at below-zero temperatures. He took this photo of a thin cross-section of ice using a polarizing filter. Individual shapes are ice crystals: Photo by Marc Muelle

Mueller-Stoffels, a doctoral student in the Physics Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, uses the white contents of the jar — different types of salts found in seawater all over the world — to create homebrewed ocean.

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Survey: Abrupt permafrost thaw increases climate threat

by Marie Gilbert

As the Arctic warms, greenhouse gases will be released from thawing permafrost faster and at significantly higher levels than previous estimates, according to survey results from 41 international scientists published in the Nov. 30 issue of the journal Nature.

Permafrost thaw will release approximately the same amount of carbon as deforestation, authors write. However, the effect of thawing permafrost on climate will be 2.5 times greater because emissions include methane, which is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Ben Abbott, graduate student, records gas flux measurements from a landscape where permafrost has thawed and the ground has collapsed - called a thermokarst - just north of the Institute of Arctic Biology Toolik Field Station on the North Slope. Abbott is: UAF photo by Marie GilbertBen Abbott, graduate student, records gas flux measurements from a landscape where permafrost has thawed and the ground has collapsed - called a thermokarst - just north of the Institute of Arctic Biology Toolik Field Station on the North Slope. Abbott is: UAF photo by Marie Gilbert

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Alaska creatures without us

US Forest Service: TongassUS Forest Service: Tongass

by Ned Rozell

In Alan Weisman’s book, The World Without Us, the author ponders “a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow.”

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Journey into the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes

by Ned Rozell

One hundred years after the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is still a moonscape of ash and volcanic rock, without a tree or shrub in sight. The valley, located on the Alaska Peninsula where the Aleutians hook on to mainland Alaska, is a silent reminder of the power and potential of Alaska’s volcanoes.

Hikers trek the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes on the Alaska Peninsula, walking on a sheet of ash and volcanic rock more than 500-feet-thick: Photo by Ned Rozell.Hikers trek the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes on the Alaska Peninsula, walking on a sheet of ash and volcanic rock more than 500-feet-thick: Photo by Ned Rozell.

I once visited the valley

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"This is not what we expected” said Julie Brigham-Grette in video describing work at Lake El’gygytgyn.

Fairbanks, Alaska, July 10, 2012--- “To this point no one has much of any terrestrial record anywhere in the Arctic older than 125,000 years ago,”

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Dinosaurs in the Wrangell Mountains

by Ned Rozell

The more Tony Fiorillo explores Alaska, the more dinosaur tracks he finds on its lonely ridgetops. The latest examples are the stone footprints of two different dinosaurs near the tiny settlement of Chisana in the Wrangell Mountains.

Fiorillo, a dinosaur hunter with the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, recently wrote of the foot impressions of a large plant-eater and small meat-eater in the science journal Cretaceous Research. Fiorillo is a yearly summer visitor to Alaska who seems to discover something exciting on every trip.

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Geologic methane seeping from thawing cryosphere

Methane-induced melt-hole on a frozen lake in the Brooks Range in Alaska in April of 2011: Photo by Katey Walter AnthonyMethane-induced melt-hole on a frozen lake in the Brooks Range in Alaska in April of 2011: Photo by Katey Walter Anthony

by Marmian Grimes

Geologic methane is seeping through the edges of thawing permafrost and receding glaciers in Alaska and Greenland, according to a study recently published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Katey Walter Anthony led the study, which, for the first time, documents the widespread occurrence of these terrestrial sources of geologic methane seepage in the Arctic.

“They had never before been quantified and we didn’t know they were so widespread,” she said.

In the past, researchers have found that, as permafrost thaws, previously frozen organic matter like dead plants or animals decays and releases methane.

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Flying machines for the dirty, dull and dangerous

by Ned Rozell

Some places in this world are just too dirty, dull or dangerous for human pilots to fly. An airspace in the latter category is anywhere near gas flares in Alask's oil fields.

With only a few seconds of warning, flames blast high in the air from a network of pipes, releasing the stress of sucking oil from deep in the ground.

Greg Walker recently found himself taking a look these fire-breathing nozzles near Prudhoe Bay, but he was barely close enough to see them from where he stood. He instead watched a "flying king crab" that buzzed around flaming flare heads 50 feet above the ground.

An Aeryon Scout flies over the shoreline of Prince William Sound near Valdez during an exercise in summer 2011 to check its usefulness in oil spill cleanup assessment.An Aeryon Scout flies over the shoreline of Prince William Sound near Valdez during an exercise in summer 2011 to check its usefulness in oil spill cleanup assessment.

The 2.5-pound flying machine captured video and five-megapixel images of the flares and their support pipes, some of them jacked by frost and needing repair.

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Unmanned Aircraft: Arctic Science & Tech.

NOAA: Launching an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)NOAA: Launching an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

Speeding over Arctic sea ice, small remote-controlled aircraft snag video footage and high-definition shots of endangered Steller Sea Lions in their natural habitat. Quiet and unobtrusive, the machines can serve as Special Op.s for researchers. Low-altitude remote sensing using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has vast potential... and we're only beginning to explore it.

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Fly Scout Fly is a new video about Greg Walker’s work with unmanned vehicles in Alaska.

Fairbanks, Alaska, June , 2012--- “So our job is to get it out there, get exposure to the technology, get people to understand its benefits and its limitations. And see how it can solve their problems.”

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