At the Woods Hole portion of the MBL Logan Science Journalism fellowship, we worked with researcher Linda Deegan. Fishscape, one of her projects, is underway here at Toolik. She’s not here now, but I went out today with her research team as they collect data along the Kuparuk River, studying the impact of climate change on the Arctic grayling, a freshwater fish in the salmon family. The commute, via a Roberston-44 helicopter, was pretty thrilling. And, is it just me, or did the face of Jesus appear in the tundra around :30??
The ride was over much too quickly, and the other MBL fellow Michael Werner and I set to work following the instructions of the team: Becca Colby, Dan Ackerman, and Tom Glass. The hypothesis is that the graylings’ migration route is being hindered by climate change, with smaller, shallower rivers impeding their movement between the summer feeding parts of the river and the over-wintering lake. Like much of scientific discovery, there are moments when you’re lost in the minute details of data… or dense willow thickets.
And like much of conservation science, we measured a lot of things: width of river, depth of river, size of rocks, speed of water, quadrants of vegetation…
We collected young graylings, or rather, made many attempts to collect them, but the grayling were fleet-finned, and we clumsy with our nets. Dan captured two.
It’s been dry up here in Alaska. Too dry and too warm by some accounts, with a blazing fire season underway to add to the concern. A warming world seems to be causing a cascade of changes to these remote places that most of humanity don’t think about so much but which contribute, and perhaps exacerbate, the climate changes underway everywhere in a potentially dangerous feedback loop. Many of the projects taking place out of Toolik are trying to gauge what those changes are now to help know what to expect in the future. If the permafrost — the frozen ground defrosting “like a hunk of ground beef” as one researcher said — that underlies the vast majority of the state leaves its resting frozen state and leaps into activity like any spring thaw, what does that mean? For carbon release and carbon capture, for fire regimes, for animal migration, for plant growth, for human communities in Alaska and for humans elsewhere?
But for this one moment, we enjoy. When all the work was done, we had time to tromp across the tundra, popping cloud berries into out mouths, where they tasted like a raspberry-rhubarb pie with a hint of mango.
There were antlers to be found…
And a great mountain to be conquered. (Actually, I wimped out on the last leg of the climb.)
And then a helicopter to catch. Back into the sky we launched, to return to Toolik just in time for dinner.