Day 2 out on the BEO today, and another successful and productive day it was! Even though it started off a bit windy and pretty cold, we were still able to spend most of the day in the field collecting soil cores, water samples, and biogeochemical data.
Check out the NGEE-Arctic blog too for some information about our day (and pictures) from a different perspective. :)
I've had a few people ask me, 'What do Arctic soils or chemistry have anything to do with energy?', since my graduate degree will be in Energy Science and Engineering. Most, if not all, of our energy issues are closely linked to climate. Warming temperatures in particular have already affected the Arctic more than any other region. The Arctic also has a strong potential to feed back to climate change in a variety of ways. One of those ways is from underground.
For millennia, Arctic terrestrial ecosystems have served as a storage place, or sink, for atmospheric carbon. Dead plants and animals (organic matter) become frozen in the soil and decompose at extremely slow rates. Warming conditions however, may increase these rates, thereby releasing some of that carbon from the soil into the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide or methane, creating a potentially irreversible positive feedback loop. Or, increased decomposition rates could also free up a whole bunch of nutrients that were previously unavailable, which plants could then take up, increasing their growth and photosynthesis rates, thereby taking in carbon from the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. So there might be this 'competition' between the microbes who want to decompose the organic matter, and the plants who want to use that organic matter for growth.
One of the things that is thought to impact this competition is the availability of small organic molecules such as sugars, proteins, and other forms of degraded organic matter. Theoretically, if the organic matter isn't available to the plants or the microbes--because it's blocked off by soil particles, it needs different environmental conditions, or is chemically resistant to decomposition for example--then it may not impact the carbon cycle like we think it will. Currently, we don't really know which, and how much, each (or all) of these will affect decomposition and plant growth.
Another thing scientists are struggling with right now is being able to create models that can reliably predict how things are expected to change in the future. Collecting observational data and numbers from the field (in situ) at multiple scales is needed for these models so policy makers are more informed when they have to make decisions about how we are going to respond to climate change in the future.
The primary goal of the NGEE-Arctic project is to do just that. Various teams (biogeochemistry, vegetation, hydrology, etc) of researchers are collecting data on all kinds of science questions that will better inform these climate models. I'm interested in looking at the chemistry of small, organic nitrogen-containing molecules, and how that may impact decomposition rates or plant uptake. And today, I collected my first soil samples to do so! :)
After I dried off and warmed up on the truck ride off the BEO, I visited our lab in the Barrow Arctic Research Center (BARC) to process the cores and get them ready for the trip home later this week. With it being such a remote area of the world to build a lab, this facility is really impressive.
Even though I'm 4 hours behind my normal time zone, making it easy to wake up in the morning, but hard to stay awake at night, field work in Barrow has made it all worth it. As a person who started off in a chemistry lab where I strictly worked with samples that were brought to me to analyze, trust me when I say, that field work gives you a perspective you can't ever fully realize behind closed doors. Just these few short days have already helped me place my interests in the larger context of the NGEE project, as well as helped me define the importance of my research to the changing Arctic climate.
More tomorrow. :)
Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
Questions to Ask Before Choosing Grad Program
First Semester of Grad School
Field Work in Alaska
Science Conference Dos and Don'ts
Women in STEM Series
Things I've Learned in Grad School Series
Blogs I Follow
Mass Spectrometry Blog
The Grad Student Way
Anthony's Science Blog
The Thesis Whisperer
Fossils and Shit
Science Communication Breakdown
Science Communication Media
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