Hot spot for research

Students from Holy Cross, Clark take part in Arctic study

By Pamela H. Sacks



It wasn’t exactly your typical jaunt abroad. The travelers, among other things, batted away hordes of mosquitoes and ate lots of moose.

But Matthew Ruppel and Katherine Willis say their three-week stay in the Siberian Arctic as members of the Polaris Project was the best experience of their lives.

“Looking over the tundra left me speechless,” said Mr. Ruppel, a senior at the College of the Holy Cross.

Ms. Willis graduated earlier this year from Clark University with a degree in environmental science. She said that researching in the Arctic was a life-changing experience.

“I had not been sure what I wanted to do for a career,” said Ms. Willis, who is working in a geography laboratory at her alma mater. “Right now, I’m applying to grad schools that have Arctic research. It sparked my interest. I’d like to continue in that field.”

Mr. Ruppel, Ms. Willis and Boyd Zapatka, a senior at Clark, were among six American students who made the journey over the summer. They conducted research with faculty members from six colleges and universities in the United States, the Woods Hole Research Center and two Russian universities. The Polaris Project will continue for at least two more years; it is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

R. Max Holmes, a Woods Hole earth systems scientist, selected the faculty members with the goal of bringing together researchers from a variety of disciplines to consider a range of questions connected with the Arctic system.

The idea is to work with some of their best students and weave what they learn into their classroom curriculums, thus encouraging further study of the Arctic.

The teams are examining what happens to terrestrial organic matter – or carbon – as the ice in which it has been embedded for tens of thousands of years melts. Scientists are looking at how the matter enters streams, rivers and wetlands throughout the Arctic region. The soil is very rich in carbon, and they want to know its effect on the wetlands and how much of it moves from the Siberian landscape into the Arctic Ocean, according to William Sobczak, a professor at Holy Cross who specializes in the ecology of streams.

“We have recognized as a discipline that the polar and Arctic regions are one of the most rapidly changing portions of the planet,” Mr. Sobczak said. “It is a hot spot for global warming compared to other parts of the planet.”

Clark professor Karen Frey, an experienced Arctic research scientist, said that what’s happening in the Arctic is a harbinger of what could occur in other parts of the globe.

“We have changes in the Arctic that may result in changes in sea levels across the world,” Ms. Frey said.

The members of the team traveled from New York to Moscow and then took an eight-hour flight to Yakust, Siberia, where two Russian students joined them. They then boarded a 20-seat prop plane and headed to Cherskiy, a permanent research station north of the Arctic Circle. Two Russian scientists have lived there with their families since 1989, when the station was established.

Mr. Ruppel recalled the living conditions with a degree of dry humor. Everyone lived in very tight quarters in a house built on a barge. Showers were often cold. Breakfast was porridge or pasta with warm milk and sugar. Moose was a dietary mainstay, although Mr. Ruppel mentioned enjoying some “delicious sturgeon” one evening.

The temperatures fluctuated between 40 degrees and 70 degrees, except in the tundra, which is very cold. And, oh, those mosquitoes. Everyone wore long sleeves and head nets, but the insects still got between their fingers and around their eyes.

“The mosquitoes were unreal,” Ms. Willis said. “It was interesting living in a small space with a group of people we had never met before. It was a very good working environment. That’s what made it bearable. The research was so interesting.”

Mornings were spent collecting samples, while afternoons were devoted to analysis in a lab set up in the living room.

In certain locations, the signs of global warming were obvious. Mr. Ruppel recalled the frozen earth on the banks of the Kolymar River tumbling into the water.

“At one site in particular, when we were walking around on the banks, we had to watch out for falling rocks and soil,” he said, adding that the bones of prehistoric animals have surfaced, including the skulls of horses and a saber-toothed tiger.

Faculty members will return to continue the work next summer. The students also have a chance to go back. Ms. Willis is more than willing. In an exciting development, she and Mr. Zapatka will present their findings later this month at the annual American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

“It’s a big, big deal,” Ms. Frey said. “It’s the largest earth science conference in the world.”

The Arctic has a strong pull on Mr. Ruppel, but he is a pre-med student and plans to pursue research in that area before entering medical school.

Mr. Sobczak is excited about the prospect of going back north.

“I had not traveled to polar regions, much less this remote part of Siberia,” he said. “The country, the living quarters, all were foreign to me. I had to fully embrace it as someone who had to be a student and learn from others and be a team player and soak up all this information.”

Ms. Frey, for her part, is an old hand, having done fieldwork during four summers in Iceland and Siberia, working from an ice cutter on the Bering Sea.

“I am interested in things that are dynamic and changing,” Ms. Frey said. “The Arctic fits the bill.”