The Toolik Time Machine

By Michael Werner

I visited a new dimension.

That’s what a week in the Arctic felt like. Toolik Field Station, in remote northern Alaska, seems to exist outside of earthly time. The sun slowly arcs across a vast blue dome, willfully refusing to go down. Days and nights flow together.

The overabundance of sunlight makes the hours of the day seem less precious: like a sunshine billionaire flush with golden rays, it’s easy to overspend. It’s no wonder that labs hum with activity late into the evening and casual conversations begun over dinner stretch on. Everyone blissfully unaware of the need for sleep.

The Arctic plays with one’s sense of time in other ways. Head north from Fairbanks and a short distance outside of town the pavement turns to a slurry of gravel and mud better known as the Dalton Highway (calling it a highway is generous). The remnants of civilized society quickly fall away leaving only the company of trees. The absence of pavement and man-made structures (save the ever-present Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which parallels the road) feels like a journey backward through time to a pre-human era.

Eventually the trees fade away, too, revealing sweeping vistas from horizon to horizon. Landscapes are vast. Skies eternal. Clouds streak the blue with painterly skill. I found myself mesmerized by the constantly evolving masterworks above and spent hours trying to capture their beauty. I hope my video above gives a sense of this.

And then here in the middle of the Arctic tundra, hundreds of miles from anywhere, so much high-octane science is in the works at Toolik Field Station.  At one point during my visit, the camp buzzed with more than 100 researchers—a veritable hive of humanity—studying the effects of wildfires on Arctic tundra, monitoring the migration patterns of Arctic birds, examining the exchange of carbon between the land and Arctic rivers and streams, and much more.

I began to try to sort out which researcher was involved in which project and how the scientists connected to one another. It was like piecing together an intricate jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the assembled pieces should ultimately look like. When I stepped back and looked at the big picture, however, I realized most of the science happening at Toolik relates in some way to climate change. The breadth and scope of the research is remarkable and includes projects that have been running for decades.

The stakes are high. The Arctic is one of the places predicted to be hardest hit by climate change. And what happens in the Arctic could significantly impact the rest of the planet. The research conducted at Toolik has the potential to fill in important knowledge gaps and inform society’s decision-making as the climate story unfolds.

Trip ended, I return to the Lower 48. The familiar gravity of everyday life pulls me back into routine. My visit to this new dimension is now a memory, but one that will stay with me a long, long time.

The Pluck


About 35 years ago, when most ecologists were still musing about how we’d deal with the ice age that models then showed was on its way, young scientists Gus Shaver, Terry Chapin and John Hobbie set up camp on an old abandoned airstrip at Toolik Lake on the North Slope of Alaska. Scientists tinker and so when they gazed at this wild and beautiful yet nutrient-poor place, bereft of nitrogen and phosphorous found in the temperate regions of the globe, they wondered what might happen if they added such amendments. Those young guys set into motion experiments on tundra plots of what became the Long Term Ecological Research site of Toolik Field Station — not big, just five by twenty meters — that are still playing out today, providing more and more bits of information that together begin to add up to a story about what is happening in the arctic regions of the world and why.


On Monday began The Pluck. The last one was in 2000, and this pluck is bigger and more involved than ever with dozens of people participating in collecting samples from the fertilized and control plots and assailing them with a battery of tests. The overarching plan is figure out what grows, crawls, respires, leaches, remains, and more, from the macro level of plant and animal species to the tiny stuff only discovered in chemical analyzers and under the lens of a microscope. It sounds complicated, and it is, but it begins with Gus simply heading up the hill from Toolik camp, getting down on the ground, and plunging a long, too-dull knife into the ground.


He takes this small hunk of the tundra, and 59 others like it, down into the lab, where he’s rallied grad and undergrad students, visiting middle school teachers and high school students, and colleagues and family members to sort.


Lichens and feather mosses, woody birches and sedges with edges, cloudberry and more. Together, with the background of the Have A Great Day Spotify soundtrack, they sort…


…and sort. This is the nitty gritty stuff of science.


That’s just in one part of The Pluck, one part in one lab trailer. In the other part of Lab 2, Jennie McLaren leads more nimble fingers and weary eyes as they separate roots from soil — a fuzzy distinction in these tundra soils. In Lab 1, Josh Schimel and his team pour potassium sulfate over soil and prepare samples to test for ammonium, phosphates and nitrates. Across the way, in Lab 9, John Moore’s crew — Greg Selby, Bob Faris and Yamina Pressler — works late enticing any of the insects lurking in the tundra chunks into bottles of ethanol and divvying up the soil to head to other scientists in other labs preparing for other testing.


Other critters are caught by sucking them up with a leaf blower set on a reverse. “Hello! Housekeeping!” Ashley Asmus calls out as she and Taryn Flink approach others at work in the plots.


The whole Pluck will take about ten days, and then a year or more to process all the data and make sense of what they’ve found. Researchers have come from Massachusetts, Colorado, Michigan, California, and elsewhere and many will take samples back to their labs at home to continue the work after these Toolik days come to an end. The plant people and the root people and the soil people and water people will all need to talk, to bring the macro investigations into a greater focus. Will the results of earlier studies be confirmed? Is a fertilized tundra replicating what a warming tundra might look like, with more microbial activity in thawing permafrost, supporting larger and woodier plants? Is more carbon being released with the underground action? Is the arctic fast on its way to becoming a huge breathing part of the planet where there was once steady-state ice and frozen ground, exhaling more carbon than we’re already putting into the atmosphere? Or will all those bigger plants that are growing help suck carbon in, saving Manhattan from drowning? The answer may be in the most unlikely places.


The planet might be warming, the plants and microbes shifting in response, but summer remains short at Toolik, less than three months from snow melt to snow fall. Just in the short time I’ve been here, the seasons have tipped. As scientists and students sort at Toolik Field Station, truckers haul their loads along nearby Dalton Highway, drawling to each other over CB channel 19:

“Sure came early, didn’t it?”

“Yeah. A few days of rain. A few nice days. A few days of rain. A few nice days. Then it’s fall.”


My days, too, are numbered. Two left at Toolik.
~Meera Subramanian

Fishscape on the Kuparuk River

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?

Learn more about Fishscape here.

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.


~Meera Subramanian

The Long & Lovely Road to Toolik


Nope, that wasn’t our helicopter. That would have been too quick. Instead, a fine crew cab pick up truck driven by Ben Tucker of University of Alaska Fairbanks carried us safely north to Toolik Field Station yesterday over the course of about ten hours. This chillaxing pilot was encountered on one of our pauses along Dalton Highway, the long road to Prudhoe Bay accompanied along its length by the silver and sinewy stretch of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, carrying the crude 800 miles down to Valdez.


Another pause was to mark our entrance into the Arctic Circle, that cap on top of the earth. Here’s fellow MBL fellow Michael Werner doing the obligatory pose. It seemed odd that I was all bundled up and cold when the same type of photo was taken of me at the equator in Kenya, while the sun was blazing and we were shedding layers as we headed into the Arctic.


The warmth is deceptive. This is a land of cold, permafrost below and evidence of the power of frozen water everywhere across the landscape. Finger Mountain was covered with rocky outcroppings — tors — heaved up from ice action below. I’m learning new vocabulary: pingos (large mounds of earth-covered ice), thermokarst (irregular land surface caused by permafrost melting). Purple fireweed, its bloom a countdown to the end of an all-too-short summer, flared in pockets of disturbed soil.


Also in our posse were Nicholas Gross and Jackson McCormick, researchers from Georgia Tech, perched high to take in the views as ground squirrels scurried around the rocks below.


The farther north we traveled, the more spectacular the landscape. We passed Atigun, waved goodbye to the northernmost black spruce as the Brooks Range loomed ahead. I spied the whitewash on those cliffs and thought a single thought: raptors. There had been reports of peregrines and gyrfalcons from Toolik in the past week, as well as some grizzlies and moose.


As we wind up and over the pass, Ben communicating with truckers via channel 19 on the CB along the way, the surroundings alternate between barren, rocky and scree-sloped that evoke images I’ve seen of Afghanistan and lush greenery on rolling hills that bring to mind Ireland. Side by side. Ben comments that he can see how the green growth has flushed up the side of the steep hills just over the last couple of weeks and glances at the passages that lead away from the road and deeper into the mountains and whispers about how inviting they seem. A native Alaskan, through and through.


On the far side of the range, the ground sweeps out like a gown, the open expanse of the North Slope, leading, eventually, to the Arctic Sea. And then Toolik Lake appears and with a left turn and a slight descent we arrive, bum-weary but delighted, the air cooler than Fairbanks and the daylight longer. Here’s around 10:00 pm…


Now to begin the adventure of figuring out what all these researchers are doing and why.

~Meera Subramanian

A reality check from the Arctic

One of the stranger complaints I hear from climate deniers is that the alarm about global warming is manufactured by scientists so that they can get fat grants and make money.  (A recent study found that people who tend to believe in conspiracies have the highest tendency to reject solid scientific evidence, regardless of their political or religious background. For instance, there is tremendous evidence that childhood vaccines do not play a role in the increasing number of autism cases, but conspiracy theorists cling to the one thoroughly discredited semi-study on the topic.)

If only the deniers had the opportunity I’ve had for the last week-plus to live at the Toolik Field Station, about 120 miles south of Alaska’s northernmost outpost, and follow scientists around on their field research. Long hikes over mucky tundra to reach research posts; even longer hours spent hunched in a boat, lowering measuring instruments into the frigid lake while chilly rain falls. Tightly restricted showers and laundry, elevated outhouses, and sleep hours spent in musty glorified tents.

The 370-mile, mostly dirt “highway” from Fairbanks to Toolik is an unlikely road to fortune and glory.

For the full post:


Karin Klein

Editorial Writer

Los Angeles Times

Toolik Fellow 2014



Rock Scrubbing, and Other Things Scientists Do


Finding myself with a relatively open schedule yesterday, I spent my breakfast asking around the dining hall for any projects I could help with or observe. As luck would have it, the stream researches had a job for me: rock scrubbing. There are times when scientific research procedures require the use of advanced instruments and techniques. Then there are times when the procedures are mind-numbingly simple.

Rock scrubbing, which is exactly what it sounds like, belongs in the latter category. We arrived at the Kuparuk River armed with plastic tubs and wire grill brushes. Filling the tubs with a sampling of the dark, smooth stones that form the riverbed, we plunked ourselves down on the bank and proceeded to scrub the rocks clean with the grill brushes. The scrubbing roughs up a slimy brown film of what looks like mud, which we rinsed into a separate plastic tub. Then we scrubbed again, and rinsed again. Scrub. Rinse. Scrub. Rinse. Eventually, the scrubbing produced no layer of slime and the rock surface felt rough. At this point, we released the rock back into the river with a casual toss and the process began again with the next rock. After all the rocks had been scrubbed, we poured the resulting muddy water into carefully labeled bottles and stored them in a black garbage bag for later analysis in the lab.

Continue reading at Circle of Blue.

–Codi Kozacek, Circle of Blue 

The irony of Arctic research


The growing season in Arctic Alaska is short, very short. One month, the ice and snow are barely showing signs of melting. The next month, migratory birds arrive to build nests in the greening tundra. Their time for mating, laying eggs and sending fledglings off on their own is short; think of it as avian speed dating.

There’s a certain frantic energy to the science in the Arctic as well. Come May, researchers from around the country start arriving at Toolik Field Station, a motley collection of modular units and tents on a gravel pad about 120 miles south of the Beaufort Sea. They bring their own version of their young: graduate students, post-docs, research associates who will probe the permafrost, count the bird nests, measure the plants for clues to what climate change might bring us.

The researchers feel lucky to have a berth here. I do too, as an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, visiting for a week thanks to a fellowship from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. The Arctic is ground zero for climate change research because the effects of warming were seen first this far north, and continue to be experienced here most dramatically.

The irony of Toolik, which is seldom lost on those who work here, is that their work— indeed the camp’s very existence — has been made possible by the world’s thirst for oil, one of the fossil fuels feeding global warming. The road put in place for the trucks serving the trans-Alaska pipeline is the only way to get from Fairbanks to here. The pipeline itself is a constant, very visible presence between the research station and the snow-covered peaks of the Brooks Range.

For the full post on the Los Angeles Times’ Opinion L.A. blog:

Karin Klein

Los Angeles Times editorial writer

Toolik 2014



What Happens in the Arctic Doesn’t Stay in the Arctic


Living at Toolik Field Station—even as a non-scientist—it is easy to get caught up in the minutiae of scientific studies. The Arctic landscape is, in and of itself, attention grabbing; the puzzle of figuring out how it works is even more so. Together, they can keep mind and body happily occupied for days, years, even decades, as they have for more than a few scientists here. At some point, however, journalistic habits kick in and I wonder: why? Why, beyond the quest for knowledge, spend so much time in a place that is so far away from the vast majority of human civilization and so different from the rest of the world?

Continue reading at Circle of Blue.

–Codi Kozacek, Circle of Blue.

Where the Sun Never Sleeps (And Neither Do The Scientists)


In late June, more than 250 kilometers above the Arctic Circle, the sun refuses to set. Through the thick fog, it casts the landscape in perpetual twilight and informs my internal clock that it is not, in fact, time to sleep. Even after 10 hours of traveling north from Fairbanks on the infamous Dalton Highway, I am inclined to agree.

There is simply too much to take in at the Toolik Field Station, a remote outpost on Alaska’s North Slope where I will be spending the next week. Scientists here are studying the mechanisms and effects of climate change, which is transforming the Arctic faster than almost any other place in the world.

Continue reading at Circle of Blue.

–Codi Kozacek, Circle of Blue.

Ode to Eriophorum Vaginatum

Eriophorum Vaginatum
Photo by Julia Kumari Drapkin

Ode to Eriophorum Vaginatum
By Benjamin Shaw

Walking over Eriophorum,
Watch your step or you’ll fall off ’em.

Hiking through the Arctic tundra,
Tussocks make me stop to wonder.

How does this sedge survive the snow,
The fire too and yet still grow?

The puff-ball stalks sway in the breeze
And look like real-life Truffula Trees.

Now, should I step upon the mound
Or simply try to go around?

The tundra’s boggy, low and wet
So that dry tuft could help me yet.

But one wrong move could cause a sprain
And aggravate my ankle pain.

A sedge encounter yesterday
Already has me in dismay.

Now if the Arctic grows too warm
The vegetation will transform.

No longer would these tussocks thrive.
Willows and birches would arrive.

And though I curse the path today
And know flat ground would ease my way,

I’d miss that plant if it did stray.
I hope E. Vag is here to stay.