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Bogged Down in Alaska

By Christine Guckert,

For thousands of years Arctic peat bogs have soaked up atmospheric carbon like a giant sponge. But as the poles warm, the arctic bogs will decay and expel billions of tons of carbon back into the air—or will they? A warmer climate might actually improve growing conditions in the bogs, allowing them to take up more greenhouse gases than before. To look for an answer, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory research professor Jonathan Nichols and Walt Whitman High School science teacher John Karavias traveled to Alaska’s remote North Slope in July 2012.

The unlikely pair teamed up after Karavias was selected to participate in Lamont-Doherty’s Visiting Arctic Science Teacher program, which provides high school teachers with a unique opportunity to assist researchers in the field. Before heading out, asked them to shoot some video of themselves at work in Alaska. (We also lent them a tripod.) The result is the short film, “Studying the Future Melt with the Frozen Past,” which documents their muddy and buggy labors collecting permafrost core samples in the Imnavait Creek Peatland.

As the film shows, drilling for permafrost cores is a backbreaking, two-man job. Still, the pair quickly hit their stride. “We would drill down to a core,” said Karavias. “Once the core came out, I’d clean it, and he would do the science.”

Even with the rapport the two had developed over long road trips and “candle-lit dinners,” retrieving a good sample was hardly guaranteed. Because of the difficult conditions, previous attempts in the area were plagued by equipment failures. “This time,” wrote Nichols in a blog post, “we used an auger specially designed to core permafrost soils, and we were able to core more than two meters of sediment, about a half meter more than had previously been achieved.”

In the end, Nichols and Karavias returned with three excellent samples, which will be used to explore how climate and carbon uptake have varied over the past 15,000 years and what it might mean for the future of the Arctic and the planet. Their collaboration was so successful, in fact, that they teamed up again in October to extract sediment cores from beneath a lake in New York’s Black Rock Forest, where we caught up with them for the interviews in this film.

After you watch the film, be sure to check out Jonathan Nichols’ first-hand account of the trip, “Beneath the Alaskan Tundra,” available on the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory website.

And for high school science teachers looking to include Arctic studies in their curriculum, head over to the National Science Foundation’s Arctic & Antarctic Classroom Resources page.

The Earth Institute and are collaborating to produce videos about work in the field being done by scientists at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.


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