Geography Students Bring Arctic Adventure Back to the Lab

GW Geography Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring Alaska Research Trip
February 01, 2011

From fieldwork in Alaska to lab work in Foggy Bottom, Assistant Professor of Geography Nikolay Shiklomanov is keeping his students engaged in the long-term effects of climate change on the active and near-surface permafrost layers of the Arctic Circle. Through a five-year, $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), post-doctoral scientist Dmitriy Steletskiy and three geography students—master’s candidate Ellen Hatleberg and undergraduates Kelsey Nyland and Elliot Upin—traveled to Alaska in August to conduct field research for the Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring (CALM) project. The students are now back on campus, busy analyzing their measurements and preparing for a presentation in April.

 “The CALM project requires substantial annual field observations and experiments in remote Alaskan Arctic locations where our researchers maintain an array of approximately 30 field sites,” explained Shiklomanov. “Data are collected on the temperature, moisture content, and thaw depth of the active layer in permafrost regions of the Northern Hemisphere.”

GW Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring researchFor Hatleberg, Nyland, and Upin, it was an experience of a lifetime. While in Alaska, they visited sites and collected data near Nome, Prudhoe Bay, and Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States.  

 “Barrow is primarily a native hunting community, and our team worked out of the local Ilisagvik College lab space through the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium,” said Upin. “After probing the Barrow grid, we continued to collect data on day trips that involved taking small, chartered flights or helicopters to Atqasuk and Ivotuk.”

Working with professors from the University of Delaware and the University of Montana, as well as researchers from the USDA and the NSF’s PolarTREC (Teachers and Researches Exploring and Collaborating) program, the team used a graduated steel rod as a probe to measure the depth from the tundra ground surface to the permafrost, an area known as the active layer. The active layer has implications for the stability of infrastructure, future climate modeling, exploratory oil drilling regulation, and more.


“This research is important because understanding changes through time at the small scale of the active layer helps us to understand current and potential changes at the large scale of global environmental change,” said Hatleberg.


“Being able to work in the field is a great experience for any student,” said Nyland, who hopes to participate in the project again next summer and visit sites in Siberia. “It’s a chance to apply and relate to everything that I have been studying in class. I feel extremely fortunate not only to have gone to the Alaskan Arctic, but also for the time we spent with other scientists on the team.”

Now back on campus, the students are coordinating the inventory and dissemination of the data they collected in Alaska with the rest of those participating in the CALM project, which spans over 180 sites in other remote polar regions.

“We are closely collaborating with researchers from the other universities and a wide range of research and educational institutions from Russia,” said Shiklomanov.

Hatleberg’s focus is on the use of indices and geographic information systems to determine how permafrost coverage and other environmental factors relate to population density, health, and economics in the Arctic. Nyland is evaluating ground surface temperature for different permafrost landscapes of northern Alaska. Both students will present their findings at the Association of American Geographers’ annual conference in Seattle in April.

To learn more and view pictures of the 2010 CALM exhibition visit the PolarTREC site.


Photo caption 1: GW field crew in Alaska, August 2010. Left to right: Josh Dugat (PolarTREC), Dr. Dmitry Streletskiy, Ellen Hatleberg, Elliot Upin, Kelsey Nyland.

Photo Caption 2: Upin and Nyland secure a tripod for air temperature observations in the field.