Climate Research in the Tundra

Grensted and a fellow researcher surveying and sampling cloudberry on the tundra.

People, plants and animals are all impacted by the changes that are happening. It is easy to overlook the other aspects of climate change to plants and animals that are impacted by changes we as people don’t yet experience.

— Max Grensted

In the remote Alaskan Arctic tundra, the impacts of a changing climate are like beacons guiding scientists to better understand the environmental shifts that will impact populations well beyond the rural landscape. Researchers worldwide are working tirelessly to better understand the social and environmental consequences of a rapidly changing climate, visiting the secluded region to access and study soil and flora samples. This summer, two Cal Poly students were invited to be a part of the research efforts, spending weeks there while working alongside scientists.

Associate Professor Seeta Sistla, who teaches soil science in the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department, connected the students with the project as a lead and collaborative primary investigator on two National Science Foundation grants focused on documenting the effects of rapid climate warming in the Arctic. Sistla’s research is focused on interactions between soils and plants under changing environmental conditions. Her research in the Arctic is centered on understanding how tundra carbon and nutrient cycling responds to accelerated warming and novel fire stressors.

Max Grensted, a fourth-year environmental management and protection major, and Cameron Gaspord, a second-year graduate student in environmental sciences and management, were funded by Sistla’s grants to engage in research documenting the ecosystem impacts of rapid climate warning and heightened fire frequency in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska. Grensted is studying flora, while Gaspord is focused on soils.

Both students have traveled unique academic journeys to this point. Grensted, a transfer student from Santa Cruz, learned about the opportunity in a global climate change class taught by Sistla. He was the first student to come forward to express interest in participating, despite worrying it might be out of his comfort zone. He now says it is the best decision he has ever made. “This is the most excited that I’ve been since I was a kid,” he said. “I genuinely felt like I was on a life-changing adventure. Typically, I’m not a person who puts myself into these types of situations. But I’ve learned it is very possible – all it takes is 15 minutes of courage to say yes.”

Gaspord, who came to Cal Poly from Minnesota to pursue a master’s degree under Sistla’s direction, made the connection through a mentorship program while an undergraduate at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. “My mentor saw a tweet that Sistla posted and he thought I would be interested in her research,” said Gaspord. “I’ve always dreamed of working on soils and I’m so lucky to be here.” Until attending Cal Poly, she’d never been to California.

The two students are now connected in research and a shared understanding of what it is like to live in a tent in the Arctic tundra where the climate is warming much faster than the rest of the earth. Neither had been to Alaska before. “I think it is one of the most formative experiences you can have,” said Sistla. “To be out in a place like that in the world and see a landscape really rapidly changing – it is a beautiful, enchanting landscape in the midst of rapid environmental change and these students were given the opportunity to collect samples and see where things are coming from. Those are the reasons why you teach.”

Gaspord holding the day's collection of soil samples. 

Grensted spent two weeks in the field participating in a terrestrial burn comparison study, collecting samples from the cloudberry plant, a low-growing perennial native to area. Samples were taken from three field sites, one from an older burn area, another from a more recently burned area and one from an area that had not yet experienced fire. “As the Arctic is disproportionately warming, wildfires are increasing,” he said. “As the planet continues to warm, it is important to understand what fires are doing in that region.”

For Grensted, the importance of the impacts on the cloudberry plant extends beyond the immediate changes determined in the plant’s production to understanding how this will have a larger impact over time on the larger ecosystem. “It is all connected,” he said. “People, plants and animals are all impacted by the changes that are happening. It is easy to overlook the other aspects of climate change to plants and animals that are impacted by changes we as people don’t yet experience.” His days were spent documenting what he saw, taking plant counts, measuring leaf area and environmental conditions such as soil moisture and temperature, and collecting samples. He is now analyzing the samples he took at a lab at Cal Poly to document his findings.

Gaspord spent six weeks in the field collecting soil samples and assisting other researchers in collecting trace greenhouse gasses such as methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide and water samples. The campsite, accessible only by helicopter, consisted of a series of tents and no running water. It was shared with Grensted and scientists from the Woodwell Climate Research Center and was occupied by anywhere from three people to up to 15 at a time. Only one other person stayed as long as Gaspord, who described the experience as both intense and life-changing.

The weather was often rainy and windy and the wetland environment of mosses and low-lying shrubs formed a spongy ground – making the 45-minute trek to the sample sites each day a physical challenge. With no trees, you could see for miles. Gaspord’s days started at 8 a.m. with a large breakfast of either oatmeal or hash-browns and pancakes provided by the camp cook, and then hiking across the tundra in waders with her supplies secured in a raft pulled behind her. She would collect samples, walk back, have dinner, play a few card games and retire for the day before setting out to do it all over again.

The soil samples she gathered are being added to a collection of samples that were taken during different cycles of the seasons – allowing for further research in understanding how the melting of the area’s permafrost affects the soil’s active layers and release of carbon into the air. She is also analyzing the various burn areas to include wildfire as a variable as the fires that are now sweeping through the tundra area more often change the natural landscape and what grows there.

“I am collecting as much data as possible out of the sites, which will then be uploaded and shared with the Arctic Data Center to allow access for researchers across the globe,” she said.

Both Grensted and Gaspord say they want to continue doing research after they graduate. In December, both students will present their findings at the American Geophysical Union, an international, nonprofit scientific association.

“When in class, you may go for a field trip for a day or two, but it can’t compare to being out there without distraction to observe the field of study,” said Sistla. “The experience of being out camping, encountering moose and grizzly bears and ecosystems completely different from our own, is wildly different than having the samples provided to you. It formalizes the strengths and limitations of taking samples, furthers the research goals and grows our collective our understanding of ecological responses to rapid climate change.”


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