SOILS ARE COOL TOO!

Due to the cold climate here in Alaska, soil formation is typically slow. The cold climate slows down decomposition, resulting in large deposits of organic materials (peat). Peat hosts organisms such as moss and lichens and exists above the permafrost layer with mineral soil below. The permafrost layer typically prevents water from percolating downward which can cause wet soil to move and make solifluction lobes! We saw solifluction lobes from the helicopter…they look like melted wax from a candle.

From an engineering aspect, the freeze/thaw patterns in tundra soils can be a hindrance for those who live here. Buildings and homes are typically built above the ground with large poles. As if owning a home and having house projects wasn’t enough… those who live here have to deal with extreme light and dark—but also worry about their foundation sinking into the ground and huge cracks in their roads when commuting. HOWEVER – it’s ridiculously beautiful up here, and they get quite a bit of access to the incredible Aurora Borealis. So right, I get it – and who knows, Alaska could hold my future address.

Arctic soils are so neat. I have been waiting to see and touch gelisols (permafrost soils) since I learned what they were. Permafrost has always interested me and the other day – I had the opportunity to touch it! This was monumental for me.

Not only are they super interesting, but they are a huge carbon sink on this planet. There is important research across the globe investigating potential implications with a warmer climate, thawing of permafrost and release of the stored carbon.

I may add, as the nerdy soil member of the group—I get to use the coolest tools (aka weaponry).

Hasta Luego!

Kali

    “Port Hopper…Copy?”

    On the Red Dog haul road, large haul trucks carrying double loads of ore concentrate fly by every 20 minutes or so. They are a crucial part of the mining operations, and as such, these trucks drive back and forth from the mine to the port day and night, 365 days of the year. They drive through fog, snow, rain, and wind. Even when we cannot. Needless to say, frequent communication is a necessity for the safe navigation of the Red Dog haul road.

    To facilitate proper communication, the mine has a central control office down at the port which monitors and communicates with every vehicle that travels along the haul road. This central office is known as the Port Hopper. Why Port Hopper? We have no idea.

    Each morning, we start our day by sending a radio message to the Port Hopper.

    “Port Hopper…… what is the status of the haul road?”

    If the road is green, we are good to go. If it is yellow, we will try again once the fog does not look as thick.

    When we leave the camp and drive onto the haul road, we call again.

    “Port Hopper…”

    “Copy, this is Port Hopper”

    “This is pick up 229 with the Park Service. We are traveling south on the haul road. We will not be traveling to the port and we will be stopping along the haul road to work for the day.”

    “Copy.”

    When we hear copy, we can drive south. The road is riddled with pot holes. Red Dog has machines that grade the haul road at least twice a week. If it is dry out, these graders are followed by trucks that spray calcine, a dirt road binder, onto the road. These precautions decrease both potholes and road dust along the haul road. Yet the pot holes still pop up. Depending on the road conditions, it can take us over an hour to drive ~35 miles to get to our sites in Cape Krusenstern.

    Along the road, there are radio check points. At each check point, we call over the radio the given check point and the direction we are traveling.

    “Buddy Creek South.”

    Or

    “MS-6 North.”

    These checkpoints are often located along blind corners, or thinner sections of the road. They alert other drivers to oncoming traffic.

    We also use the radio, any time we come upon road construction equipment. Road construction has the right of way. So we radio in.

    “Grader…. This is pick up 229 at mile 15. Is it okay to pass on your left?”

    “Go ahead pick up!”

    There is a lot of talking on the radio. Needless to say, we are all very excited to start driving normally, where we don’t need to use a radio every minute. Despite this, there is one thing that we will miss: our favorite Port Hopper crew member.

    We don’t know is name, but his unique style of communication and intonation brings smiles to our faces whenever we hear him say, “Poooort Haaaaper Goooo,” or “Caaaaaaapy.”

    Watch out Corvallis, us ladies are going to return speaking proper radio voice procedure.

    ‘Out’,

    Beth

      Over the Hump and On We Go

      Today we are taking our first official break of the trip. It’s been well need as we have been going non-stop since the 9th of July. To top it off we finished our daily five plots yesterday at 5 pm! The day has been filled with mostly sleeping and a smattering of eating, reading and room organizing/laundry. Come tomorrow we will be refreshed and ready to tackle the last round of work—8 more field days!

      Yesterday we forded our first river, it wasn’t much, only involved jumping, but crossing through the high willows was the greatest task. Usually bear safety seems fairly attainable as we are out in the open and constantly keep a look out over great distances. The willows however make one a bit more uneasy, who knows what could be lurking! Our solution was of course to make lots of noise and sing “day-o” or the banana boat song. Seemed to do the trick, we had no furry friend encounters and saw a beautiful flower lined steam.

      Tomorrow we’re off to continue our work and soon finish the job.

      Elisa

        Goodbye helicopter…. hello haul road!

        On Tuesday, we took our last helicopter rides back to the mine after completing our reference plots. From now on, Elisa, Kali, and I will be accessing our plots via the haul road, where we will then park and hike in.

        This las ride was a bittersweet moment.

        Planning our days will be much easier without the helicopter. We no longer are concerned with the height of the clouds, the wind speeds, or visibility. Also, the amount of gear that we carry is reduced to half of its size. We get to stretch our legs and hike through the tundra.

        On the flip side, Peter and our helicopter pilot have left us, so now it is just us three. We will no longer have the daily breath-taking aerial views of the Cape Krusenstern from the helicopter. The vegetation and lichens will likely be less diverse, and everything (including us) will be coated with a fine layer of dust from the road. Thank heavens that the mine camp has showers!

        These less diverse plots will likely be quicker to complete. Our goal is to complete one group of plots, a “transect”, per day. Each transect consists of 5 to 6 plots. Weather permitting, we will likely be done with the work around August 1st.

        Over and out,

        Beth

          Foxes, musk oxen, and bears – oh why

          I see that Beth has alluded to the fact that I have a story about bears. Oh, do I. A couple days ago, Peter and I were dropped off at a plot. It was the usual—hot and buggy day on a beautiful Alaskan hillside. Shortly after dropping us off, Patrik swung the helicopter around and flew back to us. This was something new. He informed us of a bear down the way and assured us that he had deterred him to travel in a different direction but to be hyper aware. Patrik left us with his pistol.

          We continued working on our plot with a set timer to do a bear check every 5 minutes. All was going swimmingly—we were cruising through our work and making our “funny” jokes. After some time, we felt somewhat confident that the bear had moved on. The binoculars around Peter’s neck were getting in his way. As he expressed his annoyance of the magnifiers—I did a quick scan with my regular old eyes—and sure enough there was the grizzly bear, about 250 m away. I exclaimed a phrase that was definitely not for our grandmas’ ears.

          We have been adamant about having an air horn and bear spray on each of us. We stopped what we were working on—and convened for our next moves. Peter watched through the binoculars to have eye on him the whole time, he was in and out of the shorter willows—we loaded the gun and had our air horns ready. Normally, a bear is uninterested in pursuing louder noises, unless it’s a younger bear—younger bears can become curious. Of course, we had encountered a younger bear. We estimated that he was around 2 years old, he must have been ticked off that his mom kicked him out of the den. We blew our air horns. We could see his beautiful, dark face pop up through the willows. He was curious and was slowly make his way up the hill toward us. Noise wasn’t working—so it was time to start backing up the hill. I was quickly gathering the most important things and we started to back up and all of a sudden we heard the whirling of the helicopter. Cue the music…A TRUE HOLLYWOOD STORY. We pointed to where the bear was and Patrik flew to chase him off. He later told us that the bear was running ~35 mph and we found out that we were close to and backing up toward his food cache. We were too close to his refrigerator. Upon hearing that—I had a blank stare and an awkward, fake smile. Patrik also mentioned, “…if you shot him in the shoulder, I mean, he still would have mauled you.” Thanks, Patrik, your blunt Swedish “advice” is noted.

          Needless to say, helicopters are rad.

          I have seen grizzlies, arctic foxes, musk oxen and caribou in my first week of being here. I have become somewhat of an expert of spotting bears from the helicopter. I’ve got an eye for those furry friends. If I go rogue, you can probably find me working with wildlife in the Arctic.

          I have had a few very exciting last few days—an equally exciting soil post soon to come.

          Uffda,

          Kali

            What the Fog?

            It is 8:16 a.m. and we are grounded. If I were to walk outside, I would not be able to see more that 15 feet in front of me. The fog is that thick. There is a low-pressure system off of the coast that is supplying this warm and moist air that hangs stagnant over us. Until it lifts, we cannot fly or drive. So what can we do? Plan. Write blog posts. Sleep in the ‘dark’ (it isn’t sunny outside). Wait for the fog to clear so that we can start our day.

            Over and out,

            Beth

              Why Helicopters?

              Four kilometers may not seem like a significant distance if you think about walking it around town or on a hiking trail. Four kilometers is approximately, 2.38 miles. An average hiker could walk this in about 45 minutes. However, in the Alaskan tundra, 4 kilometers could take about 3 hours to hike.

              Here, the terrain is riddled with lumps of grass (tussocks) that have 12-inch-deep troughs surrounding them. These troughs are often filled with squishy moss (usually sphagnum), that makes them feel even deeper. Between the tussocks and troughs, walking through the tundra can be treacherous and slow. On our second day sampling moss in Cape Krusenstern National Monument, it took us about 45 minutes to hike 1 kilometer through this terrain to get to a plot. When you are trying to complete vegetation surveys on 6 plots in one day (which can take between 1.5 and 3 hours each), hiking time becomes a real concern.

              Enter the helicopter.

              We are using a helicopter to access our more remote study plots and reference sites (areas are likely not impacted at all from the Red Dog Mine). These remote sites are amazing for two reasons: 1) we do not return from work covered in fine dust that had flown off of the haul road, and 2) lichens are abundant. Between the scavenger hunt for new lichens, the fun helicopter rides, and superb cookies from the mine, these days of fieldwork have been amazing.

              Today wraps up our fifth day using the helicopter, and we should have completed all of our remote plots in two more days. After almost a full week of working with the helicopter, we now have the hang of it. We often “hot load” (load and unload the helicopter while the rotter is still on) in order to save time. And even though we no longer gasp with excitement with each new view and swooping turn, we still thoroughly enjoy it!

              Stay tuned for Kali’s story about why she loves helicopters!

              Over and out,

              Beth

              P.S. Kali says that helicopters are “rad”.

                Hot Loading

                Wednesday and Thursday were long days. After getting ready to leave around 8 a.m. on Wednesday we saw that the valley below, where all of our plots are, was blanketed by fog. This was no weather for flying, as number one, the pilot has to be able to see the ground to land. Then we tried to drive in with the red dog truck to still get some work in, but come to find out that the road was in “yellow” meaning no vehicles other than the concentrate trucks (ore trucks) are allowed on the road due to low visibility. We were grounded! No work possible. The fog did not let up until around 1 p.m. at which point we rushed to get in a full days work. Other than getting up early, working late is no problem in the arctic—the sun never goes down! We worked until about 10:30 p.m. getting back to camp at 11:30 p.m. I think I can say we were all dead tired. Thursday was a bit better, the fog let us start around 10 a.m., only getting to camp around 9 p.m. And finally the last couple days we have had early start times providing earlier returns.

                Over the last week we have gotten helicopter travel down. This includes all cotton clothes (high melting point), a fire proof flight suit (nomex), a park service inflatable life vest equipped with survival gear including a personal locator beacon and finally a flight helmet to be able to hear and talk during flight.

                Our time to finish a plot is getting shorter and shorter, from better plot gear organization as well as “hot loading” meaning loading into the helicopter when the blades are running.

                I am finally getting the hang of and remembering to call Denali dispatch with the satellite phone each time we depart and land in the helicopter. And now avoid accidentally calling Bering Air—the helicopter company instead of dispatch…woops.

                Tomorrow off to the reference or control plots in southern Krusenstern National Monument for 2 days then we’re done with all the helicopter sampling!!!

                Elisa

                  Patrik and the Ship

                  Today was a big day for the three of us. In fact, it’s what we have been waiting for. We woke up to thick fog that almost ruined our plans – but with motivation we set toward the Port to start sampling. In our two groups, we sampled two plots and then Peter got the call – Patrik, the Swedish pilot, was on his way in the helicopter (aka “the ship”). A helicopter – in Alaska – in the Tundra. This is the day we have been waiting for. Elisa and Kali were sent off  to one of the 4000 m plots with Beth and Peter close behind and set off to another 4000 m plot. Helicopter rides are where it’s at, especially with a fun but safe pilot. The doors are strangely light, the ride surprisingly smooth and the view is what one would expect – breathtaking. Each group encountered diverse plots today, rich with bryophytes and vascular plants. This pleased the lichen enthusiasts (let’s be honest—us nerds).

                  Although each day we may feel any combination of sore, sweaty, tired and itchy (mosquitoes seem to be starving here), I believe that I can safely say that we are humbled to be in such a great place studying such fascinating things with such a great team. Also, the group of folks that work at the construction camp, where we are staying, has been so extremely helpful and welcoming to us. We seem to stick out a bit – we get asked a lot where we are from. We are slowly getting the truck traffic lingo down, though—so from our muddy truck and from far away – some may even mistake us for miners!

                  Kali

                    Getting Comfy with the Mosquitoes in the Tussock Tundra

                    We have now had two days to sample in the field along the haul road. Today we walked all the way out to 1 km for a plot, it took about half an hour to get there because of walking through the tussock tundra. It is extremely hard to walk through, with your choice being either a hole to step in or a grassy bunch which is not stable, good thing all the “ground” feels like a couch when you fall.

                    Thank god for our bug jackets, they have made the clouds of mosquitoes manageable. Today we also split into two teams, with Kali and Beth trading off between myself and Peter. I think we are finally getting into a groove figuring out the most efficient sampling methods.

                    Tomorrow we start our first day of helicopter sampling. We will be leap frogging the two teams as the pilot can only take two passengers at a time. Hopefully we will get many plots done and start to see more lichen diversity!

                    Elisa