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Snapshots from the Arctic 'Field'

2016Posted by Ruth Vingerhagen Jun 06, 2016 11:43

‘Snapshots from the Arctic Field’ was a one-day workshop held in May and organised by two PhD students Ingrid and Johanna from Durham University. The theme of the workshop was ‘Experiences and reflections from postgraduate and early-career research in and on the Arctic’ and sought to explore interactions between local people and external researchers. Although my own fieldwork has never involved contact with local people (Longyearbyen’s recent population is not representative of the wider Arctic), I was curious to attend and listen to a different side of fieldwork: from a social science perspective.

A key theme that came through was that of identity and that our own past shapes the way we view the world. We all enter the Arctic with pre-conceived ideas of what we will find there. Whether one introduces oneself as from university X or country Y may illicit very different responses, especially if one of those countries was a colonial power. Language also shapes how we think and this can lead to problems when conducting interviews in a second or even a third language. The Dene in the Sahtu region of NW territories have no word for ‘knowledge’ for example: but their culture is rich in storytelling.

Another theme was the tensions between academia, government policy and local people. Science is political. Often this involves differing perceptions of ‘resource’ and ‘wildlife’ e.g. whales. An example given was the Baker Lake mine road in Nunavut where there were issues with who would maintain the road, caribou and environmental impact assessments. In the end the road was built but is not called a road and the locals are not allowed to use a car on it: only quad bikes and snowmobiles. Related to this theme was the issue of maintaining distance when going into small communities. What happens if you witness violence or see something criminal happen: should you intervene?

A map is a snapshot of time and space and modern maps which look very precise may be giving an illusion of permanency which does not in fact exist: coastlines and settlements are changing. It was suggested that it may be better to roughen up maps so that it is more obvious they are not the ‘final’ depiction. The landscape and resulting map may look empty but is in fact full of connections and people moving.

I thoroughly enjoyed this workshop and listening to all the speakers. There were a lot of thought-provoking themes and has made me reflect more on my own research. As my research takes place in uninhabited areas it can be harder to communicate results to local people, or at least people living in similar areas. To paraphrase: science communication does not stop with the publication of a paper.



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Methanogenesis

2016Posted by Ruth Vingerhagen Apr 11, 2016 16:30
My second paper to come out of the Svalbard fieldwork has just been published in JGR Biogeosciences! This work started back in 2011 when I got talking to a colleague at ETH (Susan Lang) who was setting up a method to look at δ13C-DOC in water samples and we decided to test the method on water samples I would collect during the first trip to the field sites. The data showed very low δ13C-DOC which weren't expected as streams normally have C3 values - values from photosynthesis. So during the main field campaign we collect more data and the low values were still there (Fig. 1). What followed was a lot of literature reading to learn about carbon dynamics is freshwater ecosystems.

Fig. 1: The straight lines through the data indicate mixing of two sources of DOC. End-member 1 (EM1) is the 'terrestrial source': carbon produced by photosynthesis (C3 pathway). EM2 is the 'methanotrophy source'. Dryadbreen is the glaciated catchment and Fardalen is the unglaciated catchment.


Permafrost in the Arctic is thought to be a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas, but how much methane is actually released depends on the balance between the microbes which produce methane (methanogens) and those which consume methane (methanotrophs). Dissolved organic carbon is streams is often ultimately derived from photosynthesis (e.g. plants and algae) which leads to a characteristic carbon isotopic composition. However, methanotrophic microbes 'eat' methane which has a distinctly different (lighter) carbon isotopic composition and this can lead to dissolved organic carbon which also has this distinct isotopic value. So far, dissolved organic carbon from Arctic rivers has had the typical 'photosynthetic' carbon isotopic composition, but in this study we measured values which were much lighter and in line with what would be expected from a methane source. This conclusion was supported by the detection of a gene unique to methanotrophs. Previous studies did not detect this methantrophic imprint in the dissolved organic carbon because they focussed on large rivers where the effect of methanogensis is swamped by photosynthetic sources. In contrast, this study focussed small, braided streams, which are found throughout the Arctic. Braided streams enable greater water contact with the permafrost where the methane originates. This study demonstrates that methane is being consumed and additionally the importance of chemosynthetic ecosystems (do not need light, use chemicals as an energy source) in permafrost regions.


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ASSW Fairbanks

2016Posted by Ruth Vingerhagen Mar 28, 2016 19:26
Immediately after the Excom meeting the Arctic Science Summit Week started (ASSW). Events kicked off on Friday with the Icebreaker complete with drumming in the Museum of the North, but we didn't stay long since there was a storytelling event in town. 'Dark Winter Nights' was a series of eight speakers (including one audience member and a hibernating ground squirrel) who all told a short story set in Alaska. Topics ranged from building outhouses on permafrost, journeys across Alaska in the winter and the lengths one goes to to get a rock sample from Denali NP. A hugely entertaining and memorable evening: there is no beating a good storyteller.

On Saturday I went to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) and EU-PolarNet workshop on research needs for Arctic health and wellbeing. Arctic communities suffer higher rates illness including poorer mental health compared to more southern communities. Distance and language barriers have hindered several health initiatives. There were several references to 'health sovereignty': it is no good flying in an outside person once in a while with their 'message', the impact of such interventions needs to be monitored and the community needs to be trained and empowered to help themselves, this includes having their say in research programmes, the collection and interpretation of the results. An important distinction was also made between health and well-being: it is no good being in physical good health if your community and culture has disappeared as a result of external factors such as climate change. The talks all emphasised the point that research affecting people needs to engage those people and attain long-lasting solutions beyond the completion of short-term projects. An apt quote from 'Together Today for our Children Tomorrow' (Yukon, 1973) was read out at the end and remains relevant 43 years later: "We (the Yukon Indians) need research to show us the best way to take advantage of the good parts of the Whiteman Way, while at the same time keeping the best parts of the Indian Way...We must decide what we feel needs to be researched. We may need some help, but we must make the final decision"

That evening there was the Arctic Cinema and Science Festival - 10 short films in one evening. What I remember most is a scene from the film 'We are all related here' set in the village of Newtok which will vanish due to sea level rise. A new site has been identified but it seems funding has dried up for the new buildings. Funding will not be released for the new school until children live at the new site, but no families will move there whilst there is no school. There was also footage of the local shop full of sweets and junk food, brought home the discussions of the AMAP/EU-PolarNet workshop earlier in the day.

Sunday morning was the 'Do we speak the same language of science?' symposium organised by some of the IASC Fellows. This consisted of short talks by speakers from a wide variety of disciplines followed by two panel discussions. There were some very thought-provoking ideas and suggestions on how to communicate your research and embed it in the wider picture. Not to just stay within your discipline but reach out wider, for example, to museums. A published research paper is not the end, but the beginning of getting that knowledge into a place where it can make a difference.

Sunday afternoon was the EU-PolarNet open meeting where the main discussion centred around their priorities document which will influence EU polar-related funding calls in the near future.

My ASSW experience was rounded off by a trip to the Chena hot springs and a highly recommended Silver Gulch Tundra Apple Ale at Fox, just outside of Fairbanks.



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APECS Excom in Fairbanks

2016Posted by Ruth Vingerhagen Mar 24, 2016 21:59

This year the annual APECS Excom meeting was held in Fairbanks, Alaska, immediately prior to the Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW). We had two very productive days of discussions and we were joined by Alex, one of the National Committee coordinators, for part of these.

The last few months have seen a number of changes as a result of the organizational review recommendations and the subsequent publication of our 5-year strategic plan. During the first part of the meeting we reviewed the changes to the council structure, which we implemented in autumn. Whilst we felt that the new project group structure was working well, we recognized the need for improved reporting so that experiences and advice can be passed on to future project group members. We also prioritized a number of documents, resources and pages on the website to be updated in the coming months.

The individual National Committees do a tremendous amount of work that is often not recognized outwith the local country. We discussed ways to improve the sharing of updates and experiences between NCs and develop ‘how to’ guides for organizing the most common types of NC events.

Other topics on the agenda included the budget and renewal of MoUs with a few of our partner organizations. As a final topic we noted that APECS will be 10 years old next year and so we discussed ways in which we could mark this momentous occasion. We plan to organize events at several conferences so keep an eye out for ways to get involved!

ASSW began straight after our meeting and this gave us an unrivalled opportunity to talk in-person to many of our Arctic-orientated partners, attend their meetings and spread the word about APECS.



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Arctic and Antarctic Think Tank

2016Posted by Ruth Vingerhagen Mar 02, 2016 15:58
At the end of February I was invited to represent APECS at an ‘Arctic and Antarctic Think Tank’ in Potsdam, Germany. The event brought together the executive committees of the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR). Over 1.5 days the two organizations updated each other on their current scientific and policy activities and discussed ways to strengthen their existing collaboration.

Both organizations have recently published summaries of important research questions at their respective poles (Horizon Scan and ICARP III) and a major goal of the meeting was how to combine these two documents in order to increase awareness of the importance of polar research amongst national funding agencies and the general public. It is all very well to outline research questions, but plans for how to implement them are also needed. COMNAP (Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs) is leading the Antarctic Roadmap Challenges (ARC) project which looks at how to implement the Horizon Scan research questions. An overarching theme is the development of technology e.g. remote sensing, memory capacity and durability. I really liked the way the ARC focused on common underlying needs rather than discipline specific issues, especially since it reminds researchers to look outside their discipline: the technology they are looking for may already be out there.

There was much interest in a new International Council for Science (ICSU) initiative called ‘Future Earth’. Future Earth aims to bring together diverse organizations with the common aim of promoting research for global sustainability. It currently does not have a strong polar or even climate focus and it was agreed that Future Earth should do more to engage with SCAR and IASC. What was interesting about this discussion was that it highlighted how important communication between organizations is in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts. This is particularly important since many of these organizations are primarily run by volunteers on a limited budget.

Further discussions centered around plans for the joint SCAR-IASC conference (Polar 2018), promoting and archiving documents from the International Polar Year and increasing opportunities for early career researchers to be involved in the various working groups of each organization.

Attending this meeting gave me a fantastic insight into how these organizations function and work to influence research policy at a national and international level. It is certainly not an easy task to capture funders and the general public’s attention but actively working together and having a united Polar voice will undoubtedly help.



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Neptune

2016Posted by Ruth Vingerhagen Feb 12, 2016 15:55
For the next few months I will be a visitor at the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge. I don't have very good timing as their labs are currently being renovated but fingers crossed it doesn't take too long before I can get in them. In the meantime I am learning how to use the Neptune (a multi-collector inductively-coupled-plasma mass-spectrometer MC-ICP-MS) which I plan to use to measure lithium (Li) isotopes in my field samples.

I'm interested in measuring lithium because the sites in Svalbard contain shale which has a high clay content. Li isotopes fractionate when they adsorb or are incorporated into clays and likely to different degrees depending on the type of clay. The two sites have different clay compositions so I expect them to have different Li isotope compositions in the water too.






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Arctic Frontiers

2016Posted by Ruth Vingerhagen Feb 12, 2016 15:43
It was a busy week in Tromsø at the annual Arctic Frontiers conference. I was looking forward to this conference as it explicitly tries to combine science, business and policy and I wanted to see the interaction between science and policy which you don't normally get at a typical geochemistry conference. Ultimately, though, I was disappointed. The different sections were split into different days with little overlap of delegates. The disconnect was really brought home in a discussion about designing Arctic towns to minimise social problems. The researchers had come up with a number of solutions but it didn't seem like the people in charge of planning were listening or just treated it as an academic exercise.

Through APECS, I was involved in the Science for Schools program which was a side event to the conference. School pupils spent the day at the science centre, with talks from early career researchers followed by presentation of posters they had made about science issues relevant to the Arctic. It was very enjoyable and hopefully those children will maintain their enthusiasm for science. Coverage of the event (in Norwegian) can be found here and here.

Articles about APECS events during Arctic Frontiers:
Poster Awards
Science for Schools
Young Politicians
Communicating Science Panel










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