BEARS, BUGS & BUSH PLANES – LAC FIELDWORK IN ALASKA

Ruppert Lake.  Photo: K. Davies

Ruppert Lake. Photo: K. Davies

When the floatplane left us at Walker Lake, it was just the five of us and a large pile of camping and coring kit that would keep us busy for the next twelve days or so. As the humming of the engine and the waves died away things became very quiet for a moment and we were all awed by the view over Walker Lake against the backdrop of the Brooks Range. Welcome to one of the last wild places in the world! This quiet, contemplative moment only lasted briefly as a cloud of mosquitoes formed around us.

We had come to this place at the southern margin of the Brooks Range to core three lakes. We hoped that the sediments in those lakes would contain an environmental history of the past 10.000 years. Our NERC-funded project, Lakes and the Arctic Carbon cycle (LAC), had just started and we were going to investigate how large-scale changes in the landscape had influenced lakes in the past. As a result of changes in temperature and precipitation the vegetation in the Arctic has changed dramatically since the last ice age, going from tundra, to shrub-tundra to boreal forest. In turn, this led to an increase of soil development and nitrogen fixing by species like alder. We know how these processes work to some extent from previous research projects, but we don’t know yet how these developments on the landscape scale influence lakes. We want to know about lakes because they can play an important role in storing carbon in their sediments (dead plants and animals) or releasing it to the atmosphere (CO2 and CH4). By coring lakes we can create records of vegetation change using pollen and plant macrofossils that are preserved in the sediment. Next, we can compare these with records of in-lake changes using remains of diatoms (a group of algae), invertebrates and pigments. We can also look at the geochemistry of the sediments using techniques such as XRF scanning (X-rays of the cores), and stable isotope analysis (Check here for a great explanation of stable isotopes and another great science website!). This way we can try to understand how they are related to each other, which will also inform us about similar processes that are going on today as climate change strongly affects high latitude regions. By coring lakes across the Arctic we hope to get a larger picture, which is why colleagues have already cored lakes in Greenland and Siberia, and why we are here in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska.

The park ranger had told us very clearly that we would have to keep a clean camp and to have different places for sleeping, cooking, and storing food. The reason for this is that food, fuel, and other human items like toothpaste smell irresistibly interesting to bears. It would perhaps have been nice to see a bear in the distance at some point, but we were so well equipped to keep bears away that the chance we’d see one was rather slim. We had bear-proof barrels to store our food, an electric fence around the stored food, at least one can of pepper spray each, jingling bells, a shotgun (and training to use it), and a motion sensor alarm (“Critter Gitter”). The latter gave us a couple of sleepless nights chasing off birds, branches, and perhaps (?) a bear. Twice, a moose came grazing when we were coring and one of our lakes was home to a beaver, but we never saw a bear during our trip.

The most unexpected thing we experienced in the arctic was the intense heat and baking sun. Which is great if you’re on holiday, but not ideal when you’re carrying several 20-30 kg kit packs half a mile uphill, wearing long sleeves and a mosquito net that prevents you to breathe in fresh air. But we really needed all of our equipment: two boats, boards and ropes to build a platform. The adjustable sediment corer with several meters of extension rods, liners, pistons, and cable. Tools and water sampling equipment. Material to extrude, wrap and package cores. Plus an extra boat to shuttle kit and people to and from the platform.

After taking several cores totalling 12 m of mud at Ruppert Lake, we moved everything another half a mile through thick brush to three previously unstudied lakes that we hoped would have enough sediment in them. At one lake we were successful in retrieving 2.25 m of sediment until we were stopped by a layer of coarse wood (for which we wanted to baptize the lake ‘Woody Bottom Pond’, but in the end gave it the much more exciting name ‘Lake 3’). In all, we brought back almost 25m of sediment weighing 150 kg, that will keep us and other project partners busy for a while.

There is one thing that is so easily forgotten when you’re focused on getting all the right cores. And that is to look around you, to take in the landscape, the reflection of the trees and the mountains in the water, the raven flying in the distance. Listen quietly to the silence, and draw in fresh air. The Arctic has always attracted me, perhaps because life seems more simple there, uncontaminated by the modern day rat race. You will need to survive, of course. Survive the cold and dark winters, the wild animals, the bugs, the alcohol. Call me a romantic fool, but life is different out there. And at the end of the day the most fantastic thing to do is bathing in the clear, cold, still water of Walker Lake. The midnight sun setting in warm purple colours below the mountain tops.

 

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Mammoths – Ice age giants

A visit to the exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London.

 

P.Morgan visits the exhibition at the NHM

A visit to the exhibition at the NHM

Mammoth, a ferocious predator with huge downward curved tusks to catch and hold its prey!

If only the original interpretation had stuck then maybe some in our party wouldn’t have left the mammoth exhibition saying “the giant short faced bear is my favourite extinct monster”.  The largest carnivorous mammal of North America had made more of an impression than the ice age icon, the mammoth.

Charles Peale’s 1801 find of a “mammoth” skeleton which he mounted with downward curved tusks certainly caught the attention of US president Thomas Jefferson who sent an expedition to the western wilderness to find living examples. Presumably so rich people could then go out and hunt them for sport.

On the other side of the world, the native people of Siberia had their own ideas about finds like this one. They called the creatures “Mammut”, a giant mole that burrowed underground and died on exposure to light. Perhaps the no photography signs by the exhibition’s star Lyuba the baby mammoth are in case she is not dead, just resting, and your flash could finish her off. Whilst the mole idea wasn’t going to work, the name Mammut had a ring to it so the unknown creature became Mammut or mammoth in English. Now whenever there is a good story, there will often be a scientist nearby to ruin things with some inconvenient facts. Apparently, technically, Peale’s find which had been given the scientific name Mammut, wasn’t a mammoth, but a relative, the mastodon. So mammoths got a different scientific name Mammuthus. But this was closing the stable door after the mammoth had bolted, which explains why you may find yourself climbing a mountain in a t-shirt with a mammoth logo on the front but the word Mammut (mastodon) on the back (other outdoor wear brands are available)! So perhaps the title needs revising to Mammoths and mastodons. And not all were exactly giant, only the Colombian mammoth from America was larger than modern elephants, this will not surprise anyone like myself just back from a holiday in the USA where everything is supersized. Well not quite everything, remains of dwarf mammoths have been found on islands off the coast of California!

With questions of names and size sorted the exhibition takes visitors on a journey through time back through the last glaciation and the Quaternary Ice ages, guided by an American scientist with his time machine made of mud, explaining how scientists can reconstruct the mammoth’s environment, GEOG 1001 summed up in a 3 minute video. Visitors roam with the mammoth from Africa into Eurasia and across the now submerged land bridge in the Bering Strait to North America.  Whilst the Mammoths went extinct with the last known survivors’ succumbing on Wrangel Island Siberia 4000 years ago, their relatives live on as elephants in Asia and Africa. In Kruger National Park scientists are racing to learn all they can about elephants as they fear they are about to face the same fate as the mammoths. There is a shocking resemblance between the fragmented populations of Mammoths in their decline, compared to their previous distribution thousands of years earlier, and elephants just 200 years ago and today.

The last word belongs to the Siberians, not content with giving the world the word Mammoth,  they also found the exhibition’s star attraction Lyuba, the cutest baby ice age giant you ever saw. Lyuba’s remains preserved in the permafrost have proved a treasure trove of clues about the lost world of the ice age giants. Unless the world stops to listen to Lyuba’s story the future of the world’s elephants could be as a special exhibition in a natural history museum.

Mammoths- Ice age Giants is on at the Natural History Museum in London until 7th September. The museum’s Mammoth expert Professor Adrian Lister has a book published to accompany the exhibition.