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10 September, 2002


The Tundra

There are many different kinds of days during a field experience such as mine. There are days when everything seems new and exciting and you spend the day awestruck with just about everything. There are also days when the weather, or the insects, or the lab equipment, or the communications refuse to cooperate and some level of frustration takes a little away from the enjoyment of the day. Then there are days where it is a joy just to be out working and you learn new things but at the end of the day you realize the toll you paid for all that enjoyment. Today was that type of day.

Before I describe our day though, I want to make an acknowledgment. It is truly a privilege to be able to experience the Arctic Tundra, but I am especially blessed because in addition to the magnificent scenery, I got to spend my day with a terrific research team. Dr. Valerie Bennett and grad student Todd Sformo have been tremendous companions. They have turned an already incredible trip into a phenomenal experience.

I cannot thank them enough for their wonderful humor and camaraderie.

As for the day…..we spent today in the field collecting insects. Collecting beetles on the tundra requires getting down on hands and knees to turn over medium to large rock. You then examine the bottom of the rock for beetles that might be hanging on there. With the rock thoroughly checked, you dig around in the now uncovered soil to look for beetles. Most of these rocks are on hillsides covered with many, many rocks of all sizes and shapes. Many of those shapes dig deeply into your hands, knees, elbows and any other part of the body in contact with the ground. To add to the adventure, the rocks are cold, making the collecting even more uncomfortable. The one benefit is that since the rocks are on hillsides, the views of the landscape are usually outstanding. As long as you take time out from peering under the rocks to take in the landscape. At the end of a day of crawling around rocky hillsides, it seems as if you can feel every little impression made by a rock during the day's search.

Crawling around on the ground all day does give you a ground level perspective of the Arctic tundra. The structure of this ecosystem is very unique. During most of the year, the ground is completely frozen and very little lives on the tundra. In the spring the top few feet of soil thaw to provide a growth medium for the plants, but very little permeability for the surface water. The permafrost a few feet below the surface forces all of the water from the melted snow to stay near the surface. Consequently the tundra in the summer is very soggy in many places. Walking on the tundra provides a strange sensation as well. Because the soil in the spring and fall is constantly freezing and melting, the soil is pushed up and has a great deal of open space within it. This makes walking on the tundra very similar to walking on a wet, springy sponge. Often there is a pool of water just below your feet that you cannot see due to the spongy hill of grass above it. As you step on the grass, you sink into that pool of water. Once you know the water is there and begin looking more closely, you see that there is water everywhere on the tundra. There is water in small pools, potholes and streams, as well as below your feet. There is even water in the, leathery fleshy leaves of the plants which store water on the dry areas of the tundra. Ironically, plants on hilltops and hillsides often see desert like conditions even though the bottom of the hill may be covered in water. With very little actual precipitation, these plants must store some water for the dry, windy times. Most of the plants here grow very low to the ground to avoid wind exposure. The tallest plants in this area tend to be willow shrubs that grow to be three to four feet tall. The plants here come in an amazing variety of colors. From a distance, most of the tundra looks brown this time of year, but as you get close you can see an array of reds and yellows and greens. I suppose that in the end, crawling around on the tundra can make you appreciate the tundra even more. Even if getting down to plant tundra level is paid for with a few aches and pains later in the evening.

This photo and the one below show some of the tundra plants found near our collection sites. See if you can identify some of the adaptations these plants have made to the extreme conditions of the Arctic.

Small streams such as this one are also a common site here.

Little pools and potholes like these are found all over the tundra.

These little lumps in the ground are common where there is water just under the surface. The constant freezing and thawing of water expands the soil into these spongy lumps.

Val Bennett in the foreground and Todd Sformo in the background are scouring this hillside in a search for Carabid Beetles.

This is Val Bennett looking for Carabid Beetles under rocks along a hillside.

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