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ORNL scientists, collaborators prepare for a summer of science in the Arctic

May 10, 2018 — For the past six years, some 140 scientists from five institutions have traveled to the Arctic Circle and beyond to gather field data as part of the Department of Energy-sponsored NGEE Arctic project. This article gives insight into how scientists gather the measurements that inform their Earth system models in order to predict environmental change.


In the hour before dawn, Stan Wullschleger wakes and immediately checks the weather conditions in Nome, Alaska, along the southern rim of the Arctic Circle. High winds can kick up snow and ground helicopters, and Wullschleger places priority on safety for the team of scientists setting out across the tundra on 30- to 65-mile journeys to field sites that morning. Today’s campaign begins the sixth year of the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE) Arctic project, a DOE initiative led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Wullschleger that pairs field measurements with Earth system models to improve predictions of whether and how the Arctic and global environments may change in the future.

The team straps scientific equipment and survival gear into the cargo pod of a helicopter and to sleds pulled by snowmobiles. Wullschleger keeps a checklist in his head and on paper, talking through the day ahead with each team member. He wants to know: What time will you be leaving, which site will you be working, and when will you return? What is your communication plan for the day and have you double-checked your gear? Working in the wild means always being prepared. Each of the teams carries a pack with shelter, an emergency beacon, satellite telephone, and enough food and fuel for three days. So far, they’ve never had to use it.


A group heads out on snowmobiles with sensitive instruments to measure the depth of permafrost, its interaction with bedrock deep beneath the tundra surface, and the amount of ice in the soil. They’ll work around a herd of muskoxen that has gathered to watch the research, taking measurements in a wide sweep around the shaggy animals.

Wullschleger and another group load into the helicopter, flying over the snowy landscape to a designated spot on the watershed. The team breaks into smaller groups, using GPS-enabled probes to log a series of snow depth measurements and digging pits to gather samples. Bob Busey from the University of Alaska Fairbanks digs an unusually deep hole in the snow before hitting the frozen tundra, his fingertips in their thick gloves barely visible above the surface when he waves from below. Busey cuts stairs into the snow to enable safe passage for his colleagues who climb in to scoop snow into plastic bags at different depths down the pit wall. They are examining characteristics such as density and water content to determine how much runoff might occur in the spring and how thawing permafrost might change that flow. The soil in Nome hovers half a degree below freezing, and the upper layers will thaw later in the summer, creating a dynamic ecosystem that holds clues to the future of the Arctic.

Questions drive the scientists’ work. How does the warming temperature affect the complex cycling of water and nutrients, the growth of plants, and the release of carbon into the air as carbon dioxide and methane? Step one in finding answers is gathering data—and that means taking millions of measurements on the ground, from the air, and via satellite.

Working in the wild

Two weeks later, Wullschleger, director of the ORNL’s Environmental Sciences Division, and colleagues Sigrid Dengel and Ori Chafe from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory arrive in Utqiaġvik, on the northernmost tip of the Alaskan coast, deep in the Arctic Circle. Their task is to set up instruments that will take critical measurements across 70 meters of tundra for the next 10 months.

On a sunny day with a wind chill of -20°F, the group uses snowmobiles to tow dozens of poles and pieces of metal track to the field site. Working together, they dig holes in the snow every few feet and anchor uprights to the frozen permafrost. As they begin laying the track, an arctic fox wanders through the site. Nearby, a dozen caribou do some digging of their own, seeking lichen beneath the snow.

It takes a week of effort, but the trio completes the track and assembles, tests, and deploys a cart loaded with 100 pounds of sophisticated sensors and wireless communications equipment. The automated tram now rolls tirelessly across the tundra, pausing every half meter to capture photos and a suite of energy exchange measurements the NGEE Arctic team compares with satellite data from partners at NASA.

After each day of labor, the scientists head back to dormitory lodging provided by a native corporation that supports researchers across northern Alaska. With assistance from University of Alaska Fairbanks team members, Wullschleger and the NGEE Arctic group have developed friendly (and critical) relationships with native organizations who own the lands they study. “It’s been a very positive and cordial relationship,” Wullschleger remarks.

Dormitory life in this case means a shared kitchen and bathrooms along with bunks in private rooms. The NGEE Arctic group does not always have such luxury. Sometimes the group stays in Quonset huts or small apartments. Wullschleger remembers times, early in the project when a dozen hydrologists, geophysicists, physiologists, and biogeochemists would pile into one or two rooms with bunk beds lined door-to-door. “That’s when the best science is done, when you’re thrown together 24/7,” he says.

Even computational scientists focused on earth system modeling join in the field work. “It helps in translating the data to the models if you understand how the measurements are taken on site,” Wullschleger says.

Qaunaklaaglutin: Go with care

As the spring days grow longer, Wullschleger meticulously prepares for a summer of science. He and his team will rotate through the Nome and Utqiaġvik sites, conducting campaigns in cross-disciplinary groups for one to three weeks at a time. Conditions must be considered and prepared for in advance, including the hordes of mosquitoes that swarm scientists during the summer months.

Through the end of November, the sites are staffed continuously in a focused coordination and logistics effort that runs with the smoothness of experience. Wullschleger still remembers the steep learning curve the team had to navigate in the beginning.

On his first trip as principal investigator for the NGEE Arctic project, Wullschleger and key team leaders surveyed potential study sites in a small prop plane. It was a brisk summer day on the Seward Peninsula and the group landed on a dirt road after making several passes to herd caribou off the makeshift runway. “I remember feeling the absolute remoteness and wondering how we would conduct our science safely and productively so far outside our comfort zone,” he recalls.

Much of the credit for orienting the NGEE Arctic team to the local environment goes to colleagues at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who helped Wullschleger establish relationships and protocols that continue to guide safe operations today. Each day as the group heads into the field, their local logistics provider reminds them “qaunaklaaglutin,” meaning go with care.

Spot a polar bear or a grizzly? There is a protocol for that: leave the instruments behind and step away from the work as needed. In practice, the public usually spot bears and scientists receive notifications via short wave radio, providing ample opportunity to avoid contact should a bear be headed their way.

Still, it is wiser to stay alert and aware. The need to keep an eye out for polar bears in Utqiaġvik and grizzlies in Nome limits the field work to daylight hours, which are shortened to about four hours per day in the winter months but can extend almost around the clock in summer. Even in the extended daylight of an Arctic summer, the team works a typical eight to 10-hour day, empowering individual members to call a halt for the team any time they need a break.

Relying on each other for science, collaboration, and safety has built friendships among the 140 scientists who work on the project. Whether collaborating across distances or huddling around a single laptop talking data after a day in the field, these ties enrich scientific outcomes as the NGEE Arctic team focuses their integrated knowledge and capabilities on understanding what the future might hold for this warming permafrost landscape—and the world at large.

The ten-year project draws on expertise at Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Lawrence Berkeley, and Brookhaven National Laboratories and the University of Alaska Fairbanks with support from the Biological and Environmental Research Program in the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit