Sunday, March 25, 2012

March Madness!

We hit the ground running after we got back from our trip to Santa Fe/Chicago.

I had signed up for greenhouse space at the UAF greenhouses to begin my germination experiment.

The 70 or so samples I collected last summer were washed into sieves to capture the seeds and exclude rocks and roots, and then poured into 400 little plastic pots all lined up like soldiers whose mission is to test the seedbank (seeds in the soil) of native tundra that has experienced two types of climate-change linked disturbance: wildfire, and ground subsidence caused by melting permafrost (known as thermokarst).

I figure there's a chance the disturbed areas could favor seedling germination compared to intact tundra, which is just so crowded with plants all jockeying under the midnight sun to suck up what nutrients they can. The tundra of the Low Arctic is considered a type of green desert--think of the moors of Wuthering Heights--yet during that brief summer it does a tremendous job storing carbon as the plants capture CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it into roots and shoots. Then the long cold winter sets in, and what has died stays frozen for a long time, accumulating layer after layer like a really disgusting version of a Baskin Robbins ice cream cake made of the partially decomposed remains of carbon-based life. A changing climate can potentially transform this cake into an oozing mess, whose seething surface will then spew all that CO2, along with gobs of stinky methane, into the atmosphere. But life has a way of trying to persist, and along the way, any number of things can happen. One of the things I'm interested to know is if some of this melting is just enough to favor the germination of certain types of seedlings. Why should this make any sense at all, in a world of hotter summers, longer autumns, brutal winters, and earlier springs characterized by stormy weather? One of the things noticed in the last 50 years is that the tundra is beginning to resemble something less like a golf course and more like a vast thicket of bushes. So how come the bushes are winning? The current wisdom focuses on the story of increased nutrients released by the warming soils as the hungry microbes process more and more nutrients all snug and insulated under thicker blankets of snow. This could be very good for the bushes, especially the ones that have made it this far. More bushes trap more snow, which could make the microbes happy to release yet more nutrients--to feed yet more bushes. That's where I come in with my brilliant idea (said rather dryly): the tundra is like a green mat, and the scars formed by the ground subsidence and the fires can act as openings in the mat to let new generations germinate in that warmer, richer environment. And if the babies don't make it, perhaps the bushes just push into those warmer richer pockets and clone their way across the tundra.

That's the hypothesis anyway. Not only will I be testing for babies, I also have a plan for screening for the rise of the clones.

So, without knowing whether I'd be accepted to the PhD program at UAF or not, I plunged into my seedbank germination experiment, committed to watering and surveying the contents of these 400 pots for the next nine weeks. I have seeds from remote parts of Alaska's North Slope that have experienced some dramatic disturbances in recent times: the huge Anaktuvuk River Fire of 2007, and a few lakes near Toolik whose shores have gullied and eroded through the melting of the subsurface ice. What's important is that I need to compare the seedbanks of these disturbed sites to nearby undisturbed tundra, and though I have seeds from a couple of areas in Anaktuvuk that did not burn, I need to sample a couple more undisturbed sites close to the thermokarsted lake shores in order to really be able to test the idea that disturbance favors the bold (seedling, in this case).

(cute lil' seedlings found in pieces of tundra recovering from the Anaktuvuk River Fire during the 2011 vegetation "pluck")

Long story short, I've been acting like I'm already in the program. And then I got my letter of acceptance.

I got in.

I got IN! I'm starting in September.

Me—a PhD student? Is the Universe cool or what? People have begun to call me “Doctor Dee.”

I guess this means I have to walk the walk now. But for now, I'm watering my pots, and have spent the last two weekends working my butt off preparing these pots (with the generous help of my dear husband and our next-door neighbor Helene), followed by a weekend of nonstop partying with Simon, Chris, and their friends and dog mushing clients. I met a really cool Kiwi couple on holiday who fell in love with the Alaska mushing scene and invited Joe and me to come visit them, and two really cool Norwegian gals who are heading to the White Mountains for a six day trip.

(went to ice alaska on friday)

Last night it was square dancing in Ester, followed by beers at the Golden Eagle until 2:30 am. I don't know where all this energy has come from. But I definitely feel things have shifted. For awhile I was feeling like I would never find anything beyond the job at the lab, which pays the bills and is a good learning experience but was not something I intended to do forever. And just as the routine was beginning to get to me, my application came through. So things will be different. I will continue in the lab doing much the same as I do now, but my position will be as an RA and not as staff. The rest of my time will be my own, for doing my work, writing grants, attending classes, etc etc. It reminds me of what it was to be an art student, but with more structure, without sacrificing creativity. I just hope I can find out something cool about tundra seedling recruitment in this changing world, and I hope at the end of it I can say I was happy to be a flea standing on the scientific shoulders of the giants.

As if to illustrate this last point there is a fungus gnat in the living room trying to fly up my nose....