Summer in Siberia: Clark research expedition heads for the Arctic

Polaris Project base camp

Polaris Project base camp

Spending four weeks of summer on a barge in Siberia may not be everyone’s cup of borscht but for Clark University Professor Karen Frey and three Clark students interested in climate change, it’s the ultimate field trip.

Frey and the students departed for Siberia on July 2 as part of The Polaris Project, which trains future leaders in arctic research and education.

Dr. R. Max Holmes, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center and director of the Polaris Project, says, “The Arctic is central to the global climate change issue, and Russia has by far the largest share of the Arctic. Yet few western scientists, much less students, ever get the chance to work in the Siberian Arctic. This research experience is a unique collaboration among students, educators, and scientists from distinct cultures working together to address a critically important scientific challenge.”

"Ultimately, the students are contributing to new knowledge about Arctic ecosystems and many of them will present their findings at national conferences in the months following the field expedition." -- Karen Frey

Students and scientists in the Polaris Project field course will focus on how carbon and nutrients change as they float from terrestrial uplands to the Arctic Ocean. The researchers will pay special attention to how different ecosystems are linked, and how climate changes disrupt their intricate balance.

"I teach courses focused on climate change and the Arctic to undergraduates during the academic year, but nothing compares to the opportunity to bring students into the field,” Frey says. “Not only are the students learning about Arctic environments first-hand, but they also have an opportunity to ask important scientific questions and actually answer them through the sampling and laboratory techniques we teach them while at the research station. Ultimately, the students are contributing to new knowledge about Arctic ecosystems and many of them will present their findings at national conferences in the months following the field expedition."

Frey is an assistant professor in Clark’s Graduate School of Geography. Her research focuses on impacts of permafrost thaw on river biogeochemistry and impacts of sea ice changes on biological productivity.

While in Siberia, the students and scientists will be based at the Northeast Science Station approximately 80 kilometers south of the Arctic Ocean on the Kolyma River, near Cherskiy. The participants will stay on a 30-meter barge – their mobile base for field trips up and down the river.

Clark seniors Boyd Zapatka of Bangkok, Thailand, Blaize Denfield of South Windsor, Conn., and Claire Griffin of Austin, Texas, will be among the 11 students participating in the Polaris Project this summer.

Zapatka, who was part of the Polaris Project last summer, is returning to the field station this year in an expanded role as a student assistant. “My experiences in Siberia have taught me more about science than I have ever learned in any classroom,” he says.

“In the classroom, we are constantly bombarded with groundbreaking research concerning the effects of global climate change in Arctic regions but rarely does anyone, let alone an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college, get the opportunity to take part in research at the forefront of such a 'hot' topic,” Zapatka writes. “With the help of the professors involved, I have learned how the different Arctic system components function and how this balance is being disturbed. Furthermore, I now understand how the research process works, how data collection and analysis is performed, and how to formulate hypotheses and test them. While in Siberia, I was able to explore the surrounding landscape, ask questions, and seek answers.”

The Polaris Project is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

-- By Jane Salerno