Department of Environmental Science

Assistant Professor Karen Frey talks about the Polaris Project.

What interests you about the Siberian Arctic?

Frey: There really is no better place to study climate change these days than the Arctic since it is warming faster and more intensely here than anywhere else on Earth. The reason we want to be in Siberia is for its vast differences. It provides the perfect outdoor research lab because it has large seasonal climatic variability and large variations in landscape as well. We may get temperatures of 60 or 70 degrees F in the summer and -40 or -50 in the winter. Western Siberia is actually quite flat and has peatlands, wetlands and bogs. Eastern Siberia, where we will be going for the Polaris Project summer research, actually has much more topography. It does still contain flat wetlands and bogs, but also it has a fair amount of mountain ranges, which is actually quite different from the western portion of the continent.

What is the Polaris Project?

Frey: Clark is one of several institutions receiving funding from the National Science Foundation for the Polaris Project. The project team includes me and 10 colleagues from institutions in the U.S. and Russia. We are all working on research to understand the connections between the vastly different ecosystems in the Siberian Arctic.

One of the Polaris Projects' big goals is to engage new scientists and students in arctic, high-latitude research. As a result, our team includes researchers who have been to the Arctic and some who are going for the first time this summer. The principal investigators on the team also have very diverse interests. Some are interested in forests and upland areas, while others are more interested in lakes, streams and estuarine areas adjacent to the Arctic Ocean. We really bridge the gap from the uplands all the way downstream to the ocean. We each have our own niche in the project. The unifying scientific theme, though, is to understand the transport and transformation of carbon and nutrients from terrestrial uplands to the Arctic Ocean and the interaction between these different ecosystems.

What is your particular research interest?

Frey: I'm interested in the whole area and, particularly, the impact of warming and permafrost thaw on carbon and nutrient cycling from the forests, to the rivers and streams, to lakes and wetlands, all the way to the ocean. I'll be using a combination of field measurements, satellite remote sensing, and GIS to study these large-scale linkages between land, atmosphere, ocean, and ice.

You said part of the Polaris Project's goal is to train the next generation of polar researchers. Does your Arctic Shores course try to do that?

Frey: Yes. Each one of the principal investigators teaches an arctic-centric course at his or her home institution. The Arctic System Science course I teach is an interdisciplinary course cross-listed with Geography and Global Environmental Studies. We study all aspects of the Arctic from the climate system, hydrological cycle, cryosphere, terrestrial ecosystems and boreal forests, all the way to the arctic marine system. We've additionally examined the human dimension of the Arctic, studying impacts of climate change on indigenous cultures. And we've further looked at the geopolitical and the human health ramifications of arctic climate change, especially with the recent dramatic declines in sea ice.

Do students who take your Arctic Shores course get to go with you to Siberia in the summer to take the the Polaris Project field course?

Frey: Not necessarily. They have to have taken my course to be eligible, but they also have to apply to the Polaris Project for one of the available field course spots.

How do you get selected?

Frey: We are looking for several things, not necessarily the best GPA. Much of how their applications are assessed is centered around the essay portion of the application. This tells us what a student hopes to contribute to and learn from the Project, and overall, how he or she and the Project will benefit from each other. This summer 2008 is the pilot year, and I'm very pleased that I'll be taking three Clark undergraduate students going with me to Siberia this summer.

What will they be doing?

Frey: They will be spending a few weeks in eastern Siberia in a town called Cherskiy (north of the Arctic Circle on the Kolyma River) working with me to conduct research at and around the Northeast Science Station in Cherskiy. The landscape there is heavily impacted by permafrost. When climate warms and this permafrost thaws, it causes profound ecosystem and carbon cycling changes. This is a chance for students to collect field samples and use different measurement tools to explore this dramatically changing region firsthand.

Where do you stay and what do you eat?

Frey: Cherskiy is actually a big city, there are several thousand people living there. While the Science Station is remote, we'll be near a city that has general infrastructure. At the station, we'll be sleeping indoors in bunkhouses. It's not five-star hotel accommodations, but we will at least have mattresses! I think we'll most likely be eating a lot of pirogues, borscht, and reindeer meat. This is a very exciting and unique experience for all of us, even for those of us who have been to Siberia before. And I don't mind roughing it—conducting fieldwork in remote places is what attracted me to the Earth Sciences in the first place.