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Carls Get Up Close & Personal With Climate Change

June 22, 2010

Stomping around the Siberian Arctic is an unlikely way for Carls to spend their summer. Nevertheless, thanks to Max Holmes, the 2008-2009 Chesley Distinguished Visiting Associate Professor of Biology and founder of the Polaris Project, three Carleton students will be traveling across the globe this July for a first-hand look at how climate change is impacting a unique Arctic ecosystem.

The Polaris Project is a field course and research experience for undergraduates who have taken an arctic-focused course at one of seven undergraduate institutions, including Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges. Thanks to a generous grant from the National Science Foundation, the Polaris Project provides the opportunity for students to see the effects of climate change outside of scientific literature and textbooks, from the eroding and thawing permafrost to the invisible shifts in carbon in streams, lakes, and rivers. Last summer, the project was featured on the New York Times environmental blog, Dot Earth.


While the students design and execute experiments to answer their own questions, the guiding scientific theme of the Polaris Project is the transport and transformations of carbon and nutrients as they move from the uplands to the Arctic Ocean. Fluxes in carbon and nutrients allow scientists to gauge whether carbon released from thawing permafrost is escaping into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that would contribute to more warming in the Arctic. The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on the globe and further warming may only accelerate the release of the vast carbon stores currently frozen in the permafrost.

By engaging students and introducing them to the methods of ecosystem science as they apply to the Arctic, the Polaris Project aims to train the next generation of Arctic scientists.

The Project is based in Cherskii, a remote Russian city at 69º N on the Kolyma River and home to the Northeast Science Station. While in Cherskii, the students and professors live on a barge moored along the banks of the river. This floating home allows the students to travel along the Kolyma, to see the exposed fossil remnants of wooly mammoths at Davanni Yar and the lingering patches of snow on the fields of the tundra near the Arctic Ocean.

On July 2nd, 2010, Carleton students Elliot Vaughan '11 (Minneapolis) Lydia Russell-Roy ’10 (Milton, Mass.), and returning student Travis Drake ’10 (Portland, Ore.) will join the third installment of the Polaris Project. Follow their journey on the Polaris Project blog—and be sure to ask questions or leave comment. The wi-fi on the barge isn’t great, but the students love to share their experiences!   

Written by Travis Drake '10, who recently received a BA in geology magna cum laude