Deep Roots


Now Archived! PolarConnect Event with Nell Kemp and the Deep Roots Research Team from Alaska on 31 August 2016. You can access this and other events on the PolarConnect Archives site:

What Are They Doing?

A crack in the soil amid tundra plants near a thermokarst. Photo by Regina Brinker.A crack in the soil amid tundra plants near a thermokarst. Photo by Regina Brinker. Below the surface of arctic tundra is a matrix of soil, roots, and fungal hyphae that may play a critical role in the trajectory of future climate change. For millennia arctic plants have persisted in cold, wet, and shallow soils underlain with permafrost, permanently frozen ground, in many regions of the Arctic. However, with unprecedented warming in the last century, these plants may see the amelioration of their harsh, belowground environment. With a warming climate, the depths to which permafrost soils thaw each summer increase, potentially providing greater access to drier and more nutrient rich soil resources. Yet, whether arctic plants and their obligate, fungal root-symbionts have the capacity to respond rapidly and exploit soil resources as frozen, high-latitude soils thaw is unknown. Our research investigates the opportunistic capacity of arctic plants and their fungal symbionts to explore a newly available soil environment. Our goal is to uncover the role that the belowground response to a warming world may play in mitigating feedbacks between thawing permafrost and the atmosphere.

Where Are They?

An aerial view of Toollk Field Station with the Brooks Range in the background. Photo by Regina Brinker.An aerial view of Toollk Field Station with the Brooks Range in the background. Photo by Regina Brinker. The research is based out of Toolik Field Station, an 8-10 hour drive north from Fairbanks, Alaska. Toolik Field Station is operated by the Institute of Arctic Biology (IAB) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) and has hosted hundreds of researchers and students every year since 1975. We will also conduct research at the Eight Mile Lake watershed on the North Slope of the Alaska Range near Healy, Alaska. The Eight Mile Lake site has been affiliated with the Bonanza Creek LTER and IAB at UAF since 2008. From the field station, the team will travel to their sites by foot and truck. The weather near EML and Toolik Lake can be wet, cold, snowy, muddy, buggy, and occasionally sunny and beautiful with spectacular views of the Alaska Range and the Brooks Range, respectively.

Expedition Map


Tundra brownie
This post is long overdue – at least a month! I didn’t have much time to relax after my expedition, as school had already started - the journal below is a quick recap of our last two days of harvesting. The Harvest: 8 Mile Lake The crux of this experiment is to see where Nitrogen ends up in plants rooted in permafrost soils. After the 15N is injected into the soils at permafrost depth, the soils and biomass are harvested 24 hours later and 1 year later. We had collected the samples at Toolik after 24 hours, and now we traveled to Healy, AK to collect the 1 year samples. Field work in...
After making it down the Dalton and arriving in Fairbanks, the crew immediately disassembled our materials, stored them in an office at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and headed to take a shower, do some laundry and head to Fred Meyer for provisions. Dry Cabins So when I say that the crew took showers and did laundry, none of that happened where we were staying (shower: UAF, laundry: Laundromat). In Fairbanks (and other parts of interior Alaska), it’s pretty common for people to live in a “dry” cabin (particularly people who live here seasonally or in very rural areas). Think about...
With all of our roots injected, plucked, sorted, packed and shipped, it was time for the Deep Roots team to take a short hike before we headed back to Fairbanks on the Haul Road one last time. Here are a few photos from our last day on the tundra: Some of Deep Roots team fossil hunting in the distance. Even in late August, you can still find ice on the ground. I think this has been here for awhile. Xanthe Walker, high on a ridge Lichen Walking through rocky ground cover can only mean one thing – lichens. Here are a few pictures…I think they are all lichens, but a mycologist...
Fungal tubes
Symbiotic relationships are super common in nature – just think of Nemo and the anemone that he made his home. It may seem hard to believe, but plant roots have this same relationship with certain fungi, which are commonly known as mycorrhizae. As I mentioned in an earlier post, myco=fungus and rhizo=roots. Fungal Friends I won’t go into too much detail here, but let’s just say that this plant root-fungus relationship is a “win-win” for everyone involved. The plant gets nutrients that might otherwise be difficult to obtain because they are far away (the fungi throw out these micro sized...
Root tips
After 3.5 days of sorting through above ground and below ground samples, the team starts to make mistakes. And not the “I’m tired and I spelled Betula nana wrong,” more like “I’ve been looking at roots for 2 days and I STILL can’t tell if this root is a Betula nana or a Salix pulchra.” It happens. Scope Work After the A-Team does the best job they can to sort the roots into their species category, the B-Team comes in and cleans up their messes. And by “cleaning up” I mean looking at all samples under a microscope to see if the species identification is correct. Just like other living...

Expedition Resources

Project Information

12 August 2016 to 6 September 2016
Location: Toolik Field Station, Alaska (and Healy, Alaska)
Project Funded Title: The role of plant roots, mycorrhizal fungi, and uptake of deep nitrogen in the permafrost carbon feedback to warming climate

Meet the Team

Nell Kemp's picture
Lindblom Math & Science Academy
Chicago, IL
United States

Nell Kemp is a middle school life science teacher at Lindblom Math & Science Academy in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Ms. Kemp has a bachelor's degree in behavioral neuroscience from Lehigh University and a master's degree in education from DePaul University. The enthusiasm and creativity of the middle grades is one of the most rewarding aspects of her job, but also the most challenging. Students of this age group tend to have trouble thinking independently, so Ms. Kemp pushes students to participate in project-based learning activities and inquiry investigations.

This is Ms. Kemp’s second expedition with PolarTREC, having previously worked with Dr. Amanda Koltz studying the role of predatory spiders in high Arctic food webs. Just like last time, she anticipates that her experience with PolarTREC will show her students that "real" scientists complete their work in much the same way as they do, collecting evidence to support their initial research questions and hypotheses. Ms. Kemp’s goal on this expedition is to expose her students to accredited scientific research and researchers, and help them to recognize that they are capable of becoming the next generation of scientists themselves. Oh…and also to see that there is more to the Polar Regions than reindeer and polar bears…and Santa Claus.

Michelle Mack's picture
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, AZ
United States

Michelle Mack is a professor in the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ. She has studied the plants and soils of arctic terrestrial ecosystems for 17 years. Her research focuses on understanding how warming climate is impacting the cycling of carbon and nutrients among plants, microbes, soils and the the atmosphere.

Rebecca Hewitt's picture
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, AZ
United States

Rebecca Hewitt is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society at Northern Arizona University with Dr. Michelle Mack. Her research investigates the role of plant-fungal interactions on the acquisition of deep nitrogen from thawing permafrost soils, post-fire seedling recruitment at treeline, and landscape patterns of arctic vegetation change. She earned her B.A. in Environmental Studies and Biology from Middlebury College in 2005 and her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2014.

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Latest Comments

In addition to what Lepra asked, I also would like to know if the Arctic Blueberries were always in acidic environments, or have they adapted to live in those kind of conditions?
So since some of the plants can grow in two very different temperatures and conditions does that mean they grow anywhere regardless? Because if the sedges can grow all over the world including the...
I had never knew that blueberries lived in acidic environments. Did they always live in acidic?
How come the nitrogen has to travel through the roots ? Why is it a 24 hour period and then a 1 year harvest after injection ?
1. Why do you use nitrogen to travel through the roots? 2. How deep does the isotope usually travel into the soil?