Microbial Activity in Thawing Arctic Permafrost 2012


PolarConnect Event
Cristina Solis and her team held a great webinar for the junior docents at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. If you would like to view the archive of the event, explaining the science of their research project, feel free to check out the PolarConnect Archives.

What Are They Doing?

Caribou skull on the tundraCaribou skull on the tundra Underlying the northern arctic coast of Alaska is a thick layer of permafrost. As water melts and pools on top of the permafrost, thaw lakes are formed. Much of the North Slope of Alaska is covered in such thaw lakes. As they decompose organic material, the bacteria and other microorganisms living in thaw lakes produce either carbon dioxide or methane, depending on the conditions. Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 22 times that of carbon dioxide, and increased microbial activity in thawing permafrost areas could lead to changes in the atmosphere due to the increased release of methane. This research was important to better understand the factors controlling competing microbial processes in carbon-rich tundra soils and how microbial activities interact with biogeochemical cycles (the way specific chemicals move through living and non-living processes on Earth). This information was used to help understand the impacts that changes in climate have on tundra soils.

To collect their data, the research team combined research methods from biology, ecology, and biotechnology. In 2012, the team performed experiments to determine the role that bacterial processes play in the production of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases from peat soils. They collected data in the field including gas flux measurements, soil cores, thaw depth, water table depth, pH, and dissolved oxygen content. Additionally they monitored bacterial respiration and conducted related lab experiments.

Where Are They?

Tundra boardwalk outside of Barrow, AlaskaTundra boardwalk outside of Barrow, Alaska The team worked at a variety of different field sites near the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC) where they lived and conducted lab work. BASC is located just outside the community of Barrow, on Alaska’s North Slope near the shoreline of the Arctic Ocean. Barrow is a small community of approximately 4,500 people, accessible only by airplane. The climate is polar, with the daily minimum temperature below freezing 300 days a year.

Expedition Map


Kim Miller, Elliot Friedman, and Cristina Solis make a last stand!
This is it! Today was my last full work day in the tundra! It's been a great experience! Tomorrow, I'm cleaning out my desk at the lab, clearing things out of the kitchen, packing my things up, and then one final afternoon at the young basin site for one last go for me with the Ultra Portable Greenhouse Gas Analyzer. I've become quite the expert in gas sampling and had developed a great system with Kim the last few weeks enabling us to graph gas emissions, take probe measurements, water sample, and even pull off the data from the SD memory cards. As you can see, teamwork is incredibly...
How much methane and carbon dioxide do you think is in each vial?
Bog tea and crumpets, anyone? The characteristic light brown color is why researchers call this type of water sampling bog tea. In this multi-faceted research project, another important component of this study is taking water samples from the boggy soil. We use special vacuum test tubes that slowly pull water out from the soil. So yes, water actually defies gravity by rising up through the tube!! Okay, actually no laws of physics were harmed in the filming of this production. The tube is a vacuum (not the kind that you clean your carpet with). A vacuum is a space completely empty of...
This movie features Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski.
This complete set can be yours, if the price is right. And yes, that is a car battery in the tundra! Let's think about the phrase "jumbo shrimp." How can something be jumbo (which means insanely large) and shrimpy (which means super small) - at exactly the same time? I always thought that never made sense. One thumbs up for man, one giant framepack for mankind! Kim is suited up with a greenhouse gas analyzer machine, AC adapter, and a CAR BATTERY! Another thing that doesn't make sense is calling something "ultra portable" that clearly weighs 30 pounds and feels even heavier the...
Kim administers a specific treatments to predetermined chambers.
Don't worry, this won't hurt a bit. There are small needles for sewing a button back on a shirt, medium sized needles for cross stitching, but perhaps the biggest needles of all are for science!!! Yes, science!! All dressed up, lots of places to go! After much calculation and checking and rechecking of her math work, and even a few phone calls to the lower 48 states, Kim was ready to whip up the two different solutions of electron acceptors needed for treating her soil chambers. Kim introduces the variable (the electron acceptor solution) to the experimental group via a large gauge...
Everyone's a winner in my book.
We're not professional athletes; we just look like ones! This is Kim and me with our game faces on before the race. Last night Kim and I were inaugural athletes in the first ever Top of the World Midnight Marathon! Barrow does have a race as part of their Independence Day activities, but this event was sponsored by Runner's World and had water stations, medical support, and police presence (to protect the wildlife from runners and probably vice versa) And since Barrow has 24 hour sunlight, why not race at midnight! Watch out, London Olympics 2012! We're fierce with fellow runner Karl...

Expedition Resources

Project Information

3 July 2012 to 8 August 2012
Location: Barrow, Alaska
Project Funded Title: Reduction of iron and humic substances as a dominant respiratory process in arctic peat soils

Meet the Team

Cristina Solis's picture
LA Academy
Los Angeles, CA
United States

In addition to teaching life and physical science, Ms. Solis has also taught math, leadership, cooking, and even belly dancing in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Ms. Solis earned her Masters from Columbia University in New York City, earned her Bachelor's degree from Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles, and completed a study abroad at Oxford University in England. Always looking for ways to improve her practice and grow as an educator, Ms. Solis actively participates in professional development with organizations such as the Aquarium of the Pacific, Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence (COSEE), and the World Forestry Institute (WFI). In 2009, Earthwatch selected Ms. Solis to assist in research on coastal ecology in the Bahamas. Ms. Solis is currently a National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Teacher Fellow.

Lars Angenent's picture
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY
United States

Lars Angenent is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University. His research interests include the conversion of organic waste into bioenergy, the development of biosensors, photobioreactors and bioaerosols, and the creation of biocomputing devices that are based on microbial electrochemical technologies. Learn more about Dr. Angenent's research at his faculty webpage [http://angenent.bee.cornell.edu/DrLarsAngenent.html]

David Lipson's picture
San Diego State University
San Diego, CA
United States

David Lipson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at San Diego State University. His research interests include soil microbial ecology, plant-microbe interactions, and linking microbial diversity to ecosystem processes.

Ted Raab's picture
Stanford University
Palo Alto, CA
United States

Ted Raab is a Senior Investigator in the Carnegie Institute of Science at Stanford University. His research interests include plant physiological ecology, analytical chemistry and spectroscopy, synchrotron-based imaging, and cryosols.

Elliot Friedman's picture
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY
United States

Elliot Friedman is a PhD candidate in Dr. Angenent's Lab at Cornell University. His research focuses on engineering applications of microbial electrochemical technologies. He designed and constructed the biosensors being used in the Arctic.