Summer 2019 Field Course: Permafrost, reindeer, and learning about landfills… OH MY!

While we’ve said goodbye to summer (kind of, #95degreesinOctoberinDC), we’ve also had time to reflect on the field course in Alaska and Canada. The Arctic PIRE team, made up of students and faculty, had the opportunity to travel to the North American Arctic to learn and collaborate on northern issues. The team included both natural and social scientists. They looked at issues surrounding food, energy, waste management, and permafrost. All the while, they learned a lot along the way, and had tons of fun too! Hear from a few students on their reflections of the trip.

And check out this awesome montage Claire Franco put together!

Anna Zhu, George Washington University

In July and August this summer, many of my colleagues and I from The George Washington University, Moscow State University, The University of Virginia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The University of Alaska, and Michigan State University travelled to Alaska for an international collaboration on Arctic issues, permafrost, and sustainability.  We gathered in Anchorage, Alaska before making the scenic drive to Fairbanks, Alaska, passing by Denali National Park and other natural landmarks. In Fairbanks, we explored the city and its plan for sustainability and resilience through examining community gardens, municipal landfills, recycling plants, museums, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and energy production plants.  We also had the opportunity to visit the CRREL Permafrost Research Tunnel and Creamer’s Field to learn about the history and future of permafrost as well as appreciate the stunning natural beauty of Alaska at Dr. Kenji Yoshikawa’s Reindeer Farm and Dacha. After Fairbanks, the physical science and social science groups parted ways, heading to Toolik Field Station in the North Slope and Whitehorse, Canada respectively.  I headed up to Toolik with the physical science group. After a grueling drive on the Dalton Highway through beautiful natural scenery of the Brooks Range, as well as rain, fog, and wildfire smoke, we arrived at Toolik, a University of Alaska field station for scientists and researchers. At Toolik, we truly witnessed the beauty of the science and academic community, ranging from the long hours of research in a variety of fields to fun group activities like Christmas in July and swimming in Toolik Lake.  We learned about the necessary tools and skills to conduct field work on permafrost and active layer monitoring. We learned how to probe the tundra, measure the thaw depth, install temperature loggers, sketch landscape features, and how to correctly record and interpret data. Equipped with our new knowledge and data, we headed back to Anchorage, driving another 10 grueling hours on the Dalton Highway. We compiled our data and made presentations on vegetation, active layer depth, the Dalton Highway and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and patterned ground.  After the social science group returned from Whitehorse, we all gave our presentations on what we learned, allowing all of us to experience and gain knowledge about the other group’s adventures. With all of our academic and field work completed, we visited glaciers and explored Anchorage with our new friends who now felt like old friends, before all parting ways and returning to our respective homes. This Alaska trip allowed people to come together from all over the world and a range of disciplines and learn about the importance of Arctic issues, no matter what stance, social or physical.  

Jane Lee, University of Virginia

As a student of landscape architecture, it was an amazing experience to spend time in Fairbanks, Whitehorse, and Anchorage, and to talk to so many knowledgeable people who explained the more hidden aspects of how a northern city works–everything from different needs for building houses to the way power is generated. Top of mind for many civic leaders was the issue of what to do with waste. Our visit to the Fairbanks landfill left a particularly strong impression on me–the cycle of how goods from all over the world make their way to Fairbanks, are brought into homes and businesses, and then end up in permanent hills within the city limits was such a clear example of the relationship humans have to waste that gets obscured in the lower 48 where it is easier to make trash “disappear” from public sight. In my education as a landscape architect, I not only learn how to design outdoor spaces, but also how to work with the landscapes that are generated by our global patterns of extraction, consumption, and disposal. This trip was a timely reminder that in many places, the feedback loop between human actions and the condition of the land and environment is fragile and has high and urgent stakes. I look forward to learning more about design within the context of Arctic communities in the remainder of my time in graduate school.


Tara McAllister, The George Washington University 

Over the our 18 days in Alaska, we were able to travel a north-south transect of the entire state; starting in Anchorage and driving all the way north to Deadhorse. Each day provided new immersive learning opportunities. Our trip was launched with a nearly 400 mile through Denali National Park and Preserve, from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Our group was lucky to see the peak of Denali, which is often obscured by clouds. Each day in Fairbanks brought a new adventure, including a trip to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility. Our time in Fairbanks was concluded with an evening spent at Dr. Kenji Yoshikawa’s reindeer farm. From Fairbanks, our group crossed over the Arctic Circle and drove north to Toolik Field Station. As part of the Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring (CALM) project, while at Toolik, we collected active layer measurements through mechanical probing. Collecting data and the opportunity to do real field work was an incredible experience. While in the field, we learned about different cryogenic processes, arctic vegetation and landscapes. For our last day at Toolik, we drove north to Prudhoe Bay, where most the state’s oil production occurs. On our drive back to Toolik Lake that evening, we passed a herd of wild Musk Ox!


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