“Victory awaits him who has everything in order – luck, people call it”
These famous words of Roald Amundsen, polar explorer and leader of the first expedition to the South Pole, are on my office coffee mug and have always seemed a very applicable quote to my PhD project. The other office mug I have has Grumpy Cat on it, who sadly passed away a few weeks ago. This mug, too, seems appropriate at times (especially before it is filled with coffee).
The mugs are situated on a desk in the Plant Ecology and Nature Conservation department of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and are surrounded by Very Important Customs Documents™, sketches of plots, post-it notes filled with incomprehensible sentences and exclamation marks, half revised drafts and chocolate wrappers. I am sure you get the idea. Here I work as a PhD candidate, studying interactions between permafrost degradation and recovery and vegetation successions in a lowland tundra ecosystem in Siberia. I only get to go to Siberia in the summers (otherwise the vegetation that I want to study is buried under a thick pack of snow) and these summers are short, so as you can imagine, a lot needs to happen within a limited time frame.
Now, doing research in a very remote part of Siberia is a rather specific occupation and is very different from a situation where you can just hop into your car and drive yourself and your equipment to a fieldwork location nearby. Professionals taking measurement equipment into the Russian Federation have to spend some time trying to figure out how to obtain the necessary permits and import permissions. In the end we receive great support from our partners in Yakutsk and the puzzle always gets solved one way or another, but not usually before our documents have all the possible stamps of all the possible important people in the University on them. Then there are visa to obtain, flights to book and oddly specific logistic puzzles to solve. For instance, last year when I had to send most of our electronic equipment ahead of us to the site since most of it was not allowed on passenger flights due to safety regulations. Or this year, when I had to make sure a truck with boardwalks and other bulky stuff would drive to the site in winter before the roads would melt in spring. I always get a lot of consolation from the thought that if I don’t make it in science, I can always become a logistics expert. This is also where the Amundsen quote comes in of course.
But then, once all the people and instruments are in the right place, an exciting new research season can begin. Our work mostly revolves around the long-term development of small scale thermokarst features. In the tundra, we see sudden formation of thaw ponds due to melting of ice lenses. These ponds are hotspots for methane emissions. Later on however, we see a wetland succession occurring, and thaw ponds are filled in with sedges and peat mosses. So one of our main questions is whether this can lead to re-establishment of the previously dominant dwarf shrub vegetation and the recovery of permafrost underneath. The timescales on which these processes happen will have huge consequences for the greenhouse gas balance of this ecosystem. We also know very little about what triggers the sudden formation of thaw ponds.
We have several projects running at the site, ranging from year-to-year monitoring of vegetation composition and abiotic conditions in selected thaw ponds to manipulation experiments, for instance through irrigation or removal of shrubs. Apart from that we use dendrochronological analysis on dwarf shrubs to link annual growth of shrubs and their dynamics in establishment and death to climate and permafrost degradation, and we use satellite images to quantify changes in vegetation composition and extent of thermokarst features over larger areas. By combining all these different lines of evidence we hope to get a better understanding of the future development of this ecosystem.
As our date of departure is creeping nearer and nearer, I am making some last-minute preparations and assembling all our equipment. There are at least 4 or 5 more documents to have signed and stamped, 200 more sample jars to be collected and labelled and about a hundred more emails to send. I hope I can post once more before we depart, since we have no internet at the site. We leave on the 26th of June. Then somewhere halfway July I hope my supervisor will arrive in the Netherlands with a usb stick with a blog on it, which she can hopefully post. Otherwise, you will not hear from me until the 15th of August!
In the meantime, here’s a video of our previous campaign, featuring me and master student Ron.