The Challenges of Arctic Fieldwork

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On a far-away island along Alaska’s North Slope coast, conducting fieldwork can be challenging.

A polar bear print in mud with a person's hand next to it.

Cordell Johnson holds his hand next to a polar bear's footprint.

This article is part of the October-December 2019 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

On a far-away island along Alaska’s North Slope coast, conducting fieldwork can be challenging. With temperatures on Barter Island reaching only into the high 30s (Fahrenheit), installing equipment and handling tools and instruments prove to be difficult tasks.

USGS scientists Ann Gibbs, Cordell Johnson, Josh Logan, and Dan Nowacki from the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center visited Barter Island, Alaska between September 2 and 10, 2019 to collect a variety of field data. Visiting the area a few times per year and during different seasons, their work supports a decade-long research project measuring permafrost degradation, coastal erosion, and flooding hazards on and around Barter Island.

View from the sky of a coastline with a sandy spit and brown vegetation, lines and dots drawn on top show sample locations.

Map of a small portion of Barter Island, on the North Slope of Alaska, shows sample locations and electrical resistivity transects taken in September of 2019.

The scientists maneuver all-terrain vehicles, fly unmanned aerial systems (UAS), lay out ground control targets for aerial photography, set up global positioning system (GPS) base stations, drill holes and dig trenches in the frozen tundra to take samples and set instruments, collect electrical resistivity tomography profiles, and more, all in heavy, bulky outerwear to protect themselves from the extreme cold. High coastal erosion rates in the area cause cliff collapse, so time-lapse camera systems, set out to capture the seasonal effects of wave attack on permafrost cliffs, often tumble to the beach. The cameras may or may not be recoverable, but at least the imagery is successfully transmitted to USGS computers.

Examples of UAS photography

View looks along an Arctic coastal bluff with permafrost and gentle waves and a drainage that has spilled out onto the beach.

Alongshore view of a drainage gully that continues to expand with each passing field season.

View from above looking back at a coastal bluff where large sections have collapsed and crumbled onto the beach.

High-oblique photo with GPS ground control target. Note the large block of failed bluff material and debris covering USGS's ATV tracks on the beach, made less than 24 hours earlier.

View looking at a coastal bluff where a large chunk has collapsed onto the beach.

Low-oblique photograph.

Thermal photograph of a coastal bluff where two people can be seen standing and waving.

Thermal photograph, brighter areas warmer, darker areas colder. Note the two scientists on the right.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in conducting fieldwork at this remote region is the abundance of polar bears. Subsistence whaling activities by the indigenous Iñupiat people attract numerous polar bears to Barter Island every year. Of course, the bears’ presence requires constant vigilance while conducting fieldwork. But to make things even more complicated, the curious bears also seem to have discovered some strange toys on the tundra: USGS field equipment!

Polar bear play time

View of a high coastal bluff with a square tarp marked with an X on the tundra and two people in background and beach below.

GPS ground control targets are tarps set out to precisely locate photographs taken from a UAS.

A sitting polar bear holds a square tarp in its mouth, seeming to treat it like a toy.

A curious polar bear picks up a GPS target tarp like a toy.

Some of the time-lapse camera systems, with their metal poles and attachments, served as scratching posts for the bears. When the poles have not tumbled down onto the beach due to coastal erosion, they are being bent and dislodged from their mounts when the bears rub against them. Other field equipment, like a GPS ground target—a small tarp laid on the ground for aerial photograph alignment—served as entertainment for groups of bears, who were observed tossing around the tarp like puppies with a towel.

Small chunks of a shredded tarp lie on the frozen tundra near a coastal bluff.

The remains of the GPS target!

Three polar bears chew on the plastic bollards and rope that were placed on the Arctic tundra.

The bollards and rope used to cordon-off survey equipment proves too tempting to curious polar bears.

A man stands near a pole with cameras mounted on it, the pole is bent over.

Time-lapse cameras on Barter Island, North Slope of Alaska, incurred damage from polar bears who used the camera pole as a scratching post.

While the bears did prevent the USGS scientists from completing all of their planned activities, it was a successful field season. Data collected included three electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) transects (ERT is a geophysical technique for imaging subsurface structures using electrical resistivity measurements by electrodes set down in boreholes), a 6-meter, 20-centimeter-in-diameter sediment core to ground-truth the ERT data, water and ice samples, bluff temperature profiles, and UAS-based photography and thermal imagery.

A person stands on tundra at the edge of a cliff that has gigantic chunks of eroded blocks tumbled down onto the beach.

Large blocks of failed bluff.

A person rides an ATV on a beach alongside gigantic chunks of coastal bluff that have fallen onto the beach.

The same large blocks, shown from the beach.

A drainage gully through Arctic tundra with slumped chunks of turf and permafrost.

Recently formed drainage gully.

Ann Gibbs also visited the local high school and talked with the class about their research projects, the type of work the USGS is doing, and the data collected during the September visit.

Aerial view of a coastal area with dots of different colors that correspond to varying amounts of bluff retreat.

Color-coded bluff retreat distance measured between August 2018 and September 2019. The highest retreat distances were measured on bluffs located on the central and western part of the coast.

Aerial view of a section of coastal bluff with shoreline locations drawn on to show how far the bluff has eroded.

Bluff edge positions for 4 time periods plotted on a September 5, 2019 satellite image. Note the large amount of land loss between August 22, 2019 and September 5, 2019, including the former camera locations, and the expansion of the gully on the right side of the photograph.

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