A Day in the Life: Arctic ecologist | Science News for Students

A Day in the Life: Arctic ecologist

These scientists on Alaska’s North Slope do everything from fishing to scrubbing rocks
Aug 25, 2016 — 9:39 am EST
Mary Kate Swenarton

Mary Kate Swenarton pauses at a stream on the North Slope of Alaska. She’s trying to determine if fish called Arctic grayling are found here, and if so, why.

B. Brookshire/SSP

TOOLIK FIELD STATION, Alaska — Mary Kate Swenarton started college expecting to become an engineer. But she soon realized that she was missing something. It was the outdoors. “I realized I [would be] spending a lot of time in the office,” she says. She quickly switched to ecology — a field where she could study how organisms interact with their environments.

Now, she’s spending a summer here, at the Toolik Field Station. She’s what’s called a “research specialist” — someone who spends time carrying out experiments and collecting data under the direction of another scientist. Swenarton is working for Heidi Golden, a graduate student from the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

Arctic grayling
An Arctic grayling. These freshwater fish are related to salmon and found in streams and lakes in Alaska, Canada, Siberia and as far south as Montana. The feed on small crustaceans and insects and can grow up to 76 centimeters (30 inches) long. On Alaska’s North Slope, this fish lays eggs in freshwater streams, and the young fish eat zooplankton as they grow up. The fish may end up in the bellies of other local fish, including large lake trout.
AKSMITH/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Swenarton came to Toolik after finishing her Masters’ degree at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. There she had studied lionfish, an invasive species eating up local fish. She came to Alaska to collect data on a species of fish called Arctic grayling. She also studies the streams and rivers in which the fish live.

On a typical day, Swenarton hikes out to specially chosen streams in the tundra — the treeless, cold ecosystem where large portions of the deep soil remain frozen year-round. There, she will spend her day wading up to her waist in a stream with a tape measure to gauge the water's length, width and depth. She will also catch tiny fish with a net and scrub rocks with a scrub brush. All of this is to find out more about grayling and their environment.

Alaska is divided into boroughs. These are equivalent to counties in the lower states. The North Slope is at the top of Alaska and spans about 246,000 square kilometers (95,000 square miles). In size, that one borough is roughly the same size as the state of Michigan. But it has only 9,500 people.

Toolik Field Station is especially remote. A tiny town built of shipping containers and weatherproof permanent tents, it exists to support the 60 to 100 scientists that work there every summer. It’s perched on a large gravel area right off the Dalton Highway — one of the only roads going through the North Slope Borough. It's a several-hour drive to the nearest gas station, let alone the nearest town. While there’s no cell-phone reception, there is internet access. But this is a wild place. If you leave the immediate area, you’d better carry your bear spray — grizzly bears, caribou, moose and other wildlife are common. Many of the scientists at Toolik will spend their whole summer there, with no more than a weekend in a real town or city.

Spending so much time away from home can be hard. “This is not a typical summer,” Swenarton says. “In general, you might feel like you miss out a lot with your family and friends.” The hardest part for her, she says, is that her dog can’t come to Alaska, too. “I really struggle not being with her.”

This far north, the sun never sets between mid-May and August. The days may be long, but the summer itself is short. Scientists usually have only about three months before the cold — and the academic year — bring them back to the schools where they teach and work. So there’s no time to waste.

Swenarton heads out to study a stream by truck or helicopter immediately after breakfast. She may not return until it’s nearly time for dinner. Then, “about half the time,” she says, she’ll head to the lab at the field station after eating. She keeps to this schedule six days a week. But it’s worth it, she says. “This is the forefront,” she explains. “Everyone here is studying something that relates back to climate change. I’d never done that before.”

The experience is special, too. “You don’t get to go out to the Arctic tundra normally and live out in the middle of nowhere,” Swenarton explains. All the trails she has to hike are completely uncharted. “You’re making your own trails in the mountains.” Until now, she notes, “there’s nothing I’ve ever done that’s like that.”

During a day on Alaska’s North Slope, I followed Swenarton around as she examined a stream to find out what kind of habitat Arctic grayling like best. As the Arctic warms due to climate change, fish may change their habits. Understanding why they live where they do, she notes, “helps to predict how fish respond and what areas might be important to them in warming conditions.” Read on to see what a typical day for her is like.

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

algae     Single-celled organisms, once considered plants (they aren’t). As aquatic organisms, they grow in water. Like green plants, they depend on sunlight to make their food.

Arctic     A region that falls within the Arctic Circle. The edge of that circle is defined as the northernmost point at which the sun is visible on the northern winter solstice and the southernmost point at which the midnight sun can be seen on the northern summer solstice.

carbon     The chemical element having the atomic number 6. It is the physical basis of all life on Earth. Carbon exists freely as graphite and diamond. It is an important part of coal, limestone and petroleum, and is capable of self-bonding, chemically, to form an enormous number of chemically, biologically and commercially important molecules.

carbon dioxide     (or CO 2 ) A colorless, odorless gas produced by all animals when the oxygen they inhale reacts with the carbon-rich foods that they’ve eaten. Carbon dioxide also is released when organic matter (including fossil fuels like oil or gas) is burned. Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen during photosynthesis, the process they use to make their own food.

chlorophyll   Any of several green pigments found in animals that perform photosynthesis — creating sugars (foods) from carbon dioxide and water.

climate     The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

climate change     Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

crustaceans     Hard-shelled water-dwelling animals including lobsters, crabs and shrimp.

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that give them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

ecology     A branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. A scientist who works in this field is called an ecologist.

engineer     A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create for that organism or process. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature, humidity and placement of components in some electronics system or product.

family     A taxonomic group consisting of at least one genus of organisms.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory. (in physics) A region in space where certain physical effects operate, such as magnetism (created by a magnetic field), gravity (by a gravitational field) or mass (by a Higgs field).

filter     (in chemistry and environmental science) A device which allows some materials to pass through but not others, based on their size or some other feature. (in physics) A screen, plate or layer of a substance that absorbs light or other radiation or selectively prevents the transmission of some of its components.

freshwater     A noun or adjective that describes bodies of water with very low concentrations of salt. It’s the type of water used for drinking and making up most inland lakes, ponds, rivers and streams, as well as groundwater.

graduate student     Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

habitat     The area or natural environment in which an animal or plant normally lives, such as a desert, coral reef or freshwater lake. A habitat can be home to thousands of different species.

insect     A type of arthropod that as an adult will have six segmented legs and three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen. There are hundreds of thousands of insects, which include bees, beetles, flies and moths.

invasive species     (also known as aliens) A species that is found living, and often thriving, in an ecosystem other than the one in which it evolved. Some invasive species were deliberately introduced to an environment, such as a prized flower, tree or shrub. Some entered an environment unintentionally, such as a fungus whose spores traveled between continents on the winds. Still others may have escaped from a controlled environment, such as an aquarium or laboratory, and begun growing in the wild. What all of these so-called invasives have in common is that their populations are becoming established in a new environment, often in the absence of natural factors that would control their spread. Invasive species can be plants, animals or disease-causing pathogens. Many have the potential to cause harm to wildlife, people or to a region’s economy.

mean     One of several measures of the “average size” of a data set. Most commonly used is the arithmetic mean, obtained by adding the data and dividing by the number of data points.

nutrient     A vitamin, mineral, fat, carbohydrate or protein that a plant, animal or other organism requires as part of its food in order to survive.

organism     Any living thing, from elephants and plants to bacteria and other types of single-celled life.

oxygen     A gas that makes up about 21 percent of the atmosphere. All animals and many microorganisms need oxygen to fuel their metabolism.

Siberia     A region in northern Asia, almost all of which falls within Russia. This land takes its name from the language of the Tatar people, where Siber means sleeping land. This region is vast. It has become famous for its long, harsh winters, where temperatures can fall to −68° Celsius (−90° Fahrenheit).

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

square     (in geometry) A rectangle with four sides of equal length. (In mathematics) A number multiplied by itself, or the verb meaning to multiply a number by itself. The square of 2 is 4; the square of 10 is 100.

sun     The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Or a sunlike star.

tundra   A cold, usually lowland area in far northern regions. The subsoil of tundras is permanently frozen, but in summer the top layer of soil thaws and can support low-growing mosses, lichens, grasses, shrubs and trees (some only a few centimeters high).

waste     Any materials that are left over from biological or other systems that have no value, so they can be disposed of as trash or recycled for some new use.

zooplankton     Small organisms that drift in the sea. Zooplankton are tiny animals that eat other plankton. They also serve as an important food source for other marine creatures.

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