Indiana, “The Crossroads of America,” Paves the Way toward a Better Understanding of Arctic Ecosystems and Cultures

By Salvatore Curasi, Ph.D. student, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana

The author at Toolik Field Station, a major base camp for scientists studying America’s Arctic. (Photo courtesy of Salvatore Curasi)

There is a prevailing view that the states located in the continental United States are not just physically disconnected from the Arctic, but lack other strong connections as well. One could say that Indiana is far better known for its sports teams, farmland, manufacturing industry, and cold winters than its role in the Arctic. However, our state is often called the “Crossroads of America,” and a closer look at “The Hoosier State” reveals a number of roads that link us directly with the Alaskan Arctic, the Russian Arctic, and the region more broadly.

Like other states in the Midwest, migratory birds fly through our state in the spring as they head north. In Indiana and in neighboring states, “the polar vortex” often freezes our cities to temperatures as cold as those experienced by Barrow, Alaska, the country’s northernmost town. Some of our state’s most interesting and unique paths to the Arctic, however, are found via our well-known universities, whose work is helping Indiana build lasting relationships with Arctic communities and increasing our understanding of the impacts of climate change on Arctic ecosystems.

Two faculty members from Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington went to the American Arctic last year for an important mission: to return human remains and sacred objects that were first brought to IU in 1920s by Mollie Greist, a missionary nurse from Monticello, Indiana. Mollie and her husband, Henry, a doctor, worked and lived in Barrow for more than a decade in the early 1900s. Dr. Jayne-Leigh Thomas, faculty member and the university’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) director, and Dr. April Sievert, Director & Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology, traveled to the small town of Barrow (pop. 4400) on Alaska’s North Slope in June 2015. Their trip was carried out under the auspices of the NAGPRA, a federal law requiring museums to inventory and return remains and sacred object to their appropriate tribes. The effort was part of the university’s ongoing efforts “to return Native American cultural items to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes, and to provide information about culturally unidentifiable Native American collections.”

The burial of remains repatriated from Indiana back to Barrow, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Jayne-Leigh Thomas)

While in Barrow, the Dr. Thomas and Dr. Sievert took part in cultural activities, including attending the community’s annual whaling festival, or Nalukataq in Iñupiaq, the native language of the North Slope’s Inupiat people. They brought their hosts a crate of oranges, which although not representative of Indiana, are extremely expensive in northern Alaska, where a gallon of orange juice can cost more than $17. During the festival, the visitors tried traditional foods which are integral to the Iñupiaq way of life and survival, such as bowhead whale and seal.

Food being served at the Nalukataq. (Photo courtesy of Jayne-Leigh Thomas)

This invaluable experience provided the IU colleagues the opportunity to build connections with an Arctic community in a very real and sacred way. They hope to continue the relationship by bringing visitors from Barrow to Indiana in the future.

Here at the University of Notre Dame (UND), we are also very connected to the Arctic. Researchers in our Department of Biological Sciences are investigating how climate change will alter connections between the Arctic and other regions in a physical, biochemical, and economic sense.

Dr. Adrian Rocha, a UND assistant professor of biology whose research focuses on vegetation and permafrost in Arctic tundra, and graduate students such as myself, carry out fieldwork primarily on Alaska’s North Slope at Toolik Field Station. Toolik is a scientific station run by University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) — it’s a bit like Grand Central Station for scientists and educators conducting Arctic field research and other work in northern Alaska. (Coincidentally, it’s also where I sit as I type this, preparing to begin four weeks of research investigating tundra carbon cycling.)

UAF’s Toolik Field Station is one of a primary base camp on the North Slope for scientists and educators working in the American Arctic. (Photo credit: Salvatore Curasi)
Notre Dame researchers dissecting vegetation and soil samples in North Slope Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Rocha Lab, UND)

The “Rocha Lab” at UND, led by Dr. Rocha, carries out research funded by the NSF investigating how Arctic ecosystem services, such as carbon storage, will change in a future warmer climate. Plants “breathe in” atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and incorporate this carbon in their tissues. Soil microbes “eat” the decaying plant tissues and “breathe out” CO2. Historically, low temperatures have slowed decay allowing for a build-up of carbon from plants in Arctic soils. Climate warming has the potential to increase the activity of microbes relative to plants, which would result in more soil carbon being emitted to the atmosphere. Changes in the role other natural processes such as wildfires play in these systems will also have an effect.

Dr. Adrian Rocha at a monitoring site at the Anaktuvuk River burn on the North Slope of Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Rocha Lab, UND)

Arctic soils currently contain around twice as much carbon as the atmosphere. Degradation of this soil carbon will increase atmospheric CO2, leading to further warming, and further carbon release from Arctic soils. In a future warmer world, the Arctic will play a critical role in determining atmospheric CO2 concentrations and temperature trends. The Rocha Lab quantifies the CO2 moving in and out of tundra ecosystems using vegetation surveys, chemical analyses, and automated monitoring equipment. We also investigate how other natural processes such wildfires impact these observations.

Aerial shot of the Anaktuvuk River Fire (Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Fire Service)

The Rocha Lab contributes to our understanding of how the Arctic will be impacted by climate change. It also collaborates with and builds connections with people living and working in locations across the Arctic including Alaska, Canada and Russia. After my time here at Toolik, I’ll travel to Northeast Science Station in the Siberian Arctic to carry out additional research, before returning to Indiana in the fall.

In addition to the our work focused on tundra and carbon cycling, other researchers at Notre Dame are focused on how invasive species will make their way into the Arctic through the global shipping network. Organisms adhere to ships’ hulls, are sucked aboard with ballast water, hitchhike in cargo, and even stick to the shoes and clothing of passengers. These organisms can end up thousands of miles from their native habitat.

The comb jelly is native to the western Atlantic but considered an invasive in Europe. Academics in Indiana are working to protect the Arctic from invasive species that could negatively impact the region’s ecosystem. (Photo credit: Aquarium of the Pacific)

Once introduced into a new environment in another part of the world, these organisms can become invasive species, which do serious damage to the local ecosystem and are often hard — if not impossible — to remove. Invasive species such as the zebra mussel and the North American comb jelly have traveled from their native habitants to new environments aboard ships.

Dr. David Lodge, the Ludmilla F., Stephen J., and Robert T. Galla Professor of Biology at UND and director of UND’s Environmental Change Initiative, recently spent a year at the U.S. Department of State as a Jefferson Fellow. Dr. Lodge and collaborators at other universities are conducting research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) looking at how changes in the global shipping network will influence the spread of invasive species to locations including the Arctic.

Last semester, Dr. Lodge and students from Notre Dame also carried out research on shipping and Arctic invasive species through the State Department’s Diplomacy Lab. This program allows classes at universities across the country to work directly with the State Department on projects and research of importance to U.S. foreign policy.

Dr. David Lodge, far right, and Notre Dame Diplomacy Lab students at the U.S. State Department. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Oidtman)

Under the guidance of Dr. Lodge, Notre Dame’s Diplomacy Lab participants investigated current-day ballast water movement by ships in the Arctic, the role cruise lines could play in passenger education and the prevention of species introduction, and the potential role native communities could play in invasive species monitoring efforts. At the end of the semester, the students presented their work to officials in the Department’s Office of Oceans and Polar Affairs with support from Notre Dame’s Reilly Center for Science technology and Values and the GLOBES Graduate Certificate Program in Environment and Society.

The decline in sea ice in the Arctic is increasing tourism in the region. The Crystal Serenity (left) will sail from Alaska to New York via the Northwest passage this fall. (Image credits: (L) NASA and (R) Piergiuliano Chesi under Creative Commons)

Such research is timely given that climate change and declining sea ice are opening up the Arctic, leading to increased shipping, economic development and more tourism. This August, the Crystal Serenity will take 1,700 passengers and crew on a 32-day cruise through the northwest passage. It will be the largest passenger ship to do so since the crossing became accessible without an icebreaker in 2007.

Despite being roughly 1700 miles away from the Arctic Circle, Indiana is heavily engaged with the Arctic. Not only is the state ecologically linked to processes occurring in the Arctic, but researchers in Indiana are playing active roles in Arctic communities, cultures, and the study of Arctic ecosystems. Indiana truly plays an important role in protecting and studying our Arctic nation.

About the Author: Salvatore Curasi is a biology Ph.D. student in the Rocha Lab at the University of Notre Dame. His research combines fieldwork and ecological modeling to investigate how climate change will affect vegetation and carbon cycling in Arctic tundra. You can learn more about him and his projects here or email him at scurasi@nd.edu

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