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Bringing the Siberian Arctic to the Hill

By Anna Stevens '10
January 20, 2010

This spring Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies John Schade will give St. Olaf students a taste of the Siberian Arctic.

St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies John Schade talks to Erin Seybold '11, left, and Clark University Assistant Professor of Geography Karen Frey during a research trip to the Siberian Arctic last summer. Photos by Chris Linder.

Schade has spent two summers in the Siberian Arctic researching permafrost at the Kolyma River watershed. With a focus on carbon and nitrogen cycling in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, Schade’s research examines the link between changes in the Arctic permafrost, global climate change, and aquatic ecosystem structure and function. He will incorporate his research and Arctic experiences into an upper-level biology class this spring titled Arctic Ecosystem Ecology: An Analysis of Global Change. The course will focus on biological and physical features of Arctic ecosystems, their responses to climate change, and consequences of climate change for ecological processes.

“This is one situation in which living in a state with a cold winter is an advantage, as we can do some of the same experiments that other scientists have done in the Arctic here on our campus,” says Schade. “I am planning on working with students to develop research ideas focused on understanding ecological processes occurring in the winter and during spring snowmelt.”

Siberian summer
Last summer marked Schade’s second research trip to the Siberian Arctic with the Polaris Project, a multifaceted program that includes a field course and research experience for undergraduate students from across the country. The group’s goal was to increase understanding of carbon and nitrogen cycling in areas of the Siberian tundra where permafrost is thawing because of climate change.

Brian Kantor '10 cores a tree in the Siberian Arctic while performing research with the Polaris Project.

St. Olaf students Erin Seybold ’11 and Brian Kantor ’10, as well as Carleton students Travis Drake and Moira Hough, traveled with Schade and spent their time performing hands-on research. Schade and Seybold worked with Drake in looking at Arctic streams, and Kantor produced a short video presentation in which he documented Hough’s work studying carbon in drained lakes.

“The Polaris Project team is interested in attracting and developing the next generation of polar researchers, integrating research and education, creating innovative undergraduate science and education resources, and providing authentic research experiences for undergraduates,” Schade said after his first summer of research in the Arctic.

Lasting lessons
Now that they’re back on the Hill, Schade and others are developing web-based resources for teachers, with a growing interest in producing short video presentations that will focus on topics of interest to teachers and students from middle school to college. Schade, Seybold, and Drake are also preparing a research paper that they hope to publish this summer.

Seybold and Katie Abbott ’09, who took part in the summer 2008 Polaris Project field course, are also finding ways to incorporate their research into outreach. Seybold has given a presentation in her hometown and has been invited to present to secondary school classes. As a new teacher, Abbott is looking at ways of incorporating her Arctic experiences into her curriculum.

While the original project grant only extends through this summer, researchers are just beginning to answer their initial questions. Schade recently submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a grant that will enable him to continue working with the Polaris Project. He would like to further study carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycling in Siberian Arctic streams to improve understanding of what happens to carbon released from thawing permafrost when it is transported downstream into larger rivers.

An aerial view of the Siberian Arctic.

Schade expects this work will benefit other colleges interested in developing their own courses in Arctic ecology. “We hope to spur the imagination of the general public with stories and images from a place most people will never visit, but which nevertheless will significantly impact their lives,” he says.

The Polaris Project
The Polaris Project is a collaborative effort by the Woods Hole Research Center, seven universities and colleges, and the Northeast Science Station. The intent of the project, which is supported by the National Science Foundation's International Polar Year Program, is to capitalize on the enthusiasm for Arctic science generated by the International Polar Year. In addition to building on the skills of future Arctic researchers, project leaders plan to distribute all course materials, from both the Siberian field course and on-campus courses in Arctic ecology, to other universities in order to advance Arctic education.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or