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Back from Arctic Circle, UT researchers study thawing permafrost

While the scientists could only spend a couple of weeks on the permafrost, the soil cores they collected will be enough to study for years to come.
Published: Apr. 28, 2021 at 6:09 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - From polar bears to Rocky Top, University of Tennessee scientists are heading home from the Arctic Circle. Their multimillion dollar project was put on ice by COVID. Now, they’re drilling into the ice.

The project is a game of survival because there’s always danger near the site. There could be an avalanche or a polar bear lurking nearby.

The scientist are working at a site located at 79 degrees north, wearing full polar gear, all for the science.

“We’re going to be gone for over a month just to do 14 days of work,” Expedition leader Dr. Karen Lloyd said.

Lloyd said her mission is to find out which microbes in the melting permafrost are waking up.

“If they are going to start consuming the carbon sources that are in the soil and then are going to produce some greenhouse gases,” Lloyd said.

Katie Sipes, a PhD candidate, said she is looking for what these these tiny, microscopic creatures could mean for the future of the whole planet.

“It’s really unique to be in this situation where we are completely free from the rest of the world,” Sipes said.

Graduate student Briana said the journey of getting to the project site was not easy.

“We’ve all had five Covid tests to get up here- actually six; six, yeah, six,” she said. “This is also my first time out of the country so this was also a wild experience. I was like ‘oh that is not in English.’”

The group, sleeping in a new bed every few days, went into the tundra on an archipelago where walrus nearly outnumber people.

“Its perfect, clean, crispy air. Negative twenty-three degrees; no pollution, permafrost everywhere. Yay! -that’s a perfect description,” Dr. Tatiana Vishnivetskaya said.

Vishnivetskaya told WVLT News they have to be careful where they drill because of the hard ground.

“We are just killing drill bits one after the other. When I say drill bits, I got this big core barrel, it just snaps right off,” said Vishnivetskaya.

Dr. Lloyd says any adventure on the frontiers of science always has its challenges.

“We only have the cores that we’ve collected so far. WE really hoped to get a lot more- and we may still!” She said.

While the scientists could only spend a couple of weeks on the permafrost, the soil cores they collected will be enough to study for years to come. The money to fund the project came from a blockbuster grant from the department of energy.

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