Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Reindeer food in Lapland

Reindeer are a common sight here in northern Finland. They are a domesticated livestock that are a well-known part of the livelihood of the Sami people, a native culture here in Lapland. The reindeer are owned and herded by particular families, but are allowed to wander in their designated areas. We see them around the state forest lands here around the research station, and even on the road in town!

Andrew shared this photo of a reindeer he met while doing his field work.
Diego and Stephanie are interested in the plants that provide food for these reindeer. They eat a lot during summer when there is plenty of vegetation available, including quite a lot of the species here around the research station. Stephanie and Diego learned from Rauni, the station's resident plant expert, which species are eaten by the reindeer, and chose to focus on the birch and willow species. They then surveyed the forests around the station to measure the actual abundance of these plants. They measured the abundance using belt transects:
Diego in the distance measuring one of the replicate belt transects.

Diego and Stephanie ran many transects all around the station, to calculate the abundance of birch and willow in all directions from the station. The number of plants in each transect can be used to calculate the abundance per square meter of forest.
Stephanie measuring another one of the replicate transects!

They are most interested in how the abundance of these plants might change in the future, with projected warming from climate change. Would there be more or less of these plants available to feed the reindeer? We don't have enough time at the station to test this ourselves, because it takes years to understand how a species will change with a warming climate. Instead, they are spending a LOT of time looking at published research from other scientists who have already conducted these types of studies. This means a lot of computer time using the library resources!

Stephanie and Diego in the common room, reading and discussing.
Diego and Stephanie are using the data they find to make mathematical projections into the future. They are finding published results of the magnitude of changes in birch and willow species in warming experiments conducted here in the Arctic. Then, they can apply these changes to the abundances that they measured during their field work, to predict what amount of these plants might be available as reindeer food far into the future.

They will communicate their results through a creative mixed-media project. They plan to use aerial photographs of their study region, repeated in a line to represent a timeline from now into the climate future, one for every decade of their projection. They will project colors onto the photographs that represent the species they studied, and the colors will become more or less abundant as you move forward in the timeline.

Phytoplankton bonanza!

One of our student teams, Kylie and Gina, have been studying the phytoplankton that live in the lake next to the station. ("Järvi" means "lake", so Kilpisjärvi is the name of the lake as well as the town.)  They want to know how abundant plankton are in the lake, and how they will respond to warmer temperatures. It is generally known that many types of phytoplankton reproduce more when water is warmer, but this is mostly studied in nutritious waters in warmer regions. Nobody has looked at how plankton will respond in this particular lake. Actually, Gina and Kylie couldn't find any information about plankton in this lake at all!
Some of the phytoplankton that Kylie has photographed. You can see several different types.

To conduct their experiment, they took water samples from the lake in jars.
Gina collecting one of the jars of lake water.
They calculated the abundance of phytoplankton in the bottles from a small subsample, then put the bottles into little greenhouses that they built on the shore of the lake. They built three greenhouses. One was covered and not vented at all, to make the temperature around the bottles a few degrees warmer than it currently is. Another greenhouse had some holes poked in the sides to cool off a bit, and create temperature is only a little bit warmer than it currently is.  The other one was very highly vented, to essentially be the same temperature as the current outside air. (They didn't want to just leave those bottles uncovered, because it's possible that the greenhouse itself interrupts light coming in for photosynthesis. So, it is receiving the same amount of sunlight as the other green houses, but not staying warmer.) They have thermometers in each greenhouse measuring the air temperature.

After a couple days in the greenhouses, Kylie and Gina are busy counting their phytoplankton from each one. If their hypothesis is supported, they will count more plankton in the jars that were sitting in the warmer greenhouse. This takes quite a lot of work, because neither Gina nor Kylie were plankton experts when they got here. They have learned how to recognize the different types of plankton and how to use the big inverted microscope.

Kylie and Gina will be communicating their project through photography. They will be creating what is called a "composite image". The main focus of the image will be a photograph of the phytoplankton they collected, but the background will have other images layered in that represent the environment the phytoplankton were living in. If that doesn't quite make sense, don't worry. I had a hard time picturing it from the description, too, until Kylie showed me an example. It looks cool! That means that they are doing a lot of computer editing of images, along with their microscope work.

Temperature was their initial variable that they studied. Now, they have also acidified the water, to simulate potential impacts of CO2 dissolving in water (which dissolves into carbonic acid and acidifies water) and other forms of pollution. They will again count their plankton at those temperatures to see if they are impacted by both temperature and acidification. They will be microscope pros by the end of the course!