Living the Change on the Last Frontier: Nome, Alaska

[Laney Siegner, ERG graduate student]

Yoga at Grand Central Bridge outside Nome, AK. Photo credit: Ori Chafe

“You’ve been lucky with the weather, that’s for sure,” the woman said. “Last summer it was raining every day this time of year. Follows a low-snow winter. Last winter was a big snow year, so this summer has been nicer weather. Good thing you’re leaving before the rains really set in -- all of October and November will be cold and drenching rains. Used to be we’d have snow by Halloween, but these days it’s more like December that we’re getting the first snows.”

Conversations about the weather fill the small, cozy room in Pingo Bakery and Seafood café. The weather is never far from an Alaskan’s mind. Here in Nome, an outpost of the Seward Peninsula on the Bering Sea, everyone has noticed the striking pace of the weather’s change over the years, from later snows to earlier thaws to more dramatic rains. Climate change is openly acknowledged by many, including Alaska’s Republican senator Lisa Murkowski. But the state is simultaneously lamenting the problem, searching for solutions, and supporting oil and gas drilling, the building blocks of the state’s economy. It is a place that is experiencing the direct impacts of climate change most rapidly and still struggling to implement solutions.

I came up to Nome, a major destination of the Yukon Gold Rush and finish line of the Iditarod dog sled race, to assist with ongoing research into the changing dynamics of the Arctic ecosystem. The project is a collaboration of several academic institutions and national labs and aims to inform climate models with better information about Arctic plant communities, ecosystem processes, and feedbacks. I spent the last week of August traveling out into the tussock tundra landscape to count shrub seedlings and take soil microclimate data from several plots 70 to 80 miles outside of Nome.

Driving down the dirt roads out of town each day afforded ample opportunity to observe and learn about the natural history of Alaska’s North Slope, a land of extremes dominated by shrub and grass plant communities north of the tree line. We observed solifluction lobes, creeping lumps of soil on hillslopes reflecting differential downhill flow rates of glacial deposits, sorted circles of rocks left behind by the last glaciation, and pingos, mounds of earth-covered ice from drained lakebeds. We also witnessed rough-legged hawks swooping across the road, a red fox roaming along a river bank, and a wild musk ox herd grazing on the grasses. The musk ox hair, qiviut, is prized for its strength and water resistance and is incredibly soft, a great source of extra insulation in jacket pockets when found in the field.

The first three days we visited plots near Quartz Creek to count how many birch, alder, and willow seedlings had come up since being seeded in June. We also took soil cores, temperature measurements, soil moisture, and vegetation measurements at each plot. The depth to the permafrost layer, between 50-70 cm in most of my measurements, is growing as permafrost warms. This causes all sorts of problems: pools of water at the surface, soil collapse, changing water flow paths, and release of carbon (primarily methane or CO2, depending on whether the soil is wet or dry). The research team is gathering data in the amount and form of carbon released.

Traversing the tussocks to access the field plots takes some getting used to. You’re either stepping around the tussocks into some mystery sinkhole, or on top of them if they’re large and stable enough to support a boot. Rainboots and rain pants are key to navigating a boggy crossing, with water rising to knee height. It’s a good leg workout, rewarded with ripe alpine blueberries all around us for snacking. Colors are changing already. The birch leaves turn from green to orange, yellow, and red, and the tones of fall grow more pronounced each day. Change happens fast, this far north.

In the evenings in Nome, the days seem endless with light stretching on towards midnight. We had to draw thick curtains over the windows to get some rest. On the flip side, we woke in the dark, as the sunrise didn’t strike the horizon until around 8 am. I read up on the natural history of the region, whaling, and climate change research before bed, appreciative of the context to put all the information into perspective.

The last day in the field, we drove down a different road towards the town of Council, a community of mostly summer homes (there is one year-round resident) situated to the east of Nome. At the end of the road, residents must drive through the riverbed to access the houses across the river, assuming the river level is navigable. Like many communities along the water, boats are increasingly necessary to access the homes. We traveled along the coast of the Bering Sea before turning inland, where hilly tundra terrain replaced the vibrant green wetlands. White spruce trees became occasional as we approached the tree line. There was a last grove of spruce trees in a line right by the field site.

We took greenhouse gas emissions of twenty plots in the area using a portable gas analyzer, a remarkable piece of technology that gives measurements of CO2 and methane in real time. It is still in want of some features, such as reporting of its battery SOC, a shorter warm-up time, and more consistent calibration, but is nevertheless impressive in what it can do. We took CO2 and methane readings within a clear chamber, to measure net flux, and an opaque chamber, to capture soil and plant respiration without photosynthesis. This was a fascinating process to observe as it may also be relevant to my agricultural research and prospective future projects in which I may measure emissions from sites treated with compost, biochar, or both.

I spent my last morning in Nome running along the beach, observing the gold dredging equipment and ships out at sea on a cloudy, cool late summer morning. I went to Pingo to warm up with coffee and the largest cinnamon roll I’ve ever been served. I shared in more conversations about the weather with a waitress who just moved in June to Nome from Mississippi. She seemed sanguine about facing her first winter here and pleased with her new home. She had followed her wife up here who had gotten a job as a nurse, and wasn’t looking back.

As we talked about Alaska, Mississippi, and my home in Washington, D.C., I gained a real appreciation for the cultural and geographic diversity of this country. The range of ecosystems is extreme, from tundra to tropical coastline. Learning firsthand about the human reactions to life in such places motivates me to continue my work as a climate researcher and educator and keep building knowledge about climate narratives and science.

Burned tussock tundra

Sorted Circles left by last glaciation

Wild musk ox on the tussock tundra

Building on Nome's Front Street covered in west-facing solar panels

Nome at 10:30PM

Town of Council across the river

Nome beachfront on the Bering Sea

Views of the Bendlebens in clouds

Rainbow on the way to Quartz Creek

Last train to nowhere


  1. Wonderful blog post and gorgeous photos! I've always wanted to go to Northern Alaska, so I'm a little big jealous. Maybe next year...


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