Alaskan Tundra Research

Ian Klupar

Arctic research

Ian Klupar’s work as an Arctic researcher means getting mosquito bites.

Lots of them.

But it’s all for the sake of studying the Arctic tundra ecosystem.

As a lab technician for the University of Notre Dame – Rocha Lab, Klupar assists with various projects at the Toolik Field Station at remote Toolik Lake, Alaska. It’s there that Klupar has seen masses of mosquitoes, voracious hordes.

"It’s funny, but it’s part of life in the Arctic,” Klupar said. "If you’re going to last in the Arctic, you’re going to have to withstand them.”

In fact, there are two tests to determine the ferocity of the swarms. The first is the "slap test”.

"The slap test is where you go out into the tundra and expose the skin,” Klupar said. "You see how many mosquitoes you can kill with one hand to the exposed skin in one minute. The record is 270. Right now, it’s probably 100 per hand slap.”

The second test is a bit grimmer. It’s measured by an estimate of how long the average person whose skin is exposed to the critters could suffer from anemia and blood loss before they died from bites. "It would take about 11 hours for someone to die from mosquito bites,” he explained. "It wouldn’t be a pleasant way to go.”

Learning to live with flying, biting insects is just one of the aspects of life in the Arctic, Klupar said. You learn to cope, but you also dress for the environment.

"You have to wear big jackets,” Klupar said. "You can’t survive without them. It’s like a bee-keeper-type deal, made of a material that supposedly the mosquitoes can’t bite through, but the toughest still do. I’ve gotten so many bites I’m not even sure my body reacts any more.”

As a resident of the Arctic and a co-inhabitant with the six species of mosquitoes that live in the area, Klupar also understands that as pollinators of the local summer flora of the area, they are a necessary evil.

Bites or no bites, as a researcher Klupar is spending his second summer in the Arctic. He spent his first summer taking measurements on such environmentally significant factors as carbon dioxide fluctuations, which have an impact on climate; and photosynthetic active radiation, which helps plants in the process of photosynthesis, the process by which green plants use sunlight to grow.

Klupar takes samples and maintains and operates the instruments used in testing the samples for the lead researchers of the project, Adam Rocha, and PhD student Sal Curasi. Klupar got his interest in the project while a student at Holy Cross College, one of Notre Dame’s sister schools.

"I took an ecology class that Adam taught, and he offered a position as lab tech for the summer,” Klupar said. "I thought it would be interesting. I thought I might have a future in this kind of work.”

Apparently, he does. He loves his job and he enjoys camp life with up to 150 other people who live there from July through September. People share rooms but there are few problems, he said.

"People are pretty friendly, but everybody is so busy there isn’t much down-time,” Klupar said. "People are usually in their lab-space.”

Camp life is generally limited to eating and working. The day often revolves around mealtimes — breakfast at 7, lunch at noon and dinner at 6. After dinner, most researchers go back to work because the Alaskan sunset doesn’t come during the summer and there is plenty of time to take advantage of the daylight.

"The Arctic tundra in wintertime is almost uninhabitable, so you have to get as much work done as you can during summer,” he explained. Summer temperatures in the tundra aren’t always horrible, sometimes reaching 75. That means there is plenty of time to work. But there is also some play.

There are bonfires on Saturday nights and trivia nights "to provide an outlet for those who are working too hard” he said. Klupar also enjoys hiking in the Brooks Range during his rare off time in the tundra as well as an occasional sauna.

Shed caribou antlers in the Brooks Ranges near Toolik, Alaska

Most tundra dwellers like Klupar are given two weeks off during the summer "to avoid cabin fever.”

"You can go a little crazy up there,” he said, "If you don’t stay fresh you can get stuck in your groove. But there are some people who don’t get a break. I’m one of the lucky ones who does.”

In addition to cabin fever, Klupar and his colleagues also have to deal with a sun that doesn’t set between June 21 and the Autumn Equinox in September, "which messes with your circadian rhythm, but makes it easy to stay up late and party.”

There is also the barrenness of the landscape, and solitude is easy to find. There are no visitors allowed in camp, "but it’s not like it’s a tourist destination or anything.”

"It’s 10 hours north of Fairbanks, and the drive is straight into nothing,” he said. "In the tundra there’s nothing but the camp and the pipeline.”

When he’s not in the tundra during the summer, he likes to spend time with his family in Skagway, where he also works for the city on trail maintenance.

But he’s made himself at home in the Arctic.

"I like how remote it is,” he said. "I enjoy the tundra. It’s an area that’s not well understood yet, but it’s important to the planet’s entire eco-system. There’s something meditative about repetitive measurements. It’s nice to ask questions and come up with answers and solutions.”

Klupar recommends reading the book, "Land of Extremes: A Natural History of the North Slope of Alaska,” by Alex Huryn and John Hobbie, a 2012 publication which is considered the comprehensive guide to the North Slope’s environment, to help understand what is happening to the Arctic environment.

"I’ve only been there two years, but climate change is a huge issue,” he said. "The climate goes in trends. It fluctuates from year to year. But there seems to be a static trend of warming that’s unusual.”

"There is definitely change happening. There are a lot of theories, but it takes awhile to prove them. Something is definitely happening. How fast things are changing and what’s changing them is hanging up in the air.” Pun intended.