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SEASON PREMIERE. Wild and Tough: Extremely Ultimate Alaskan Palaeoecology

July 18, 2015

So it was raining today and blowing a gale. For some of the crew that meant a day catching up on cleaning pottery and bones, and sieving a backlog of bulk samples, but for Véronique, myself and two enthusiastic volunteers (John and Roman) today was the day to finish a project that we have been working on since Monday. Today was the day to collect some large metal boxes of dirt! Now obviously I am being facetious, these are not just any old tins of dirt, these are samples of peat intended for palaeoenvironmental analysis! On this blog we post a lot about the archaeology, somewhat unsurprising considering we are excavating an archaeological site. Yet, we seldom post about the multitude of other analyses that are integral to our understanding of Nunalleq. Therefore, I thought it was time to introduce our followers to the exciting world of palaeoecology. Perhaps a little context is necessary. Here comes the science bit……….

Nunalleq was occupied between the late 14th and early 18th centuries. This is slap bang in the middle of a period of climatic instability known as the Little Ice Age. We know a couple of things about the Little Ice Age: i) it occurred across the Northern hemisphere; ii) it was a period of cooler temperatures and more unstable weather than the period that preceded it. However, we don’t know when it started, or how it impacted the climate in region of Nunalleq. In Europe, the Little Ice Age has been blamed for almost anything that went wrong through the 14th and 19th centuries so we felt that Nunalleq was missing out. Therefore we decided we needed our own climate reconstruction for the Y-K delta. To achieve this we needed to collect a shed-load of mud. Again not just any mud, we wanted deep mud that is riddled with beetle remains! Why deep? The deeper a hole, the further back in time you go – think of peat as being like the Tardis stuck in reverse and lacking a chap in natty threads. Why beetles? Well beetles make excellent palaeoenvironmental proxies – things that are used to infer past temperatures when we don’t have instrumental records.

Our hole and peat section before sampling

Our hole and peat section before sampling

So since Monday, Véronique and I have been digging a hole, a big hole, a hole that would allow us to collect samples of peat which, fingers crossed, contain lots of beetle remains. Normally digging in soggy peat is hard enough, but in the frozen soils of southwest Alaska we enter a new world of difficulty. I’m beginning to understand the ubiquitous use of superlatives in the titles of TV shows about Alaska. When I started digging the said hole on Monday I encountered permafrost at 37 cm, this was problematic. In order to collect enough material to undertake our climate reconstruction we needed deeper peat than that! As a result we have been carefully nursing the hole. Each day we have been bailing out meltwater and scratching away at the edges and base in order to help thaw the frozen ground and deepen our hole. Everything was going well until yesterday. We had the ice retreating on all fronts, but then it started raining! This was both good and bad. The rain was helping thaw the hole, but it also had the unfortunate effect of eroding the base of the hole and the peat that we were hoping to sample.

Paul placing the second tin

Paul placing the second tin

Ana the sledge hammer

Ana the sledge hammer

Difficulty inspires creativity with John the human jack

Difficulty inspires creativity with John the human jack

Thursday evening: defeated by permafrost

Thursday evening: defeated by permafrost

So yesterday afternoon we decided we needed to sample the peat immediately. Since this is science one might assume this was a sophisticated process. No. Sampling in this context involves driving a series of large steel tins (75 x 15 x 10 cm) into the wall of our hole in any way possible. Sadly we were defeated by both the permafrost and unable to fully insert the final tin into the section and decided to finish the job today. Unfortunately we are archaeologists/palaeoecologists whom are used to looking into the past, and in this instance neglected to look into the future. Specifically the weather forecast stating a 100% chance of 5-10 mm of rain and near gale force winds for this morning! Welcome to Alaska.

Well that was then and this is now. The elements were extreme, the winds wild and the terrain tough. We survived and in the midst of deploying a range of innovative procedures we collected the ultimate palaeoenvironmental samples and John and Roman even managed to rescue the nets and catch of a local fisherman. At least we didn’t have to wash pottery or clean bones.

Cone-head Vero taking time out to pose

Cone-head Vero taking time out to pose

Freeing the first tin from the section

Freeing the first tin from the section

Cutting the tins out of the wall

Cutting the tins out of the wall

A multi-tool solution that failed to break the ice

A multi-tool solution that failed to break the ice

RESULT

RESULT

Don’t miss next week’s episode of Wild and Tough: ExtremelyUltimate Alaskan Palaeoecology where Vero and I will face our toughest challenge yet: subsampling the peat samples at extremely high resolution – cutting thin slices of peat out of the tins!

Paul

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Rick K. permalink
    July 18, 2015 05:16

    Great post! And amazing work you are doing! As an aside I’m also thinking that ‘John the human jack’ is a far better fate than ‘Jack the human john’!

  2. Marjorie permalink
    July 18, 2015 07:18

    There may be no way to use a pump where you are, but hopefully a reader can suggest something? My dad did sewer and water main work and I recall him describing dewatering a hole.
    As always, whether it is a physical task or an intellectual one, you bring such strategy and determination that there will surely be a good outcome.
    I can hardly wait to hear about the beetles.

  3. Kevin Edwards permalink
    July 21, 2015 07:13

    Great stuff – tell it like it is!

  4. Rose Crampton permalink
    July 30, 2015 17:43

    Paul and Vero, great to see you both enjoying yourselves. We are loving reading about your and the teams work. Happy days. Look for ward to seeing you both in September.
    Rose and Rich xxx

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  1. Travels and marvels of Nunalleq’s beetles | Nunalleq 2016

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