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Fish Movement and Climate Change

While wintery conditions persist on the North Slope of Alaska, where the Arctic grayling fall migration is likely already underway, my team and I are in a Fairbanks hotel in quarantine lockdown. However, my long-term mentor, academic advisor, and friend, Dr. Linda Deegan, and research assistant, Kathleen Lewis, and I have used quarantine to stage our expedition to the Arctic’s headwaters of the Kuparuk River (Green Cabin Lake - GCL) where we will assess the Arctic grayling fish population and tag as many grayling as possible with passive integrative transponder (PIT) tags. These tags function like “EasyPass” for fish, so in the future when a tagged fish passes through one of our remote PIT tag antenna arrays situated along the Kuparuk River, we will know which fish passed through, where it was in the river, and the date and time it was there.

Dr. Deegan by the Chena River, Fairbanks, AK, during a socially distanced outdoor walk.

The Arctic Long Term Ecological Research (ArcLTER) program investigates broad scale changes in ecosystem processes and functions. I have worked collaboratively with the ArcLTER since the early 1990’s and have since seen massive landscape-level changes occur due to Arctic amplification of global warming, including rapid thawing of permafrost and increased river drying along with many other direct and indirect ramifications of climate change. Our fish assessment allows for continued monitoring of changes in fish movement patterns and evaluation of population dynamics over time.

A permafrost thaw slump, known as a thermokarst, within the headwaters of the Kuparuk River, a result of rapid climate change, July 2022. Photo credit ArcRIOS project.

Our quarantine in Fairbanks ends on August 16th with a truck drop-off from the Toolik Field Station logistics crew and a 9 to 12 hour, depending on the road conditions, bee-line drive up the Dalton Highway (aka the Haul Road, aka the Ice Road Truckers road) to Toolik Field Station on the North Slope of the Brooks Mountain Range. The remoteness of Toolik Field Station necessitates our 8-day Fairbanks quarantine, because there are no hospitals within driving range of the station, and if you think Toolik Field Station is remote, that’s nothing compared to where we’re going for the next three weeks.

Location of Green Cabin Lake (GCL, red dot), the headwaters of the Kuparuk River, on the North Slope of the Brooks Mountains, Alaska, USA.

When we arrive at Toolik Field Station, we have one day to find all our gear, weigh everything, and prepare for helicopter transport to Green Cabin Lake. As Yoda once said, “There is no try.” We will do what's necessary to complete this mission and provide a voice for species most at risk, such as the Arctic grayling, due to anthropogenic climate change.

Supplies amassed via no-contact Instacart delivery during Fairbanks quarantine, ready for weights required for helicopter transport to Green Cabin Lake.

Sweet LG TV functioning as an additional monitor during Fairbanks quarantine. I actually have no idea how to make it work as a TV.

We will hit the ground running at Toolik Field Station, with little time to post anything to social media before our helicopter drop-off at Green Cabin Lake. So, wish us luck and I’ll update you when we return in mid-September.

Also, Big THANKS to all my GEco Farm helpers, especially my husband, Andrew, for keeping our plants and animals healthy and safe while I'm away.

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