What happens after fire scorches the tundra, and what follows when carbon that’s been locked away for millennia gets released? Currently, a group of scientists is camping 50 miles north of Bethel, attempting to answer these questions. For one scientist the research is personal, because it means coming home.
“I didn’t sleep very well before I came here. I was very excited to come back,” said Jasmine Gil, laughing, on her first day back in Bethel in 10 years.
Gil grew up in Bethel. Her mom is from Kwethluk, and her family lives throughout the Delta. When she was 10, Gil moved to Sitka with her parents. Last spring, she graduated from University of Alaska Anchorage with a degree in Natural Sciences.
“I’ve always been an outdoors person, and so it felt fitting that what I would do with my life was something that would keep me outside,” said Gil. And she’s stayed outside since graduating, studying humpback whales and songbirds in Southeast Alaska, then traveling to Hawaii to restore seabird habitats.
“And now I’m back here in Bethel, where it all started.”
For Gil, the outdoors, science, and tradition have all come to intertwine.
“I spent my summers at fish camp. I think from that experience it drew me into science, but not with the idea that I knew solid subjects. Science was told to me through origin story.”
Gil's mother would tell her stories of the land, of salmon, of how humans affected the animals and systems around them. Only later, as Gil continued studying science, would she realize that these stories were as legitimate as the stories she had learned in school.
“The cosmology of Yup'ik people is quite beautiful," said Gil, "but I think I had to delve into those scientific facts to realize that what I learned here was just as important as what’s being taught to me in textbooks, but it’s structured differently and it’s more poetic.”
Gil and about a dozen recent graduates from across the nation have traveled north of Bethel to Kuka Creek to study the massive 2015 wildfire's effects on the permafrost below. By one estimate, twice as much carbon is stored in permafrost as in the atmosphere. Wildfires could release that carbon, creating dramatic, and possibly, drastic effects on the planet.
“It’s a carbon bomb waiting to go off,” is the way Gil described the situation.
With the Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, and the research so close to home, she feels an urgency unique to this project.
“I’m hoping that we can publish some information or get something out of it that we can share, and people can understand the gravity of what’s going on.”
Gil and her team will be in Kuka Creek for the next two weeks. The research is with the Polaris Project, which invested eight years in studying the effects of climate change in Siberia. This summer, the project has turned its attention to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
KYUK will meet up again with Gil when she returns from the field.