Wednesday, March 8, 2017

What's Underneath Medicine Bow Peak?

Medicine Bow Peak has become a familiar landmark for those of us who live in Laramie. In the summer, avid hikers take on the trail to catch a glimpse of the amazing views from the peak. Yet we rarely think about the Earth that lies beneath us, and the clues it contains to help us better understand our world.

University of Wyoming soil science masters student Zoe Ash-Kropf spent her summer digging beneath the mountain to conduct research on permafrost in the area.

Zoe and her team navigate the Medicine Bow Peak trail down to their site.
Permafrost is frozen soil that typically occurs in the northern hemisphere tundra, but it has also been documented in the Rocky Mountain Region in high alpine areas.

"Permafrost has the ability to sequester, or store, carbon for a long amount of time. When it thaws, the carbon is released from the soil and back into the atmosphere," Zoe explains.

The release of carbon from the soil plays a critical role in the carbon cycle and in climate change. Studying the amount of carbon released and where permafrost occurs can give scientists more information on how this effects climate change.

Originally from Oregon, Zoe received her undergraduate degree in crop and soil science from Oregon State University. Her curiosity about permafrost drove her to apply for the Graduate Assistant position at the University of Wyoming working on the project.

"Soil science is the ultimate interdisciplinary science; it includes biology, geology, and chemistry, and that's what really got me into it," Zoe says.

Zoe takes measurements out in the field.
Zoe has worked on the project with two advisors; Dr. Karen Vaughan and Dr. Linda Van Diepen. Through the project the group has found a variety of clues that indicate the past presence of permafrost. Patterned ground and soil profiles revel how rock beneath the surface has moved.

"When permafrost thaws it moves things around, which can change rock orientation below the surface," Zoe explains.

But the development and the mineralogy of the soil are not the only area of exploration for the project. There are also microbial communities that can live in permafrost.

"The microbes living there also play an important role in carbon release," Zoe says.

Zoe and her team gathered around a soil pit in search of clues indicating permafrost. 
Zoe is interested in further research on the mineralogy of the soil, and would like to look into how wind blown silt plays a role in the permafrost soil profile.

"We didn't find frozen soil, but it is almost more exciting, because we know it used to be there, but its turned into so many more research questions," Zoe says.

This unique fieldwork opportunity has been full of surprises and new discovers for Zoe and her team. One day Zoe and a friend returned to their site to take bulk density measurements. To take this measurement they had to dig soil pits, which proved to be very difficult in the rocky terrain.

"It was cold and windy, we were miserable, so we laid down in this dried up pond near our site. It turned out to be a great shelter from the wind," Zoe recounts.

Eventually the team would be able to overcome the complications of taking bulk density measurements by creating a new method better suited for the soil. They even plan on publishing a paper describing this new method to better help others who may be facing some of the same problems.

Zoe looks forward to getting back out into the field this summer to uncover the answers to their new research questions. She is looking for an undergraduate research assistant to help with field work, lab work, and data entry for the project. If you are a student interested in soil science and would like to learn more about applying visit: 

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