Case Study: Something is Rotten in Chersky

The Changing Landscape

Andy Bunn and a mammoth bone. Source: The Polaris Project, photographer Chris Linder.

Something is "rotten" in Chersky, Russia. The ground is sinking. Buildings are cracking and shifting. Roads leading out of the city have sunk in places. Village dogs are burying bones in fields that have, until recently, been frozen. Researchers in the area have discovered wooly mammoth remains, long locked in the frozen Earth, emerging from the ground's surface.

Imagine that you have a friend by the name of Pieter. He is a student at the Chersky secondary school. Pieter and generations of his family have lived their entire lives in Chersky. Pieter and his friends have some ideas about what is causing these changes. The village elders have been talking among themselves and with their families about the changes they all notice. They say that the ground is warming – that the permafrost on which Chersky is built, is thawing.

Pieter's science teacher challenges her students to investigate the extent of the changes in Chersky and to try and determine what factors might be causing them. In this chapter, you will work with Pieter and his fellow students to determine what is rotten in Chersky. In order to do this, you will need to learn about the nature of permafrost, how scientists identify and track changes in the permafrost layer, and what the local and global implications are for thawing permafrost. Then, by using the data along with Google Earth and Microsoft Excel, you will look for clues to the changes in Chersky.

Polaris Project and Pleistocene Park

Some of the dwellings at the station. Source: The Polaris Project.

To begin, learn more about Chersky, Russia and the area around it. Chersky, which lies in the Sakha Republic of Russia, is located near the mouth of the Kolyma River in Northeast Siberia. Chersky is North of the Arctic Circle, at 69 degrees 30 minutes North latitude and 161 degrees 30 minutes East longitude.

Chersky is the site of the Northeast Science Station, a research station under the direction of geophysicist Sergei Zimov. This research station conducts year-round, international research in arctic biology, geophysics, and atmospheric physics; it is also the site of Pleistocene Park, an experimental wildlife preserve. Zimov's goal is to re-establish an ecosystem in the preserve that would assist in reducing atmospheric carbon emissions that could result from the thawing permafrost. Read more about Zimov and the Pleistocene Park in this Science Magazine Essay Pleistocene Park: Return of the Mammoth's Ecosystem.

Chersky is also the home base for the National Science Foundation (NSF) POLARIS Project, a joint initiative of the Woods Hole (Massachusetts) Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the Northeast Science Station. The Polaris Project offers research opportunities for college students from the United States and Russia to work with scientists and conduct their own field research on changes in the permafrost. Their Web site offers information, photos, and a video of the collaborative project, as well as background information on permafrost and its role in the changing Arctic. See more pictures from the Polaris project and read A Postcard From the Pleistocene