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Eastern Interior Field Office

For Climate Researchers, There's No Place Like Nome Creek

Climate researchers have made an outdoor laboratory of this valley an hour’s drive north of Fairbanks.

Story by Craig McCaa. Photos by Craig McCaa unless otherwise noted.

Nome Creek 
Nome Creek 
Ask Fairbanksans about Nome Creek and you might find a few old-timers familiar with the creek’s rich gold mining history. More people will know Nome Creek as a popular family destination for berry-picking, moose-hunting and camping. Almost nobody, however, would suspect is that this unassuming creek on the southern edge of the White Mountains National Recreation Area has quietly become a hotbed of climate research.

Last July, U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist John Crawford and his assistant Seth Spawn huddled over a brick-sized, battery-powered water pump at a research site amid an expanse of tundra and scraggly black spruce trees. With a soft putt-putt sound, the pump slowly sucked water from beneath the tundra into an assortment of carefully labeled sample bottles and vials. The samples would be analyzed in a laboratory for dissolved organic and inorganic carbon and other water chemistry.

Crawford was spending his summer studying the emission of greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide and methane, from the surface of streams in Nome Creek valley. At this and other similar sites up and down the valley, he was also hoping to discover more about how carbon flows from the land into streams. 

 John Crawford and Seth Spawn take water samples on West Twin Creek.
 John Crawford and Seth Spawn collect water samples on West Twin Creek.
After collecting his samples, Crawford and Spawn hiked a few minutes down to West Twin Creek, a tiny ribbon of a stream that threaded its way through dense willow stands before flowing into Nome Creek. Sensors that Crawford had installed on the stream bottom were recording hourly levels of dissolved organic carbon and carbon dioxide in the water. Crawford and Spawn checked on their equipment and collected additional water samples.

Crawford’s work in the Nome Creek valley is part of a broader U.S. Geological Survey research initiative to study the Yukon River Basin’s response to climate change. USGS researchers have also visited Nome Creek to study how carbon is transported and recycled through the environment and to measure the storage of mercury in permafrost.

In August 2010 Nome Creek became home to yet another project -- a 50-meter by 50-meter grid for annual measurement of the maximum depth of the active layer ( the layer of soil that lies above permanently frozen ground and thaws each summer). The Nome Creek grid is part of the Active Layer Network, a system of similar grids established and monitored across the Yukon River Basin through a cooperative project between the USGS and the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council. Measuring the depth of the active layer will help scientists better understand the effects of climate change on permafrost.

According to Crawford, Nome Creek has attracted research attention for several reasons. “Road access plays a pretty big role. Because we [otherwise] wouldn’t be able to get the equipment and people up here without a lot of expense,” Crawford says.

“But I’d also say that this landscape – this upland, not quite alpine landscape – probably represents a good portion of the Interior forest. …We’re hoping that it represents a much bigger landscape. We can’t say that that’s true yet, but we’re hoping to get into some other sites that are like this. And we have done some work in other similar sites that we think behave similarly.”

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See more research photos in our Nome Creek photo gallery.

Link to photo gallery shows a researcher standing in a stream.