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FALL 2007

Vol. 08, No. 1


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Arctic Midges

Arctic midges


researching a key link in the food chain

Log on to Google Earth and zoom in on Barrow, Alaska, population 4,417. One of the dark grey specks about three miles southeast of town is Pond J, the site of a teeming little ecosystem that is helping Malcolm Butler contribute to the growing body of research on global climate change and its effects.

Barrow is the northernmost town in North America. Its buildings stand on deep pilings at the edge of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Neither the social nor physical landscape is tidy in Barrow. Pond-covered tundra looks orderly from 5,000 feet, but on the ground it's a marshland. Sea ice piles up on the shore in untidy heaps. This is part of the North Slope, an area widely known for the political controversy that swirls around its rich oil fields and an environment that until recently has been relatively free of human impact.

But scientists of all stripes have a long history in the area where zoologist Butler loves researching the life cycles of the small aquatic insects known as midges and has developed a passion for the trashy, friendly, jumble of cultures that is Barrow. Known to friends and colleagues as Mac, he is tall and loose-limbed with a shy warm smile and a full, close cropped beard. The hair is all white and there is a bit of Santa Claus in Mac Butler -- the twinkling eyes perhaps, or the enthusiasm for just about everything that enters his awareness.

A professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Dakota State University, Butler teaches invertebrate zoology, aquatic ecology, and introductory biology. He's a good teacher, making the complexities of insect life cycles not only understandable, but fascinating. He's a dedicated researcher; he complains that time in the lab passes all too swiftly. But Butler's true happiness lies in his fieldwork. Decked in hip waders and wool shirt, down vest and sample bags, Butler is home when he is in the marsh or checking collection containers in Pond J. His research focuses on limnology (the study of inland waters) and wetland ecology. Butler earned a doctorate in zoology in 1980, but his arctic research adventures began a few years earlier. Faced with the angst of choosing a dissertation research topic at age 23, Butler vividly recalls the serendipity and excitement of a sudden opportunity to head far north to Barrow, Alaska. When his research mentor invited him to join a team studying Barrow's tundra ponds, a habitat abounding in midges, Butler quickly signed on as a research assistant.

It was the summer of 1975. Butler already sported his signature beard -- although the hair was red-brown. (No one around here has seen Mac Butler without a beard, though the color has moved through the rainbow of middle age. It is Butler's original beard, grown following high school graduation in 1969.) A 1975 photo shows the leaders of the research team piled in the back of a battered red and yellow pickup, wearing parkas and big smiles. Sitting atop equipment crates padded with their backpacks, they grin for the camera and head off from Barrow for a flight into the Alaskan wilderness to establish a brand-new North Slope research camp. The resulting field station at Toolik Lake is set in postcard Alaska: rolling, flower-covered tundra below glacier-topped mountains with picturesque lakes, browsing grizzly bears and roaming herds of caribou. Butler, by his own rueful choice, is left behind to study midges in the tundra ponds at Barrow for the next two summers. No picture-perfect wilderness here. Un-uh, this is monotonous coastal tundra, squishy, chilly and flat -- extending for miles inland from the ice-choked seas. A mere 10 miles of road lead from the village, past "NARL" -- the Naval Arctic Research Lab, up to the "Top of the World" at Point Barrow. A short side road gives access inland to a summer paradise for ducks, bugs and arctic scientists. In the eyes of his colleagues who shifted their research to Toolik Lake, Barrow was "The armpit of the Arctic, cold, ugly, and human-impacted," Butler says. "And yet I like Barrow A: because I have this history there, I have this knowledge of the tundra ponds and their fauna. B: I like the fact that it has this cultural legacy, this long human history and ongoing social, cultural dynamic that I just find really intriguing. So I'm up there with these dual interests, the science and the midges, plus I've always been intrigued with traditional arctic hunting-gathering cultures as a side interest."

Barrow has a long history of offering hospitality to scientists. Research has been conducted there since the 1880s. The Naval Arctic Research Laboratory was constructed at Barrow in the 1940s. When the Navy's research activities declined in the 1980s the local Inupiat community set aside land and created the Barrow Environmental Observatory and the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium. The Barrow Global Climate Change Research Facility has just been completed. The entire operation is a unique collaborative venture between the indigenous people and the scientific community -- one that the Inupiat initiated and manage. This focus on science provides employment for the community and a unique environmental laboratory for the scientists. Because global warming has become a reality to most, it's a rare week that we don't hear news reports of discoveries from arctic research. The cold slows everything down and it becomes much easier to document environmental changes occurring. Truly, decay happens slowly in Barrow. The average summer temperature is 39 degrees F and there are only about 90 days when the tundra is thawed to the permafrost. Winter temps run around minus 39 degrees and the wind chill can drop that by as much as 50 degrees.

Butler's first Alaskan adventure spanned 1975 to 1980, and was followed by a NATO post-doc in Germany. Arriving at NDSU in 1981, Butler chose research projects that kept him closer to home and his young family, but maintained his interest in midges with their "bloodworm" larvae. The bloodworms are an early stage of development that ducks and other birds devour like caviar and we freeze-dry and use for bait. He didn't get back to Barrow until 2006. When he returned after 26 years, it was to find the tundra little changed; the planks he'd laid in Pond J were just where he'd left them -- sunk a little deeper into the pond sediments, but still a sound platform from which to again observe and collect his arctic midges.

Butler's on-going dissertation research has produced some big results. He was able to demonstrate just how important arctic insects could be in this ecosystem. Butler's midges, flies in the family Chironomidae, are pretty unique among midges of the world -- quite a feat since "chironomids" are found virtually everywhere. Essentially, the midges of Pond J don't bite; many tundra-dwelling species don't even fly much anymore. (This is a boon for their human watchers who are less likely to get a mouth or nose full of midges.) As winged adults, some smaller species have learned to live brief two-dimensional lives -- swarming on the surface of the water to avoid being blown out to sea the second their wings hit the wind. They've slowed down their larval development, the largest species taking up to seven years to complete the life cycle. And in this frozen place midges play a tremendous role in the food web -- both in the water and on the tundra, where breeding birds voraciously consume the emerging aquatic flies. The abundance of midges is a testament to the fertility of the peat that blankets the land. The tundra's peat is a book for ecologists in the same way a geologist reads a history in slimmest layers of rock or ice. Traces of carbon whisper hints about food sources and ecological linkages. In the age of global warming it's a good language to speak.

The challenge, Butler says, is that everybody likes the charismatic megafauna. You know, whales, caribou and polar bears in the north or gorillas and elephants in the south; the big, romantic stuff. It's hard to get students, or even some other zoologists, interested in aquatic insects. Even the locals know about insects only as pests, rather than a key link in the food chain. Researchers are encouraged to use traditional knowledge, the wisdom of the local people, in their research proposals and resulting publications. And this knowledge has been really useful in documenting changes to the polar regions. After all, it's not like most of the scientists call the Arctic "home." Six weeks is an average research stay. It's hard to know a place in that time. However, none of the traditional knowledge keepers in Barrow know about their insects. The indigenous people of Barrow are Bowhead whale hunters. The Barrow whaling captains and elders, who know nearly everything knowable about Bowhead whales and caribou, don't pay much attention to the tundra's tiny life forms. Butler was the one to explain to locals that the young ducks and shorebirds are hatching and looking for their first meals at the very time that massive numbers of the adult midges emerge. It's a great match and a critical one for the young birds, who must fend for themselves from hatching in a pitiless land. In a cold, short season, the chicks and ducklings grow up fast. The insects grow slowly. Similar midge species might complete their life cycle in a month in warmer temperatures, while maturation in Barrow tundra ponds may take years. The big red ones -- like the blood worms freeze-dried and sold as fish food south of the border (the Alaskan border that is) -- grow for seven years in Barrow ponds that are thawed only about 90 days a year. Timing changes may accompany global warming; if the midge larvae and emerging adult flies aren't there for the babies -- goodbye ducks and shorebirds. One of the missing links has been temperature data on the ponds. This year Butler installed thermal loggers, small record-keeping thermometers, and formed a partnership with a dedicated local science teacher whose students are helping to collect the data.

Butler's recent return to Barrow reignited his passion not only for the research, but for the place. A sustaining interest -- more than 30 years of connection to a place -- builds an ability to see the beauty in a village littered with garbage, old carcasses, and slowly rusting metal. Through the cycle of his returns, Butler has grown to care deeply about the Inupiat people and their whaling culture. While he admires the research facilities at the competing Toolik Field Station and has colleagues who work there, the insects are not the whole story. He likes the mysterious symmetries of the tundra ponds and the contrasts with the adjacent Arctic Ocean; the whaling festivals and the politics of little Barrow.

Prior to Barrow, the village was called Ukpiagvik and the area was a popular hunting and fishing spot for the native Inupiat. The name Ukpiagvik means "the place to hunt snowy owls." The duck hunting is akin to North Dakota in October and only occasionally colder, though duck hunting season is in spring. This whaling culture marks its year with gatherings and festivals related to the annual cycle of the hunt. Inupiat culture is centered on whaling and the Inupiat hunt the Bowhead whale almost as they have done for more than 2,000 years: Sixty feet and 100 tons of whale harpooned from a traditional skin boat in an open lead miles from shore across treacherous sea ice. Fewer than 10,000 Bowheads now exist and only traditional subsistence hunting is legal. Whaling captains are big men in the community and they continue the tradition of sharing the whale harvest. The festivals are the public "sharing times" and even tourists and friendly scientists take part. The captain and his crew put on the event and the main delicacy is the mikigaq -- fermented whale meat and muktuk (blubber and skin -- the "rind" of the whale). A member of the whaling crew moves through the crowd with a kettle and ladle. Folks hold forth plastic bowls or even zip lock bags to get a bowl of goose soup. Another crew member circulates with a white plastic pail, his rubber gloved hand bloody and dripping with what looks like raw liver -- that's mikigaq. "I developed a real taste for it," says Butler. "You'd be surprised at how good it is."

Barrow and blubber are something of passion for Butler. He's read the local histories and talks easily with the people of the town. As he describes family connections dating back to the first European whaling ships that found their shores, Butler's eyes twinkle and his broad hands talk. Kind and quiet is Butler and it's easy to imagine him starting up a conversation with a question about why the fresh muktuk is sliced in that particular way and proportion: ideally a thin slice with inch of the creamy fat to an equal amount of tough black skin. This year Butler happened upon a Nalukataq festival, the time when the tail and flukes of the whale are brought out of a permafrost storage cellar and distributed, marking the end of a safe and successful whaling season. This is the festival familiar to "outsiders" because it includes the blanket toss game that is ubiquitous to the region. His curiosity roused, Butler chats with another bystander to learn the practicality of tossing someone high in the air in a land without trees or hills -- a means to farseeing, to whale spotting and to testing courage and trust. There is no trampoline, only a blanket and whoever is willing to take a turn throwing you 15 feet in the air and catch you again. Injuries are expected. Outsiders are everyone who isn't Alaskan, by the way.

Butler also got to attend an earlier festival, called Apugauti, which marks the day the whaling boat is pulled off the sea ice and moved to the successful captain's yard. These feasts are typically accompanied by goose soup. Spring goose makes a good soup and hunting geese at this time has long been both ecologically sound and economically necessary for the townspeople, like eating bread if you live in the Dakotas. Butler notes that the missionaries followed the commercial whalers to Barrow in the late 19th century, and the result is a very religious community -- the distribution of the frozen, crispy chunks of muktuk is accompanied by lots of prayer and praise.

A parent himself, Butler pays attention to young people. Two high school girls collected data on midge emergence for several weeks after his late June departure. He in turn is fascinated by the cultural linkage to whaling (the school team is the Whalers) and how the young integrate their new modern high school and their iPods with their traditional culture. For example, one sees fewer of the traditional parkas now, Butler recalls with some sadness. The older women's coats are beautiful derivatives of the original parka, from which came all others. They are sewn of bright calico with colorful ribbon work, edged with frost-free wolverine and silky arctic wolf furs. Butler clicks through his pictures, back and forth in time. There are fewer women dressed in traditional garb. Younger women like latest fashions, not their grandma's fur and flounces.

Butler's big wish is to be in Barrow on a day when a whale is landed. His other big wish is to have the little Chironomidae recognized for their contribution to the arctic ecosystem, and potentially as important responders to climate change; in short to take their rightful place in the ecological pantheon. Perhaps just a bit of the glory of the charismatic megafauna may rub off on the midge, and people will appreciate what this tiny species have to teach.

-- Laurie Baker


Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.