A Portal to Toolik Field Station

Brooks Range from Alaska National Wildlife Refuge / Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Laura Nielsen for FrontierScientists

We know that the Arctic holds unique climate conditions and a complex carbon balance. Tundra fires and thawing permafrost release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while unique ocean currents and cold waters prompt higher levels of ocean acidification. Methane emerges from sea and soil. The Arctic sea ice cover shrinks to increasingly startling extents. Plant life changes in response to altered conditions, and wildlife struggles to adapt. Understanding Arctic systems is a vital piece of climate science that can provide policy makers the knowledge they need to predict and manage biological systems in an increasingly climate-uncertain world, yet the remote locations and harsh conditions of the Arctic create challenges for scientists.

Visit Alaska’s remote Toolik Field Station, where hundreds of scientists undertake research projects in the field. Often clad in neoprene boots and carrying Global Positioning Systems, they study arctic ground squirrel societies, the myriad thermokarst lakes formed by melting ground ice in regions underlain by permafrost, and everything in between. Toolik is a site for international science cooperation, education and outreach.

Toolik Field Station sits on the shore of Toolik Lake, 189 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the northern foothills of Alaska’s Brooks Range. The field station is operated by the Institute of Arctic Biology (IAB) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and supported by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs. Just one of many IAB initiatives, Toolik Field Station is a world-renowned research platform for studying Arctic climate change, Arctic ecology, and more. First utilized in 1975 when researchers studied inland coastal ponds and camped in tents on the shores of Toolik Lake, the site has developed into a top-of-the-line research station. This environmental observatory has hosted upwards of 500 scientists at a time, a diverse crowd of national and international professionals and students undertaking Arctic research projects. On-the-sites laboratories are available year-round, as well as essential science and communication equipment and vehicles (including a helicopter) for traversing the arctic coastal plains and navigating the foothills of the majestic Brooks Range.

Alaska’s North Slope in false-color. Bright blues are ice, greens denote vegetation cover, pink is open rockface. / Photo courtesy NASA Earth Observatory


The station hosts ecological observing systems, including the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research and Arctic Observatory Network, serving to flesh out observations of Arctic environmental conditions. It’s also the Arctic site for the National Ecological Observatory Network program, and part of the International Network for Terrestrial Research and Monitoring in the Arctic. As a monitoring and research facility, it contributes slews of data and long-term ecological research that scientists and policy makers can use to better understand arctic ecosystems, the effects of climate change… and to predict the future our world faces.

Toolik Field Station’s mission: to support research and education that creates a greater understanding of the Arctic and its relationship to the global environment.

Besides housing, equipment and field laboratories, the station provides research support in the form of Geographical Information Systems and mapping services (ToolikGIS). The Toolik GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and Remote Sensing (RS) Program is said to be like a library catalogue for available information about the arctic. Scientists (and the public too!) can search for and access spatial datasets like regional maps, GPS survey information, photographs, and other records. While present Arctic GIS records are hosted by many organizations, the community has worked to consolidate nodes of information and hopes to progress to an internet-based Geospatial Portal that organizes Arctic Spatial Data Infrastructure and makes data readily available within the growing international network of climate and science information. This can help synthesize existing research with new studies, and contribute to a library of data that can be assimilated by climate and biospheric models that help assess future climate and ecosystem trends.

Facilitating and enhancing arctic research, the Toolik Field Station helps organize information to make it available to regional and international entities. “Toolik Field Station GIS is also committed to developing the database, hardware and personnel to anticipate future requirements and provide a legacy dataset to enhance the management and science conducted at Toolik Field Station and in the Arctic. … To date, the Toolik GIS and RS database includes several hundred spatial datasets.” *

Armed with new knowledge, we can better understand the role of the Arctic as it reacts to and drives climate change in the coming centuries.



Find out more about Climate Change, Modeling Arctic Waters, and much more Arctic science at FrontierScientists.

Watch It’s A Bore Hole! … Scientists collect surface and subsurface data on permafrost to apply to climate models.