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UAF to Study Bering Land Bridge

 Researchers on the vessel Armstrong use a vibracore tool to gather sea floor sediments.
Chris Fanshier / University Of Alaska Fairbanks
Researchers on the vessel Armstrong use a vibracore tool to gather sea floor sediments.

University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers received funding to research the submerged Bering Land Bridge.

The National Science Foundation has awarded University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers $1.7 million to probe the submerged Bering Land Bridge to better understand life there when it was above sea level during the last ice age. KUAC’s Mary Auld reports

AULD: The Bering land bridge was a strip of land that connected what is now Alaska to present-day Russia during the last Ice Age. The land was exposed when water froze into glaciers, lowering the sea level. When temperatures warmed toward the end of the ice age, sea level rose and covered the land bridge. Scientists have long studied the animals, plants, and humans that might have crossed the Bering Land Bridge when it was above water. But they don’t know much about what the climate and environmental conditions were like on parts of the land bridge, UAF Department of Geosciences professor Sarah Fowell and her team plan to study the soil in the now-underwater Bering Land Bridge for information about what the land looked like when it was exposed.

FOWELL: So we are truly looking for the land beneath the sea.

AULD: Fowell says that soil holds clues about which plants grew on the Bering Land Bridge, and what the climate was like.

FOWELL: One of the things that all comes down to is answering big questions like what resources were available to animals that were living there. They weren't just crossing, they were living in this lowland area. How did those resources change over time, because the climate was changing over time and I think it's interesting to remember that some of those animals were humans.

AULD: In addition to exploring the vegetation on the Bering Land Bridge, researchers hope to find information about how melting sea ice impacted land at the end of the last ice age. Fowell says that piece of the study could help scientists understand future impacts of today’s climate change.

FOWELL: As sea level continues to rise, we’d like to look at the past in order to get a window into the future and see what we might expect for coastal communities and the Interior in terms of humidity vegetation changes and so forth.

AULD: Fowell and her team plan to gather cylinders of sediment from the seafloor that hold information about what the Bering Land Bridge was like when it was above water. They plan to gather their samples during a month-long cruise on the Bering Sea in summer of 2023. In this video from the United States Geological Survey, researchers use vibra-coring the same approach Fowell plans to use in her study.

Researchers lower equipment from a ship to the ocean floor. The apparatus includes a hollow metal cylinder that pushes into the ocean floor, collecting a cross-section of sediment. Researchers pull the equipment, and the sediment core it captured, back onto the ship’s deck. Fowell’s team plans to analyze cores from a number of areas on the Bering Land Bridge. Fowell says she hopes results will be available starting in 2024. Since researchers will be getting brand new data on the Bering Land Bridge, Fowell says she doesn’t know exactly what to expect.

FOWELL: We're probably going to find some things we didn't even think to look for.