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North Slope research effort will bolster science worldwide

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder

In the not too distant future, scientists around the globe will have a better grasp of the effects of our warming planet thanks to a massive, 10-year research project happening now on the North Slope.

The Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments Arctic project is funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research and taken on by a plethora of scientists in a wide variety of fields.

The venture is in its third year, and if all goes well this season, the project will get extended to its full 10-year timeline. Nearly 150 scientists are involved -- from microbiologists to geomorphologists -- with groups traveling to the Barrow Experimental Observatory, a 7,500-acre swath of land set aside for research, during the summer field season. Researchers are taking a closer look at ecosystems undergoing permafrost thaw by collecting permafrost samples, images from the air and satellite, water and vegetation samples, and talking to local elders for anecdotal information about the land and how it’s changing. Data and samples collected get sent to one of several national labs for analysis.

“We’re taking information from the field and the laboratory, and working with modelers who are primarily interested in improving climate predictions through global-scale, high-performance climate models (to try) to improve projections over the next century or so,” said Stan Wullschleger, the principal investigator of the project.

The end goal is to give scientists around the world a better idea of changes that will occur over the next century in the circumpolar regions by producing these high-resolution models.

“We ultimately hope that over the duration of this project there will be a considerable database developed for Arctic processes,” said Wullschleger, who is based in Tennessee at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Wullschleger is pleased with the progress made so far and said that all involved are confident the project is on a productive path, he said.

Researchers will continue work on the North Slope and expand their research to the Seward Peninsula this summer to collect samples for comparison.

The findings from both sites and perhaps a couple in between will be used to better understand the entire circumpolar north in regards to climate change, added Larry Hinzman, the chief scientist for the NGEE project and the director of the Arctic Research Center at University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

“One of our ultimate objectives was to develop a high-resolution model to simulate the processes that are occurring in the Arctic,” Hinzman said.

This project is a major step forward in climate change predictions and research, he added.

Once quality assurance is done on the data collected, the information will be available to the worldwide scientific community.

“We’re generating a resource that can help our project develop into those climate models but make those datasets available to other groups who may have other or complimentary uses for the information,” said Wullschleger.

 “This issue of improving climate predictions is a global interest and a global issue. And while we can certainly do our part to understand how the Arctic in Alaska is responding to warmer temperatures and what those feedbacks might be to future climate, the real value is going to be partnering with other countries and combining our collective understanding to be able to generalize some of our information for improved climate predictions around the world.”

A project of this magnitude and detail has not been done before, he added.

There are four national laboratories involved in the undertaking as well as major support from UAF in this multi-disciplinary study. The NGEE is also utilizing data from, and collaborating with, NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Bringing that large team together to look at these complicated processes of permafrost thaw in a warming climate as well as landscape change over decades, to centuries, is certainly an activity that has not been undertaken -- at the scope we’re envisioning -- before,” said Wullschleger.

Through funding and resources, the Department of Energy has made this effort a top priority, added Hinzman.

“We’ve never really had a concerted effort by the DOE labs, so this is a huge leap forward for Arctic science from the university perspective,” he said.

While working on the North Slope, project scientists have been able to include locals through community meetings and stories shared by Elders. They also employ local residents to help out on the job sites, Hinzman said.

“The understanding gained from this project will be a great benefit, I believe, to the people of the North Slope and the State of Alaska and the whole Arctic.”

Relying on local traditional knowledge has always been a big part of Arctic science, he added. And residents are eager to learn about how the findings will impact them now and in the future. By addressing concerns like big-game migration routes, a loss of vegetation and shrub encroachment, scientists are making their work more relevant to the average person.

“In turn, they’re often the ones that tell us about their knowledge of living 70 years in the Arctic and how it’s changed,” said Wullschleger.

“Elders in the community are certainly quick to tell us stories, and we can take that anecdotal information and see how well it matches up to some of our scientific information. In many cases they are in very close agreement with what we think is going on as far as disappearing lakes, and landscape change, and vegetation dynamics.”

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.