Climate scientist Asmeret Berhe walked on the soft, grass-covered tundra in Utqiaġvik, holding a cube-shaped chunk of soil — permafrost, to be exact.
Berhe, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science director, visited the town recently to examine research projects tracking environmental changes in the rapidly warming Arctic.
The visit, Berhe said, was also personal to her since her research focuses on the intersection of soil science and global change science.
“This is an unbelievable once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity to see the soils up close,” Berhe said, “literally, hug the soil and touch permafrost.”
Studying the Arctic environments such as the one in Utqiaġvik is important for understanding how the climate is changing and for making informed policy decisions about adaptation to warming and mitigation of some of its consequences, Behre said.
“We fund researchers to help us understand how the climate system plays out in environments like this in the Arctic,” she said, “but also make that information available for communities and policymakers so that we can make relevant and informed decisions for the future.”
Permafrost and climate
Arctic soils play a crucial role in regulating the temperature of the Earth and reducing the effects of climate change.
That’s because Arctic soils store a lot of carbon in the form of permafrost: When the ground is frozen most of the year, microbes can’t efficiently break down carbon, accumulated from decomposing plants and animals. As a result, for hundreds of thousands of years, carbon-rich materials have been accumulating in Arctic soils, which cover a relatively small swath of the Earth’s surface.
“An ecosystem that’s only covering 3% of the global land area stores a third of all the carbon in its soil and across the globe,” Berhe said. “That’s, of course, until you come to the recent warming that we’re experiencing.”
Now that the Arctic systems are warming about three to four times faster than the global rate, permafrost in these carbon-rich soils is thawing ― and releasing carbon into the atmosphere.
“It keeps making the problem worse,” Behre said. “It keeps creating this vicious cycle of further thawing and draining of the permafrost where the decomposition causes more warming and it goes on and on and on.”
Permafrost and research
To observe climate warming research in Utqiaġvik, Berhe visited two sites during her trip on Sept. 20 and 21: The Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments Arctic, or NGEE Arctic, and the North Slope site of the Atmospheric Research Measurement facility, or ARM.
The ARM facility collects climate measurements of cloud and radiative processes at high latitudes. In turn, researchers with the NGEE Arctic observe how the landscape and vegetation affect permafrost, how much more greenhouse gas is being emitted into the atmosphere, and what makes the Arctic ecosystems more vulnerable.
Observations from the NGEE Arctic inform the climate-predicting E3SM earth system model, NGEE Arctic Director Colleen Iversen said.
“Future predictions are much better if the virtual world in models is based on the reality of unique and rapidly changing places like the Arctic tundra,” Iversen said. “So what we’ve been doing since 2012 is making measurements to make sure that the model gets permafrost right, and it gets the flow of water right, and it gets the vegetation right, and then that it gets the production of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane right.”
For decades, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science has been funding projects like the NGEE Arctic and ARM facility observations. The point of Berhe’s visit was to evaluate research progress, she said.
“I’ve been really glad to be able to witness what’s happening here in person, interact with community leaders and different scientists,” Behre said, “and I’m just blown away by the incredible science that is getting done.”
The NGEE Arctic project is entering its last phase, but with Arctic strategy being one of the top national priorities, the Office of Science plans to discuss future research with the local and scientific community.
“We’re excited that we could show someone so high up in the Department of Energy’s Office of Science what the Arctic looks like because, you know, it’s rapidly changing, but it’s also so beautiful and such an important part of our world,” Iversen said. “When someone sees something like that in person, it’s a lot easier for them to advocate for more science there.”
During the trip, Berhe also met with community leaders and staff from Iḷisaġvik College and Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp., discussing the shrinking layer of permafrost and continued erosion along the coast of Alaska, said Ross Wilhelm, vice president of Arctic operations and development at UIC.
“We were talking about soils, especially what’s in them, what’s been in them, what is in them now. ... How do we turn right or turn left if we see something that’s damaging that permafrost layer?” Wilhelm said. “Their tenure is like, pretty much up, so we’ve been trying to get them back so they could continue the science of why permafrost is melting so fast.”