NGEE-Arctic—putting a face on climate change

Feb 11, 2016

For the Next Generation Ecosystem Experiments–Arctic (NGEE-Arctic), 2015 was a watershed year: Phase 1 (2012–2015) was completed, a combined summary report–Phase 2 proposal was submitted, a very successful project review was completed, and work on Phase 2 (2016–2018) was started.

Large Thermokarst Disturbance Along the Selawik RIver in Alaska (photo courtesy of Stan Wullschleger).

Scientists have long known about the fragility of the Arctic, where temperatures are rising at a rate twice that of the global average, but how those vulnerabilities will play out in the coming years is not well understood. Of potential concern, the vast store of carbon in Arctic permafrost could be released as a result of this warming, thus further exacerbating climate change. However, current Earth system models (ESMs) don’t include many of the biogeochemical processes occurring at high latitudes (above 60° north or south latitude). Therefore, a deeper understanding of the biogeochemistry and climate in the Arctic could contribute to more reliable ESMs. This was the impetus for NGEE-Arctic, the ambitious 10-year project to capture and understand changes to vulnerable Arctic regions to better inform ESMs.

Looking back, Project Director and Principal Investigator Stan Wullschleger says the Phase 1 proposal was an earnest attempt to describe a scope of work that would provide the enhanced information and understanding needed for more reliable ESMs and, just as important, that was realistic in terms of what could be accomplished on the North Slope of Alaska (near Barrow, Alaska), a cold, desolate place.

During Phase 1, the NGEE-Arctic team perfected approaches to measurements, site selection, and team interactions—and integration with the project modelers. To advance the goal of more reliable ESMs, team members developed new model structures to take into account many of the properties and processes being studied by the NGEE-Arctic team. Among their early findings—

  • strong surface-subsurface interactions in thawing permafrost drive changes in landscape topography;
  • existing variation in topography, and changes likely to occur in a future warmer world, will redistribute water across the land causing a mosaic of wetter and drier Arctic terrain; and
  • inundation and changes in soil moisture will govern greenhouse gas emissions, vegetation dynamics, and complex feedbacks to the atmosphere.

Along the way, they determined that Arctic tundra must be studied from a holistic perspective. Pieces cannot be studied in isolation, but rather the many questions being asked need to be examined in an integrated manner.

All of this paid off when it came time for the Phase 2 proposal, an expanded scope of research for continuing work at Barrow and initiating work to the south, on the Seward Peninsula. They knew the scientific questions they needed to answer and the scientific approach they wanted to take based on the lessons learned from Phase 1 and feedback from project modelers.

The review, which took place in early September, included DOE Biological and Environmental Research program managers and 11 outside reviewers, including scientists from the international community.

Reviewer comments and the official letter from DOE recognized in very positive terms the team’s commitment to the project, integrated approach, presentations and documentation at the review, and “progress on the project and delivery and defense of a well-developed proposal,” which was accepted with only moderate revision. Wullschleger has high praise for the review process and review team, as well as the NGEE-Arctic team itself, whose suggestions, he says, have made the project stronger.

Gearing up for Phase 2

Wullschleger says Phase 1 was heavily slanted toward data gathering and that currently the field team is handing off data to the modelers; however, based on the initial data, the modelers are already making suggestions for Phase 2.

The Seward Peninsula was a target from the beginning, according to Wullschleger, because a Phase 1 analysis had indicated it was a proxy for the future ecological and climatic regime on the North Slope toward the end of the 21st century. If climate warming continues as it has over the last 50 years and is projected to continue for the next 100 years, then the North Slope could come to resemble what is taking place on the Seward Peninsula today.

The North Slope is very cold, characterized by what is called “deep permafrost” as opposed to what is referred to on the Seward Peninsula as “warm permafrost”—i.e., right at the freezing point, which makes it very vulnerable to increases in temperature, within a year, year-to-year, or as a result of long-term climate-related warming. There is thus a notable contrast between the North Slope site, which is very cold, very stable, and the Seward Peninsula, which is comparatively very warm, very dynamic, very transitional, . . . already undergoing rapid change. Working on the Seward Peninsula will enable the team, in Wullschleger’s words, “to study today’s environment superimposed on tomorrow’s climate.”

From late July to early August this past year about 18 team members went to the Seward Peninsula to begin identifying potential field sites along three roads that lead out of Nome. Wullschleger says these efforts benefited from having a site visualization tool developed by data management team members that enables them to tag photos taken in the field with GPS coordinates for later comparison and evaluation. As a result, they have been able to complete the site selection process and have selected field sites at three locations, one on each of the three roads.

While they were on the Seward Peninsula, team members were also able to start the research process, taking preliminary measurements [flux measurements of CO2 and methane (CH4) and energy balance measurements]; setting up instruments for monitoring temperature, precipitation, and permafrost conditions; and taking water samples. 

Back at the lab, the team is developing specific field work plans for conducting research in 2016.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

The NGEE-Arctic team held an all-hands meeting in San Francisco in December, preceding the American Geophysical Union fall meeting, that was attended by more than 75% of the NGEE-Arctic team—staff, faculty, postdocs, and students. This has become an annual affair since the project started. In addition to the NGEE-Arctic team, the meeting is well attended by DOE managers and, increasingly, people from other federal agencies and countries.

The all-hands focused on the science questions for Phase 2: how to address them at each of the three sites, the critical measurements that will be needed for informing climate models (and by extension, the instruments that will be needed and will have to be placed in the field), and the infrastructure that will be needed to accomplish first-year tasks on the Seward Peninsula. Having this level of participation in the planning, Wullschleger says, has positioned them well going into the field season, which runs from April through October.

Communication is a big part of the NGEE paradigm: communication among team members, communication between the onsite research team and the modelers, communication with the broader scientific community—represented by the 64 peer-reviewed journal articles, presentations to audiences around the world, workshops, and various educational and outreach activities. Communication with local communities is just as important.

In Alaska, local populations are dealing with climate change already. Many are involved in fishing, hunting, and foraging, so they have a good sense of how things have changed year to year, as well as over the last 50 years, and team members are benefiting from this “traditional knowledge.” The local population has been very supportive and is looking forward to project feedback because in many cases it’s tied up with livelihoods. For this reason, Wullschleger says, “going to Alaska really put a face on climate change for me.”

Phase 3 and beyond

Wullschleger and the NGEE-Arctic team are already looking to Phase 3, which will involve continued research activities in Alaska; analysis of data; and computer simulations of the circumpolar Arctic, which Wullschleger says will be computationally challenging. To successfully perform the pan-Arctic simulations planned for Phase 3, NGEE-Arctic will need to pull other partners into the process, so one of the objectives of Phase 2 is to reach out now to researchers in other organizations and countries doing similar work so as to have an international team and strategy in place by the time Phase 3 starts. Based on the team’s communications record, they are well on the way to achieving this objective.

The NGEE-Arctic team includes researchers from ORNL, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the University of Alaska (Fairbanks).

NGEE-Arctic is funded by the US Department of Energy Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research (BER), and is led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. For more information on the project, go to the project website at http://ngee-arctic.ornl.gov/.

By VJ Ewing.