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NASA program studies effects of changing Arctic ecosystems

August 4th, 2017 | Shady Grove Oliver Print this article   Email this article  

During the summer months, scientists will be taking both a bug's eye and bird's eye view of the Arctic and boreal regions of Alaska and Canada to gain a better understanding of the ripple effects of changing ecosystems.

"It's done inside a conceptual framework of looking at how both influences at a local level as well as regional or global external forces, like rapid warming, are having impacts on ecosystems and what the impacts of changes in ecosystems are for ecosystem services — that is, the value that humans derive from ecosystems — whether that's clean air, clean water, solid infrastructure for building things, or carbon storage, and then, what the consequences to society are because of the impacts on ecosystem services," explained Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment Project Manager Peter Griffith, who is also the chief scientist for NASA's Carbon Cycle & Ecosystems office.

The long-lasting project features components both on the ground and in the air, with teams studying permafrost and land subsidence on the tundra while others fly research missions from Fairbanks to Yellowknife, Canada, collecting data along the way on greening trends, and the land-water surface to atmosphere exchange of carbon dioxide and methane.

"NASA is known for developing the instruments that are used on aircraft or in space that are used to study Earth and the other planets, so Earth science is an important part of NASA's mission, both for the sake of understanding how our own planet works and for understanding how the environment of other planets function," Griffith said. "We can't do that work without also working on the ground. So, we have a scaling strategy that goes from leaf to orbit."

The research team has partnered with land management organizations working in Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, which include regional governments, statewide entities like the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and federal agencies like the National Parks Service or the Canadian Forest Service.

"We do fund directly scientists who are doing fieldwork and making observations at the site level that are necessary to understand what airborne instruments are sensing. They, of course, are the bridge between the site and the view from space that we get from satellites," he said. "This is a vast region and it's far beyond our capacity to be able to work on the ground by ourselves."

Among other foci of the project, one of the most central is the effect of changing climate conditions on forest fires in the far north and, as a result, what consequences those fires might have in store for regions outside the Arctic.

"That area is really important because it's where the impacts of a warming climate are occurring first and fastest. This part of the planet has already warmed beyond the so-called 2-degree-Celsius limit that the Paris Climate Accord was trying to keep the planet within," Griffith said. "It's a terrific scientific case study and test example of how ecosystems, and the people that depend on them, will respond and be affected by rapid warming. It's also important because what's happening in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic."

Smoke from fires in Alaska can travel as far as Seattle and Chicago, while ash can find itself falling on the snow-covered landscape of Greenland, darkening the surface color and speeding up melt, he explained. While that is somewhat outside the scope of the project itself, it highlights why this work is important.

"Society, and people, of course, can make decisions in response to these consequences and although we're not studying those decisions scientifically, we do hope to provide information that's useful for local, national, and global conversations," said Griffith.

By understanding what ignites and fuels forest fires and what is released when permafrost thaws, perhaps people may be able to make more informed decisions down the road from the national level to the village level. After all, whatever happens in the Arctic in the years to come, it will first affect those who live within its borders.

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