NASA's field campaign investigates Arctic North American ecosystems

July 8, 2016 by Kate Ramsayer, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Researchers walk to a field site near Fairbanks, Alaska, that is part of the ABoVE campaign investigating ecosystem changes in northern latitude forests. Credit: Griffith/NASA

Sampling charred soils in Saskatchewan, outfitting robins with GPS backpacks in Alberta, and measuring the growth rates of trees in northern Alaska - scientists with a decade-long NASA project are in the field this summer to study the impacts of a rapidly warming climate.

The Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, or ABoVE campaign, which started field work in Alaska and northwestern Canada this spring, continues this month with more research into the region's changing forests, , thawing permafrost, shifting wildlife habitat and more.

"There are people scattering to the four winds, measuring all sorts of things - the impact of wildfires on the carbon cycle, the structure and health of boreal forests, and depth of permafrost thaw," said Scott Goetz, ABoVE science team lead and deputy director at Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. While the locations and types of measurements vary, the work is all part of a highly coordinated effort to study the vulnerability of northern ecosystems and society to environmental change.

As part of the ABoVE project, these field measurements gathered over the next decade will be added to collected by NASA airborne instruments, satellites and other agency programs. More than three dozen research groups, led by scientists from NASA, universities and other agencies and institutions, are taking part in the effort.

American robins were outfitted with GPS backpacks in April as part of Natalie Boelman's ABoVE project studying bird migration. Credit: Boelman/Lamont-Doherty/Earth Observatory

Natalie Boelman, an ABoVE researcher with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York, is just beginning to get data back from her April field campaign to northern Alberta. She and her colleagues netted American robins and then outfitted them with GPS backpacks.

"It definitely took a lot of patience, there were days when we didn't catch any birds and days when we caught a bunch," Boelman said. "Now their data have just started to come in." The backpack tags record where each bird was every other day for two months, then transmit the data back. It will take a while to properly analyze and understand the data, she said, but a first glance at the data reveals that a few of the American robins caught in Alberta migrated to locations in northern Alaska to breed.

As part of her 'Animals on the Move' project, Boelman and her team are investigating how warming temperatures in boreal regions are affecting the habitat, migration patterns and other behavior of animals. The data will then be studied along with information about how climate change is impacting habitat, migration patterns and general movements of not only robins, but a whole suite of iconic northern wildlife, including caribou, bears, golden eagles and moose.. Researchers will also use other measurements and data collected by their colleagues from other sites to investigate how the larger ecosystem is changing.

ABoVE field research this season is all on-the-ground, although airborne campaigns will play a key part in the 2017 and 2019 campaigns. Research gathered this summer, however, will help scientists analyze images and data already gathered by satellites and airplanes. Bruce Cook, a scientist with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to use historic aerial photographs and ground measurements from the 1980s to evaluate changes over the last three decades.

Researchers with one of the ABoVE-funded projects investigate the soil in a recently burned forest in Saskatchewan, Canada. Credit: Sander Veraverbeke/University of California, Irvine

"We've long had indications from satellites that portions of the boreal and tundra zones are responding to climate change," Cook said, noting that some areas are "greening" due to plant growth and shrinking wetlands in a warmer and drier climate, while other areas are "browning" as drought, insects or wildfires kill plant communities. "But these characteristics and processes that give rise to a greening or browning trend are unclear - we need to dig further."

A Forest Service crew will re-survey those plots in July, taking samples of soils and trees, measuring depth to permafrost, and quantifying the composition and size of trees, shrubs and ground cover. With these field data - along with data from contemporary aerial photographs, Goddard's Lidar, Hyperspectral & Thermal (G-LiHT) airborne imager, and satellite time series - Cook and his colleagues will document the many different types of changes that are occurring across a vast and expansive landscape.

Other research groups this summer are studying how fires impact the carbon cycle, Goetz said, and looking at whether shrubs are encroaching into tundra. About a third of the carbon stored on land is in arctic and boreal regions worldwide, making the ecosystems key sites for studies. They'll examine where and how fast permafrost is thawing, and how these frozen soils respond to wildfires. Scientists in the field will also be taking measurements of the carbon dioxide and methane moving between the atmosphere and the land surface of these ecosystems.

"We're off to a very strong start, and now we've got people in the field for the first field season," he said. "It's exciting."

Explore further: NASA to study Arctic climate change ecosystem impacts

More information:

Related Stories

NASA to study Arctic climate change ecosystem impacts

September 1, 2015

As part of a broad effort to study the environmental and societal effects of climate change, NASA has begun a multi-year field campaign to investigate ecological impacts of the rapidly changing climate in Alaska and northwestern ...

NASA studies details of a greening Arctic

June 2, 2016

The northern reaches of North America are getting greener, according to a NASA study that provides the most detailed look yet at plant life across Alaska and Canada. In a changing climate, almost a third of the land cover ...

Measuring the impacts of severe wildfires in the Arctic

October 22, 2015

Based on the number of acres burned, 2015 is shaping up to be the second most extreme fire year during the past decade in North America's boreal region. Historically, the area has had one or fewer extreme fire years per decade.

USGS assesses carbon potential of Alaska lands

June 1, 2016

In comparison to the lower 48 states, Alaskan forests, wetlands and permafrost contain larger stores of carbon, according to the first-of-its-kind assessment recently completed by the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest ...

Biomass offsets little or none of permafrost carbon release

March 30, 2016

Scientists who study climate and ecosystems in the Arctic have weighed in on future changes in the region affecting soils, streams and wildfire, which will be releasing greater amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse ...

USGS projects large loss of Alaska permafrost by 2100

November 30, 2015

Using statistically modeled maps drawn from satellite data and other sources, U.S. Geological Survey scientists have projected that the near-surface permafrost that presently underlies 38 percent of boreal and arctic Alaska ...

Recommended for you

Weather anomalies accelerate the melting of sea ice

January 16, 2018

In the winter of 2015/16, something happened that had never before been seen on this scale: at the end of December, temperatures rose above zero degrees Celsius for several days in parts of the Arctic. Temperatures of up ...

Jet stream changes since 1960s linked to more extreme weather

January 12, 2018

Increased fluctuations in the path of the North Atlantic jet stream since the 1960s coincide with more extreme weather events in Europe such as heat waves, droughts, wildfires and flooding, reports a University of Arizona-led ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.