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A Trip to Alaska in Search of the Future of Climate Change

Last month, scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and several other U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories traveled to two small Alaskan towns — tiny dots amid the vastness of the tundra, and perfect places to observe Earth at a crossroads.

Near Council, on the Seward Peninsula, the permafrost is already thinning due to climate change. Hundreds of miles north near Barrow, the northernmost town in the U.S., the permafrost is frozen thick. For now.

What happens here in the years ahead could have a far wider impact than an altered Arctic landscape and a different way of life for the people who call it home.

Trapped within the permafrost are billions of tons of carbon deposited by plants over the millennia. The carbon might stay put. Or it might enter the atmosphere in the coming decades as the permafrost thaws, further accelerating climate change.

No one knows how this story will unfold. The Arctic ecosystem is incredibly complex and in many ways poorly understood.

Because of these uncertainties and what’s at stake, the scientists are proposing The Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiment. The project is designed to answer one of the most urgent questions facing researchers today: How will a changing climate affect the Arctic, and how will this in turn affect the planet’s climate?

Berkeley Lab scientists contribute to many aspects of the proposed project, which is led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Stan Wullschleger. The collaboration also includes researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory, led by Cathy Wilson; the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, led by Larry Hinzman; and Brookhaven National Laboratory, led by Alistair Rogers.

“Our recent trip to Alaska allowed us to begin laying the foundation for the Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment, which will dramatically improve our understanding of how degrading Arctic permafrost affects feedbacks between ecosystems and the climate,” says Susan Hubbard, a geophysicist in Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division who leads Berkeley Lab’s participation in the collaboration.

The Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment’s expansiveness sets it apart from other efforts to study the relationship between the Arctic ecosystem and climate. Over the course of several years, the scientists will study interactions between plants, soil, microbes, water, and air. They’ll measure how degrading permafrost affects carbon, methane, and nitrogen cycles. They’ll track the flow of energy. They’ll analyze processes that occur among microscopic molecules as well as regions that span hundreds of square kilometers. And they’ll conduct research in the field as well as in state-of-the-art facilities thousands of miles away.

All of this research will enable scientists to develop powerful computer models that predict how the Arctic will change in the decades and centuries to come.

To start the process, scientists from the collaboration met with members of local communities and scouted potential research sites during the August trip.

Once the experiment begins, Berkeley Lab scientists will lead two components of the proposed project and will be involved in several other aspects. Hubbard will lead the effort to use geophysical methods to characterize the sites, which will be near Council, Barrow, and possibly other areas. Her group will develop ways to remotely monitor permafrost degradation and associated hydrological and biogeochemical processes that lead to greenhouse gas production.

Soil scientist Margaret Torn, another member of Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division who traveled to Alaska, will lead the effort to quantify the land’s energy balance. Her group will explore how permafrost degradation affects albedo, which is the reflection of solar radiation back into space. Her group will also study the flow of energy from the surface to the subsurface, a phenomenon that speeds up permafrost thaw.

Other Berkeley Lab scientists will conduct detailed analyses of the microbial communities that live in permafrost and quantify their role in the breakdown of organic soil carbon. And still others will help develop computer models that simulate how microbial soil processes cause degrading permafrost to emit greenhouse gasses.

“Through laboratory, field, and numerical research, the NGEE team will be able to quantify and incorporate complex ecosystem-climate processes into computer models,” says Wullschleger, a plant physiologist with Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “The breadth of expertise that this multi-disciplinary team brings to the NGEE project provides an opportunity to significantly advance our understanding and prediction of the Earth’s climate system.”

The proposed project is being developed under the auspices of the Biological and Environmental Research program office, which is within the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

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