On Frozen Ground

January 27, 2010

Dr. Vladimir Romanovsky, director of the Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, conducts permafrost research on the North Slope of Alaska. Photo: courtesy Dr. Romanovsky

By Marcy Davis

Scientists have long known the importance of permafrost, a layer of frozen soil in circumpolar regions that is one of the first victims of a warming climate. For more than 50 years, researchers have dropped temperature sensors into boreholes at various depths all around the world to track the state of the permafrost. But much of this data remains isolated and unpublished, inaccessible to anyone hoping to track global temperature change.

But if Dr. Vladimir Romanovsky, director of the Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Geophysical Institute, has his way, an international collaboration between the United States and Russia could produce the first international permafrost network. Call it the Cold Cooperation, the scientific opposite of the Cold War.

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As one of 35 National Science Foundation-supported Arctic Observing Network (AON) projects, Romanovsky’s work will integrate 80 Alaskan borehole sites—locations where researchers study permafrost, with about 160 Russian borehole sites. This initial step will provide the baseline temperature estimates necessary to evaluate future rates of change, according to Romanovsky.

“Permafrost data is beneficial to any ecological or carbon cycle study,” said Romanovsky. “Providing our data to other studies is important. In turn, we want to know about ecosystems, and have to be able to take into account hydrology and vegetation changes. Establishing this network will facilitate better communication and data sharing.”

Improved Modeling

In addition, the network will make permafrost data more available to climate modelers, which should improve researchers’ abilities to predict and understand the interaction between permafrost and climate.


Permafrost, defined as any earth material at or below 0°C for two or more consecutive years typically forms in the Arctic, subarctic, Antarctica, and in high alpine regions. It can vary in extent and thickness, and the largest area of continuous permafrost underlies the Tibetan Plateau in China with an area totaling 2.5 million square kilometers, more than twice the size of Alaska. Eastern Siberia holds the record for thickest permafrost at 1400 meters.

Domestically, permafrost in the Rocky Mountains of North America is laterally discontinuous, or patchy, with thicknesses ranging from less than one to several meters. Where temperatures are consistently colder, the permafrost is thicker.

Along Alaska’s North Slope, permafrost is continuous except under big lakes and rivers, which do not freeze completely to the bottom in winter; water acts as a source of heat to the ground below. At Prudhoe Bay, permafrost is 660 m thick. In Alaska’s interior, permafrost is discontinuous, found mostly in stands of black spruce and in low valleys where moss and peat are prevalent; Aspen groves and south-facing slopes rarely have permafrost.

Changes To Frozen Ground

Romanovsky has observed temperature changes in Alaskan permafrost, but added that interpreting those changes is difficult. Natural oscillations that last multiple decades show the same patterns; researchers need more time to understand whether or not their results result from longer-term, global climate change.

“The cycle seems on an upward trend,” he said. “What we see could be global warming, or could just be a longer natural oscillation. What are interesting are the hemispherical similarities between Alaska and Russia. Models can help explain past temperatures and future projections regionally and globally. So, we need to keep making measurements.”

Threats To Permafrost

One of the biggest concerns about warming permafrost is that greenhouse gases such as methane now sequestered in permafrost may be released back into the atmosphere, thereby creating a positive feedback for future climate warming. Another worry stems from the potential impacts of thawing permafrost on the communities, which could include localized but important changes in ecosystems and infrastructure.

Romanovsky says, “We are seeing changes in permafrost, but they are slowly evolving changes. There could be dangers for people who live in permafrost regions so they should be aware of the problem, but should not panic. Instead, we need to focus on mitigation, and working together. We have some ways to tackle these problems, but it takes time and money.”

Arctic Stories: New Multi-Media Web site

January 21, 2010

Not your typical office. A research building at Barrow, AK. Photo courtesy Arctic Stories

We’re pleased to welcome Arctic Stories, the brainchild of Purdue University atmospheric chemist Paul Shepson, to the online effort to educate and inform people about arctic research and life. (In 2009, we supported Shepson and others working at Barrow, Alaska, on an international study called OASIS. Shepson headed an NSF-funded study of halogen chemistry.)

With children’s book author Peter Lourie, Shepson has built a multi-faceted Web site with NSF funding to present information on the science, wildlife, climate, and people of the Arctic.

The site features video interviews with natives and researchers like polar bear researcher Steven C. Amstrup of the USGS. It also showcases compelling photographs, and links to science institutions. In short, it’s another fantastic resource for following the ongoing work in the Arctic.

This is helpful as the public strives to understand the myriad messages about climate change, research, and more. With news stories reporting that the Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the planet, that sea ice is melting, and that species are losing habitat and nourishment, sites like Arctic Ice and ours aim to inform readers about the efforts being made to understand the science behind the phenomena.

The science is complex, designed to measure and help us understand changes in the atmosphere, land, plants and animals, human societies and water in the Arctic. To advance these goals, scientists conduct fieldwork in some of the most extreme environments on Earth–and their experiences are often as compelling as their data.

We encourage readers to check out Arctic Ice as they follow their curiosity about work in the far north.

What Lies Beneath

December 18, 2009

For years, scientists thought that melted water beneath Greenland’s coastal glaciers such as the Jakobshavn and Helheim lubricated the giant sheets of ice above, accelerating their plunge into the ocean and contributing to loss of sea ice. Turns out, that was an over-simplified explanation, said Ian Howat, assistant professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University.

Speaking in a press conference Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the NASA-funded, CPS-supported scientist explained that the subsurface dynamics beneath glaciers is significantly more complex than previously thought.

“In the science community it’s been accepted that basal lubrication due to increased melting and warming is responsible for accelerating glacial advance and breaking off,” said Howat. “We’re finding out that’s not true.”

A calving glacier drops huge ice chunks into the sea. Photo: Martyn Clark, National Snow and Ice Data Center

Specifically, a complex, subglacial “plumbing” system involving the ocean, meltwater, and ice evolves, which drives the glacial calving. In fact, early evidence from Howat’s research suggests that ocean changes have a greater impact on the rate at which outlet glaciers spill into the sea than does meltwater.

Much of the melt water comes from early summer hot temperatures, which melt the glacier’s surface. The water flows through cracks in the ice to the ground surface.

Ian Howet in the field. Photo: Ohio State University

In the early summer, the sudden influx of water overwhelms the subglacial drainage system, causing the water pressure to increase and the ice to lift off its bed and flow faster—up to 100 meters per year, he said. The water passageways quickly expand, however, and reduce the water pressure so that by mid-summer the glaciers flow slowly again.

Inland, this summertime boost in speed is very noticeable, since the glaciers are moving so slowly in general. But outlet glaciers along the coast, such as the Jakobshavn, are already flowing out to sea at rates as high as 10 kilometers per year — a rate too high to be caused by the meltwater.

“So you have this inland ice moving slowly, and you have these outlet glaciers moving 100 times faster. Those outlet glaciers are feeling a small acceleration from the meltwater, but overall the contribution is negligible,” Howat said.

His team looked for correlations between times of peak meltwater in the summer and times of sudden acceleration in outlet glaciers, and found none. So if meltwater is not responsible for rapidly moving outlet glaciers, what is? Howat suspects that the ocean is the cause.

Through computer modeling, he and his colleagues have determined that friction between the glacial walls and the fjords that surround them is probably what holds outlet glaciers in place, and sudden increases in ocean water temperature cause the outlet glaciers to speed up.

However, Howat said meltwater can have a dramatic effect on ice loss along the coast. It can expand within cracks to form stress fractures, or it can bubble out from under the base of the ice sheet and stir up the warmer ocean water. Both circumstances can cause large pieces of the glacier to break off, and the subsequent turbulence stirs up the warm ocean water, and can cause more ice to melt.

ARMAP Can Be Your Map, Too

September 14, 2009
Dr. Erb presented this ARMAP image showing the location of NSF-funded International Polar Year research at a recent Greenland conference. Source: ARMAP

NSF's director of the Office of Polar Programs, Dr. Karl Erb, presented this ARMAP image at a recent science conference in Greenland. Source: ARMAP

We were very pleased when Dr. Erb used an image from ARMAP in his keynote address to the research and policy community attending the Greenland climate changes workshop, part of the Climate Days 2009 conference in Nuuk, Greenland.  “ARMAP is a great resource for showing information geospatially.  In this case NSF wanted to show all of the NSF-funded projects in the Arctic for IPY,” said Robbie Score, PFS’ ARMAP project manager.

The Arctic Research Mapping Application, a Web-based Internet map server for the Arctic, includes a number of accessible state-of-the-art online tools that benefit research scientists, logisticians, media personnel, and armchair researchers alike. Anyone with basic computer skills can fly around the Arctic with ARMAP, pausing at will to explore natural features (mountains, rivers), infrastructure (air strips, roads)—and the research done there.

ARMAP is the product of an NSF-funded collaboration between the University of Texas, El Paso; Nuna Technologies of Homer, Alaska; the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research; CH2M HILL; and Polar Field Services. The application’s development is ongoing.


Barrow Bound

June 15, 2009

A team studying drained thaw lake basins on Alaska’s Arctic coastal plain through the unusual bifocal lens of science and philosophy heads to Barrow this week for its last field effort under the current NSF grant.

Principal Investigator Wendy Eisner (U Cincinnati) is visiting Barrow in part to present research results to the community that has supported her work for the last three years (and prior to that, even). Community elders have worked closely with Eisner, a geographer, and U Cincinnati colleague Ken Hinkel, a geoscientist, and Chris Cuomo, Uof Georgia philosophy professor and Institute for Women’s Studies director, to transfer their historic and cultural knowledge of thaw lakes to the researchers. With information from the Iñupiat elders who have contributed to the study, the researchers have built a Global Information Systems data base that locates the thaw lake basins and collects information on their formation, ecology, and drainage. The research team also uses other information, like soil cores, satellite images, and vegetation samples, to further understand landscape processes in this lake-decorated land.

A recently drained thaw lake basin at center. When a lake drains, vegetation begins to grow, so scientists can tell when a lake drained by the amount and kind of plants occupying the basin. This basin, photographed several years ago, would look very different this season.  Photo: Wendy Eisner

A recently drained thaw lake basin at center. When a lake drains, vegetation begins to grow, so scientists can date the drainage event by the amount and kind of plants occupying the basin. This basin, photographed several years ago, would look very different this season. Photo: Wendy Eisner

Thaw lakes form when meltwater from snow is trapped on the surface by underlying permafrost. When the ice in the permafrost thaws, the barrier it creates disappears, allowing the water to drain from the basins. As more permafrost melts under a warming climate regime, more thaw lakes may drain, robbing the Iñupiat of traditional fishing grounds. The research undertaken by Eisner, Hinkel and Cuomo will aid predictions of how the landscape may continue to change–information that may help the Iñupiat adapt to new challenges. In addition, the traditional knowledge component of the research helps with Iñupiat cultural preservation efforts.