MSU research group travels to Alaska to examine climate trends

Researchers from the Montana State University Land Resources Environmental Sciences department recently traveled to Alaska to collect data on thawing permafrost soils in boreal and arctic regions.

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A team of researchers from Montana State University’s College of Agriculture traveled to Fairbanks, Alaska, this summer to collect data they hope will help advance understanding of how thawing permafrost contributes to boreal greenhouse gas emissions.

The team included faculty Jenny Watts and Scott Powell of the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, doctoral student Mary Farina and undergraduates Hailey Webb and Nathan Barnes. From July 27 to Aug. 10, the group collected ground samples and drone imagery, which they will knit together with other data to create maps that show changes in carbon dioxide and methane emissions, among other environmental indicators.

Watts, an affiliate professor at MSU and a lead investigator with the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, specializes in carbon cycling — understanding how carbon is transferred between Earth’s ecosystems and its atmosphere and the impacts of human activity on that cycle. Powell, a drone specialist with a background in forest ecology and remote sensing, led the technological side of the field trip and the sample collection.

The team focused on two sites near Fairbanks, Big Trail Lake and Bonanza Creek. Both are largely underlain and surrounded by permafrost — soil that has been continually frozen for at least two years, often much longer.

According to Watts, as permafrost thaws it creates wetlands, which are key for climate research because they emit methane, a greenhouse gas up to 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“It’s really important to keep track of where methane is being released and how changes in surface moisture, soil temperature and vegetation affect that,” Watts said.

Wetlands and lakes are likely the largest contributor to global methane emissions each year, wrote Watts and colleagues from Johns Hopkins University and Northern Arizona University in a 2018 article in Earth and Science News. That trend is exacerbated by the fact that Arctic and boreal regions are warming twice as quickly as other areas of the Earth.

“We use satellite remote sensing data to model variables such as vegetation growth, microbial activity, soil moisture, temperature and carbon emissions over large spatial areas and at coarse resolution, around one kilometer,” said Farina. “With this field study, we can use vegetation maps based on the drone imagery to model and map emissions at a higher resolution of around one meter.”

Because variables like vegetation growth and soil temperature can vary widely over the boreal and sub-Arctic terrain of Alaska, attempting to extrapolate data drawn from fine-scale drone images can lead to inaccurate conclusions about trends over larger areas. Part of Farina’s ongoing research will include combining data from the team’s drones and ground measurements with satellite data and data from a NASA project in the Fairbanks area that uses aerial imaging to collect images from an altitude higher than drones but lower than satellites. Hopefully this will improve the accuracy of those extrapolations.

Creating a comprehensive image of interior Alaska’s greenhouse gas emissions is a huge project, and there is much more to be discovered, said Farina. But the field study created a baseline for her to continue her research for the next several years at MSU, and also provided an opportunity for high-level research exposure for Webb and Barnes, who worked with Powell all summer, becoming experts in the drone technology that the team took with them to Alaska. Eventually, the maps they create will be compared to data from other points in time to create a timeline of climate-related changes in boreal areas.

“The most important part of this project was getting three students excited about the science and getting them into the field to gather data that will inform a broader study,” said Powell. “Overall, the trip was a huge success. A big take-home was putting concrete images to abstract concepts, like ‘what is permafrost?’ It provides those ‘aha’ moments.”

The researchers will summarize their field campaign for NASA’s “Notes from the Field” blog, and Farina will present her initial findings at the upcoming NASA Terrestrial Ecology Science meeting in Maryland and at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

“For people living in Alaska this is their backyard,” Watts said. “We really need this information to figure out what the future is going to look like, what’s happening now and how our activities as human beings can influence these processes.”

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