NSF Grant Enables Arctic Research

WHRC is proud to announce that the National Science Foundation has awarded Assistant Scientist Rob Spencer a grant to conduct important polar systems research. The funding will make it possible to study and greatly improve understanding of the feedbacks among climate change, permafrost thaw, and atmospheric carbon.

Permafrost soils in the Arctic contain vast quantities of ancient organic matter. If thawed, the decomposition of this aged organic carbon will release the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) to the atmosphere, fueling a positive feedback between permafrost thaw and global warming. The term “carbon bomb” has been used to describe this process, primarily in the popular press but also within scientific journals such as Nature and Science.

Numerous studies have shown extensive permafrost thaw and degradation in the Arctic, but dissolved organic carbon (DOC) exported from the mouths of large Arctic rivers – which are expected to integrate processes and changes occurring through their watersheds – has been shown to be predominantly modern. This raises the question, where is the ancient organic carbon that is mobilized from permafrost degradation and the deepening of the active layer? Dr. Spencer and his colleagues will work to answer that question.

“As part of our recent work in this field over the last few years, we have greatly improved contemporary carbon budgets for Arctic watersheds and highlighted the fact that mobilized terrestrial carbon is much more reactive than previously thought,” he adds. “Such fundamental research is imperative, as we need to comprehend the present-day system if we are ever to understand and predict how future warming will impact the vast carbon stories held in Arctic watersheds.”

Results from this project will provide a baseline against which inevitable future change can be gauged, as well as greatly improving understanding of carbon dynamics in Arctic streams and rivers. An educational DVD will also be compiled in conjunction with students and teachers from a local school in Boston with a 100% minority enrollment. The DVD will focus on the impact of climate change in the Arctic, particularly with respect to the carbon and hydrologic cycles, and will feature relevant background information positioned for the current science curriculum and a number of experiments designed to excite middle school students about science.

“Arctic fieldwork is never straightforward,” says Dr. Spencer. “It’s logistically challenging, the weather can be brutal, insects can be voracious and it is not without inherent dangers. Thanks to this grant from the National Science Foundation, our important work can continue in a region which along with its people is at the forefront of climate change.”