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NGEE: Quantifying Climate Change

Source:  Dan Hawkes

The rapid changes to the Arctic landscape over the last 50 years—particularly its thawing permafrost and impact on carbon cycling—has been a source of profound concern to both the inhabitants of the region and scientists who study that region. These changes not only threaten human cultures, but they portend a severe shift in the earth’s climate that would affect all life on Earth. A complete and coherent picture, however, of how these changes are happening, and even further, how these changes affect one another—and further yet, what these changes are all leading to—still does not exist.


The Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment (NGEE), a science project unprecedented in scope, seeks to change this situation. The NGEE team plans to conduct parallel multidisciplinary studies and experiments over molecular-to-landscape scales at two different Alaskan sites—Council (near Nome, on the Seward Peninsula) and Barrow (above the Arctic Circle, the northernmost city in the U.S). The vast quantity of organic carbon-rich soils in such high-latitude environments—coupled with the potential for increased microbial biodegradation of the organic carbon and associated production of greenhouse gases as the climate warms—motivates scientists working on the NGEE to better understand terrestrial ecosystem processes and their feedbacks with climate.

These two sites represent two different stages of permafrost thaw and degradation. Council, the warmer site at a lower latitude, has a thermokarst topography, an irregular landscape formed in permafrost regions by the melting ground ice. Barrow, the colder site, has a generally thick and continuous permafrost, but early stages of warming are apparent there as well. Studying and understanding the impact of permafrost degradation on water distribution, microbiology, vegetation, and soil chemistry—and how all these changes interact and influence ecosystem energy balance and greenhouse gas release to the atmosphere at these two sites over a decade—will provide scientists with a quantified understanding of how extensively and how fast climate change is occurring. This systemic information can then be used to inform, calibrate, and refine high-resolution landscape and climate models, eventually enabling scientists to precisely predict greenhouse gas production under warming conditions, and ultimately allowing policy makers to plan and act based on the best science.

LBNL’s Earth Sciences Division is heavily involved in this project. In support of the project’s principal investigator, Stan Wullschleger (Oak Ridge National Laboratory), ESD’s Deputy Director and Environmental Remediation and Water Resources Program Head Susan Hubbard has assembled a multidisciplinary LBNL team, with each member bringing a specific expertise and perspective with which to explore these Arctic sites. In the field, Hubbard and her team will be applying their geophysical expertise to quantify permafrost degradation and associated subsurface processes at Council and Barrow—a first field campaign is scheduled for late September 2011. ESD Climate and Carbon Sciences co-head Margaret Torn will be investigating energy balance, soil chemistry and vegetation processes at both sites. In the laboratory, ESD Ecology Department’s Janet Jansson will be focusing on samples taken from the sites, investigating the changing soil microbial ecology  that is altered by thaw and resulting increased water content. ESD Climate scientist Bill Riley will be applying all the gathered information to climate models that will capture, with increasing accuracy, the landscape’s evolution and the ecosystem response to that evolution, project how the carbon balance changes within those ecosystems, and how such changes affect the local, regional, and global climates. Many other ESD scientific staff and postdocs will also contribute their expertise to the NGEE project, including Jonathan Ajo-Franklin, Eoin Brodie, Jeffrey Chambers, Timothy Kneafsey, Charlie Koven, Seiji Nakagawa, Jinyun Tang, Ken Williams, and Yuxin Wu.

The team aspect cannot be overstated. Hypotheses generated by these scientists regarding their respective findings will be a step toward bridging the different disciplines and scales at which each of these scientists work. Through iterative observation, experiments, and modeling, the project will facilitate extrapolation from the smallest, microscopic scale (mechanical, molecular, microbial), to the visible scale (landscape, ecosystem, regional), to the global scale.

August 2011 was an eventful month for the NGEE team. The NGEE project plan was reviewed by a panel assembled by the DOE’s Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER);  the team is awaiting responses and hoping for an October 1 official project start date. In the meantime,  Hubbard, Torn, Wullschleger, and other lead NGEE scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks all visited Alaska, not only to gain a first-hand appreciation for Arctic landscapes and inspect the prospective field sites, but to meet with the local communities and town leaders.

Observing hundreds of thermokarst features at the Barrow and Council sites, as well as in between, reinforced the team’s conviction about the importance and urgency of understanding how permafrost degradation impacts greenhouse gas production and climate change. The team also gained a keener appreciation for the traditional knowledge of the local people, those people most directly affected by the changes to their landscape and by the scientific work that will take place in their localities. As reported by the NGEE blog site, these meetings were found to be mutually beneficial. In Barrow, community leaders not only welcomed the initiation of the NGEE project, but also told scientists of further warming evidence in the Arctic—willow trees, ground squirrels, and salmon berries now all thriving where they had never existed before in living memory (see the blog entries by team member Larry Hinzman, Director of the International Arctic Research Center, U. of Alaska, Fairbanks, and NGEE Chief Scientist).

The Council and Barrow townspeople were clearly engaged in the project. They suggested specific sites within the greater Barrow region where the research might most profitably be done to document climate change. Hinzman notes:

The community leaders and the many researchers who are already working here have been very welcoming and helpful in sharing their knowledge and ideas. Many have encouraged us to incorporate traditional or local knowledge into our studies. They have also asked that we present our reports and findings in formats that are understandable and useful for community members.

Embedded below are videos shot during this visit of Hubbard, Torn, and Hinzman discussing the project as they look over the Alaskan landscape:

For information on the project’s sponsor (BER) and other DOE/LBNL/ESD climate work, go to .

For more information on core LBNL (and ESD) core capabilities involved in NGEE, visit the following:

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