Arctic Carbon Monitoring and Prediction System

Thawing permafrost is one of the greatest global hazards.

Frozen Arctic soil, or permafrost, stores a vast amount of carbon – double what is currently in the atmospher. Thawing threatens to release that carbon and set off a vicious cycle of amplified global warming. But the magnitude of the risk is uncertain. We need more information.

Woodwell Climate Research Center is developing a comprehensive system for monitoring and projecting carbon emissions from Arctic permafrost and wildfire. Through a partnership with the Arctic Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, we are working to ensure these carbon emissions are considered in international climate policy.

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Above: Vegetation samples are collected for sorting and analysis at camp base. Samples are also brought back to the Woodwell campus for further study.

Permafrost contains more carbon than has ever been released by humans.

As the Earth warms, permafrost thaws, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These emissions, much like burning fossil fuels, contribute to global warming.

The fate of permafrost will have a huge impact on our future climate, but because scientists do not know exactly how much carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide will be released, permafrost emissions are often excluded from climate models.

Above: An aerial view of the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta area where Woodwell scientists frequently conduct research.

Joining forces for maximum impact

A key goal of the project is to ensure Arctic permafrost and wildfire carbon emissions are taken into account in the 2023 “global stock take” called for in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Our partnership with The Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center leverages Woodwell Climate’s leadership in Arctic ecosystems research and The Arctic Initiative’s broad network and deep policy expertise.

Woodwell Climate’s Arctic Carbon Monitoring and Prediction System will include:

  • Field research to understand the processes driving emissions from permafrost thaw and wildfire, as well as monitoring of key variables in under-sampled regions to allow scaling of observations across the Arctic.
  • Remote sensing to scale up field-based observations to the full Arctic region. It will deliver near-real-time estimates of wildfire-burned areas, measuring plots down to the size of a baseball diamond, as well as estimating burn depth and carbon emissions.
  • Modeling to evaluate the implications of Arctic permafrost emissions for global climate policy.
  • Development of a high-powered and interactive web visualization platform to communicate Arctic change to the public, policymakers and Arctic residents.

The Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center will include:

  • Convening policymakers and scientists, at venues such as the Arctic Research Forum and Harvard University, to understand ongoing efforts, gaps and opportunities regarding permafrost thaw on the global climate.
  • Communicating findings to policy-makers and opinion leaders in key nations and the Arctic Council.
  • A link to Harvard teaching and fellowship programs to help train a new generation of Arctic policy leaders.

Above: Edge of the Polaris Project base camp with a nearby flux tower.

Below: Dr. Sue Natali investigating an area with evidence of permafrost thaw.

Meet the Team

Science Lead

Susan M. Natali

Dr. Susan Natali

Arctic Program Director & Associate Scientist, Woodwell Climate Research Center

 

Policy Lead

Dr. John P. Holdren

Co- Director of Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Senior Advisor to the President, Woodwell Climate Research Center

 

Project Support

Beth Brazil

Beth Brazil

Director of Foundation Relations

With the Arctic already warming twice as fast as the global average, permafrost thaw presents urgent questions that drive the work of Woodwell scientists.

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