Arctic

Understanding the global threat of a rapidly warming Arctic.

The planet’s vast Arctic regions are full of wondrous beauty and wild extremes. They are also warming twice as fast as the global average. This is because the Arctic is at the heart of incredible feedback loops that reveal the direct and immediate results of climate change—while also directly contributing to them. From permafrost thaw to coastal erosion, Arctic and boreal wildfires to greenhouse gas emissions, the fates of the Arctic and of the rest of the planet are intertwined.

Experts
All Arctic Experts

What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.

Reflecting and absorbing sunlight. Storing and emitting carbon. Triggering and steering global weather. Understanding the Arctic is critical to understanding our climate, and the unprecedented fluctuations being seen in Arctic systems threaten to have dire global consequences for generations to come.

By tracking new phenomena like gas-emission craters, implementing innovative tools and strategies like the Arctic Carbon Monitoring and Prediction System, and contributing to long-running studies like the Arctic Great Rivers Observatory, Woodwell Climate researchers are working to measure, track, and attenuate these risks.

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Above: Showing warming as elevation demonstrates the disproportionate effect of climate change on the Arctic. Values represent projected 2040-2060 temperatures (RCP 8.5) minus 1880–1920.

Data from KNMI Climate Explorer

Map by Greg Fiske

Global science helps local communities.

Today, Arctic communities face an onslaught of climate change impacts – thawing permafrost, disappearing sea ice, shifting weather patterns – that threaten lives and livelihoods. There are no easy answers as landscapes erode, infrastructure crumbles, and houses collapse. After spending decades conducting field research in and around Arctic communities, we have a unique obligation and ability to support the people who live there.

Woodwell Climate researchers provide vital data that helps communities better understand how permafrost regions are changing, and how they can prepare, adapt, and respond to their new surroundings.

Left: Darcy Peter collects soil samples. Peter was a Polaris Project student in 2017 and 2018, and now supports the Polaris Project as a research assistant.

Right: Sue Natali and Paul Lefebvre install carbon monitoring equipment.

© Chris Linder

At Woodwell, we work to align science with strategic policy interventions to measure, monitor and prepare for potentially ruinous climate and economic impacts of a rapidly warming Arctic, to clearly illustrate these findings for key decision makers, and to help develop effective solutions to respond to the changes that will likely be felt around the world.

Where we’re focused

From Alaska to Siberia, Arctic permafrost holds significantly more carbon than has ever been released by humans in all of our history. As permafrost continues to thaw due to rising temperatures, it is releasing vast amounts of ancient carbon, as well as newly produced greenhouse gases—methane and nitrous oxide. This brings potentially disastrous consequences for accelerating climate change.

But thawing permafrost emissions have not yet been included in the models and reports that inform international climate policy by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). With partners at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, we have launched the Arctic Carbon Monitoring and Prediction System to collect the best data on Arctic carbon emissions and transform it into sound policy.

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Above: Thawing permafrost in Herschel Island in 2013.

Photo by Boris Radosavljevic

Rising temperatures are reshaping Arctic and boreal landscapes in fundamental ways. As ice melts and permafrost thaws, the ground slumps and cracks. Tundra plants die in massive browning events. And wildfires occur with greater frequency each year—across the Arctic tundra and in boreal forests found in Siberia and Alaska, into Canada and Greenland.

These dramatic changes endanger local communities, lay waste to vast swaths of forest and habitat, and contribute to the release of even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Woodwell scientists are working to help measure and monitor the forces that contribute to extreme Arctic events, while coordinating with local government agencies to create viable mitigation strategies to help keep stored carbon in place.

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Above: A forest fire burning in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, in July 2020. Some areas in Siberia hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit the previous month.

Photo courtesy of Greenpeace International

Water defines Arctic ecosystems. It is home to some of Earth’s largest rivers, drawing from vast watersheds and draining to the Arctic Ocean, while glaciers sculpt the landscape and ice permeates the ground.

By tracking when and how much water is flowing, and analyzing the nutrients it carries, Woodwell scientists gain critical insights into one of the planet’s most rapidly changing systems—helping us better understand what’s happening on land, in coastal areas, and in the atmosphere.

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Above: Woodwell Climate researchers and citizen scientists on the Kwethluk River, Alaska.

© John Le Coq

Local weather is driven and connected by global-scale air currents at multiple levels of the atmosphere. Rapid Arctic warming is wreaking havoc on these atmospheric flow patterns, contributing to extreme weather—from heat waves to severe rainfall and flooding—across the northern hemisphere.

Woodwell Climate researchers have pioneered the science linking Arctic change to weather disruptions, and have shined a public spotlight on this issue through extensive media engagement and in-person events. Working with our partners at the Niskanen Center, we have also called the risks of extreme weather to the attention of policymakers through Congressional testimony.

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Above: Flooded homes in Port Arthur, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey. Rainfall from Hurricane Harvey was made worse by climate change, and slow-moving or stalling hurricanes may be linked to Arctic warming.

Photo by SC National Guard / Public Domain

Woodwell Climate scientists are tackling humanity’s greatest challenge in one of Earth’s most remote and vulnerable environments. It is certainly not something that we can do alone. Each year, through the Polaris Project, we engage the brightest young minds from a diversity of backgrounds, to help solve our most pressing scientific and societal challenges.

 

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Above: 2019 Polaris Project students experiencing hands-on permafrost research in Alaska.

Photo courtesy of Natalie Baillargeon
The Arctic is a vast, beautiful place that is transforming in front of our eyes. Studying these changes is both exciting and sobering, but the knowledge we gain is key to a sustainable climate future. Dr. Sue Natali, Arctic Program Director