The Arctic Ocean is mostly enclosed by the coldest parts of the Northern Hemisphere’s continents, ringed in by Siberia, Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, with only a small opening to the Pacific through the Bering Strait, and some narrow channels through the labyrinth of Canada’s Arctic archipelago.
But east of Greenland, there’s a stretch of open water about 1,300 miles across where the Arctic can pour its icy heart out to the North Atlantic. Those flows include increasing surges of cold and fresh water from melted ice, and a new study in the journal Weather and Climate Dynamics shows how those pulses can set off a chain reaction from the ocean to the atmosphere that ends up causing summer heatwaves and droughts in Europe.
Two new Polaris Project Alumni have been named John Schade Memorial Scholarship recipients. The fund, established in the memory of Dr. John Schade, who founded Polaris and was integral to its success, is dedicated to supporting the higher education goals of students that reflect Dr. Schade’s values of mentorship, education, leadership, equity, and the advancement of Arctic science.
Mandala Pham studies geophysics and history at the University of Texas at Austin. As an undergraduate researcher, she has explored the caves of central Texas, studied marine geophysics in Corpus Christi Bay, and peered back in time to past climates through geology. Her experience in different lab groups spurred her interest in field work, driving her to pursue graduate opportunities to continue getting up close with geology.
During her Polaris experience, however, Pham’s research focused less on geology and more on ecology. Inspired by her father’s affinity for beautiful, rare, and sometimes poisonous mushrooms, Pham studied the response of Arctic mushroom species to wildfire, comparing biodiversity between burned and unburned areas of land.
As part of Polaris, Pham saw a glacier in person for the first time, which reinforced her commitment to dedicate her career to studying and fighting climate change.
“From childhood anxieties to professional aspirations, I’ve taken tackling climate change as my personal direction in life,” says Pham. “I want to be part of the solution rather than spending my time ruminating on the worst-case scenarios.”
She hopes to get her Ph.D. in geophysics, studying glaciology. After that she has aspirations for either full time research or a career in the National Parks Services. Pham is also interested in screenwriting, pig farming, and perhaps one day, becoming a lighthouse keeper.
Aaron MacDonald’s passion for ecology began during his childhood spent on long family camping trips. Through his studies at University of Toronto, MacDonald has gained experience in oceanography and fisheries science through the Woods Hole Partnership Education Program (PEP) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Inclusive Fisheries Internship. His field experience bolstered his confidence to pursue a scientific career.
With Polaris, MacDonald studied the role of willow ptarmigan, a common Arctic ground bird, as drivers of ecosystem dynamics on the tundra. For his career, he hopes to pursue a graduate degree and get involved with mentorship programs like Polaris. MacDonald firmly believes everyone should have the opportunity to study science, and is grateful for the support he received that has allowed him to pursue this career.
“Everyone who wants to is capable of scientific research and everyone has a place in STEM,” says MacDonald. “I have questioned many times if there is a place for me in STEM, but with the support of those around me I am determined to make it.”
In his spare time, MacDonald enjoys running and video games with friends.
Both recipients will receive funding to continue their education and pursuit of science, mentorship, and equity, encouraging a new generation of Arctic scientists working to change the world.
This year, Woodwell Climate’s Just Access Initiative went global. Just Access works in close partnership with communities to provide tailored, actionable climate risk reports for Rio Branco, Brazil; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Summit County, Utah; and Lawrence, MA. At COP28, Just Access released their latest report in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of the DRC, which focused on climate risks and potential solutions in the country and identified carbon markets as a potential funding mechanism for adaptation efforts.
Just Access collaborates with local officials and advocates to ensure the final reports cover information critical to their community’s planning. So far, 14 reports have been completed and more are on the way.
Read the report.
In January of 2023, the Biden Administration restored protections against logging and road-building for more than 9 million acres of the Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest.
This came after Woodwell Climate’s Dr. Wayne Walker and Geospatial Analyst Seth Gorelik, along with long-time collaborator Dr. Dominick DellaSalla of Wild Heritage, delivered a research report to the Biden administration showing massive carbon stores in Tongass National Forest and highlighting the importance of roadless areas.
In 2023, Science on the Fly’s (SOTF) focused their activities on stewarding their community of scientists. Together they collected more than 3,000 water samples from hundreds of locations around the globe. SOTF leverages the passion and dedication of the global fly fishing community to gather data on the health of rivers across the world. With this data, SOTF can improve our understanding of how watersheds and river systems change over time due to climate change and local effects.
Read about the project’s activities this year.
We sent 10 Polaris Project students into the field this summer. The Polaris Project engages the brightest young minds from a diversity of backgrounds to tackle global climate research in one of Earth’s most vulnerable environments: the Arctic.
Students conducted their own research projects over two weeks at a field research station near Bethel, Alaska. Afterwards, they returned to the Center to analyze samples, and presented their findings at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December.
Woodwell Climate also hosted several interns through the Partnership Education Program. These undergraduate students participated in research and communications activities across the center.
Read PEP intern, Jonathan Kopeliovich’s story about research in Howland Forest.
Woodwell Climate has been conducting tropical forest research in Brazil for nearly two decades alongside partner organization IPAM Amazônia. This year, Water Program Director, Dr. Marcia Macedo and collaborators, including Dr. Ane Alencar of IPAM, convened a multi-day workshop in Brazil that produced a policy brief on forest degradation. They then organized experts to submit public comments on Brazil’s updated policy for controlling Amazon deforestation, which for the first time also addresses forest degradation.
Read the policy brief here.
Across the globe, Permafrost Pathways partner, Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), hosted a “Rights, Resilience, and Community-Led Adaptation” workshop on Dena’ina homelands in Anchorage, Alaska. The two-day workshop created space for Tribes to share their expertise with each other and connect face-to-face with federal and state government representatives to access resources and technical assistance.
Read more about the workshop.
Our experts showed up as thought leaders this year at several high profile events. As just a few examples, Woodwell Climate’s Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali and Senior Science Policy Advisor Peter Frumhoff both spoke on panels alongside other leading voices in climate at SxSW in Austin, TX. Senior Geospatial Analyst, Greg Fiske attended the Esri User Conference, where his topographic map of Alaska garnered two awards. And Assistant Scientist, Dr. Ludmilla Rattis gave a talk at TED Countdown about her research on the role of Tapirs in rainforest restoration. (Recording coming in early 2024)
Woodwell Climate team members showed up in over 5,000 media stories this year. Our scientific leadership provided quotes for a broad range of high profile climate stories in New York Times, Reuters, Boston Globe, CNN and Grist, just to name a few. Senior Scientist Dr. Jen Francis was quoted over 4.2K times, appearing in major news outlets like the Washington Post and AP News to provide accessible context about the links between climate change and extreme weather events.
Last fall, Scotty Creek Research Station in Canada—one of the only Indigenous-led climate research stations in the world—was almost entirely consumed by a late-season wildfire. Woodwell Climate’s Permafrost Pathways project is providing rebuilding support to the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation. Project scientists Dr. Kyle Arndt and Marco Montemayor visited the site for two weeks this spring to restore an essential carbon monitoring tower.
Our researchers published 80 peer-reviewed scientific publications this year. From the Arctic to the Tropics, from soil concentrations to river concentrations, Woodwell Climate had a part in discovery.
Explore all our publications.
Woodwell Climate’s President & CEO Dr. Max Holmes brought Woodwell Climate to the main stage of CERAWeek, Green Accelerator Davos, GenZero Climate Summit in Singapore, Climate Week NYC, and Mountainfilm Festival. He discussed cutting-edge climate science alongside notable figures like Bill McKibben and former Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez.Read about Dr. Holmes’ time at Davos.
Woodwell Climate’s Arctic Program Senior Scientist and Permafrost Pathways Lead Dr. Sue Natali was appointed by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland as a member of the new federal Advisory Council for Climate Adaptation Science.
The loss of Arctic sea ice has been a conspicuous hallmark of climate change. But the rate of loss slowed after sea ice extent hit a record low in summer 2012, even though global and Arctic warming continued unabated. New research by an international team of scientists explains what’s behind that perplexing trend. The findings indicate that the stall is linked to an atmospheric wind pattern known as the Arctic dipole, and that stronger declines in sea ice extent will likely resume when the dipole reverses itself in its naturally recurring cycle.
The many environmental responses to the Arctic dipole are described in a paper published recently in the journal Nature Geoscience on long-term trends in pan-Arctic river chemistry. The team found strong signals of environmental change for some chemical constituents, but not in others. Alkalinity, which reflects rock weathering, increased in all rivers, while nitrate, an important nutrient for terrestrial and aquatic organisms, decreased. The authors hope the data and insights from this work will be invaluable to scientists refining models of the Arctic system.
“There’s nothing quite like ArcticGRO,” says Dr. Zolkos. “It’s unique in that it measures a comprehensive suite of chemical parameters across the Arctic’s largest rivers, uses consistent sampling and analytical methods across the rivers, and sampling occurs at the same times and locations. The consistency of ArcticGRO is increasingly valuable, because it is building a dataset which allows scientists around the world to detect, monitor, and understand northern environmental change in ways that no other scientific program does.”
A few thousand miles south of the Arctic circle, on the marshy coastline of Massachusetts, another long-term ecological research project has entered its third decade as well. The brainchild of Senior Scientist Dr. Linda Deegan, the TIDE project is unique even among long-term studies. Rather than simply monitoring the nutrient flows in the salt marshes of Plum Island Estuary, the TIDE project has been altering nutrients in carefully controlled amounts to understand the long term impacts of human development in coastal ecosystems.
TIDE focuses on nitrogen, an element of most fertilizers and a common pollutant from developed areas in the uplands. Previous studies of nitrogen impacts indicated coastal marsh plants could absorb a lot of nitrogen with no ill effects. But that dynamic was only examined on short time scales, and in small plots of marsh. Whether there were changes that might require many years or many acres to be detected, was unknown.
Thus TIDE was designed to increase nitrogen concentrations in the water to mimic coastal eutrophication across three marshes in the Plum Island estuary and document which effects might cascade through the system. The initial grant was for five years, but Dr. Deegan and her collaborators wanted to keep the project running for at least a decade, if not more, expecting the changes might be slow to reveal themselves.
After years of observations, Dr. Deegan says she remembers the exact moment they discovered a significant change.
“Several of the senior scientists—myself included—came back at the end of a long field day each of them saying, ‘I don’t remember it being this hard to walk through the nutrient enriched marsh when we started this project. Am I just getting older or has something changed?’ And then one of the new students said, ‘I thought that marsh was always like that—well, it’s not like that in the other sites where we haven’t added nitrogen.’”
So they followed the hunch, made some new measurements, and found the structure of the marsh had changed significantly with the added nitrogen. The plants, suddenly awash in a necessary component for growth, no longer needed to dedicate their energy to making roots to seek out nutrients; their root systems were shallower and less dense, thus less capable of holding the marsh together. At the same time, nitrogen-consuming microbes were breaking down organic matter in search of carbon to fuel the chemical processes that allow them to take up nitrogen. This combination made the marsh creek edges more susceptible to erosion by tides and storms.
It took more years than most experiments are run for, but increased susceptibility to erosion steadily altered the shape of stream channels. The ground along the edges of the streams, previously held in place by a deep network of roots, now collapsed underfoot. Chunks of marsh fell off the edges as the roots no longer held the marsh together. As the years went on, fish and other organisms that travel along stream floors to seek out food began to suffer from difficult terrain, resulting in slower growth and fewer fish.
These findings, published in Nature, upended the way people thought about the effects of eutrophication on marshes. “And we never would have known any of that,” says Dr. Deegan. “If we hadn’t done the project at an ecosystem scale and over such a long time.”
Over the decades, the TIDE project not only faced the challenges of running a consistent project for so long, but also of justifying making intentional changes to an otherwise healthy ecosystem. The question lingered: If the goal is to protect ecosystems from human disruption, what do we gain from knowingly tinkering with them?
Humans have already accidentally conducted thousands of ecological change experiments across the globe. Casually inflicted pollution, deforestation, or extinction with no control group, no careful observations, no time limits or safeguards—by scientific standards these are reckless and poorly designed experiments.
In Dr. Deegan’s mind, this makes controlled studies like TIDE even more significant.
“We need to know the true impact of the changes that we are already imposing on the environment. And once we do, we need to be able to halt those changes that threaten the integrity of an ecosystem.” Says Dr. Deegan. “This is a pipe I can easily turn off. Not like when you build a housing development and then you’re stuck with all those houses and their impacts forever.”
Climate change is perhaps the most all-encompassing of these involuntary experiments. As ArcticGRO’s and TIDEs results indicate, ecosystem responses to human disturbance, whether it is climate warming or nutrient over enrichment, are complex. Understanding and adapting to these responses will depend on continued monitoring, observation and experimentation.
In the world of research, rife with limited grants and time-bound fellowships, ArcticGRO and TIDE have been uniquely successful. Research Associate, Hillary Sullivan, who has been part of the TIDE project since 2012, attributes this to the dedication of the researchers, who showed up year after year to get the research done even when funding wasn’t certain or while enduring a global pandemic.
“These large scale projects are a testament to the people that are involved in the effort, and the work that goes in behind the scenes to keep it running,” says Sullivan.
Both ArcticGRO and TIDE plan to continue. ArcticGRO is seeking additional funding to analyze new chemical constituents and continue providing invaluable data for scientists and educators to understand how rivers are responding to a warming climate. “ArcticGRO has improved our understanding of the Arctic, and our work is just getting started,” says Dr. Zolkos. “Continuing will be essential for generating new insights on climate change, northern ecosystems, and societal implications.”
TIDE has now shifted to a new phase of study — observing the legacy of the added nitrogen on marsh recovery in the face of climate change induced sea level rise. Nitrogen additions were halted 6 years ago and researchers hope to gain insights into marsh restoration and ways to improve their resilience to sea level rise.
Thinking in the long-term is not something humans have historically excelled at, Dr. Deegan admits. But the more we try to expand our curiosity past immediate cause and effect, the better we get at understanding nature. If you want to understand an ecosystem, you have to think like an ecosystem—which means longer time scales and larger areas that encompass every aspect of the system.
“Nature tends to take the long view and people tend to take the short,” says Dr. Deegan. “So if you can stick with it for the long view, I think you see things in a very different way.”
Arctic wetlands are known emitters of the strong greenhouse gas methane. Well-drained soils, on the other hand, remove methane from the atmosphere. In the Arctic and boreal biomes, well-drained upland soils cover more than 80% of the land area, but their potential importance for drawing methane from the atmosphere—the underlying mechanisms, environmental controls and even the magnitude of methane uptake—have not been well understood.
A recent study led by researchers from the University of Eastern Finland and University of Montreal, in collaboration with Woodwell Climate Research Scientist, Dr. Anna Virkkala, has expanded our understanding of these dynamics, finding that Arctic soil methane uptake may be larger than previously thought. The results show uptake increasing under dry conditions and with availability of a type of soil organic carbon that can be used in microbial uptake processes.
The study was primarily conducted at Trail Valley Creek, a tundra site in the Western Canadian Arctic. The authors used a unique experimental set-up consisting of 18 automated chambers for continuous measurements of methane fluxes. No other automated chamber system exists this far North in the Canadian Arctic, and only few exist above the Arctic circle globally, most of which are installed at methane-emitting sites.
The high-resolution measurements of methane uptake (more than 40,000 flux measurements) revealed previously unknown daily and seasonal dynamics: while methane uptake in early and peak summer was largest during the afternoons, coinciding with maximum soil temperature, uptake during late summer peaked during the night. The study shows that the strongest methane uptake coincided with peaks of ecosystem carbon dioxide respiration—meaning that as methane is removed from the atmosphere, carbon dioxide production in the soil is high. Complementing flux measurements at Trail Valley Creek with measurements at other sites spread across the Canadian and Finnish Arctic showed that the availability of soil organic carbon and other nutrients may promote methane consumption in Arctic soils.
“The methane cycle has previously been primarily studied in wetlands because of their high methane emissions, but this study shows that drier ecosystems are also very important in the methane cycle,” says Dr. Virkkala.
These findings are highly relevant for estimating the current Arctic carbon budget, and for predicting the future response of Arctic soil methane uptake to a changing climate. According to the study, high-latitude warming itself, occurring up to four times faster in the Arctic than the rest of the world, will promote atmospheric methane uptake to a lesser extent than the associated large-scale drying.
“The Arctic methane budget has remained highly uncertain,” remarks the paper’s lead author, Dr. Carolina Voigt. “Our research provides one potential mechanism that might explain those uncertainties, and highlights the importance of methane measurements in drier ecosystems to calculate more accurate methane budgets.”
Climate change is having profound effects on the chemical composition of large Arctic rivers, signaling changes both on land and in the coastal ocean, according to new international research examining chemical signatures in rivers across Canada, Alaska and Russia.
The study, the result of a two-decade effort by the Arctic Great Rivers Observatory, analyzed nearly twenty years of water chemistry and discharge data collected from six rivers that comprise 60 percent of the Arctic Ocean watershed.
The researchers tracked river water ions, key nutrients, and dissolved organic carbon, among other indicators. They found that chemical concentrations changed substantially over the past two decades, but trends across chemical groups were different, with some increasing, some decreasing, and others showing little change.
The international scientific collaboration tracked river water ions, key nutrients and dissolved organic carbon among other metrics. Chemical concentrations changed substantially over the past two decades, but trends across chemical groups were different with some increasing, some decreasing, and some showing little change.
“The only way that this divergence in trends is possible is if multiple factors of change are being brought to bear on the Arctic system at the same time,” says Woodwell Research Assistant, Anya Suslova and co-author on the paper. “We know that permafrost is thawing, vegetation is changing and moving northward, and processing of nutrients and organic matter may be happening more quickly. Global climate change appears to be causing many systems that are critical for ecosystem function to change at the same time—and that change is showing up in the chemical composition of river water.”
Key nutrients observed in river water are declining, according to the study. This trend suggests warming temperatures are increasing biological uptake of nutrients on land or in aquatic ecosystems, leading to an overall decrease despite factors like wildfire and permafrost thaw releasing more nutrients into the waterways.
ArcticGRO represents a partnership between researchers at Woodwell Climate Research Center, University of Alberta, the Marine Biological Laboratory, Florida State University, and the University of New Hampshire, as well as scientific and community collaborators in Siberia and the North American Arctic.
“The success of this study is largely due to its collaborative nature,” says Dr. Max Holmes, Woodwell Climate President and CEO, and founder of the ArcticGRO project. “Without the dedication of scientists and community members across the Arctic, we never would have been able to generate the comprehensive dataset that allowed us to uncover these insights.”
Because trends in river water chemistry are not always acting in the same direction, Dr. Holmes and Suslova say the study will help give scientists a blueprint for thinking about how Arctic change will play out.