Unchecked boreal forest fires are eating into our carbon budget

Proper management could be a cost-effective solution

firefighter stands in front of burning boreal forest

What’s new?

A recent paper, published in Science Advances, has found that fires in North American boreal forests have the potential to send 3 percent of the remaining carbon budget up in smoke. The study, led by Dr. Carly Phillips, a fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), in collaboration with the Woodwell Climate Research Center, Tufts University, the University of California in Los Angeles, and Hamilton College, found that burned area in U.S. and Canadian boreal forests is expected to increase as much as 169 and 150 percent respectively—releasing the equivalent annual emissions of 2.6 billion cars unless fires can be managed. The study found proper fire management offers a cost-effective option, sometimes cheaper than existing options, for carbon mitigation.

Understanding boreal forest carbon

Boreal forests are incredibly carbon rich. They contain roughly two-thirds of global forest carbon and provide insulation that keeps permafrost soils cool. Burned areas are more susceptible to permafrost thaw which could in turn release even more carbon into the atmosphere. Although fires are a natural part of the boreal ecosystem, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of them, which threatens to overwhelm the forest’s natural adaptations.

Despite the value of boreal forests for carbon mitigation, the U.S. and Canada spend limited amounts of funding on fire suppression, usually prioritizing fire management only where people and property are at risk. Alaska accounts for one fifth of all burned area in the U.S. annually, but it receives only 4 percent of federal funding for fire management. Limiting fire size and burned area through proper management can be effective at reducing emissions.

What this means for boreal fire management

To prevent worsening emissions, fire management practices will have to be adjusted to not only protect people and property, but also to address climate change. Fire suppression in boreal forests is an incredibly cost-effective way to reduce emissions. The study found that the average cost of avoiding one ton of carbon emissions from fire was about $12. In Alaska, that means investing an average of just $696 million per year over the next decade to keep the state’s wildfire emissions at historic levels.

Increasing wildfires also pose an outsized threat to Alaska Native and First Nations communities, who may become increasingly isolated, and may lack the resources to evacuate quickly if wildfire encroaches on their lands. Many Alaska Native people already play a crucial role in existing wildfire crews, and investing in more fire suppression could create additional job opportunities for Indigenous communities.

Woodwell launches new project monitoring, combatting the effects of permafrost thaw

A $41 Million grant through The Audacious Project will fund Permafrost Pathways work

collapsing slope near water in siberia due to permafrost thaw
It’s a big idea—a pan-Arctic monitoring network for permafrost emissions—but big ideas are exactly what The Audacious Project was created to foster.

This April, Woodwell Climate Research Center was awarded 41.2 million dollars through Audacious to not only build such a network, filling gaps in our understanding of how much carbon is released into the atmosphere from thawing permafrost, but also to put research to work shaping policy and helping people.

The new project, called Permafrost Pathways, combines scientific prowess from Woodwell with policy, community engagement, and Indigenous knowledge from the Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), and the Alaska Native Science Commission.

Carbon emissions from permafrost thaw are one of the biggest areas of uncertainty in global climate calculations. Thawing permafrost is expected to release between 30 and 150 billion tons of carbon by 2100, the higher estimates on par with or even exceeding the United States’ cumulative emissions if allowed to continue at current rates. Yet permafrost is not accounted for in carbon budgets and international agreements. Permafrost Pathways will develop more complete data on permafrost carbon and deliver that research into the hands of those poised to decide how we deal with the warming Arctic.

Big problems require big solutions

Permafrost Pathways is led on the Woodwell side by Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali and Associate Scientist Dr. Brendan Rogers, who have both been researching permafrost carbon for years. Dr. Natali found her way to the Arctic through a desire to work in a place significant to the global carbon story. The rapid changes she has witnessed in the past decade have underscored the Arctic as ground zero for climate change.

“I’ve seen dramatic changes from one year to the next in the places where I work, and Arctic residents have been observing these changes for decades,” Dr. Natali says. “You can measure something one year and then the ground there collapses the next. The physical changes across the landscape are really startling to see.”

Drs. Natali and Rogers have seen eroded hillslopes, research trips abandoned due to wildfire, community meetings with Arctic residents whose homes are sinking—every experience reinforced the fact that there was still much more to learn about how thawing permafrost feeds into climate change and is impacting Arctic communities.

The Audacious grant will allow Drs. Natali and Rogers to pull together the threads of their prior research into a project that starts to tackle the issue on a grander scale.

“When you’re focused on individual problems or hypotheses, you’re not able to really think big about something like monitoring across the Arctic,” says Dr. Rogers. “Opening up a funding source like this lets you think at a scale that matches the problems we face.”

The project is thinking really big, with the goal of installing 10 new eddy covariance towers—structures with instruments that measure carbon flux—in key areas where data is currently lacking. Pathways will also maintain existing key towers that would otherwise be decommissioned, and augment others to measure carbon fluxes year-round.

“There are a lot of existing towers that are either not running through the winter, or they’re not measuring methane, or they’re on hold for instrumentation upgrades or lack of funding,” Dr. Natali says. “We will get even more new data by maintaining old towers than constructing new ones.”

In parallel, Woodwell will work with a team at University of Alaska Fairbanks to develop a novel permafrost model that fully harnesses the data, accounting for important but currently neglected processes, and ultimately delivers more accurate projections of permafrost emissions to inform policy makers and Arctic communities.

‘It’s an awful decision’

While the science team ramps up new data collection, AIJ will be breaking down the issue of adaptation. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, and it is not waiting for exact measurements to make the consequences known.

The land upon which many Alaska Native communities are located is destabilizing in the face of usteq—a Yupik word for the catastrophic ground collapse that occurs when thawing permafrost, erosion, and flooding combine to pull the ground out from under them. In many places the formerly solid cornerstones of villages—houses, roads, airports, cemeteries— have had to be picked up and moved to more stable ground.

“It is an awful, awful decision that communities are being faced with because the land on which they’re living is becoming uninhabitable,” says Executive Director of AIJ, Dr. Robin Bronen.

On top of the trauma of watching their villages sink into the Earth, there is no clear path for Arctic communities deciding they must completely relocate.

“It’s become painfully clear that we in the United States have no institutional or governance structure to facilitate this type of movement of people,” says Dr. Bronen. There is no standardized way for people displaced by the climate crisis seeking resettlement to apply for funding and technical assistance for a community-wide relocation.

“If policy changes aren’t made nationally, then a lot of communities in the United States are going to be experiencing this incredible disconnect between making the decision that they are ready to leave, but having no resources to implement that decision,” says Dr. Bronen.

Permafrost Pathways will be working with Arctic residents to help them adapt to their rapidly shifting landscape. Through AIJ and the Alaska Native Science Commission, the project will connect with communities, collaborate to generate data they can use in their decision making and, if they make the choice to move, work with them to secure the resources needed for relocation.

Factoring Permafrost Thaw into our Global Future

Permafrost Pathways isn’t the first to tackle these issues but, Dr. Natali says, it does represent a unique combination of expertise that could push forward both carbon mitigation and climate adaptation policies.

Leader of the Arctic Initiative, professor, and Senior Advisor to Woodwell’s president, Dr. John Holdren understands the value of connections in making lasting change; he has been speaking to top policy makers in the U.S. and abroad for much of his career.

“All of us at the Belfer Center have been linking science and policy for a long time and communication is important to that,” says Dr. Holdren. “In my view, it’s going to remain important to have personal connections at high levels.”

Working through these connections, Permafrost Pathways will put the project’s science into the hands of policymakers to impress upon them the issue’s urgency.

“All the news coming out about permafrost carbon has been bad news,” says Dr. Holdren. “I think what we are going to find is that the high estimates are much more likely to be right than the low estimates. We’ve got to get that factored into the policy process.”

For Dr. Natali, the most important outcome of Permafrost Pathways is a future in which the threats presented by permafrost thaw are taken seriously by governments.

“I want to see permafrost thaw emissions accounted for,” says Dr. Natali. “I want to see the national and international community actually wrestle with the effects of permafrost thaw and to take action to respond to the climate hazards.”

Dr. Rogers says he hopes the collaborative nature of this already-big project will have even larger, rippling effects— paving the way for new partnerships and policy change.

“There’s the critical work that we will be doing, and then there are the new doors that a project of this scope opens,” says Dr. Rogers. “And we aren’t reaching our end goal without those open doors.”

The Audacious Project is an initiative of the non-profit TED that funds large-scale solutions to the world’s most challenging problems. Every year, the Project selects a cohort of big ideas to nurture with funding and resources.

A warmer world means snow, rain will be much less predictable

When and where precipitation falls can determine whether or not people have enough drinking water, aquifers can support agriculture, and rivers keep running. Climate change is breaking down the predictability of weather patterns across the globe. Two new releases this week, from the Woodwell Climate Research Center and Probable Futures, flesh out our understanding of how the shifting seasonality of precipitation might impact our future.

Rainy seasons are fluctuating more

A new volume of maps, data, and educational materials launched on the Probable Futures platform today. The volume provides information that helps readers better understand local, regional, and global precipitation trends, showing how they will change with climate change.

The impact of a warmer world on precipitation patterns is not uniform—in some places dry spells will become more common, in others, intense storms, and some places will fluctuate between both. Rainy seasons may start earlier or later in different parts of the world, which will have impacts on growing seasons and agricultural yields.

“Climate change is reshaping both local precipitation patterns and the global water system—and everyone on Earth will be affected,” said Alison Smar, executive director of Probable Futures. “It may seem counterintuitive, but knowing that the future is less predictable is a valuable forecast. Communities need to be more resilient, adaptable, and prepared. It’s within our power today to prepare for the events that are probable, and prevent those with irreversible impacts.”

Snow is melting earlier

Woodwell Associate Scientist, Dr. Anna Liljedahl and Assistant Scientist Dr. Jenny Watts, were co-authors on a paper also released today that documents the impacts of earlier snowmelt in the Arctic. The Arctic is warming more rapidly than anywhere else on earth, which has led to earlier snow melts and longer growing seasons in the tundra.

Conventional hypotheses have predicted that lengthening summers would allow more time for vegetation to grow and sequester carbon, perhaps offsetting emissions elsewhere.

“Our results show that the expected increased CO2 sequestration arising from Arctic warming and the associated increase in growing length may not materialize if tundra ecosystems are not able to continue capturing CO2 later in the season,” said Dr. Donatella Zona, lead author on the paper from the University of Sheffield’s School of Biosciences and the Department of Biology at San Diego State University.

Dr. Liljedahl says that the results highlight the fact that the impacts of climate change will be complex across ecosystems.

“This work shows how important it is to continually assess our assumptions and terminology on how the Arctic system will respond to warming. We often say that warming will lead to a “longer growing season”. We need to be more careful in making that connection,” said Dr. Liljedahl.

Following Woodwell’s ‘North Stars’

The Polaris Project began in 2008 as a way to shepherd a new generation of Arctic and climate scientists into their careers. Each summer, Woodwell has selected a cohort of capable and motivated students, bringing them on a two-week field excursion guided by leaders in the field of Arctic science. Students explore the landscape, design a research project, and collect data, before returning to the Center to analyze their results.

In the United States, Women make up only 28% of the STEM workforce—a trend that is reinforced by lack of support for women and girls to explore a career in science. Polaris aims to combat this. For the women of Polaris, the experience has provided valuable mentorship, built confidence in their skills, and sparked their motivation to forge ahead into their future as scientists. Alumnae of the Polaris Project have gone on to pursue doctorate degrees in climate research, influence climate policy, and some have even returned home to the Center. Here, we meet just a few of the impressive women of Polaris.

Dr. Claire Griffin

Polaris Years 2008, 2013

Dr. Claire Griffin was part of the very first Polaris expedition. In the early days of the program, the field site was located in the far northern region of Kolyma, Russia. She sampled lakes and used remote sensing to map organic matter in the Kolyma River and its major tributaries. Her research grew into a published paper co-authored with Clark University Professor of Geography, Dr. Karen Frey, and Woodwell’s Acting President and Executive Director, Dr. Max Holmes.

Dr. Griffin’s experiences in the Polaris Program have guided her throughout her career. She recalls one afternoon walking back from the homemade lab where students were analyzing their samples, talking with one of the expedition’s leaders, Dr. John Schade.

“I was saying that I found pipetting to be pretty meditative in some ways,” Dr. Griffin says. “You get into a rhythm and the lab work can be kind of soothing. And he said that one of the things in science is that no matter what you’re doing, there is going to be something that is kind of boring, so find the tedium that you like and be able to do that.”

Dr. Griffin says she thought a lot about this when she was making decisions about where to go next. Considering two graduate programs, Dr. Griffin chose the direction of lab chemistry because she couldn’t see herself enjoying the tedium of counting tree rings. She has been working on aquatic chemistry ever since, studying how terrestrial material moves from land into aquatic systems— specifically carbon and nitrogen.

“I would not be doing what I’m doing today if I had not gone through Polaris. The most effective way to learn science is to actually do it, and the learning-by-doing model that Polaris espouses is something that definitely had an effect on me.”

Dr. Griffin wants to share that model with students of her own. She is currently looking for faculty positions at teaching-focused colleges.

“I enjoy teaching and talking about science,” Dr. Griffin says. “If we are going to enact climate change policies for the better, then we need to be able to reach students who are not going into the environmental sciences.”

Dr. Blaize Denfeld

Polaris Year 2009

Throughout her career, Dr. Blaize Denfeld has made her decisions based on spark.

“I feel like every step of the way, something I’ve done has sparked something in me that I realize, ‘maybe this is the next step that I want to pursue.’ So it’s been an interesting journey starting with the Polaris project to today,” says Dr. Denfeld.

After completing the Polaris Project and her undergraduate studies, she applied for a Ph.D. program in Sweden, thinking “I was in Siberia for a month and a half, I can live in a foreign country for a few years.”  It was there she felt a spark for the aspects of science that involved collaboration and coordination, so she accepted her next position at NASA’s Earth science division. After NASA, she felt the spark for combining science and policy and moved on to the US Global Change Research Program, and finally, her current position as Deputy Director of the Swedish Infrastructure for Ecosystem Science (SITES). SITES runs nine ecological research stations across Sweden that monitor the Arctic and Boreal environment. Some of the stations contain ice records that extend back to the 1940s, which Dr. Denfeld says provide a powerful image of just how much the climate is changing.

In her current role, Dr. Denfeld coordinates scientific collaborations across all SITES’s research stations. For Dr. Denfeld, the best part of her position, and of all the jobs she’s held, has been her fellow scientists.

“I think for me it always comes back to the people and the collaborations. Of all the positions I’ve had, the thing I enjoy the most is getting to work with passionate people that are really intelligent and have really good ideas,” says Dr. Denfeld.

Dr. Denfeld says that, whatever direction her career takes next, she hopes to be a model for other women in STEM.

“As my career has progressed, I’ve benefited from really strong women in science, and so I feel a stronger passion now for paying it back for all the female scientists that helped me get to where I am now.”

Emily Sturdivant

Polaris Year 2011

Emily Sturdivant joined the 2011 Polaris expedition to Siberia with an interest in GIS and an open mind about where the experience might lead. Her project involved collecting data on carbon fluxes with a homemade flux chamber that she would later use to ground truth satellite data observations.

“I would go out to a patch of water, anything from a tiny stream to a lake, tip my bucket upside down onto the water and track the change in gas concentration inside the bucket as I measured wind speed and other variables in the surroundings,” Sturdivant says.

Sturdivant recalls the days of field work alternating between chaos and tranquility.

“One of my favorite memories is of when another participant and I headed out to collect samples at a lake across the river from the barge where we were bunked. They dropped us off with an inflatable boat that, along with my bucket and other equipment, we hauled through the bushes and pumped up with one foot or the other sinking through the vegetation,” Sturdivant says. “After the chaos of setting up, drifting on the lake as we collected our measurements in the midst of the wilderness was so peaceful.”

Though Sturdivant didn’t carry on with Arctic research after graduating from Clark University, she still carries what she learned from the experience into her work as a Research Assistant and Geospatial Analyst Consultant at Woodwell where she works on forest carbon analyses.

“That experience became an invaluable reference as I continued in science and remote sensing. Now as I work with pixel values and ground data collected by others, I understand the work and complexity involved in collecting those data,” says Sturdivant.

As she grows in her career, Sturdivant says she is looking forward to being a positive influence on all her fellow colleagues.

“I want to keep being involved in the institution and mentorship,” Sturdivant says. “As Polaris did for me, I want to help others find moments of inspiration and guidance.”

Darcy L. Peter

Polaris Years 2017, 2018, 2019

The universe seemed to conspire around Darcy Peter to bring her to the Polaris Project. The application was forwarded to her by professors and friends alike and she soon found herself on the 2017 expedition examining greenhouse gas emissions from water bodies in Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Peter is an Koyukon & Gwich’in Athabascan from the village of Beaver, Alaska and during that summer, she noticed the Polaris Project did not have much interaction with the Indigenous communities nearby. She brought this feedback to Woodwell Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali.

“I said if Polaris is going to continue for years, we need to have a relationship with the people, and if we are going to train the next generation of Arctic scientists, we should be making sure the research questions we are forming are impacting Alaska Natives in a positive way,” says Peter.

Peter returned as a student mentor in 2018 and worked with Dr. Natali to implement changes to the program that would build stronger relationships with locals in the community of Bethel where Polaris participants stay before heading out to the field site.

Peter organized a meeting where scientists and students could listen to the concerns of community members and apply them to students’ projects. Peter also went on the local radio station to promote the meeting and spearheaded the creation of a newsletter about the project that was translated into Yupik, the traditional language spoken in the region. She volunteered her time in 2019 to lead the community meeting in Bethel again, and joined Woodwell full-time as a Research Assistant in 2020.

“The first community meeting in Bethel was very impactful—seeing seasoned, more experienced scientists have questions for the community… I think it really painted the picture for a lot of the scientists traveling with us that year of the power their research has to truly help people,” Peter says.

Peter is now the face of Woodwell in Alaska, working from Fairbanks surrounded by friends and family to continue building bridges between Woodwell and Alaska Native communities and non-profits, as well as facilitating the Center’s ongoing Arctic fieldwork. She says she intends to dedicate her career to ensuring science is conducted ethically, in a way that benefits people.

“All research has the power to affect change,” Peter says. “What good is research if it only benefits other researchers? I want to keep serving Alaska Native communities and amplifying the voices of my people and my relations, whose voices have been put down their entire lives.”

Dr. Bianca Rodríguez-Cardona

Polaris Years 2017, 2019

Dr. Bianca Rodríguez-Cardona was an experienced Arctic researcher by the time she joined Polaris in 2017. She had been conducting her Ph.D. research on how fires influence stream chemistry in Russia’s Central Siberian Plateau when she heard about the program from Dr. John Schade, one of Polaris’s founding faculty members, at an AGU meeting, and he convinced her to apply.

Dr. Rodríguez-Cardona was confident in her field skills when she arrived in Alaska that summer. But the tundra of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta was different from the boreal forests of her field site in Siberia. Flowing water was much harder to find and she spent days hiking in search of a stream to take her measurements. When she did eventually find one, adding the carefully measured mix of salts she uses to track how nutrients flow through the water, they slipped by so fast she couldn’t jog downstream quickly enough to take a second measurement.

“I was sitting in mud up to my elbows and just thinking ‘this can’t be happening.’ I totally freaked out,” Dr. Rodríguez-Cardona says.

But she had been hiking that day with Dr. Schade, who helped her calm down, reassess the situation, and figure out how to get a second measurement with the supplies she had left. She looks back on that moment as a lesson in inner strength.

“We limit ourselves in whatever we think we can do until we’re there and we have to do it. It’s either now or nothing.” Dr. Rodríguez-Cardona says. “The Polaris Project helped to show me that I’m a lot more capable, stronger, and resilient than I think I am.”

Dr. Rodríguez-Cardona returned to Alaska as a mentor in 2019 and went on to a postdoctoral position at the University of Québec at Montréal. She hopes to find a permanent position after her postdoc that keeps her working and learning in the Arctic.

“I never imagined I’d be an Arctic scientist, but I’ve spent four summers now in the Arctic and Boreal regions. So, there is something to be said about chances and serendipity.”

Natalie Baillargeon

Polaris Years 2018, 2019

For Natalie Baillargeon, 2018 was full of new experiences— it was her first year in Polaris, her first summer research experience, her second ever plane ride, and her first time going camping. But it was not her last. Polaris sparked her passion for ecological research.he returned again in 2019, but to a very different Arctic.

Record-breaking heat, rolling thunder, and dry lightning storms—in Bethel, the heat literally shattered the thermometer.

“There were days where Polaris leaders had to call days short due to fieldwork being dangerous,”  Baillargeon says. “To be doing fieldwork in the Arctic and have to worry about heatstroke is not normal. It was sad and depressing.”

Baillargeon returned back to her college studies, determined to carry the research she began with Polaris through to its conclusion. She was examining the short- and long-term impacts of wildfires on vegetation. After four long years, through transferring colleges and moving her lab twice in the middle of the pandemic, Baillargeon recently submitted her paper for publication; her results show sustained impacts of wildfire on the ecosystem.

She began working at Woodwell Climate, as External Affairs Coordinator—before she graduated—and joined full time in June of 2021. According to Baillargeon, seeing the smoke of wildfires clouding the camp, and feeling the unusual heat of 2019 clarified her desire to affect change through policy as well as science.

“I actually think that 2019 Polaris was another pivotal experience for me because it reinforced my desire to work more on climate policy. I want to help make change instead of documenting the destruction of ecosystems.”

Ellen Bradley

Polaris Years 2019, 2020

Ellen Bradley’s drive to study climate science comes from her Indigenous background. She is Tlingit and was searching for research opportunities close to her homelands when she found Polaris. During the summer of 2019, she marveled at the heat and smoke of a record-breaking season, listened to the concerns of the local communities in Bethel, and played the informal role of an Indigenous educator among her fellow students. Her experience solidified her desire to not only conduct research but to add an Indigenous voice to it.

“My passion about all of this, climate research, climate communication, science communication, comes from my being Tlingit, from my Indigenous background, from my connection to the land, and knowing that the actions that have caused us to be where we are have come from colonization,” Bradley says. “If we are going to solve something like climate change, we are going to need the assistance of the Indigenous people who have lived in these places for, in many cases, over 20,000 years.”

Bradley based her project on the concerns she was hearing from community members around fishing, and used phytoplankton as a proxy for the health of aquatic ecosystems. She intended to return to carry on this research in 2020, but the pandemic postponed expedition plans. Instead, Bradley graduated from Gonzaga into a world altered by COVID-19

Searching for her next step, she got involved in the winter sports community and began skiing for outdoor advocacy groups. She is an athlete for NativesOutdoors, Protect our Winters, and Deuter, as well as a ski ambassador for Crystal Mountain, Washington.

“I know I want to keep skiing as part of my career, using skiing to tell stories about Indigenous people’s joy on the landscape and why outdoor recreation is important for our fight against climate change,” Bradley says.

She began work at Woodwell as a research assistant for the Arctic program in 2021 and she will return to Alaska in 2022 with the other 2020 Polaris students. When she looks towards the future of her career, Bradley says she wants to use the opportunities she’s had to represent Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the climate space.

“I’ve had a lot of privilege to go to school and I’m also really nerdy about science, so it just feels like the best way for me to use the tools I have,” Bradley says. “Incorporating my values into science is helpful to more than just myself and my passions. It’s a voice that has to be out there, or it won’t exist.”

Alma Hernandez

Polaris Year 2020

Alma Hernandez was accepted into the Polaris Project just before the world closed down due to COVID-19. In the uncertainty following lockdowns and rising cases, it became clear that the 2020 cohort wouldn’t be able to travel to the Arctic. Polaris, like everything that year, went virtual.

Though the field components of Polaris were postponed, Hernandez was still able to join Zoom meetings with other students and project mentors. She found the meetings just as meaningful, talking with others whose passions and backgrounds differed from her own, but converged around climate and the environment. Her interests lay in the unique Arctic soil that holds a wealth of information about our Earth’s changing climate.

“The composition of Arctic soils is really unique. They are extremely affected by global warming and have long-term implications as they release more greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change,” says Hernandez.

Since the completion of the program, Hernandez graduated from University of Texas, El Paso, and has been accepted to a Master’s program at the University of New Hampshire. She was also the recipient of the NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship award and Woodwell’s own inaugural John Schade Memorial Fund award. Hernandez says she feels indebted to the mentorship she has received from Polaris.

“There were many instances when I felt overwhelmed by the thought of not having the qualifications to apply for graduate school or fellowships. I almost gave up, but Sue [Natali] and the Polaris Alumni were all so encouraging. My success in these applications wouldn’t have been possible without their support,” says Hernandez.

Members of the 2020 cohort will be completing their field experience this summer. Hernandez is looking forward to her long-awaited trip to Alaska, excited to finally see the Arctic soils she has been studying so diligently. After that, she plans to complete her master’s degree and, perhaps after a well-earned break from school, earn a Ph.D.

“I want to be able to contribute at least a little portion of knowledge to serve people in the future. My dream was always to be a researcher, and I plan to keep pursuing this goal.”

Tune in to PBS NOVA on February 2 to watch Arctic Sinkholes, an original documentary that explores the hidden dynamics of thawing permafrost and the emissions it releases. The documentary features Woodwell Arctic Program Director, Dr. Sue Natali, alongside other prominent climate scientists working to better understand how climate change is impacting the Arctic. 

The film centers on the 2014 discovery of methane craters in the Arctic. These features of the landscape are formed as permafrost thaws, and trapped greenhouse gasses expand, pushing the soil up. When the pressure becomes too great, these bubbles of earth can  explode suddenly, creating massive craters on the Arctic landscape and releasing a burst of atmosphere-warming gasses. 

“There’s a lot of discussion about carbon dioxide and its relationship to climate, but the impact of

methane coming out of the Arctic is potentially enormous,” says NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort. “Making accurate predictions about the future depends on good data, and Arctic Sinkholes reveals what scientists have to do to get that data, as they try to measure an invisible, odorless gas that’s underground in some of the most remote and challenging environments in the world.”

To better understand the extent and significance of these craters, Dr. Natali and Woodwell Senior Geospatial Analyst, Greg Fiske, devised a method of mining satellite imagery data for key characteristics that would indicate a recent explosion. A sudden shift from vegetation to water, for example — often, craters quickly fill up with rain, becoming lakes that obscure their own origins.

Outgassing from the craters themselves represents only a small subset of the larger potential emissions from permafrost thaw. Current estimates show that thawing permafrost could contribute as much to warming this century as continued annual emissions from the United States. 

Methane craters make evident the speed at which the Arctic is warming, and the changes permafrost thaw is causing on the landscape. In their research, Dr. Natali and Fiske uncovered other impacts of permafrost thaw— slumping ground, sinkholes, and coastal erosion are destabilizing the ground on which many Arctic communities are built. 

“These abrupt changes that are occurring in this once-frozen ground are happening faster than we expected,” said Dr. Natali. “And that is not only going to accelerate warming, but also affect the lives of millions who make their home in the Arctic.”

Future research will work towards more precise estimates of permafrost thaw emissions and a better understanding of the changing Arctic.

Arctic Sinkholes premieres Wednesday, February 2, 2022 at 9pm ET/8C on PBS and will be available for streaming online at pbs.org/nova and on the PBS video app.

Arctic communities and infrastructure under threat from thawing permafrost

Leaning fire hydrant from subsiding ground illustrating hazards of permafrost thaw
The Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the globe in the last two decades. In this region where the ground in some places is literally made of ice, rapid warming poses a serious threat to the lives, livelihoods and infrastructure of Arctic communities. A new review led by Dr. Gabriel Wolken from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and Woodwell Associate Scientist Dr. Anna Liljedahl details the biggest hazards that could result—and in some cases already have—from permafrost and glacial thaw.

The paper was released as a special addition to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card, an annual report on the status of the Arctic region. In it, the authors outline what we know, and the much larger gaps in our knowledge, about how thawing permafrost and melting glaciers are impacting Arctic communities.

Ice holds the Arctic together. An estimated 23 million square miles of land in the Northern hemisphere is permafrost, soil that traditionally stayed frozen solid year-round. When it begins to thaw, the land slumps, which can cause sinkholes, erosions, and landslides. Retreating glaciers can also destabilize mountain slopes. When collapsing glaciers or mountainsides fall into a nearby water body, they can set off a chain of cascading hazards, including outburst floods, debris flow, and even tsunamis.

Events like these have already been documented, with serious impacts on Arctic residents, yet research and monitoring of these hazards have been lacking.

“Houses are already collapsing, communities are already being impacted by permafrost thaw and having to adapt, including in some cases, to relocate. That’s been happening for a decade, at least, and it’s not getting the attention it should be,” says Woodwell Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali, who also contributed to the Report Card.

And there is vast potential for unstable Arctic ground to have far-reaching global impacts. The collapse of an oil tank in Norilsk, Russia was partly attributed to the extremely warm conditions of 2020. Roads, pipelines, and shipping lanes are all at risk from thaw-related hazards.

“It’s not only affecting someone living near a glacier or on permafrost, it also extends farther than that,” Dr. Liljedahl says. “It includes national security. And we do not have broad-scale hazard identification and detection across the Arctic, or near real-time tracking of permafrost thaw and unstable slopes. We can do a lot more in utilizing the vast amounts of remote sensing imagery and observations made by people living in permafrost and glacier-affected landscapes.”

What’s desperately needed, Dr. Liljedahl says, are early warning systems that can alert residents of imminent threats, especially ones designed in tandem with the communities being affected. But, without more research and widespread monitoring of permafrost and unstable slopes, building such a  system would be nearly impossible—akin to taking precautions against a volcanic eruption without knowing where the volcano is.

The behavior and rate of thaw is also likely to change as climate change progresses. Permafrost itself releases emissions when it thaws and that accelerates the warming process, increasing the urgency for the necessary systems to be put into place.

“The rate of hazard formation and the combined effects of these hazards is much higher than it has been in the past, which will make it more challenging to respond to without accelerated efforts to monitor and map these hazards, and develop cohesive response plans,” says Dr. Natali.

Success or failure? Woodwell scientists deem COP26 a mixed bag

Glasgow Climate Pact alone is not enough to limit warming to 1.5 C, but COP26 made real progress

hanging globe above the main stage at COP26, photo by Beth Brazil

For the first two weeks of November, diplomats and scientists from around the world descended on Glasgow, Scotland for the United Nations’ 26th annual Conference of Parties—hailed by some as the “last, best, hope” for successful international cooperation on the issue of climate change. Woodwell sent three expert teams to push for more ambitious policies that integrate our understanding of permafrost thaw and socioeconomic risks, and for financial mechanisms to scale natural climate solutions. Here are their thoughts on the successes and failures of this pivotal meeting.

CONSERV panel with (left to right) Marcela Paranhos (IDH), Marcelo Stabile (IPAM), Glenn Bush (Woodwell), and Jenny Xie (Wellington), photo by Anneka Williams

Bold pledges but uncertain follow-through for tropical forests

The conference started off with a bold promise from 100 nations to end deforestation by 2030, accompanied by a pledge of more than $19 billion from both governments and the private sector. Though similar pledges to end deforestation have failed in the past, the funding pledged alongside this one gives reason to be hopeful.

$1.7 billion of the funds are allocated specifically to support Indigenous communities, which Woodwell Assistant Scientist Dr. Glenn Bush believes is a big step forward, though creating policies that are equally supportive will be where the real work gets done.

“It’s particularly welcome that Indigenous peoples are finally being acknowledged as key protectors of forests. The real challenge, however, is how to deliver interlocking policies and actions that really do drive down deforestation globally and scale up nature-based solutions to climate change.”

Dr. Ane Alencar, Director of Science at IPAM Amazônia, said that, for Brazil, half of the solution could come from enforcing existing laws and designating public forests. The other half could come from consolidating protected areas, creating incentives for private land conservation, and providing technical support for sustainable food production.

Dr. Bush also presented the CONSERV project, a joint initiative between IPAM and Woodwell that provides compensation for farmers who preserve forests on their land, above and beyond their legal conservation requirements. Increasing the scale and financing of viable carbon market plans like CONSERV could be crucial in incentivizing greater forest protection.

risk panel with (l-r) Dr. Elena Manaenkov (WMO), Thandie Mwape (IFRC), Dr. Katharine Hayhoe (Nature Conservancy), Nick Bridge (UK Special Rep), and Dr. Li Zheng (Tsinghua University), photo by Natalie Baillargeon

Climate risk a growing focus for governments

During the second week of the conference, Woodwell released a summary report on a series of climate risk workshops with policymakers and climate risk experts from 13 G20 nations. These workshops, conducted in collaboration with the COP26 Presidency and the British government’s Science and Innovation Network, identified challenges to incorporating climate risk assessments into national-level policy, and the report made recommendations for moving from simply making the science available to making it useful for implementation. The report demonstrated a desire from policymakers to get involved in climate risk analyses early in the process, to ensure the information addresses a country’s particular needs.

One success of the conference was the creation of a new climate risk coalition, led by Woodwell. The coalition, composed of 9 other organizations, will produce an annual climate risk assessment for policymakers.

“Understanding the full picture of climate risk is incredibly important when you’re setting policy,” explained Woodwell’s Chief of External Affairs, Dave McGlinchey. “We also heard, however, that the climate risk assessments need to be designed with the policymakers who will eventually use them. This research must speak directly to their interests if it is going to be delivered effectively.”

The increased desire of policymakers to better understand and address oncoming climate risks demonstrates an important shift to viewing climate change as a present problem, rather than solely a future one.

Dr. Rachel Treharne presents in the Cryosphere Pavilion, photo by Dave McGlinchey

Permafrost thaw presents the greatest remaining uncertainty in forecasting emissions

One risk that still isn’t high enough on the COP agenda is rapid Arctic change, particularly permafrost thaw. The Cryosphere Pavilion, hosted by the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, convened conversations ranging from the implications of permafrost thaw, to environmental justice for Northern Communities and respecting Indigenous knowledge and culture. For Arctic Program Director, Dr. Sue Natali, the Indigenous-led panels were some of the most impactful of the conference. But postdoctoral researcher Dr. Rachael Treharne noted that, no matter how well attended, there’s a difference between being in the Cryosphere Pavilion and being on the main stage.

Woodwell was among a group of organizations pushing to get permafrost emissions the attention it demands. Emissions released by thawing permafrost are currently not accounted for in national commitments, but are potentially equivalent to top emitting countries like the U.S. November 4 at the conference was “Permafrost Day” and each event was at full capacity for the pavilion, signaling growing attention to permafrost science. Woodwell, alongside a dozen polar and mountain interest groups called for even more commitment to the cryosphere conversation at the upcoming Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice U.N. climate conference in Bonn scheduled for June of 2022.

Even with this greater recognition of the seriousness of Arctic climate change, the region and its people are being hit much harder and faster than the rest of the globe. Slow-moving decision-making and talk without follow-through will seriously endanger Arctic residents.

“I left the COP having a very hard time feeling ‘optimistic’, while knowing that the hazards of climate change are already severely impacting Arctic lands, cultural resources, food and water security, infrastructure, homes, and ways of living,” said Dr. Natali. “After repeated years of record-breaking Arctic wildfires, heatwaves, and ice loss, I’m not sure how a 1.5 or 2C warmer world—one in which we know that these events will only get worse—is a reasonable goal.”

Though missing necessary milestones at COP26, climate action is accelerating

Overall, however, the final Glasgow Climate Pact fell short of the ambitious action the world needs in order to limit warming. The deal made several last-minute compromises surrounding the phase out of fossil fuels. COP president Alok Sharma said that, while a future with only 1.5 degrees of warming is possible, it is fragile—dependent on countries keeping to their promises.

Despite this, McGlinchey says there was real progress at COP26. The conference reached a resolution that earned the unanimous agreement of all attending parties. The formal process has also begun to accelerate, with nations required to return with more ambitious climate mitigation plans next year, rather than on the previous five year timeline.

“We are not yet where we need to be,” McGlinchey said. “But we are better off than where we were two weeks ago. Let’s keep going.”

Black spruce are losing their legacy to fire

Although evolved to thrive in fire-disturbed environments, a recent study shows more frequent fires are threatening black spruce resilience

burnt black spruce forest with young poplar understory, photo by Jill Johnstone
For the past five to ten thousand years, black spruce have been as constant on the boreal landscape as the mountains themselves. But that constancy is changing as the climate warms.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, led by Dr. Jennifer Baltzer, Canada Research Chair in Forests and Global Change at Wilfrid Laurier University, found that shifts in wildfire regimes are pushing black spruce forests to a tipping point, beyond which the iconic species may lose its place of dominance in boreal North America.

Synthesizing data from over 1500 fire-disturbed sites, the study showed black spruce’s ability to regenerate after fire dropped at 38% of sites and failed completely 18% of the time—numbers never before seen in a species evolved to thrive after fire.
healthy black spruce forest

The Stabilizing Feedback of Black Spruce

“They almost look like a Dr. Seuss tree.” says Dr. Brendan Rogers, an Associate Scientist at Woodwell and co-author on the PNAS study. He’s referring to the way black spruce are shaped—short branches that droop out of spindly trunks. Clusters of small dark purple cones cling to the very tops of the trees. Black spruce forests tend to be cool and shaded by the dense branches, and the forest floor is soft and springy.

“The experience of walking through these forests is very different from what most people are accustomed to. The forest floor is spongy, like a pillow or waterbed,” Dr. Rogers says. “It’s often very damp, too, because black spruce forests facilitate the growth of moss and lichen that retain moisture.”

However, these ground covers can also dry out quickly. Spruce have evolved alongside that moss and lichen to create a fire-prone environment. It only takes a few days or even hours of hot and dry weather for the porous mosses to lose their moisture, and the spruce are full of flammable branches and resin that fuel flames up into the tree’s crown.

Black spruce need these fires to regenerate. Their cones open up in the heat and drop seeds onto the charred organic soil, which favors black spruce seedlings over other species. The organic soil layers built up by the moss are thick enough to present a challenge for most seedlings trying to put down roots, but black spruce seeds are uniquely designed to succeed.

Dr. Jill Johnstone, Affiliate Research Scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who also contributed to the PNAS study, compares it to a lottery system that black spruce have rigged for millennia.

“After fire, anything can happen,” says Johnstone. “But one way to make sure you win the lottery is to buy a lot of tickets. Black spruce has the most tickets. It has the most number of seeds that are the right size to get roots down into mineral soil, and so it tends to regenerate after fire.”

Potential competitors like white spruce, Dr. Johnstone says, don’t disperse very far from standing trees so they only get a few lottery tickets. Deciduous species like aspen or birch have seeds that are too small to work through the thick organic layers—their tickets are faulty. So the fire lottery tends to perpetuate black spruce’s dominance in what’s known as a “stabilizing feedback loop”.

intact spruce forest, photo by Brendan Rogers

Hotter, Dryer Conditions are Inhibiting Black Spruce Regeneration

That stable loop has begun to break down, however. Black spruce just aren’t re-establishing themselves as frequently after fire. The study examined the characteristics of different sites to better understand what might be hampering regeneration success.

recently burned black spruce trunks, photo by Brendan Rogers
Sites that failed to regenerate with black spruce were typically drier than normal. They also tended to have shorter intervals between successive fires. Black spruce stands have historically experienced the kinds of intense, stand-replacing fires that burn through everything only once per century. This long interval allows the trees to build up a healthy bank of cones to release seeds the next time they burn. More frequent, returning fires short-circuit the regeneration process.

Increased burning also strips away more of that thick organic soil layer that favors black spruce, revealing mineral soils underneath that level the playing field for other tree species. The more completely combusted those organic layers are, the more likely spruce are to have competition from jack pine, aspen, or birch. Loss of black spruce resilience was more common in Western North America, which aligns with the fact that drier sites are more likely to lose their black spruce.

burnt boreal forest, photo by Brendan Rogers
“Basically, the drier the system is, the more vulnerable it is to fire,” Dr. Baltzer says. “And these are the parts of the landscape that are also more likely to change in terms of forest composition, or shift to a non-forested state after fire. If climate change is pushing these systems to an ever drier state, these tipping points are more likely to be reached.”

For Dr. Rogers, it also highlights the real possibility of losing black spruce across much of boreal North America as the region warms.

“This is evidence that black spruce is losing its dominant grip on boreal North America,” Rogers says. “It’s happening now and it’s probably going to get worse.”

Losing Black Spruce Could Accelerate Permafrost Thaw

Landscape-wide ecological shifts from black spruce to other species will have complicated, rippling impacts on the region.

Of most concern is the impact on permafrost. In many parts of the boreal, those mossy soil layers that promote black spruce also insulate permafrost, which stores large amounts of ancient carbon. Replacing the dark, shaded understory of a black spruce forest with a more open deciduous habitat that lacks mossy insulation could accelerate thaw. Thawing permafrost and associated emissions would accelerate a warming feedback loop that could push black spruce to its tipping point.

Widespread loss of black spruce also has implications for biodiversity, particularly caribou species that overwinter in the forest and feed on lichen. Both barren-ground and boreal caribou, important cultural species for northern communities, are already in decline across the continent and would suffer more losses if the ecosystem shifts away from the black spruce-lichen forests that provide food and refuge.

Dr. Johnstone did point out some potential for black spruce to recover, even if initial regeneration post-fire is dominated by other species. Slower growing, but longer lived, conifers can often grow in the shade of pioneer deciduous species and take over when they begin to die off—but this requires longer intervals between fires for the spruce to reach maturity. There is also the possibility that more deciduous trees, which are naturally less flammable than conifers, could help plateau increasing fires on the landscape.

But both these hopes, Dr. Baltzer says, are dependent on getting warming into check, because deciduous or conifer, “if it’s hot enough, and the fuel is dry enough, it will burn.”