Polaris Project alumni and early career scientists, Aquanette Sanders and Edauri Navarro-Peréz were awarded the 2022 John Schade Memorial scholarship. The fund, established to honor Dr. Schade’s unwavering dedication to mentoring young scientists, recognizes two students per year who are pursuing higher education and reflect Dr. Schade’s values of mentoring, education, leadership, equity in the sciences, and advancing Arctic and environmental science to mitigate climate change.
“The purpose of the fund is to support the next generation of scientists who are making a lifelong career and personal commitment to activities that reflect and demonstrate Dr. Schade’s values,” said Dr. Nigel Golden, a postdoctoral researcher at Woodwell and coordinator of the fund. “We were profoundly impressed with this round of applications. All of the applicants for the scholarship were exceptional early-career scientists who are doing timely and important research, and whose career trajectories have been impacted by their mentorship through Dr. Schade, or through their mentors who worked with him. For Aqua and Edauri, what really helped to set them apart was a demonstrable commitment to creating spaces to ensure the success of scientists from a diversity of backgrounds.”
Aquanette Sanders is a Masters student at the University of Texas, Austin, pursuing a degree in Marine Science. However, as a Polaris participant, Sanders’ research focused on the soil. She studied greenhouse gas fluxes from thermokarst features— depressions and bumps in the tundra landscape formed by permafrost thaw. Sanders studied how emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide differed between these features and undisturbed areas of tundra.
Sanders’ career so far has taken her from an undergraduate research program with Maryland Sea Grant, to a SEA Education cruise to the Sargasso sea, to the Simpson Lagoon on Alaska’s North Slope, where she is currently researching groundwater nutrient flows as they change with thawing permafrost. For Sanders, the experience with Polaris affirmed her interest in climate change and Arctic science.
“The Polaris Project was my gateway into Arctic science,” says Sanders. “Seeing the effects of permafrost thaw first-hand, with the large amount of thermokarst features in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, confirmed that my research interest in greenhouse gasses and nutrient cycles— a topic that still has so many rising questions that need to be answered.”
Sanders says she is always looking for her next step forward in research. She plans to pursue a dual doctorate in veterinary medicine and research after completing her masters degree. She wants to combine her background in chemistry and biology to understand how changes in nutrients will affect aquatic animals at the top of the food web.
“My research is motivated purely by the eagerness to learn more. As I find new results, I ask more questions that eventually lead to more experiments or hypotheses. This keeps me excited and ready for present and future research,” says Sanders.
Edauri Navarro-Pérez is Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University, with a background in soil, root ecology, and drylands restoration. As a Polaris student, Navarro-Pérez investigated whether there were differences between emissions coming from burned and unburned areas of the tundra. Her work contributed to a body of research examining how fires are affecting chemical processes in tundra soils— specifically respiration, which emits carbon and nitrogen. For her, Polaris was an opportunity to gain experience with field methods.
“Polaris contributed a lot to my knowledge in terms of how soil science is done in the field, as well as the process of the scientific method— from developing my own question to seeing the results of my work,” Navarro-Pérez said.
From Polaris, to working as an undergraduate lab technician, to conducting research in Belize and Costa Rica, Navarro-Pérez is led by her curiosity. She is especially interested in the way soil connects to our daily lives, and how understanding the interactions between plant roots and the soil in which they’re growing can lead to a deeper understanding of climate change.
“Understanding how restoration projects can affect plant development and how plants can affect soils in the longer run, through decomposition and soil respiration, can be pertinent to environmental planning for climatic issues,” said Navarro-Pérez.
Navarro-Pérez said she feels grateful that an environmental scholarship supporting Latina and Latino students enabled her to earn her undergraduate degree. She now hopes that her future career will involve research, mentoring, and teaching, as well as exploring her research topics through art and literature which provides a different frame for examining the world around us.
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.
Woodwell Climate Research Center has released its first course in partnership with FutureLearn, a UK-based global social education platform that delivers learning through online courses, partnering with more than 260 universities and brands. FutureLearn aims to transform access to education for their diverse network of over 17 million learners with courses that empower them to solve the world’s biggest challenges, and Woodwell will be developing additional future courses through the partnership that address other areas of our scientists’ expertise, such as forest carbon and risk assessment.
The newly released course, Thawing Permafrost: Science, Policy, and Environmental Justice in the Arctic, represents years of Woodwell scientists’ research and experience in permafrost regions. It features Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali and Associate Scientist Dr. Brendan Rogers, who also lead Woodwell’s Permafrost Pathways project, as well as Woodwell’s Chief Communications Officer Dr. Heather Goldstone. Over the 4 weeks of the course, learners are introduced to advanced geology and climate science concepts relating to permafrost, translated into an accessible, go-at-your-own-pace experience.
“Permafrost thaw is an underappreciated problem, which unfortunately means that its impacts continue to be underestimated,” said Dr. Brendan Rogers. “While I’m excited for people to learn more about it through the course, my biggest hope is that all of those people will then share what they learned with someone else, and help expand the conversation.”
Offered free of charge on FutureLearn’s online platform, the course is designed for a broad audience, from policy influencers to business leaders, teachers, activists, and anyone interested in climate change.
“Unfortunately, climate change may not be a significant part of people’s formal education. But we all need to understand what’s going on,” said Woodwell Chief Communications Officer, Dr. Heather Goldstone. “With FutureLearn, we can share our insights and expertise with a large, diverse audience, delve into content more deeply than we ever could in a webinar, and provide a more interactive and flexible experience for learners.”
The course is open now for enrollment and on-demand learning, and Woodwell will be offering a facilitated session immediately after COP, with moderators available to answer learner questions.
With the Arctic warming 3 to 4 times faster than the rest of the world, permafrost thaw has become a significant climate threat. Scientists estimate that permafrost contains 1.4 trillion tonnes of carbon, an amount more than double what is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere. That carbon sink is stable as long as it stays frozen, but with recent and projected thaw, the organic matter in permafrost is breaking down and releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, increasing the rate of climate change.
Addressing this issue requires extensive data collection on permafrost emissions, as well as equitable strategies for adaptation by Arctic communities. To tackle this issue, Woodwell has partnered with the Arctic Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School, the Alaska Institute for Justice, and the Alaska Native Science Commission to connect experts in climate science, human rights, and public policy with frontline communities and high-level decision makers. The partnership is pioneering a six-year research program called Permafrost Pathways that will develop action plans to address the compounding impacts of permafrost thaw.
With the understanding that this needs to be a sustainable process with long-term impact, Permafrost Pathways’ scientists are expanding and coordinating a pan-Arctic carbon monitoring network to improve the accuracy of permafrost thaw emissions estimates. More precise measurements will fill critical data gaps and reduce uncertainties, so that permafrost emissions can be factored into global carbon budgets, climate models, targets, and measures for mitigation and adaptation. That, combined with high-resolution satellite and aircraft-based observations and advanced computer modeling, will allow for tracking the changing landscape in near real-time and more accurately projecting future emissions.
Permafrost Pathways is also collaborating with local communities to co-create Indigenous-led adaptation strategies. For many, relocation or infrastructure upgrades are needed urgently, but there is currently no process or resources to enable communities to move forward. With Arctic residents already feeling the brunt of climate change, the involvement of frontline communities is crucial in developing successful adaptation plans and effective policies.
Despite its big strides, Permafrost Pathways is still in its infancy and there is a long road ahead when it comes to tackling the complexity of permafrost thaw. Today, at least 192 countries, plus the European Union, have signed on to the Paris Agreement’s promise of reducing emissions to keep warming below 2 degrees C. But many emissions reduction goals do not include carbon released by permafrost thaw. The international community needs to take strong action to change this or else permafrost thaw could undermine climate goals.
In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2021 report, permafrost thaw was named as an issue that should be included in carbon budgets and global reduction schedules, but often isn’t because there is not enough data on its climate impact. Continued support of data gathering programs like Permafrost Pathways will provide the international community, top country-level climate negotiators, and environmental ministers the knowledge needed to fix that oversight and start filling gaps.
In Arctic communities, permafrost thaw is already causing disasters like flooding, coastal erosion, and infrastructure damage. To combat this, national and international policy makers need to act now to integrate permafrost thaw into disaster policies and community-led adaptation frameworks. This will create clear planning and response procedures for future permafrost-related issues.
Permafrost thaw is an issue that affects everyone. Understanding the local and global implications and sharing that information within immediate social circles as well as on social media platforms can help start conversations that spur action. The public also has the power to influence the development of climate policies by pressuring elected officials to tackle this serious issue.>
For more information about the issues surrounding permafrost thaw, read part one and part two in our Permafrost series. To stay informed and get involved, visit the Permafrost Pathways site.
A 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report confirms that the Earth is on track to warm 1.5 degrees celsius by 2040. Warming beyond this will cause global issues like struggling coral reefs, catastrophic storms, and extreme heat waves. The international community has developed a global carbon budget that tracks how much carbon can be added to the atmosphere by human-caused emissions before we push warming past 1.5 and even 2 degrees. It functions much like a household budget— where spending more than you earn can jeopardize your stability and comfort.
With the carbon budget, that means balancing how much carbon is released into the atmosphere with how much is being stored by natural sinks. According to the IPCC, the world needs to wean itself off of “spending” down that budget as we rapidly approach 2 degrees of warming.
But IPCC’s budget calculations aren’t factoring in a major source of emissions—permafrost thaw. Massive amounts of carbon are stored in frozen Arctic soils known as permafrost. As permafrost thaws, that carbon is released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane. Scientists estimate that emissions from permafrost thaw will range from 30 to 150 billion tons this century.
Despite being on par with top-emitting countries like India or the United States, permafrost thaw is not included in the global carbon budget. It has historically been excluded because of gaps in data that make existing estimates of emissions less precise. Dr. Max Holmes, President of Woodwell Climate Research Center, says it’s “especially alarming… that permafrost carbon is largely ignored in current climate change models.” That’s because permafrost thaw emissions could take up 25-40% of our remaining emissions budgeted to cap warming at 2°C. Imagine leaving the cost of rent out of your household budget. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay it, it just means you won’t be prepared when that bill arrives.
Excluding permafrost thaw also means that projections of the rate of warming will be off. The unaccounted carbon will speed up warming, reducing the amount of time we have to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Permafrost thaw is already negatively impacting Arctic residents, especially Indigenous communities. In 2019, a Yup’ik community that has lived in Newtok, Alaska for hundreds of years had to begin moving to higher, volcanic ground because the thawing permafrost under their town was causing disastrous floods and sinking infrastructure. Woodwell Arctic program director and senior scientist, Dr. Sue Natali, who studies permafrost thaw in Yup’ik territory, says “it’s a place where permafrost is on the brink of thawing, and will be thawed by the end of the century, if not much sooner.”
Since permafrost spans multiple countries, it has been difficult to determine who should take responsibility for it. Consequently, there is currently little government framework for adaptation. The Yup’ik people had to reach out to a variety of government agencies and lived without plumbing for decades before the federal government finally awarded them support for relocation. The community paid a heavy price for it, though. Without proper policy in place to manage climate relocation, they had to bargain for government assistance, and in the end, turned ownership of the land they were leaving over to the U.S. government.
It took sixteen years from when Congress agreed to assist the Yup’ik community to when their promises were put into action. While scientists, like the ones spearheading Woodwell’s Permafrost Pathways program, are monitoring and modeling thaw to better prepare people for the damage it can cause, vulnerable communities do not have sixteen years to wait for assistance and relocation.
If permafrost thaw continues to be overlooked by government agencies, then it will remain difficult to prevent the Earth from warming beyond 2ºC and to support frontline communities most affected by it. Tackling permafrost thaw for both Arctic communities and the planet will require a coordinated international effort.
Looking for some background on Permafrost? Read the first piece in our permafrost series: “What is Permafrost?” To learn about what must be done to combat this issue, read part three: “What can be done about permafrost thaw?”
Thinking about climate change usually brings to mind dramatically melting ice caps and rising sea levels, but there’s another threat that’s caught the attention of climate scientists for its potential to be equally as disastrous—thawing permafrost.
Located anywhere between a few centimeters to 4,900ft below the Earth’s surface, permafrost is soil composed of sand, gravel, organic matter, and ice that has been frozen for at least two consecutive years. Some has been frozen for centuries or even millenia, and it’s this ancient permafrost in the Arctic that holds the greatest significance for climate change.
Arctic permafrost stretches across Alaska, Scandinavia, Russia, Iceland, and Canada, and can be found beneath the Arctic Ocean, the Arctic tundra, alpine forests, and boreal forests. It covers 15% of the land in the Northern Hemisphere and 3.6 million people live atop it. Scientists estimate that Arctic permafrost contains 1.4 trillion tonnes of carbon, an amount more than double what is currently in the Earth’s atmosphere. That carbon sink is stable as long as it stays frozen, but when it thaws, soil microbes break down the organic matter in permafrost and release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, increasing the rate of climate change.
In many places, forests, plants, and peat act as protective insulation for Arctic permafrost. This insulation helps keep carbon-storing organic matter, like plants and animals, as well as bacteria and archaea, frozen in the permafrost. However, climate change is already causing the Arctic to warm three to four times faster than the rest of the planet.
In addition to rapid warming speeding decay, it also strips back permafrost’s protective layers with increasing fires and heavy summer rains that burn and erode away top soil layers, further accelerating thaw. In some places, permafrost thaws so abruptly that the ground can collapse. Developing infrastructure that requires deforestation and underground pipes further exposes permafrost to warming. Additionally, as sea ice melts, coastal Arctic permafrost is exposed to warmer waters. The combined result is extensive permafrost thaw across the region.
Researchers have been studying permafrost thaw to determine the size of the threat it poses. Methods such as placing soil moisture sensors in strategic locations and examining soil cores collected by drilling holes into the soil to document the different layers of permafrost help gauge the rate and extent of thaw.
In a recent TEDTalk, Dr. Sue Natali, Woodwell’s Arctic program director and senior scientist, cautioned that, “By the end of this century, greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost may be on par with some of the world’s leading greenhouse-gas-emitting nations.”
There are already visible signs of vast permafrost thaw in the Arctic. Since ice is an essential part of the ground’s structural integrity, the soil becomes unstable when it thaws. This leads to dangerous situations like landslides, sinkholes, and destabilized infrastructure that threaten millions of people. Remote communities are particularly impacted, losing access to roads and sources of freshwater.
For both the carbon it threatens to release, and the destabilizing impacts it has on Arctic residents, permafrost thaw is a serious threat. One that, as the Arctic continues to warm, demands urgent attention and remediation.
Until now, that attention has been slow in coming. Read about why combatting permafrost thaw is such a complex issue in part two of our Permafrost series: “The critical missing expense in global climate budgets.”
The Arctic is no stranger to loss. As the region warms nearly four times faster than the rest of the world, glaciers collapse, wildlife suffers and habitats continue to disappear at a record pace.
Now, a new threat has become apparent: Arctic lakes are drying up, according to new research published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study, led by University of Florida postdoctoral researcher Dr. Elizabeth Webb in collaboration with Woodwell Associate scientist, Dr. Anna Liljedahl, flashes a new warning light on the global climate dashboard.
Research reveals that over the past 20 years, Arctic lakes have shrunk or dried completely across the pan-Arctic, a region spanning the northern parts of Canada, Russia, Greenland, Scandinavia and Alaska. The findings offer clues about why the mass drying is happening and how the loss can be slowed.
The lake decline comes as a surprise. Scientists had predicted that climate change would initially expand lakes across the tundra, due to land surface changes resulting from melting ground ice, with eventual drying in the mid-21st or 22nd century. Instead, it appears that thawing permafrost, the frozen soil that blankets the Arctic, may drain lakes and outweigh this expansion effect, says Dr. Webb. The team theorized that thawing permafrost may decrease lake area by creating drainage channels and increasing soil erosion into the lakes.
These lakes are cornerstones of the Arctic ecosystem. They provide a critical source of fresh water for local Indigenous communities and industries. Threatened and endangered species, including migratory birds and aquatic creatures, also rely on the lake habitats for survival.
“Our findings suggest that permafrost thaw is occurring even faster than we as a community had anticipated,” Dr. Webb said. “It also indicates that the region is likely on a trajectory toward more landscape-scale drainage in the future.”
If accelerated permafrost thaw is to blame, that’s unwelcome news. The Arctic permafrost is a natural warehouse of preserved organic matter and planet-warming gasses.
“Permafrost soils store nearly two times as much carbon as the atmosphere,” Dr. Webb said. “There’s a lot of ongoing research suggesting that as permafrost thaws, this carbon is vulnerable to being released to the atmosphere in the form of methane and carbon dioxide.”
According to Dr. Liljedahl, this study shifts the perspective on prior research—there is still more to learn when it comes to how climate change is altering the Arctic landscape.
“This work shows that we are “living the future” already,” said Dr. Liljedahl. “Or if you look at it from the other perspective, the current models used to project future surface water coverage and permafrost thaw across the Arctic are “off”. They are not capturing key processes. We have already seen reduced lake coverage happening over the previous two decades.”
There is a silver lining in the researcher’s findings. Previous models of lake dynamics predicted lake expansion, which thaws the surrounding permafrost. But because lakes are drying, near-lake permafrost is likely not thawing as fast.
“It’s not immediately clear exactly what the trade-offs are, but we do know that lake expansion causes carbon losses orders of magnitude higher than occurs in surrounding regions,” Dr. Webb said. “So it should mean that we won’t see quite as much carbon emitted as previously thought, because lakes are drying and not wetting.”
The research team used a machine-learning approach to examine the climate change mechanisms responsible for lake area change. By harnessing large ensembles of satellite images to assess patterns of surface water loss, they were able to analyze decades of data across the Arctic. The data is available on the Permafrost Discovery Gateway (PDG), a project that Dr. Liljedahl leads, the goal of which is to make permafrost data broadly accessible to encourage Arctic change research.
“We made the pan-Arctic dataset, including both long-term trend analysis and individual years, accessible on the PDG so that anyone with internet access can interact with the dataset. We are still building the PDG visualization and analysis tools so more options to enable discovery will become available in the coming two years,” said Dr. Liljedahl
The best way to curtail the lakes’ demise and protect permafrost is to
cut fossil fuel emissions and limit global temperature rise.
“The snowball is already rolling,” Webb said, stating that we need to act now to slow these changes. “It’s not going to work to keep on doing what we’re doing.”
It was supposed to be a quiet season, but only two months into summer and Alaska is already on track for another record-setting wildfire season. With 3 million acres already scorched and over 260 active fires, 2022 is settling in behind 2015 and 2004 so far as one of the state’s worst fire seasons on record. Here’s what to know about Alaska’s summer fires:
Southwestern Alaska, in particular, has been suffering. The season kicked off with an unseasonably early fire near Kwethluk that started in April. Currently, the East Fork Fire, which is burning near the Yup’ik village of St. Mary’s, AK, is among the biggest tundra fires in Alaska’s history. Just above Bristol Bay, the Lime Complex— consisting of 18 individual fires— has burned through nearly 865,000 acres. One of the longest lasting fires in the Lime Complex, the Upper Talarik fire, is burning close to the site of the controversial open-pit Pebble Mine.
For Dr. Brendan Rogers, who was in Fairbanks, AK for a research trip in May, the explosive start of the fire season contrasts strongly to conditions he saw in late spring.
“It was a relatively average spring in interior Alaska, with higher-than-normal snowpack. Walking around the forest was challenging because of remaining snow, slush, and flooded trails,” said Dr. Rogers.
Early predictions showed a 2022 season low in fire due to heavy winter snow. But the weather shifted in the last ten days of May and early June. June temperatures in Anchorage were the second highest ever recorded. High heat and low humidity rapidly dried out vegetation and groundcover, creating a tinderbox of available fuel. This sudden flip from wet to dry unfolded similarly to conditions in 2004, which resulted in the state’s worst fire season on record.
The conditions for this wildfire season were facilitated by climate change, and the emissions that result from them will fuel further warming. The hot temperatures responsible for drying out the Alaskan landscape were brought on by a persistent high pressure system that prevents the formation of clouds— a weather pattern linked to warming-related fluctuations in the jet stream.
“With climate change, we tend to get more of these persistent ridges and troughs in the jet stream,” says Dr. Rogers. “This will cause a high pressure system like this one to just sit over an area. There is no rain; it dries everything out, warms everything up.”
The compounding effects of earlier snowmelt and declining precipitation have also made it easier for ground cover to dry out rapidly under a spell of hot weather. More frequent fires also burn through ground cover protecting permafrost, accelerating thaw that releases more carbon. According to the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, the frequency of big fire seasons like this one are only increasing— a trend expected to continue apace with further climate change.
Additionally, this summer has been high in lightning strikes, which were linked to the ignition of most of the fires currently burning in Alaska. Higher temperatures result in more energy in the atmosphere, which increases the likelihood of lightning strikes. On just one day in July over 7,180 lightning strikes were reported in Alaska and neighboring portions of Canada.
The destruction from these wildfires has forced rural and city residents alike to evacuate and escape the path of burning. Some residents of St. Mary’s, AK have elected to stay long enough to help combat the fires, clearing brush around structures and cutting trees that could spread fire to town buildings if they alight.
But the impact of the fires is also being felt in towns not in the direct path of the flames. Smoke particulates at levels high enough to cause dangerously unhealthy air quality were carried as far north as Nome, AK on the Seward Peninsula.
“Even though a lot of these fires are remote, that doesn’t preclude direct human harm,” says Woodwell senior science policy advisor Dr. Peter Frumhoff.
Recent research has shown that combatting boreal forest fires, even remote ones, can be a cost effective way to prevent both these immediate health risks, as well as the dangers of ground subsidence, erosion, and loss of traditional ways of life posed by climate change in the region.
Mid-July rains have begun to slow the progression of active fires but, according to Dr. Frumhoff, despite the lull, it is important to keep in mind that the season is not over yet.
“The uncertainty of those early predictions also applies to the remainder of the fire season — we don’t know how much more fire we’ll see in Alaska over the next several weeks.”