It didn’t matter that she didn’t speak any English at the time, or that the American researchers who had chartered her father’s boat that summer didn’t speak any Russian, 14 year-old Anya Suslova was a quick learner. She watched them dip sample bottles into the Lena River, filter the water, and mark information down on the side of the bottle. By the end of the two week research expedition, Suslova had mastered the protocol and was helping Dr. Max Holmes and his fellow scientists collect water samples.
When the scientists returned to the United States, they left behind some equipment, in case Suslova and her father were interested in sampling throughout the winter. After a year without contact with Suslova, the researchers were delighted to return to the Lena the following summer to find months of samples and a neatly organized logbook she made.
Twenty years later, Suslova is a Research Assistant at Woodwell Climate Research Center who continues to bring her expertise and unique perspective to the Arctic Great Rivers Observatory (ArcticGRO). Since 2003, participants of ArcticGRO—scientists and Arctic community members alike—have been sampling water from the six largest rivers in the Arctic: the Ob’, Yenisey, Lena, and Kolyma in Siberia, and the Yukon and Mackenzie in North America. It’s a rare example of a long-term research project, designed to span decades, deepening our understanding of change across the years.
The Arctic is warming, on average, at least two times faster than the rest of the planet. We need to know the implications of this, but it can be difficult to study ecosystem change across such a vast area. Rivers can offer insights. The chemistry of a river connects environmental processes across its watershed, and the dissolved and particulate materials that are carried to the ocean can influence marine chemistry and biology. Measuring the concentrations of these materials, and how they are transported by rivers, provides vital information about changes in the linkages between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.
“Global climate change is rapidly and disproportionately affecting northern high latitude environments,” says Dr. Scott Zolkos, a Research Scientist at Woodwell Climate and one of ArcticGRO’s lead scientists. “Monitoring Arctic river chemistry is critical for detecting trends and understanding the effects of environmental change on northern ecosystems.”
In order to uncover those trends and effects, need to establish baselines on the key chemical constituents within rivers — organic matter, inorganic nutrients like nitrogen, sediments— to compare against future measurements. The more data gathered, the easier it is to sift out annual variability from longer term trends.
So, using Arctic rivers as sentinels of ecosystem health and environmental change was the idea behind the project’s creation, but it was the international collaboration that started with Suslova that gave ArcticGRO its longevity. The project leaders realized that enlisting the help of trained local residents could allow for sample collection in places, and during times of the year, that the researchers themselves couldn’t access. It also helped build enthusiasm for the project among Arctic communities.
“I believe that ArcticGRO has been able to go for so long because it is built on trust and a shared goal between scientists and local people who collect water samples,” says Suslova. “Amazingly the team of ArcticGRO hasn’t changed much over the last two decades, many of the original members are still involved. It feels like a family.”
Now, 20 years after its inception, the ArcticGRO team has published a paper in 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.”
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.
In a world plagued by rapid change and challenges, I think many of us are asking the question: “How can I help?” As individuals, it can be hard to find a way to give back and help steward the natural resources we rely on. But, for those who love fly fishing—anglers—Science on the Fly offers a path to do just that.
Science on the Fly engages the enthusiastic and passionate fly-fishing community, in the US and abroad, as community scientists. Members of the fly-fishing community have close relationships with their local rivers—from having a favorite fishing hole, to knowing the seasonally anticipated flows of the river and when certain bugs are hatching. They also are more aware than most of the impacts of climate change on local fisheries. In states like Colorado or Montana, anglers have given up the opportunity of even casting a fly rod at some points in the summer season. Why? The trout are too stressed and lethargic due to the droughts and rising water temperatures.
Our fly-fishing community scientists are excellent resources for data collection and observation of climate trends to create a clearer picture of how rivers are changing over time. With their help, we can increase the number of rivers subject to long-term studies of water quality and watershed health. Since Science on the Fly was founded in 2019, we have collected data on nutrients and organic compounds from over 350 river sites across the United States each month.
The science collection process is straight-forward and easy. Sample locations are chosen for their accessibility and interest to fly-fishing volunteers, who are responsible for collecting a small bottle of sterile river water from each location once a month, as well as data on air and water temperature. They then freeze the bottles and bulk ship them back to Woodwell Climate Research Center one or two times a year.
At Woodwell Climate’s Environmental Chemistry Lab, we analyze the concentrations of nutrients such as nitrate, phosphate, silica, ammonium, dissolved organic carbon, and total dissolved nitrogen. All data is shared publicly, and after we have a year’s worth of data, we write a report of the state of the river for those sampling locations.
This project got to where it is extremely quickly. A year after the program was founded, we had grown from two community scientists to 140 enthusiastic river activists. Over the course of four years, more than 7,000 bottles have been placed into the hands of our empowered community scientists.
It is easy to see how we got here so fast; when we offer a tool-kit that is free to the passionate angler and can help them give back to their watershed, they want to get involved. While it isn’t necessarily cheap for us, at a cost equaling $100 a bottle, it is an extremely effective way to add novel data to the climate science dataset on many watersheds—information we wouldn’t be able to gather otherwise.
We’re now exploring how best to integrate Science on the Fly’s water quality sampling and community scientist model with Woodwell Climate’s important research in the Alaskan Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. Located at the lowest section of the permafrost belt, this region is experiencing rapid thaw as the climate warms. We ask: Could water quality collection be done in a way that tells the story of the rivers over time? Could anglers floating down these remote rivers provide samples in a timely manner? The answers, we’ve found, are yes, but it has taken some practice to get there, and the region presented unique challenges that we didn’t encounter in other regions.
Our core team at Science on the Fly now rafts, researches, and fishes vulnerable and wild rivers in this region—including the Arolik, Kanektok, Kisaralik, Kwethluk, and the Goodnews—each summer season. Each morning of the trip, the teams gear up and take a variety of samples and water quality measurements—including the collection of our 60 mL sterile river water samples. We also install or retrieve water temperature monitoring sensors in the watershed, so we can see river temperatures from the entire year. Some samples collected during the trips are used directly for the Science on the Fly program, while others help collect data for different research projects associated with Woodwell Climate or other organizations.
These research trips are only answering some of our questions, however. We still want to see these rivers’ nutrient concentrations throughout the summer season—not just when we’re floating (which is normally 10 or fewer days per river). Like most science, it’s not cheap. It’s also not easy to logistically coordinate a river research trip—all the gear, travel, food, science supplies, safety equipment, and qualified team members to float—from afar.
PapaBear Adventures in Bethel, Alaska is our answer to the other half of the questions. PapaBear is an operation that helps the adventurous outdoors person get to the headwaters of remote rivers, and gives them the tools they need to float the rivers on their own. They have been instrumental in meeting the transportation needs of other Woodwell Climate projects like the Polaris Program, and now they are helping Science on the Fly get anglers out to the rivers throughout the summer season.
Beyond working with PapaBear on transportation, Science on the Fly now stations a team member—me or Joe Mangiafico, for now—at PapaBear for the summer months. This team member preps the research team’s trips, making sure they are properly prepared to go down the rivers with all materials needed. But their main goal is to encourage other PapaBear clients and their groups to be involved in the sampling. Pre-made kits are handed out to groups floating these rivers. After the groups get off the rivers, our team member retrieves the filled sample kits and freezes them for shipping back to Woodwell Climate.
The data that has returned from these endeavors is already exciting.
In summer 2021, our Science on the Fly research team sampled 2 rivers, the Kwethluk and Kisaralik, and by a lucky ask to some passing groups of anglers, the Kanektok and Goodnews Rivers were sampled as well. There were a total of 45 samples collected that summer. The following summer, the combination of Science On The Fly research teams and new efforts to increase engagement with volunteer community science groups, allowed us to increase collection to 248 sample bottles. We were able to successfully increase data collection on the other rivers of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, and added the Arolik to our list. We hope to accomplish even more in years to come.
Four years of Science on the Fly has shown that community scientists and community science programs can be a powerful way to collect data, conduct research, and educate the public through our reports. Now that we’ve built a solid project structure, with data coming in consistently, we are beginning to switch gears and make an impact with report writing and affecting policy—all while continuing to add to the growing body of water and climate science. We’ll be using community-collected data to create tangible reports for anglers to better understand their watersheds. We will then use these reports to help make an impact on policies, with the goal of creating or maintaining healthy watersheds, especially in the face of climate change. We look forward to continuing to give back to our community scientists and to our rivers.
To learn more about Science on the Fly, visit our website.
Carbon cycling is an essential part of life on the planet. Plants and animals use the element for cellular growth, it can be stored in rocks and minerals or in the ocean, and of course it can move into the atmosphere, where it contributes to a warming planet.
A new study led by Dr. Megan Behnke, a former Florida State University doctoral student and Woodwell Polaris Project participant who is now a researcher at the University of Alaska, found that plants and small organisms in Arctic rivers could be responsible for more than half the particulate organic matter (a carbon-rich nutrient) flowing to the Arctic Ocean. That’s a significantly greater proportion than previously estimated, and it has implications for how much carbon is sequestered in the ocean versus how much moves into the atmosphere.
Scientists have long measured the organic matter in rivers to understand how carbon cycles through watersheds. But this research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that organisms in the Arctic’s major rivers are a crucial contributor to carbon export, accounting for 40 to 60 percent of the particulate organic matter—tiny bits of decaying organisms—flowing into the ocean.
“When people thought about these major Arctic rivers and many other rivers globally, they tended to think of them as sewers of the land, exporting the waste materials from primary production and decomposition on land,” said Dr. Rob Spencer, a professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science at FSU, and collaborator on the paper. “This study highlights that there’s a lot of life in these rivers themselves and that a lot of the organic material that is exported is coming from production in the rivers.”
Scientists study carbon exported via waterways to better understand how the element cycles through the environment. As organic material on land decomposes, it can move into rivers, which in turn drain into the ocean. Some of that carbon supports marine life, and some sinks to the bottom of the ocean, where it is buried in sediments.
The study was supported by the Arctic Great Rivers Observatory, and it examines six major rivers flowing in the Arctic Ocean: The Yukon and Mackenzie in North America, and the Ob’, Yenisey, Lena, and Kolyma in Russia. Using data collected over almost a decade, they built models that used the stable and radioactive isotope signatures of carbon and the carbon-to-nitrogen ratios of the particulate organic matter to determine the contribution of possible sources to each river’s chemistry.
Not all particulate organic matter is created equal, the researchers found. Carbon from soils that gets washed downstream is more likely to be buried in the ocean than the carbon produced within a river. That carbon is more likely to stay floating in the ocean, be eaten by organisms there and eventually breathed out as carbon dioxide.
“It’s like the difference between a french fry and a stem of broccoli,” said Dr. Behnke. “That broccoli is going to stay in storage in your freezer, but the french fry is much more likely to get eaten.”
That means a small increase in a river’s biomass could be equivalent to a larger increase in organic material coming from the land. If the carbon in that organic matter moves to the atmosphere, it would affect the rate of carbon cycling and associated climate change in the Arctic.
“I always get excited as a scientist or a researcher when we find new things, and this study found something new in the way that these big Arctic rivers work and how they export carbon to the ocean,” Dr. Spencer said. “We have to understand the modern carbon cycle if we’re really going to begin to understand and predict how it’s going to change. This is really relevant for the Arctic at the rate that it’s warming and due to the vast carbon stores that it holds.”
The study was an international endeavor— a feature that, Dr. Behnke notes, is critical to Arctic work, especially as climate change advances.
“That pan-Arctic view of science is more important than ever,” Dr. Behnke said. “The changes that are occurring are far bigger than one institution in one country, and we need these longstanding collaborations. That’s critically important to continue.”