The MacGyver session at the annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference is full to the brim with scientists showing off blinking circuit boards and 3D-printed mechanisms. Research Assistant, Zoë Dietrich, stands in front of her poster and a plexiglass cube sprouting wires. As she speaks, a whizzing sound emanates from the box as it lifts itself up on one side, holding itself open long enough to flush the interior with air from the room. A laptop screen reads out numbers from the sensors in the box, detailing changes in the concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane within. 

Dietrich constructed this device herself. It’s a low-cost, autonomous, solar-powered chamber designed to float on water and measure the flow of carbon into and out of the water. Dietrich has spent the past 1.5 years testing and troubleshooting various prototypes, and has already begun deploying models at research sites in Brazil and Alaska. Now she’s sharing her work with the broader scientific community in hopes of encouraging others to build their own versions.

“One of the goals of the chamber project is to make the construction very accessible so that scientists like me, without formal engineering training or background, can build the chambers pretty easily,” says Dietrich.

This was good news for Grand Valley University masters student, Jillian Greene, and her professor Dr. Sean Woznicki, who encountered Dietrich and her chambers at AGU. Though neither of them had experience with mechanical or electrical engineering, they knew immediately a device like Dietrich’s could be invaluable to their research.

Greene’s project involves sampling carbon emissions at drowned river mouth estuaries connected to Lake Michigan. She and Woznicki will then correlate that data with other ecological characteristics gleaned from satellite imagery. There are over one hundred of these freshwater estuary-like features around the region, and Greene and Woznicki are hoping to paint a complete picture of their cumulative role in carbon cycling. 

“Originally, I was going to manually sample and quantify with a gas chromatograph,” Greene says. That’s a time-consuming process that limits the amount of data one team can collect. With the chambers, however, Greene can collect emissions data every 30 seconds—greatly expanding the amount of data she’ll be able to incorporate into her models.

“This is going to make our model a lot more robust and hopefully applicable to other drowned river mouth estuaries in the region,” says Greene.

Greene and her research team have already created and deployed 6 chambers. Since AGU, she has been in contact with Dietrich, troubleshooting issues as they arise and learning an entirely new set of skills as she goes.

“[the team] has learned how to solder, how to interpret the circuit diagrams, problem solve, and adjust for our kind of unique systems that we’re looking at,” says Woznicki. “It’s really been exciting to use Zoë’s design as a learning experience for masters and undergrad students.”

Dietrich has had other groups at Colgate University and the University of California, Berkeley reach out to her as well, and she is planning to publish a paper this fall that will include detailed instructions for anyone else  to construct their own chambers. She’s already shared preliminary drafts of the step-by-step instructions, including photos, diagrams, and tips, as well as programming and data-processing code and a specific materials list with the other research groups. In turn, they have provided her with helpful revisions and ideas for new modifications. Dietrich is excited about the prospect of the designs being implemented by more people. More chambers means more data, which benefits the entire scientific community.

“Our sampling of carbon right now is limited by expensive instruments and where people can go and who has access to these resources,” says Dietrich. “But the goal of this project is to be low cost and more accessible to a broader set of researchers. The chambers are  autonomous, and so are accessible to places and times that aren’t otherwise being sampled right now. And taking that a step further, we need to make them accessible to be built by anyone.”

“Why not float the aquatic greenhouse gas chamber on a surfboard?” Tropics Program Director Dr. Mike Coe suggested in one of our team meetings, and I could feel the gears in my brain begin turning. I started a sketch… If mounted on a surfboard, we would need a method to open the chamber, flushing it with outside air. Back in my office, I asked Google “what turns electrical energy into mechanical energy?” Google was quick to respond, “Motor.” Right, thank you, Google. Next, I typed, “motor that pushes something up.” Google replied, “linear actuator.” Three clicks later and I had ordered my first linear actuator for 35 bucks. 

Three days later, that linear actuator sat expectantly on my desk. One red wire and one black wire, “12V DC” printed on its side. I turned back to Google, “How to wire a linear actuator?” Opening the first hit, I skimmed through the photos and diagrams. None of them striking my fancy, I moved on to the second hit: Step-by-step instructions, clear photos, even open-source code to program my Arduino microcontroller board – nice! Within an hour, my linear actuator was extending and retracting on command, ready to be mounted in an autonomous greenhouse gas chamber.

Adding the actuator to my sketch, I popped into Senior Research Scientist Kathleen Savage’s office to hear her thoughts. Savage always has new ideas brewing, and she suggested adding a feature that would allow the chamber to function on water and on land. The chambers are the product of a Fund for Climate Solutions (FCS) grant led by Savage to quantify carbon dioxide and methane emissions from small water bodies like lakes, ponds, and reservoirs. Because there are no low-cost and auto-sampling tools available on the market, we have been developing a new instrument to measure these emissions. 

DIY science

“Chamber” is a fancy word for the upside-down buckets we use to measure how fast greenhouse gasses are released from different surfaces. By resting a bucket upside-down on a patch of soil or grass or water and measuring how fast gas concentrations increase or decrease inside the bucket, we can calculate a “flux” of gas over a set area and time. Common methods of measuring fluxes require manually collecting gas samples from a chamber to be processed in a lab, or connecting the chamber to a high precision analyzer that can cost around $40,000. These methods are costly in salary time and equipment, limiting where, when, and how often people can sample—usually daytime and in accessible areas and times of the year. We need new low-cost and autonomous systems that can measure around the clock to improve carbon emissions estimates. The recent commercialization of cheaper sensors and control systems to operate them, like the Arduino microcontroller, now make these developments possible. 

I’m building a new floating chamber that measures aquatic fluxes autonomously using a $15 methane sensor and a $78 carbon dioxide sensor, improving previous designs published by Dr. David Bastviken’s group at Linköping University in Sweden. Powered by a solar panel and battery, the sensors measure gas concentrations, temperature, and humidity inside the chamber every 30 seconds. The data is stored on an SD card and transmitted within 50 meters via radio. The radio transmission allows us to check that the chamber is functioning properly from the shore and to see chamber measurements in real time. When gas concentrations have increased enough to discern a flux, the linear actuator extends to open the chamber, flushing the interior with outside air before retracting to close the chamber again for another flux measurement. Calibrating the chamber with a high precision analyzer in the field shows the low-cost sensors perform well, with an accuracy of approximately 1 ppm for methane and 3 ppm for carbon dioxide.

Field deployment

 I first tested chamber prototypes last July on agricultural reservoirs at the Tanguro Field Station in Brazil. At the end of our field campaign, I left one chamber deployed to see how long the electronics would last and which components might eventually fail. After helping me deploy and calibrate the chamber, field technician Raimundo “Santarém” Quintino monitored it, checking its “vital signs” via radio every few weeks. In January, he noticed the linear actuator had stopped pushing the chamber open. 

During a follow-up field campaign in March, I brought a couple of extra linear actuators and five more chambers to deploy on additional reservoirs at Tanguro. Tanguro staff and I worked together to modify chamber components that didn’t function well in the first deployment. These modifications included swapping the materials of the floating foam bases and improving the mounting mechanisms of the linear actuator and chamber hinge. Our adjustments were informed by recommendations from a Laboratory Operations Manager at the University of Maine in Orono (Christopher London), whom I met while doing fieldwork at the nearby Howland Research Forest. Woods Hole locals, such as John Driscoll and Fred Palmer of the Woodwell Climate Facilities department, kite foiler and carpenter Tad Ryan, and employees at Eastman’s Hardware, have also offered transformative recommendations on building materials and techniques to stabilize the floating chambers.

Working hands-on with the floating chambers on the reservoirs, Santarém, Dr. Leonardo Maracahipes-Santos, Tanguro’s Scientific Projects Coordinator, and Sebastião “Seu Bate” Nascimento of Tanguro Field Station have made invaluable improvements to the chamber design and deployments. A few of their contributions include advice on safe deployment locations, monitoring and collecting data from the chambers over time, and constructing aluminum and galvanized steel components for the floating bases. They also designed a new mount for the most recent chamber addition—a bubble trap that uses an inexpensive pressure sensor to autonomously measure the volume of gas released as bubbles. 

Freshwater ecosystems worldwide emit nearly half as much carbon dioxide and methane as fossil fuel combustion. On the Amazon-Cerrado frontier, where Tanguro is located, there are hundreds of thousands of small agricultural reservoirs, which are important, yet overlooked, greenhouse gas sources. These artificial ponds—installed to provide drinking water for cattle, facilitate road crossings, or supply energy at the farm scale—can persist for decades, creating low-oxygen conditions that drive methane production. Monthly sampling of six reservoirs over a year by Water Program Director Dr. Marcia Macedo revealed high methane and carbon dioxide emissions, varying with season and reservoir size. But these measurements did not capture the significant variability that can occur on daily, monthly, and annual time scales, including transient “hot spots” and “hot moments” of high greenhouse gas emissions. 

This lack of frequent measurements hinders climate scientists’ ability to integrate emissions at the reservoir scale in order to estimate cumulative greenhouse gas emissions at the landscape scale. The autonomous floating chambers will address that gap, enabling comprehensive carbon monitoring and modeling of the reservoirs.

From the tropics to the Arctic

Additionally, these chambers are versatile tools that can be used across different environments. Funded by a subsequent FCS grant, six new floating chambers will accompany me to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska, this summer to measure greenhouse gas emissions from Arctic ponds. The chambers will supply the frequent data necessary to constrain the LAKE model utilized by Arctic Program scientists Dr. Elchin Jafarov and Andrew Mullen. The model predicts variations in carbon emissions from ponds, providing insight into processes regulating methane and carbon dioxide. By applying the LAKE model to both Arctic ponds and Amazon reservoirs, we can gain a deeper understanding of their impacts on regional greenhouse gas budgets. 

“Deploying floating chambers will streamline the process of gathering aquatic data and enhance the temporal resolution of the data, which is vital for modeling and currently absent in existing datasets,” notes Jafarov.  

Problem-solving and collaboration

While calibrating the low-cost sensors in our boat one March afternoon, Santarém and I noticed the linear actuator on another nearby chamber wasn’t retracting and extending as it should. Expecting another replacement was in store, we tuned into the radio and popped open the electronics case to check for “symptoms.” Blinking lights and radio silence revealed an entirely new and perplexing issue causing the malfunction. 

Building this system from the ground up over the last year, the one constant has been mind-bending electronics puzzles that keep me up at night. As a biogeochemist by training, these problems usually require some tinkering, a dictionary, a lot of Googling, and sometimes bugging electrical engineers down the street at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Lane Abrams) and Spark Climate Solutions (Bashir Ziady), whose advice and contributions have substantially improved the chambers’ electrical designs. Each problem can usually be traced to a perfectly logical, satisfying solution, leaving me feeling wiser and excited to tackle the next one. I’ve tracked this new problem down to something potentially involving a “memory-leaking variable declaration” in my new bubble trap programming code. I might’ve fixed it with a “watchdog timer.” Both are new words for me, too. If the watchdog timer doesn’t pan out, Santarém and I will try another fix. 

Designing, building, and testing these chambers has been an iterative and constantly evolving process. What works well? What doesn’t? How can we do this more simply? Using less energy? For a lower cost? How can we improve the design so that other researchers can easily build these floating chambers as well? Soon we plan to publish open-source instructions detailing how to build and troubleshoot the floating chambers—I have already sent preliminary instructions to three interested research groups. I’m lucky to collaborate with many talented people from Woods Hole to Maine and Brazil, many of whom are as new to chambers and fluxes as I am to engineering. Nevertheless, these floating chambers incorporate a brilliant flourish from each of them.

Andrea “Andie” Norton is an ecologist studying the world’s changing rivers. She examines patterns in temperature and nutrients to assess the response of watersheds to climate change, and to build a record of how river environments are changing that could help flag current threats, predict future changes and develop strategies for successful management.

Read more on Science on the Fly

1. Collaborating with Communities

This year, Woodwell Climate’s Just Access Initiative went global. Just Access works in close partnership with communities to provide tailored, actionable climate risk reports for Rio Branco, Brazil; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Summit County, Utah; and Lawrence, MA. At COP28, Just Access released their latest report in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of the DRC, which focused on climate risks and potential solutions in the country and identified carbon markets as a potential funding mechanism for adaptation efforts.

Just Access collaborates with local officials and advocates to ensure the final reports cover information critical to their community’s planning. So far, 14 reports have been completed and more are on the way.

Read the report.

2. Tongass National Forest Protection

In January of 2023, the Biden Administration restored protections against logging and road-building for more than 9 million acres of the Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. 

This came after Woodwell Climate’s Dr. Wayne Walker and Geospatial Analyst Seth Gorelik, along with long-time collaborator Dr. Dominick DellaSalla of Wild Heritage, delivered a research report to the Biden administration showing massive carbon stores in Tongass National Forest and highlighting the importance of roadless areas. 

3. Citizen Science with Science on the Fly

In 2023, Science on the Fly’s (SOTF) focused their activities on stewarding their community of scientists. Together they collected more than 3,000 water samples from hundreds of locations around the globe. SOTF leverages the passion and dedication of the global fly fishing community to gather data on the health of rivers across the world. With this data, SOTF can improve our understanding of how watersheds and river systems change over time due to climate change and local effects.

Read about the project’s activities this year.

4. Training the Next Generation of Researchers

We sent 10 Polaris Project students into the field this summer. The Polaris Project engages the brightest young minds from a diversity of backgrounds to tackle global climate research in one of Earth’s most vulnerable environments: the Arctic.

Students conducted their own research projects over two weeks at a field research station near Bethel, Alaska. Afterwards, they returned to the Center to analyze samples, and presented their findings at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December.

Woodwell Climate also hosted several interns through the Partnership Education Program. These undergraduate students participated in research and communications activities across the center.

Read PEP intern, Jonathan Kopeliovich’s story about research in Howland Forest.

5. Convening Critical Conversations

Woodwell Climate has been conducting tropical forest research in Brazil for nearly two decades alongside partner organization IPAM Amazônia. This year, Water Program Director, Dr. Marcia Macedo and collaborators, including Dr. Ane Alencar of IPAM, convened a multi-day workshop in Brazil that produced a policy brief on forest degradation. They then organized experts to submit public comments on Brazil’s updated policy for controlling Amazon deforestation, which for the first time also addresses forest degradation.

Read the policy brief here.

Across the globe, Permafrost Pathways partner, Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), hosted a “Rights, Resilience, and Community-Led Adaptation” workshop on Dena’ina homelands in Anchorage, Alaska. The two-day workshop created space for Tribes to share their expertise with each other and connect face-to-face with federal and state government representatives to access resources and technical assistance.

Read more about the workshop.

6. Representing Our Expertise

Our experts showed up as thought leaders this year at several high profile events. As just a few examples, Woodwell Climate’s Arctic Program Director Dr. Sue Natali and Senior Science Policy Advisor Peter Frumhoff both spoke on panels alongside other leading voices in climate at SxSW in Austin, TX. Senior Geospatial Analyst, Greg Fiske attended the Esri User Conference, where his topographic map of Alaska garnered two awards. And Assistant Scientist, Dr. Ludmilla Rattis gave a talk at TED Countdown about her research on the role of Tapirs in rainforest restoration. (Recording coming in early 2024)

7. Making Headlines

Woodwell Climate team members showed up in over 5,000 media stories this year. Our scientific leadership provided quotes for a broad range of high profile climate stories in New York Times, Reuters, Boston Globe, CNN and Grist, just to name a few. Senior Scientist Dr. Jen Francis was quoted over 4.2K times, appearing in major news outlets like the Washington Post and AP News to provide accessible context about the links between climate change and extreme weather events. 

8. Rebuilding an Arctic Research Station

Last fall, Scotty Creek Research Station in Canada—one of the only Indigenous-led climate research stations in the world—was almost entirely consumed by a late-season wildfire. Woodwell Climate’s Permafrost Pathways project is providing rebuilding support to the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation. Project scientists Dr. Kyle Arndt and Marco Montemayor visited the site for two weeks this spring to restore an essential carbon monitoring tower.

Read the story of Scotty Creek.

9. Advancing the Scientific Literature

Our researchers published 80 peer-reviewed scientific publications this year. From the Arctic to the Tropics, from soil concentrations to river concentrations, Woodwell Climate had a part in discovery.

Assessing carbon stocks and accumulation potential of mature forests and larger trees in U.S. federal lands

Recent trends in the chemistry of major northern rivers signal widespread Arctic change

Grain-cropping suitability for evaluating the agricultural land use change in Brazil

Observational and model evidence together support wide-spread exposure to noncompensable heat under continued global warming

Explore all our publications.

10. Leading on the World Stage

Woodwell Climate’s President & CEO Dr. Max Holmes brought Woodwell Climate to the main stage of CERAWeek, Green Accelerator Davos, GenZero Climate Summit in Singapore, Climate Week NYC, and Mountainfilm Festival. He discussed cutting-edge climate science alongside notable figures like Bill McKibben and former Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez.Read about Dr. Holmes’ time at Davos.

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.

We need to establish baselines

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.”

We never would have known

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.”

A pipe you can turn off

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.

A testament to the people

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.

Crowdsourcing climate data

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.

A rapidly expanding network

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.

Building partnerships to sustain science

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.

June 29, 2022— When Susan Tessier and her husband, Tim, went out for the day, they had a lake on their Native allotment. When they came back, It was gone. 

My husband Tim and I left home in the morning and when we came back around 8:00 in the evening the whole lake had drained,” she writes in a post on the Local Environmental Observation Network site—a community science website where observers can report unusual changes in their local environment. “There was a hole that had blown out and it had drained into the ocean… It looked like it was blown up with dynamite.”

Water is the ecosystem engineer in the Arctic. The lowland tundra landscape is a network of lakes and streams, mosaicked across an expanse of frozen ground riddled with wedges of ice. The freezing, thawing, moving, eroding dynamics of these features shape the larger landscape, and determine the habitats of fish, birds, plants, mammals—and, of course people—living in the Arctic. 

Abrupt lake drainage, like Tessier described, is just one way that changes in water and ice can influence the landscape, but a recent review paper conducted by University of Florida Postdoctoral Associate, Dr. Elizabeth Webb, and Woodwell Climate Associate Scientist, Dr. Anna Liljedahl, indicates events like this may become more common as the climate warms— overtaking lake expansion and slowly drying out the Arctic tundra.

Evidence of lake drainage across the literature

This new paper comes on the heels of a 2022 study that Drs. Webb and Liljedahl also authored, which came to the same conclusion: despite the processes of lake expansion and drainage continuing simultaneously across the Arctic, net lake area is trending downward. The Arctic is getting dryer.

The review complements the strengths of the previous study, compensating for some of the limitations of using geographically coarse remote sensing data. Synthesizing data from 139 sites across the Arctic, pulled from 57 different studies, Drs. Webb and Liljedahl were able to corroborate their own past findings. 

“Lake size can vary from one season to the next in response to factors like precipitation or evaporation, so if you’re only looking at a limited set of remote sensing images, that can influence a trend analysis,” explains Dr. Webb. “It’s actually really exciting from a scientific rigor perspective to have two completely different remote sensing methods showing the same result.”

The review also adds weight to the idea that permafrost thaw is the primary driver in the loss of Arctic lakes. A large portion of Arctic soil is ice-rich, perennially frozen ground called permafrost, and as the climate heats up, it has begun to thaw and destabilize. That thawing can both create new ponds, and help drain them. The review indicates that decreases in size and number of Arctic lakes are more prevalent than expected, dominating the dynamic in some areas.

This contradicts another leading theory that changes in precipitation and evaporation rates— called the “water balance hypothesis” — are driving changes in lake area. Prior to Drs. Webb and Liljedahl’s investigations, the prevailing thought was that lake creation would outpace drainage rates, for at least the next several decades. 

Climate Change is Opening Drainage Channels in the Permafrost

It works like this: most Arctic lakes form when wedges of ice in permafrost melt, leaving behind a depression that fills with water. The water absorbs and holds more heat, slowly thawing and eroding surrounding permafrost, growing from puddle to pond to lake over the years.

Drainage can happen in one of two ways. The first is vertically, which occurs when the permafrost beneath the lake thaws down to the unfrozen ground beneath, allowing the water to seep out the bottom. This can take hundreds or thousands of years, depending on how deep the permafrost is.

The second way is horizontally, through what Dr. Liljedahl calls “capillaries”. Ice wedges are common across the Arctic, connected by an underground network of ice that pushes the soil above them upwards as they grow, creating ridges that impede water flow. But when the tops of these wedges melt, the ridged ground above them subsides, forming narrow channels between lakes and ponds. When an expanding lake meets one of these capillary channels, the lake can drain in a matter of hours, as if the plug has been pulled on a bathtub drain.

“The formation of lateral drainage channels can interrupt this lake expansion process at any time, and I think that’s what’s making it override expansion and cause the net drying effect,” Dr. Liljedahl says. “The lake that took millenia to grow can be gone in a couple of hours.

Fewer Arctic Lakes Leave Communities in the Lurch

So what does an Arctic with fewer lakes mean? In terms of carbon, the picture isn’t clear. Since lake expansion— a common source of methane emissions— and lake drainage are happening concurrently, the net effect is not easy to discern. 

“With lake drainage, it’s much less clear what the carbon consequences are. The current thinking is that lake expansion releases orders of magnitude more carbon than lake drainage, but because it’s complicated, we’re not quite sure,” says Dr. Webb.  “It’s definitely an open research question.”

Dr. Liljedahl notes that there is also documentation of permafrost recovering and re-growing in drained lake beds. “Over decades, they could develop new ice-wedges and vegetation on the surface. Lake beds could experience net carbon accumulation for at least a couple of decades after drainage,” Dr. Liljedahl says.

However, the ecological consequences of fewer Arctic lakes are more certain. Fish and other aquatic species will have the size of their habitat reduced and their freedom of migration restricted, as lakes drain and connecting streams dry up. Species that feed on fish or rely on wetland vegetation, like muskrats, will also be impacted.

Small lakes are an important source of freshwater for Arctic communities. Tessier wrote in her post about the lake drainage she witnessed, “We are sad to lose the lake because in winter, after it froze up, we used to go cut ice chunks for drinking water. It has really clear water. If we get enough snow we can use snow water instead, but it is not as good.”

As more lakes drain, clean freshwater could become harder to access. Combined with the destabilization of the ground itself as permafrost thaws, Arctic communities are facing massive changes.

Dr. Liljedahl hopes that refining our understanding of water dynamics in the Arctic will aid adaptation measures. She has been awarded a three year NSF grant to continue studying the ice wedge capillary network and its role in the Arctic hydrological system. She’ll use remote sensing to quantify the distribution of the ice-wedges contributing to increased drainage. She also plans to pull data from field measurements to figure out how permanent the capillaries are, since vegetation feedback loops could help permafrost recover and return the surface to its original elevation. 

“We have more to do before we can feel like the models are representing a realistic scenario. We need to better understand what is happening at the sub-meter scale with water, because the presence or absence of surface water will have a major impact on how the landscape evolves,” Dr. Liljedahl says.