Woodwell Climate and University of Alaska Fairbanks host public showcase of the Permafrost Discovery Gateway

The event brought together researchers local community members and permafrost experts to share new technology and learn more about permafrost thaw and its impact on people living in Fairbanks and beyond

Dr. Anna Liljedahl explaining ice wedges to a family.

Dr. Anna Liljedahl, project lead, explains permafrost thaw to a family at the open house.

photo by Sarah Moore

Earlier this month, Woodwell Climate Research Center and University of Alaska Fairbanks, with support from Google.org, hosted An Evening at the Museum with the Permafrost Discovery Gateway at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, bringing together researchers, local community members and permafrost experts to learn more about permafrost thaw and what it means for people living in Fairbanks and beyond.

The Permafrost Discovery Gateway (PDG) is a free, interactive, web-based tool that expands public access to big data–or, the geospatial files and products that would otherwise be too large for anyone to view on their own personal computer–and other key information about permafrost thaw. Last summer, it entered a new project phase, supported by a $5 million grant and pro bono Fellowship from Google.org, to create a first-of-its-kind, open-access resource, building on its existing capabilities and incorporating satellite data and artificial intelligence (AI) technology to enable near-real-time tracking of Arctic permafrost thaw.

Research area
Members of the Permafrost Discovery Gateway team touring a permafrost tunnel in Alaska.

Members of the Permafrost Discovery Gateway team tour the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) permafrost tunnel.

photo by Sarah Moore

In 2024, the PDG team, with support from 11 full-time Google.org Fellows, have developed scalable machine learning workflows that help scientists put research into production to create new data products about permafrost thaw features, like lake changes and ice-rich permafrost. They’ve also incorporated a storytelling element in the updated user interface that showcases and zooms in on heavily-impacted communities, making it easier to discover, explore, and derive meaning from the data.

The event was an opportunity for local community members of all ages to learn more about the PDG and the latest project updates, and for PDG team members to hear from Fairbanks residents about what it’s like to live on permafrost. Project workshops were also held throughout the week, bringing together PDG team members from all over the world, including researchers from across seven institutions, Google.org Fellows, policymakers, and other key stakeholders, to address project challenges and improve user experience.

“We have so much to learn from each other, whether you are a scientist or software engineer on the PDG development team who has never been to Alaska or seen permafrost before, or a Fairbanks local with a lifetime of experience living on permafrost, or a science career,” said Dr. Anna Liljedahl, Woodwell Climate Associate Scientist and project lead. “Our goal with the event at the museum was to create that bridge and enable that exchange to happen, where new technology meets on-the-ground expertise. I think everyone left the museum that night with admiration of each other and excitement about what we can do together.”

“AI has tremendous potential to help those working to solve our biggest global issues, like understanding the impacts of thawing permafrost, reach their goals faster and at half the cost,” said Jen Carter, Head of Tech and Volunteering at Google.org. “Google.org is proud to have full-time Fellows supporting Woodwell Climate Research Center to improve timely tracking of permafrost thaw using advanced AI technology, and were thrilled to stand alongside Woodwell to share the latest from this project with the Fairbanks community, many of whom are feeling the real time impacts of permafrost thaw in their daily lives, and will be able to use this resource to inform critical climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.”

The event was centered on a presentation about the PDG, which included some sneak-peaks on what researchers have learned from the big data about permafrost. Before and after the presentation, attendees were able to use Virtual Reality headsets to experience a virtual tour of the permafrost tunnel, touch a core of permafrost, do a 3D puzzle of typical ice-rich permafrost features, view a rolling art slide show on permafrost features of prints made by artist Ina Timling, explore a few posters prepared by the team, bring home samples from a  permafrost landscape coloring book, and part-take in a guessing game on how many ice-wedge polygons the team has mapped.