Posts Tagged ‘permafrost’

VIDEO – The climate change issue you probably haven’t heard about

July 6, 2016

The soil in the Arctic holds a massive store of carbon. These remnants of plants and animals that lived tens of thousands of years ago have been locked in permafost, soil that is always frozen…until now.

UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Aron Stubbins is part of a team that travelled to Siberia to discover what happens to that carbon when the permafrost thaws.


Warming climate may release vast amounts of carbon from long-frozen Arctic soils

April 24, 2015

While climatologists are carefully watching carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, another group of scientists is exploring a massive storehouse of carbon that has the potential to significantly affect the climate change picture.

Aron Stubbins

Aron Stubbins

University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography researcher Aron Stubbins is part of a team investigating how ancient carbon, locked away in Arctic permafrost for thousands of years, is now being transformed into carbon dioxide and released into the atmosphere. The results of the study were published in Geophysical Research Letters.

The Arctic contains a massive amount of carbon in the form of frozen soil—the remnants of plants and animals that died more than 20,000 years ago. Because this organic material was permanently frozen year-round, it did not undergo decomposition by bacteria the way organic material does in a warmer climate. Just like food in a home freezer, it has been locked away from the bacteria that would otherwise cause it to decay and be converted to carbon dioxide.

“However, if you allow your food to defrost, eventually bacteria will eat away at it, causing it to decompose and release carbon dioxide,” Stubbins said. “The same thing happens to permafrost when it thaws.”

Scientists estimate there is more than 10 times the amount of carbon in the Arctic soil than has been put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution. To look at it another way, scientists estimate there is two and a half times more carbon locked away in the Arctic deep freezer than there is in the atmosphere today. Now, with a warming climate, that deep freezer is beginning to thaw and that long-frozen carbon is beginning to be released into the environment.

“The study we did was to look at what happens to that organic carbon when it is released,” Stubbins said. “Does it get converted to carbon dioxide or is it still going to be preserved in some other form?”

Stubbins and his colleagues conducted their fieldwork at Duvanni Yar in Siberia. There, the Kolyma River carves into a bank of permafrost, exposing the frozen organic material. This worked well for the scientists, as they were able to find streams that consisted of 100 percent thawed permafrost. The researchers measured the carbon concentration, how old the carbon was and what forms of carbon were present in the water. They bottled it with a sample of the local microbes. After two weeks, they measured the changes in the carbon concentration and composition and the amount of carbon dioxide that had been produced.

A bank of permafrost thaws near the Kolyma River in Siberia.

“We found that decomposition converted 60 percent of the carbon in the thawed permafrost to carbon dioxide in two weeks,” Stubbins said. “This shows the permafrost carbon is definitely in a form that can be used by the microbes.”

Lead author Robert Spencer of Florida State University added, “Interestingly, we also found that the unique composition of thawed permafrost carbon is what makes the material so attractive to microbes.”

The study also confirmed what the scientists had suspected: The carbon being used by the bacteria is at least 20,000 years old. This is significant because it means that carbon has not been a part of the global carbon cycle in the recent past.

“If you cut down a tree and burn it, you are simply returning the carbon in that tree to the atmosphere where the tree originally got it,” Stubbins said. “However, this is carbon that has been locked away in a deep-freeze storage for a long time.

“This is carbon that has been out of the active, natural system for tens of thousands of years. To reintroduce it into the contemporary system will have an effect.”

The carbon release has the potential to create what scientists call a positive feedback loop. This means as more carbon is released into the atmosphere, it would amplify climate warming. That, in turn, would cause more permafrost to thaw and release more carbon, causing the cycle to continue.

“Currently, this is not a process that shows up in future (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) climate projections; in fact, permafrost is not even accounted for,” Spencer said.

“Moving forward, we need to find out how consistent our findings are and to work with a broader range of scientists to better predict how fast this process will happen,” Stubbins said.

In addition to Stubbins and Spencer, the research team included Paul Mann from Northumbria University, United Kingdom; Thorsten Dittmar from the University of Oldenburg, Germany; Timothy Eglinton and Cameron McIntyre from the Geological Institute, Zurich, Switzerland; Max Holmes from Woods Hole Research Center; and Nikita Zimov from the Far-Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Science.

Ice Camp! – January 25, 2011

January 26, 2011

We’re getting there!  With our team mostly in place (Debbie Bronk and Karrie Sines arrived today), we’re now only missing our fearless leader Tish Yager. Tish, due to family obligations, couldn’t arrive until Thursday.

Today, after a brief meeting with our logistical support team, it was decided that we would set-up our ice camp in the early afternoon. The crack in the ice is still a concern because it indicates that the ice is still moving, but the experts think that the risk of the fast ice breaking-up is small. We’re watching it carefully, but moving forward with our plans.

The logistics team took care of most of the work setting up camp, but Zac and Tara went along to lend a hand and to advise the team on the specific location of the tents, the ice holes, and the placement of the heaters and generators. It is important that any potential contamination of our samples is minimized and so that our sampling can be conducted as efficiently as possible. The trip went smoothly, our camp was established, and I heard that the camaraderie was good.

Tony’s joke; told while drilling an ice hole.

How do you catch a polar bear?

Put some frozen peas around an ice hole, wait for a bear to come take a pea and kick him in the ice hole.

Say it out loud and you’ll get it.  I know…., you had to be there, but Zac took videos.

Sunset from our ice camp.

Imagine the situation, out on the ice in the extreme cold and surrounded by the beauty of an Arctic winter day, its enough to drive anyone a little cold crazy.

After several hours on the ice, Zac is cold crazy.

Meanwhile, the rest of us remained on the station setting-up our labs and making sure that we would be ready for tomorrow’s planned first sampling. Not so exciting, but it really is satisfying to finally see the results of the months of planning realized.  And we’re even more excited to generate the results from our winter experiments.

We are guessing that we’ll see major differences in microbial activities and communities in the winter compared to the spring and summer. We are especially eager to observe how the bacteria are using various forms of nitrogen. Nitrogen is a limiting nutrient for phytoplankton and phytoplankton form the base of the food web that ultimately feed all the larger organisms including whales and humans.

One of the central hypotheses of our project is that if the permafrost melts and releases large amounts of nitrogen-poor humic materials that are stored there, this will increase the use of dissolved inorganic nitrogen by bacteria.  If this occurs, potentially there will be less nitrogen available for the phytoplankton in the spring when the lights come back on and consequently less food for all the larger organisms. Our experiments this week should tell us whether the logic of this idea is correct.

With the ice camp established and our labs set-up, we’re ready to start collecting samples tomorrow. Wish us luck!


Notes from the Arctic – Weather Day August 27th, 2010

August 28, 2010

Skidaway Institute professor Marc Frischer continues this daily log of his research trip to Barrow, Alaska. With him are Skidaway Inst research tech Victoria Baylor and researchers from the University of Georgia and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Hi All,

Its been a long day of waiting and finally giving-up on getting out to sample.  The wind picked-up even more and the fog has stuck around all day.  We were all set for an 8:00 am departure, again led by captain Quuniq, but we had to scratch the mission.

Although we were all disappointed and worried about completing our research, we trust the experience and common sense of our local logistical support.  So we spent the morning making good use of our time reorganizing our plans, taking care of the many details and small tasks left over from yesterday’s lab day.  The unexpected “day off” also gave us the opportunity to meet with the local logistics support staff at BASC (Barrow Arctic Science Consortium) to plan our next trip in January 2011.  This place will be completely different with our sampling site covered by ice, temperatures around -40°F, and only a few hours of light a day.  Although the weather is extreme now, just wait until January!

I also had an opportunity to meet with Glenn Sheehan, the director of BASC, to discuss future projects and to start making a dent into the pile of other work that has been piling-up.  All in all it turned out to be a pretty productive day, just not in the way I had expected it to be.

In the late afternoon we all decided to go into town to visit the Iñupiat Heritage Center and to eat dinner.

Marc at the Heritage Center

The Heritage center is a small museum dedicated to preservation, advancement, and education about Iñupiat culture.

A Bowhead Whale model at the heritage center

The museum features exhibits, largely photographs, taxidermy animals, and art objects documenting past and current Iñupiat culture.  One of the nicest aspects of the center was that they host local artists that are eager to talk to visitors about their culture and crafts.  We helped the local economy by buying a few pieces ourselves.

Marc with scrimshaw artist

I bought a scrimshaw Bowhead whale baleen personalized for my son David (don’t tell him, it’s a surprise present) and Debbie bought a few.  We also both enjoyed talking with the artists including Mr. and Mrs. Patkotak who, in addition to producing amazing ivory and baleen art, lead a successful whaling crew.

Debbie wanted to take a picture with them since she collects pictures of strong women and Mrs. Patkotak was definitely women of strong character.

Deb Bronk with local Barrow couple

We continue to be impressed with the local Iñupiat people and culture.  Despite the harsh life and climate here, they clearly enjoy their lives and are well adapted to the lifestyle.  We have a lot to learn from them.

After a bizarre trip to an incredibly tacky but not for tourists store called “La Bamba” found nestled in a local neighborhood, we found are way to dinner at the famous Brower Café.

Local Barrow neighborhood taken looking away from the La Bamba store

The café is located in a building originally built by the first international polar year expedition in 1883.  Unfortunately, the dinner wasn’t as inspiring as the history or scenery.

Research team on the beach behind the famous Brower Cafe

After dinner it was back to the station, a little more work, and off to bed.  Hopefully we’ll be able to get back to research tomorrow if the weather allows.

Until then,


Skidaway Institute scientists study Arctic climate change

December 1, 2009

Climate change will have profound effects on the Arctic ecosystem, and those effects may be felt around the world. Skidaway Institute of Oceanography professor Marc Frischer is launching a three-year project to examine the effects of rising temperatures in the Arctic and how those changes will impact the marine food web.

The project is funded by a $356,139 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“We know global climate change is impacting the fragile Arctic environment,” said Frischer. “Atmospheric concentrations of heat absorbing greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide are rising; the Arctic sea ice and permafrost are melting; and models are predicting significant changes in precipitation patterns in the Arctic.

“What we don’t know is how living systems will respond or adapt to those changes and how, ultimately we as humans will have to adapt to those changes.”

The work will be conducted in Point Barrow, the northernmost location in the US, at a NSF supported research station operated by the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium.

Pt. Barrow, Alaska, in winter

The landscape at Point Barrow is tundra that sits on top of as much as 1,300 feet of permanently frozen soil called “permafrost.” The concern is that with climate warming this permafrost will begin to melt and release an enormous amount of organic material into the coastal ocean.

“What you have now is have is up to 1,300 ft deep frozen soils consisting of ancient forest peat locked in the permafrost,” said Frischer. “What will happen when the permafrost starts to melt and that material, called humic acid, is released into groundwater, streams, rivers and ultimately into the ocean? That is what we want to know.”

Frischer’s focus will be on the microscopic organisms that comprise the very bottom of the Arctic Ocean food web. They include a wide variety of tiny organisms. On one end are the autotrophs, organisms that consume inorganic material and produce energy through photosynthesis, like plants. At the other end are the heterotrophs that consume organic material and obtain their energy from what they eat, like animals.

The humic acid material is rich in carbon, but lacks nitrogen, a key element that both autotrophs and heterotrophs need to make use of the carbon in the humic material. For every carbon molecule an organism uses, it will also need nitrogen.

“If you are going to grow more things, then that nitrogen has to come from somewhere,” said Frischer. “Our hypothesis is that as this humic material enters the coastal Arctic, there will be a greater demand for nitrogen at the base of the food web.”

Whoever gets that nitrogen, whether it will be the plant-like autotrophs or the animal-like heterotrophs, will determine how much organic production ends up farther up the food web in larger marine animals and eventually humans.

“This will all be set by whoever wins the war for nitrogen,” said Frischer.

Over the course of the project, Frischer and his team will travel to the Arctic several times a year. While in the Arctic, Frischer’s team will focus on making observations of the system and conducing experiments to determine what organisms are growing, which organisms are using the humic material, and determining where they are getting their nitrogen from and how they are doing it.

“We will manipulate the nutrients in the water samples and see how the different micro-organisms react,” said Frischer. “From that we should be able to project how the natural environment will react and ultimately contribute new data that help us understand and predict the biological effects of climate warming in the Arctic.”

Frischer will be working with two collaborators on the project, Patricia Yager from the University of Georgia, and Deborah Bronk from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Both Yager and Bronk received independent grants from NSF to participate in the study.