Experiments in Northern Alaska seek to improve projections for a changing Arctic

Plant physiologist Alistair Rogers standing by a warming chamber on the tundra close to Utqiaġvik. The experiment is part of a larger project run by the Department of Energy to collect data on natural processes in order to better predict how the Arctic will be affected by climate change. (Photo by Ravenna Koenig/ Alaska’s Energy Desk)

If you live in a place that’s particularly vulnerable to climate change, you want to know specifics about what that change is going to look like in the future: how high can you expect storm surges to be? How much is the permafrost going to thaw, and how fast? A Department of Energy project in Alaska is trying to get the Arctic closer to some of those answers.

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On a spot of uneven tundra just a 15-minute drive from downtown Utqiaġvik, Alistair Rogers stands surveying his experimental domain: several short greenhouse-looking structures connected by a webbed plastic pathway.

Rogers is a plant physiologist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. He’s part of a team of scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy who are working at four sites around Alaska.

Their project is called Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments, or NGEE Arctic, and they’re looking at some of the natural processes that happen on land in northern Alaska — like microbial activity in the permafrost, the spread of shrubs across the tundra and, in Rogers’ case, how tundra plants interact with the atmosphere.

Inside one of the greenhouses, Rogers’ colleague Kim Ely bends over a small, boxy piece of equipment.

“What I have here is a machine that we’re measuring photosynthesis and respiration rates [with],” Ely explained. “And it’s currently clamped on a little leaf down here that’s within the measurement chamber.”

The humming machine has a name tag stuck on the top, partly so it doesn’t get mixed up with the other machines, and partly because Rogers is a bit of a sports fan.

“They’re all named after New York Yankee players,” Ely said. “So there’s Bernie, and Andy, and Jorge, and Derek, and Mariano.”

The photosynthesis measurement being taken by the “Bernie” box will eventually become… math.

“Photosynthesis for example,” Rogers said. “There’s a bunch of equations which describe how the holes on the leaves open up and let CO2 in and let water out.”

Those equations will be used to make projections about how the Arctic will be impacted by climate change.

While there’s been a good amount of data collected on that kind of thing in different parts of the world, like in the grasslands and temperate forests, in the Arctic there’s been hardly any.

“What we’re trying to do is make better predictions so that we can basically provide policy-makers with more useful, actionable information,” Rogers said.

Already, Rogers says that his team has gathered data that’s helped revise some previous assumptions about how Arctic vegetation works. They hope that the combined work of all the teams on the project will refine their understanding of what may happen in the Arctic of the future.

The data is publicly available; scientists working on climate projections — or any other research — can access it online.