Monday, January 2, 2012

Permafrost science heats up in the United States

Richard Monastersky in Nature: The US Department of Energy (DOE) is embarking on a US$100-million research programme to investigate what will happen to the 1,500 billion tonnes of organic carbon locked up in frozen soils of the far northern permafrost when they thaw in the rapidly warming Arctic climate.

The programme, called the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments — Arctic (NGEE), is designed to develop a fine-scale model that can simulate how soil microbes, plants and groundwater interact on the scale of centimetres to tens of metres, to control the amount of organic carbon stored underground in the permafrost zone. That model will be incorporated into the planetary-scale Earth-system models used to forecast how climate evolves under different emissions scenarios.

A US Department of Energy project will examine how ecosystems in Alaskan permafrost will respond to global warming — and whether the soil will release its carbon dioxide. “Our ability to model greenhouse gases and vegetation dynamics is inadequate in today’s environment, and when we think out 50 to 100 years, that entire landscape is going to evolve and be much more complex,” says Stan Wullschleger, the principal investigator for NGEE and a plant ecologist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

...The programme is ambitious because it will stretch from the molecular scale up to smallest grid size of the global climate models, which have cells that measure 30–100 kilometres on a side. “This is a large challenge,” says Susan Hubbard, a subsurface scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, who is a co-principal investigator on the project.

Arctic tundra in July 2008 outside Barrow, Alaska, shot by MarmotChaser, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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