What does pulling a radar-equipped sled across the Arctic tundra have to do with improving our understanding of climate change? It’s part of a new way to explore the little-known world of permafrost soils, which store almost as much carbon as the rest of the world’s soils and about twice as much as is in the atmosphere.
The new approach combines several remote-sensing tools to study the Arctic landscape—above and below ground—in high resolution and over large spatial scales. It was developed by a group of researchers that includes scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).
They use ground-penetrating radar, electrical resistance tomography, electromagnetic data, and LiDAR airborne measurements. Together, these tools allow the scientists to see the different layers of the terrestrial ecosystem, including the surface topography, the active layer that seasonally freezes and thaws, and the deeper permafrost layer.
The goal is to help scientists determine what will happen to permafrost-trapped carbon as the climate changes. Will it stay put? Or will it enter the atmosphere and accelerate climate change?
The scientists report their approach in a paper recently published online in the journal Hydrogeology. Their research is one of the first papers published in association with a new Department of Energy project called the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiment (NGEE-Arctic), which seeks to gain a predictive understanding of the Arctic terrestrial ecosystem’s feedback to climate. The NGEE-Arctic project is a collaboration among scientists and engineers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Berkeley Lab, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“By combining surface geophysical and airborne remote-sensing methods, we have a new window that allows us to study permafrost systems like never before,” says Susan Hubbard, a geophysicist in Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division who leads the Lab’s participation in the NGEE-Arctic collaboration.
The scientists tested their system on a plot of land near Barrow, Alaska, that measures about 500 meters long and 40 meters wide. Hubbard and her team conducted their first field campaign at the site last fall when the system was freezing up. They’ve since returned several times to conduct more research.
Science Brief thanks to EurekAlert.
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A new way to study permafrost soil, above and below ground
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