IAB Life Science Hour Seminar Series

Name:Skip Walker
Title:Navigating the New Arctic: Landscape evolution and adapting to change in ice-rich permafrost systems
Date:Friday, 25 October 2019
Location:Murie Life Science Bldg, Murie Auditorium

Ice-rich permafrost (IRP) is perhaps the most vulnerable element of the rapidly evolving New Arctic. Much of the response to permafrost-related damage has been incremental actions driven by the necessity to repair and stabilize existing roads and structures. There is a need to develop more strategic approaches to mitigation and adaptation informed by science and engineering in collaboration with local observations, knowledge, and preferences. Massive ground ice is at the center of a web of interacting ecosystem components that we call the IRP system (IRPS), which requires a complex-systems approach to understand. Our key questions are: How are climate change and infrastructure affecting IRPS? What roles do ecosystems play in the development and degradation of IRP? and How can people and their infrastructure adapt to changing IRP systems? We are particularly interested in how differences in vegetation, water, and time influence the accumulation and degradation of ground ice in IRP landscapes, and how the loss of ground ice can radically change these landscapes, their components, and the infrastructure built on them. Our ultimate goal is to understand IRPS at local, regional and circumpolar scales. The project is divided into two principal components: "Landscape evolution” and “Adaptation to change”.

Our initial foci for field research are the Prudhoe Bay oil field and the village of Point Lay, Alaska, where permafrost temperatures are changing rapidly with large impacts to ecosystems and infrastructure. Both areas provide excellent examples of IRP-related issues relevant to many other areas of Alaska and the Arctic. We will develop three IRP observatories: 1) Roadside IRP Observatory in the Prudhoe Bay oilfield; 2) Natural IRP Observatory remote from infrastructure; and 3) Village IRP Observatory at Point Lay. The Prudhoe Bay region has the best historical record of geoecological change within the Arctic with key legacy datasets and good collaboration between industry and science. We will revisit permanent plots and remap Prudhoe Bay vegetation and landscapes first studied in the 1970s. We will characterize and compare the permafrost, hydrology, vegetation, and greenhouse gas (GHG) fluxes of IRPS in three main situations: 1) disturbance gradients adjacent to heavily traveled roads in the Prudhoe Bay oilfield; 2) undisturbed tundra first mapped in the 1970s in a relatively undisturbed landscape consisting of drained lake basins and residual surfaces unaffected by thaw lake processes; and 3) extremely-ice-rich yedoma soils in the village of Point Lay, which are similar to several other coastal villages in northwest Alaska. We will use a multidimensional remote-sensing time-series to measure and monitor changes to microtopography, water, snow cover, vegetation, thermokarst, and thermo-erosional features. We will use the field observations, detailed geoecological maps, and remote-sensing products to provide input for improved permafrost and hydrology models to predict permafrost degradation over the next century under different GHG emission scenarios.

Point Lay has received less research and agency attention than other climate-impacted communities, yet its thaw-related issues are among the most critical. Researchers from the UAF Institute of Northern Engineering, Geophysical Institute, Institute of Arctic Biology, and International Arctic Research Center will combine their expertise to address IRPS-related questions in collaboration with project partners. We will work with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, The North Slope Regional Housing Authority, and the Point Lay community to collaboratively produce adaptive housing strategies and knowledge regarding other forms of infrastructure-ground-ice interactions that are also relevant to other arctic villages. The project is a component of the International Arctic Research Committee (IASC) Rapid Arctic Transitions due to Infrastructure and Climate (RATIC) initiative and the Infrastructure Action Group of the Multidisciplinary distributed Observatories for the Study of Arctic Connections (T-MOSAiC) project.

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Beginning in 1966 and continuing today, IAB hosts a weekly seminar for faculty, students, staff and the public during the academic year. The series attracts life scientists from Alaska and around the world.

If you wish to meet with a particular speaker, please contact one of the seminar coordinators or the IAB director's office at 907-474-7649.

The 2019-2020 faculty coordinators for this seminar series are Cory Williams and Eugenie Euskirchen. Beginning in 2013, many of the seminars were recorded and can be viewed online. Speakers are listed in chronological order within academic years.