UNH research works to close knowledge gaps regarding Arctic climate change


Courtesy of Scott Saleska

Aerial view of lakes in Stordalen Mire in the region of Abisko, Sweden, a model ecosystem for researching methane emissions.

Julie Bobyock, News Editor

While the Arctic may seem geographically far away, the region has close ties with University of New Hampshire (UNH) researchers who are studying how climate change will impact its fragile environments. UNH recently received grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) totaling about five million dollars to study the effects of Arctic climate change on ecosystems and earthquake vulnerability.

The Arctic is the Earth’s northernmost region at a latitude of about 66.5 degrees north of the equator. However, this region is experiencing rising temperatures four times as fast as the rest of the world, according to a study led by researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. This alarming statistic highlights the urgency with which the Arctic must be studied to predict, adapt to and mitigate environmental responses to new warming temperatures.

The first project is a collaboration with other research institutions including Colorado State University, University of Arizona, Florida State University, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and Queensland University of Technology, Australia.  The objective is to study the thawing of Arctic permafrost (soil that remains frozen year-round) and how it may impact surrounding water bodies. UNH Earth Sciences Professor and Principal Investigator of the study, Ruth Varner, explained how thawing permafrost can impact lakes and rivers and result in a global warming positive feedback loop, in which processes enhance each other and result in more and more change. 

“When these frozen areas begin to thaw, carbon (dead plant material) can be released into nearby lakes and streams where it can then be converted into gas emissions by microbes that further fuel the thawing cycle,” Varner said in a UNH Today news article. “Simply put, more methane equals more warming and trying to figure out the link between these microbes and the gas emissions is critical for dealing with climate change.”

The second project is investigating the impacts of rising temperatures and permafrost thaw on infrastructure stability and how this could impact the area’s vulnerability to earthquakes, as Alaska and other Arctic areas experience thousands of earthquakes every year. 

“While there is seismic activity and threats of earthquakes across the country, the accelerated warming in the Arctic, along with the remoteness of the region and the unique culture of the local and Indigenous communities, can pose distinct challenges,” said Majid Ghayoomi, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and principal investigator, in a UNH today news article

The project is a part of NSF’s Navigating the New Arctic initiative that involves collaborations with other research institutions in addition to five native communities. The researchers will also engage with the community through interviews, surveys and workshops to develop planning, mitigation and recovery skills in response to potential changing infrastructure stability. The goal is to investigate how the natural environment, built systems and social systems are at risk to earthquakes to better prepare for a changing Arctic environment.

“This project has the potential to transform and stimulate research that could lead to breakthroughs in fundamental science and engineering, informed by the community and Indigenous people, to address and improve earthquake-related hurdles facing the new Arctic and possibly other cold region environments,” said Ghayoomi.

UNH has additional research groups studying Arctic change with specializations on the many different parts of the complex puzzle that is the tundra ecosystem. For example, College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) associate professor Jessica Ernakovich studies how microbial communities and soil chemistry work together to affect ecosystem function. She was recently awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) funded CAREER award to continue researching, teaching and outreach about permafrost microbes.

Ernakovich explained how microbes are being “selected” for in a changing Arctic environment, and her research involves predicting which microbes will thrive, and which may not survive in different permafrost conditions. This will help to also predict microbes’ contribution to greenhouse gas release.

With accelerated warming, a lot of unknowns and a potential for substantial environmental and social impacts, Arctic climate change is a challenging yet urgent field of study that UNH researchers and their collaborators are dedicated and determined to take on.