NSF grants $ 256,000 to study the effects of climate change on arctic watersheds


Photo credit Emma Menio.

Jill Marshall on location in the Akalvik Range

The National Science Foundation has awarded more than $ 256,000 to study the effects of climate change on Arctic watersheds in the Aklavik Range of Northwest Territories, Canada.

Jill Marshall, Assistant Professor of Geosciences, will be Co-Principal Investigator with Marisa Palucis and Justin Strauss, Assistant Professors of Earth Sciences at Dartmouth University. Together, the interdisciplinary team’s research will quantify the potential of climate change to cause sediment transfer from mountainous regions to hill slopes and rivers, with consequent impact on local Gwich’in communities.

As temperatures rise, rocks that were previously very cold (around 26 to 33 degrees Fahrenheit) will spend more and more time in the “freeze cracking window”, hypothetically leading to amplified rates of weathering of rocks and sediment production.

Warmer temperatures are already causing the duration and magnitude of permafrost thaw to increase, which the team says will cause sediment that creeps up and down to transition to faster, larger debris flows. This increase in rates across Arctic watersheds can impact communities and ecosystems due to the increased risk of landslides and the potential for this accelerated input of sediment to alter riverine habitat.

The researchers’ objectives are to:

  • Conduct fieldwork to understand how site conditions control rates of sediment production caused by freezing, as well as the processes and rates by which sediment moves through this vulnerable landscape.
  • Combine several analytical tools, including rare isotopes that can quantify the rate of transport over days or months and erosion over millennia, with physics experiments aimed at improving understanding of how ice transforms solid rock in sediment.
  • Use remote sensing techniques to extend local discoveries to the wider Aklavik Range region in recent decades.
  • Use the acquired data to calibrate models of sediment production and transport to predict the response of the arctic landscape to scenarios of continuous anthropogenic or anthropogenic warming.

Marshall noted that the two field sites are quite remote – north of the 68th parallel and well within the Arctic Circle on the traditional lands of the Gwich’in, a First Nations people. The team benefits from local community partnerships that make research possible. The season for fieldwork is dictated by the seasons – either when the Mackenzie River freezes over and becomes an ice road, or when the site must be accessible by boat or helicopter. To characterize sediment transport, the best time to visit the site is when the permafrost changes from fully frozen transport to active transport, typically in April. But with climate change, previously predictable ice or water transport routes have become more difficult to predict.

Marshall said the goal is to “quantify the rate at which the landscape cracks, shatters and moves so that we can develop predictive landscape models.” In this way, we can anticipate future impacts and identify areas of greatest concern. “

Researchers will work closely with members of the Gwich’in community to collect field and historical data, including oral histories from the area. To promote STEM education to the younger generation of Gwich’in and American undergraduates, the team will create and share ArcGIS StoryMaps. These StoryMaps will be generated in courses offered at Dartmouth College and U of A (“Virtual Arctic Landscapes”). They will be designed to allow undergraduates from both institutions to experience the Arctic in an accessible and meaningful way.

About the Department of Geosciences: The Department of Geosciences originated in 1873, when the first mineralogy course was offered at the University of Arkansas. Our professors and students examine the processes that form and shape the Earth’s surface, the natural resources we use, how water and ecosystems are interconnected, variations in climate and paleoclimate, the use and development of methods geospatial and human geography of ethnicity, gender, class, social inequality and religion. The department won $ 2 million in research scholarships in FY2020, and our students benefit from over $ 3 million in scholarship funds funded by generous alumni and friends of the department. To learn more about the Department of Geosciences, please visit our website.

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas’ flagship institution, the U of A offers internationally competitive education in over 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $ 2.2 billion to the Arkansas economy through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development, discovery through research and creative activity while providing training in professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation ranks the U of A among the top 3% of US colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. American News and World Report ranks the U of A among the best public universities in the country. Find out how the U of A is working to build a better world on Arkansas Research News.


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