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Tracking a Warming Arctic – From Underground to High in the Sky

The Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of Earth. This warming is creating big and small changes, some of which could ripple beyond the planet’s frozen regions and affect us world-wide – possibly raising sea levels, increasing greenhouse warming and affecting wildlife.

Our Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, known as ABoVE, just began a 10-year mission in Alaska and western Canada, studying these changes.

Underground: Permafrost is the layer of frozen soil beneath some Arctic forests and tundra. 

Like the name suggests, this icy layer stays solid year-round, so when it does melt, it can create big problems. The soil above the thawing permafrost can collapse, creating this wobbly, unstable surface.

7 feet above sea level: As the permafrost thaws, the soil above it can fall away. 

Along the banks of the Itkillik River in Alaska, thawing permafrost has dripped into the water, eroding the cliff side. Known as the “Stinky Bluffs,” this permafrost contains lots of frozen organic matter from dead plants and animals. As the permafrost thaws, this organic matter doesn’t just smell, it also releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, adding to the warming effect.

446 feet above sea level: Wildfires aren’t unusual in the forests and shrub lands of Alaska, but as the climate continues to warm, they burn longer and do more damage. 

People who live off the land in the region help researchers understand where plant life isn’t growing back after fires.

100-1000 feet above sea level: Researchers set up 100-foot tall towers at strategic locations throughout Alaska to measure carbon dioxide and methane emissions from right above the forest canopy. 

This provides an up-close look at what gases are released or absorbed from the trees, or swirl in from neighboring regions. These data are combined with measurements taken from airplanes and satellites to create a clearer picture of how much carbon is entering the atmosphere.

3,369 feet above sea level: Dall sheep live in several Alaskan mountain ranges, where they’re critical to both the tourism and sports hunting economies. 

Credit: National Park Service

Changes in temperature and vegetation can profoundly affect their behavior, like grazing habits, and so researchers study how changing plant life and snow cover affect the sheep.

100-30,000 feet above sea level: Carbon emissions in the air come from thawing permafrost, fossil fuel burning, decaying vegetation and wildfires burning across the Arctic-boreal regions. 

One experiment in the ABoVE campaign measures these emissions with instruments on a DC-8 plane.

About 30,000 feet about sea level: When wildfires burn through vegetation, the effects extend far beyond what we see on the ground. 

Fires release carbon stored in the plants into the atmosphere, where it affects air quality and contributes to the greenhouse effect.

438 miles: Our ABoVE campaign combines research on the ground and from planes with data collected by a fleet of Earth-observing satellites, orbiting Earth hundreds of miles above the surface. 

Data from these satellites provides information on vegetation, atmospheric particles and gasses, and how humans are impacting our planet. With all these data sets analyzed by computer programs, the result is a comprehensive picture of our warming planet.

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Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska, USA

Photos from Operation Haudegen

Being able to make accurate weather predictions is important for modern warfare. During World War II, Germany set up a number of weather stations throughout the arctic, even clandestinely setting up an unmanned station as far as the Canadian Arctic. On the 9th of September of 1944 eleven German soldiers arrived by submarine at Svalbard, a remote chain of islands a short distance from the North Pole.

Called Operation Haudegen, the men set up a weather station and sent daily weather reports to Germany. For a year the man of Operation Haudegen were forced to bear loneliness, harsh arctic weather, 23 hours a day of daylight or 23 hours a day of night depending on the season, and boredom. As the war raged in Europe and the Third Reich collapsed, they became more isolated as they were forgotten by the German government. Finally on September 4th, 1945, they were rescued by a crew of Norwegian fishermen, four months after the German surrender. They became known as they last German soldiers to surrender after World War II.

The following photos are from the archives of Lt. Dr. William Dege, commander of the Haudegen expedition. He is the man with the beard and glasses.