Carbon Balance in Warming and Drying Tundra

What Are They Doing?

The carbon cycle is the means by which carbon is moved between the world’s soils, oceans, atmosphere, and living organisms. Northern tundra ecosystems play a key role in the carbon cycle because the cold, moist, and frozen soils trap rotting organic material in the soils. This very slowly decaying organic material has caused carbon to build up in the arctic during the past thousands of years. Now warming in the arctic is slowly causing the tundra to become warmer and dryer. As a result, the trapped carbon leaves the soil as carbon dioxide and goes into the atmosphere.

The research team studied changes to the carbon cycle in northern forests by setting up experiments that copy the setting of warmer and dryer tundra. When they arrived at the field site they first removed snow from the research sites, constructed new warming chambers, installed water wells, and set up a carbon dioxide measuring system. After the set-up, the team began taking field measurements of carbon dioxide exchange between the soil and atmosphere, permafrost thaw depth, and water table depth. In addition, they took samples of plant and soil and studied the plant life cycles, also known as phenology.

The experiment is part of the Carbon in Permafrost Experimental Heating Research (CiPEHR) project. The results of their research will be helpful in predicting how the warming and drying tundra will affect the carbon balance, and how the release of additional carbon dioxide will affect global climate change.

Where Are They?

The research team was based at a remote cabin near the small town of Healy, Alaska, about 100 miles south of Fairbanks, Alaska. They traveled via four-wheel drive roads to various sample sites in the boreal forest and foothills of the Alaska Range. The research sites are within the framework of the Carbon in Permafrost Experimental Heating Research (CiPEHR), an ecosystem warming experiment located in Alaska’s discontinuous permafrost zone.


The Wood Family
I received a big welcome home from my girls! The flight home yesterday was long but well worth the time. I arrived back in Orange County a few minutes late and was met by my wife Mary and my youngest daughter Lauren. Natalie was still working so we had to go by her work to see her. It was wonderful to be home and relax with my girls. Today is Sunday and I couldn't forget that I should have a dog to write about today, and I do! This is Goldie. Her full name is Marigold because the girls in her family, her mom and grandmother, were both named after flowers. She is a Golden Retriever...
Mr. Wood at Point Barrow
This has been a wonderful expedtition! Mr. Wood waving goodbye from Point Barrow in the Arctic Ocean. This is my last day here in Alaska. I have spent most of the day running around getting all the little things that need to be done. It has been a very great experience for me being up here. The people have been friendly and supportive and the weather has been more than cooperative. I am sad at leaving but extremely happy about getting back to my students, friends and family. Over the week I will be posting journals on a less than daily basis. I will not post tomorrow due to the...
Welcome to Barrow
Mr. Wood is standing next to the welcome sign for the town of Barrow, Alaska. Barrow is a pretty unique place. It reminds me of a scientific outpost, except that it is a town with stores and businesses and one gas station. There are people walking and kids playing and lots of trucks doing their jobs. I walked around a bit this morning before we began our tour and I saw some neighborhoods that looked different but were really the same as any other. Why are the houses built on legs up off the ground? I stopped to look at some tundra and found that it looks very different from the tundra...
Flying to Barrow
After getting up this morning I repacked my bag, went for a run and got ready to go to the airport for my flight to Barrow. It only takes an hour and fifteen minutes to fly from Fairbanks so it doesn't seem like you're traveling that far. But by the time you get off the plane, you feel as if you have entered another world. From the plane you can begin to see the changes in the landscape as we move further north. The landscape is changing the more we travel north. The land is still frozen up at this time of year. When it melts it will be very wet. There is still much ice along the...
Burnt building
Dr. Natali flew out this morning for a science conference in Seattle, Washington. She was looking good but a bit over worked after all of this time in the field. She was in good spirits and we said goodbye until we meet next school year when she comes to visit Talbert! I went for a run, and took a shower right after! It was nice having running water! After the shower and some breakfast I went out to see what I could see. There was a fire in the wooden structure next to the PolarTREC building. It destroyed the power and communication lines. The first place I went was to the PolarTREC...

Expedition Resources

Project Information

17 April 2011 to 4 June 2011
Location: Healy, Alaska

Meet the Team

John Wood's picture
Talbert Middle School
Huntington Beach, CA
United States

John Wood teaches middle school science at Talbert Middle School in Fountain Valley, California. I am so happy and proud of our district and students. I have been given the opportunity to visit and speak at every school in our district and I continue to be amazed at the positive response from the kids! They are excited to learn about the polar regions and the science that is being conducted there. I feel it is critical to our future that these children become motivated in understanding how the world works and the challenges they will face in the near future. The students have the imaginations and the energy needed to tackle STEM issues in an ever shrinking world. My goal is to connect my district and community with the current issues in cryosphere research that already affects us all.

Being able to teach children current, real-life science and make those connections between education and research has been a wonderful experience for me. By sharing the Erebus expedition while actually living and working on an active volcano has excited my teaching and my students. And then being fortunate enough to skype with students from the IPY Oslo Conference the following year really started a continuous dialog around our community that I am working to expand.

When I'm not teaching, I enjoy competing in triathlons and marathons and spending time with my wife and two daughters.

Ted Schuur's picture
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL
United States

Ted Schuur is an Associate Professor of Ecosystem Ecology within the Department of Botany and Zoology at the University of Florida. His research focuses on the interaction between carbon cycling in terrestrial ecosystems and climate change. Dr. Schuur is particularly interested in the exchange of carbon between plants, soils, and the atmosphere, and the response to changes in climate and disturbance regimes.

Susan Natali's picture
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL
United States

Sue Natali is an assistant scientist at Wood Hole Research Center (WHRC). Her research focuses on the interactions and feedbacks between plant and soil communities and their environment and seeks to better understand the impacts of environmental change on ecological processes and biogeochemical cycles. Dr. Natali conducts her research in boreal and tundra ecosystems in Alaska and Siberia. Learn more about Dr. Natali and her work at the WHRC webpage.