A group that has been researching Arctic climate change in Siberia for eight years is shifting its focus to the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta. Next summer, Max Holmes is bringing his Polaris Project to Kuka Creek, located halfway between Bethel and St. Mary’s. The project is trying to advance climate change research, while developing a new generation of Arctic scientists. Holmes hopes that some of those scientists will come from the YK Delta.
Last summer, wildfires engulfed the YK Delta.
“By one estimate, there was more area burned in the YK Delta in 2015 than in the last 64 years combined," said Max Holmes, Deputy Director and Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. From there he leads the Polaris Project. As part of the project’s climate change research, Holmes wants to know what’s happening to the ground, long frozen, beneath those Delta fires. It could be important knowledge.
“There’s roughly three times more carbon locked up in permafrost than in all the forests, all the vegetation on earth," Holmes said. "There’s twice as much carbon in permafrost as is in the atmosphere.”
Arctic river deltas, like the YK Delta, hold less than one-percent of the world’s permafrost, but store most of the world’s permafrost carbon. This carbon sits in a precarious place, vulnerable to warming air, fire, changing river conditions, and rising sea levels.
All these forces melt the permafrost. When that happens, ancient organic matter, which holds the carbon, decomposes and releases carbon dioxide and methane gas into the atmosphere. Those gases lock in heat, causing more warming, more thawing, higher water, and more fires.
“And those fires can have all kinds of impacts on permafrost and the carbon in the permafrost,” Holmes said.
To find out what those impacts are, Holmes is bringing a group of students from colleges and universities from across the country to Kuka Creek, about 50 miles north of Bethel. For two weeks in June of 2017, the team will study the permafrost in areas burned by the fire and compare that to unburned areas. Then the students will travel to Woods Hole, Massachusetts to sort their data. Holmes has been doing similar research in an Arctic river delta in Northeast Siberia since 2008. He says that there isn’t much known about the YK Delta permafrost, and there are a lot of questions to answer.
“The YK Delta is a particularly interesting area in this regard, because it’s carbon-rich permafrost. It’s deep permafrost, but it's also relatively warm permafrost, so that makes it particularly vulnerable to warming,” he said.
Holmes is looking for undergraduate and graduate students to join his research team, and he wants students from the YK Delta and Alaska to apply.
“So we want a really diverse crowd of a group of students coming from lots of different backgrounds. And we’re not just looking at the GPAs, but we’re looking at students who we think would gain the most from their involvement in the Polaris Project.”
Students get paid to participate, and all of their travel and lodging is covered by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Applications are open on the Polaris Project website until January 15. Holmes also plans to bring the project’s research to Bethel K-12 schools.