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The Ten-Year Mission to Study All the Ways the Arctic Is Doomed

Climate change is wreaking havoc on the Arctic faster than anywhere else on earth, so NASA is leading the charge to find out how bad things really are.

by Matthew Braga
Sep 1 2015, 5:45pm

Image: US Geological Survey/Flickr

Climate change is wreaking havoc on the Arctic faster than anywhere else on earth, melting permafrost, scrambling wildlife, releasing carbon into the atmosphere, and creating the perfect conditions for some of the most devastating forest fires parts of the region have ever seen. But the breadth and depth of this havoc is something that scientists still don't completely understand.

With that in mind, NASA is kicking off a decade-long effort to figure out just how bad things in northern US and Canada really are—and how much worse things might get in years to come.

Called the Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, or ABoVE for short, the large-scale study will combine on-the-ground field studies as well as data from remote sensors—such as satellites and two season of "intensive airborne surveys"—to improve how scientists analyze and model the effects of climate change on the region.

First conceived in 2013, NASA selected 21 projects for the first of three research phases at the end of last month. A combination of NASA scientists, as well as Canadian and US researchers from both public and private organizations, will be involved.

For example, one project will combine sensor data from airborne and spaceborne sensors with direct readings on methane emissions in thousands of Alaskan and northwestern Canadian lakes. For another project, researchers plan to give subsistence hunters camera equipped GPS units, and have them "mark and photograph environmental disturbances influencing their access to subsistence resources for one calendar year."

The goal is to answer one overarching question: "How vulnerable or resilient are ecosystems and society to environmental change in the Arctic and boreal region of western North America?"

"Boreal forests and tundra are critical for understanding the ecological impacts of Earth's changing climate," said Jack Kaye, associate director for research in NASA's Earth Science Division in a statement. "These ecosystems hold a third of the carbon stored on land—in trees, shrubs and the frozen ground of the permafrost. That's a lot of potential greenhouse gases in play. We need to better understand these ecosystems, and how a warming climate will affect forests, wildlife and communities both regionally and globally."

According to some of the project profiles on NASA's ABoVE site, teams will also investigate the ongoing effects of devastating wildfires on the region, shifting patterns of forest growth, and changes to migration patterns in caribou, sheep and bear populations.

The primary area of study stretches from the western Alaskan shore into the northwestern parts of Nunavut; south into parts of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan; and at its lowest point, through the Rocky Mountains into Jasper National Park. An extended area of study intended for select projects includes the entirety of Nunavut, the province of Manitoba, and extend the southern boundary as low as Banff.

According to a NASA statement, the entire region spans about 6.4 million square kilometers (or 2.5 million square miles).

The agency's first science team meeting will be held at the end of the month.

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Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment