Wild caribou are the single most important land-based species for both human communities and ecosystems in the Arctic. Abundant across the polar region, these animals play an essential role both as herbivores that impact tundra vegetation and as an important source of food to Indigenous hunters. In many cultures, the caribou also have incalculable spiritual value.
Despite their clear importance and presence on the landscape, the fate of caribou in the face of a warming Arctic still remains unclear. Arctic regions are experiencing rapid rates of climate warming, which in turn weave a complex web of downstream effects. At the same time, the pace of human development is accelerating. Understanding how caribou will fare is of the utmost importance, but most existing studies focus on one or two caribou herds, which makes it difficult to generalize to the whole species.
“The Arctic is getting warmer, busier, and potentially riskier for caribou”
The GEODE lab’s Scott Goetz (Regent’s Professor) and Logan Berner (Assistant Research Professor) seek to change this with a new research project funded with Elie Gurarie (State University of New York) and Mark Hebblewhite (University of Montana) as part of the National Science Foundation’s Navigating the New Arctic program.
“Fate of the Caribou: from local knowledge to range‐wide dynamics in the changing Arctic” is a new interdisciplinary research project that will implement large-scale analyses across several caribou herds in North America. This work tackles the complicated interplay between caribou, climate, and the natural and built environments. The science will be co-produced with indigenous-led caribou and natural resource management boards and the findings and data products will advance understanding of caribou dynamics and assist managers and scientists in making well-informed decisions to promote the health of caribou herds across the Arctic.
“It is crucial that we consider and value the deep knowledge of people who have lived in these northern landscapes for many millennia. We try to combine that deep knowledge with the strengths of western science to better understand the world in a more holistic manner. There’s so much intimate understanding that’s gleaned from living in a landscape. It’s the sort of thing we can’t see with a satellite.”
The National Science Foundation’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) has announced its inaugural cohort of NEON ambassadors. The list includes three NAU researchers: School of Informatics Regents’ Professor Andrew Richardson, School of Informatics director Benjamin Ruddell and the GEODE lab’s very own Chris Hakkenberg.
New this year, the NEON Ambassador Program seeks to “empower and connect researchers and educators eager to engage with their communities.”
Through the program, ambassadors will get an in-depth look at NEON’s resources and learn more about NEON’s user community. With this knowledge they will be well equipped to accelerate scientific discovery, bring educational opportunities back to their communities, inform public policy, and advocate for diversity and inclusion in science.
This first cohort will have the privilege of shaping what the Ambassador Program will look like into the future.
Congratulations to Chris and all of the other ambassadors!
Plant biodiversity is one of the key indicators of ecosystem health and productivity. It is also difficult to estimate at large scales. Forest structure has increasingly been recognized as a way to approximate patterns in the distribution of biodiversity. But how well do biodiversity-structure relationships hold up across climate zones?
“If we look at biodiversity-structure relationships across regions, we see noticeable differences between, say, Washington state and Florida. But why should that be? What is driving those disparities? By quantifying how climate differs between regions, we can start to develop a three-way relationship between climate, biodiversity and forest structure that lets us explore how climate may be mediating the relationship between the other two.”
A new study by Drs. Christopher R. Hakkenberg and Scott J. Goetz, recently published in Global Ecology and Biogeography, uses lidar and field observations from the NEON program to explore how climate mediates biodiversity-structure relationships (BSRs) across the United States. Their findings could help improve biodiversity maps created with remote sensing data and better predict the impact of habitat degradation and climate change on biodiversity across disparate regions.
“The big takeaway here is that climatic context plays a substantial role in how forest structure relates to plant diversity”
Read a full write up about Chris and Scott’s work at NEON’s website, here.
To better understand recent greening and browning in northern Alaska, Professor Roman Dial and his team from Alaska Pacific University (APU) have spent recent summers collecting extensive ecological observations while trekking throughout Alaska’s Brooks Range. They were joined in July 2021 by Dr. Logan Berner and Patrick Burns who are ABoVE Science Team members in the GEODE Lab led by Dr. Scott Goetz at Northern Arizona University. During the course of 11 rain-soaked days, the research team trekked ~80 miles from the northern edge of boreal forest into the Noatak Wilderness where trees give way to thickets of shrubs, wetlands, and barren rocky ridges. While trekking, the researchers collected ecological field data to be linked with measurements of vegetation greenness derived from Landsat satellite observations. Rather than establish time-consuming field plots, then instead used a new technique called “pixel-walking” that harnesses the multifunctionality of smartphones to record and geolocate visual observations of vegetation composition and density while trekking across the landscape. This approach, pioneered by Dial, makes it possible to collect far more spatially extensive information on plant community composition and structure than can be derived from field plots alone. During summer 2021, Dial’s research team pixel-walked over 800 miles from east to west through the Brooks Range, collecting data on vegetation composition for ~100,000 Landsat pixels. Over the coming year, Dial’s team will work with Berner, Burns, and Goetz to link these extensive field data with several decades of Landsat satellite observations. This collaboration will help unravel the mysteries of Arctic greening and browning by shedding light on where, how, and why plant communities changed in recent decades.
GEODE lead Scott Goetz was recently named Regents’ professor by NAU president Rita Cheng. Regents’ professors must have outstanding achievements and be distinguished nationally and internationally in their fields. Goetz is recognized for his long career of impactful research using satellite remote sensing research to study the effects of a changing climate. Goetz is the science lead of NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment and deputy PI of NASA’s Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation. Through these roles and beyond, he continues to contribute to our global understanding of how climate change is restructuring ecosystems. Congratulations, Scott!
Dr. Logan Berner was named a 2021Champion of the Environment by the ARCS Foundation. Berner is an Assistant Research Professor in the GEODE lab and a former ARCS Scholar who’s research focuses on how terrestrial ecosystem are impact by climate change. The ARCS Foundation is a national nonprofit organization founded and run entirely by women with the goal advancing American leadership, science, and technology. Berner and several other former ARCS Scholars were recognized for leading the way in preserving and protecting Planet Earth. Read more at https://www.arcsfoundation.org/earth-day-2021.
GEODE Lab lead Scott Goetz was recognized as one the most highly cited researchers in the world based on a new “composite indicator” approach to publication impact. The top 100,000 scientists from all fields of science were identified following analysis of some 7 million scientists worldwide, as reported in the journal PlosONE Biology. Goetz and 28 other NAU current or retired professors were included in the list based on their career long impact
The Tongass National Forest stretches across Southeast Alaska to form not only the largest National Forest in the United States, but also the largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest in the world. This coastal temperate rainforest helps protect Earth’s climate by taking up and storing large amounts of carbon, while also providing habitat for many plant and animal species including five species of salmon. The 2001 Roadless Rule provided protection for this unique and important ecosystem, at least until Fall 2020 when the United States Department of Agriculture revoked protection in an effort to increase logging and mining. A new article by PBS NOVA describes how, “Opening up the Tongass National Forest to additional logging and development could have serious implications for both the environment and the Alaska Native communities that depend on it.”
PBS NOVA interviewed GEODE lab member Logan Berner for this story. Logan was born and raised in the Tongass National Forest and is now an Assistant Research Professor of Global Change Ecology in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems at NAU.
“We’ve already seen wild salmon populations decline in much of western North America because of watershed deterioration, and exempting the relatively pristine Tongass National Forest from the roadless rule would adversely affect fisheries as well as recreation and tourism, which are huge elements of the economy in Southeast Alaska,” Berner says. Increased logging would also release additional carbon into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to the global climate crisis.
As the climate warms, boreal forests are experiencing more frequent and more severe wildfires. These burning forests release carbon to the atmosphere which exacerbates climate warming and underscores the urgency of understanding boreal forest fire dynamics.
Boreal forests are unique in that they store large amounts of carbon in the soil — this underground carbon might be the key to understanding carbon emissions from wildfires.
New research published in Nature Climate Change finds the amount of carbon stored in soils is the biggest predictor of how much carbon burns in boreal wildfires.
This work was lead by Xanthe Walker of NAU’s Center for Ecosystem Science and Society (Ecoss) with Michelle Mack (Ecoss) and GEODE lead Scott Goetz contributing as co-authors.
Walker and her team collected data from 417 burn sites across Alaska and Canada and found that fuels (i.e. combustible material) not fire weather were the major factor determining how much carbon is released when forests burn.
Although they may seem monotonous to the untrained eye, boreal forests are a complex mosaic with differing ecosystem structure, forest age, species composition, topography, soil moisture, and permafrost conditions.
These diverse conditions will be key to predicting how much carbon will be released from future wildfires. For example, black spruce is highly flammable and therefore stands with a large proportion of black spruce are likely to release large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere when they burn.
Walker’s research suggests that researchers and managers should shift some focus from fire weather (historically the focus of fire models) to fuels (understanding the distribution of vegetation and organic soils across the landscape).
“The Arctic tundra is one of the coldest biomes on Earth, and it’s also one of the most rapidly warming … “
” … This Arctic greening we see is really a bellwether of global climatic change – it’s a biome-scale response to rising air temperatures.”
Logan Berner, GEODE lab
The GEODE lab led a new study published in Nature Communications that shows much of the Arctic tundra biome became greener during recent decades, likely due to rising summer air temperatures stimulating plant growth.
Landsat satellite observations from 1985 to 2016 revealed widespread increases in tundra greenness across North America and Eurasia.
Tundra greenness tended to increase in areas that warmed. On the ground, this increase in greenness translates to plants colonizing previously barren areas, as well as existing plant communities growing taller, leafier, and often shrubbier. These changes can impact wildlife habitat and how people in northern communities use local ecosystems, as well as feedback on climate by impacting carbon cycling and surface energy balance.
This study is the first to evaluate pan-Arctic changes in tundra greenness using the Landsat satellites, which have much finer spatial resolution than satellite measurements used in prior assessments.
The study was led by Assistant Research Professor Logan Berner and is part of a larger project run by Professor Scott Goetz that is supported by NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE). The study also included Patrick Jantz (Assistant Research Professor), Richard Massey (Postdoctoral Researcher), and Pat Burns (Research Specialist) from the GEODE lab, as well as field ecologists at eight institutions around the world.
Learn more about Logan’s research with this short video from NASA:
Or, head straight to the science and read the full paper.
Check out additional coverage of this work from NASA and NAU News.