GW Researchers Gain Northern Exposure

Faculty and students cross disciplines to examine the future of the Arctic.

Tim Swales, a GW graduate student studying geography, works with Anna Klene, an associate professor of geography at the University of Montana, in Alaska in August 2012 where they're downloading soil surface and air temperature data.
December 10, 2012

With support from the National Science Foundation, George Washington University researchers are working to better understand the changing nature of the Arctic, a region that is being reshaped by climate change and natural resource development.

GW faculty and students have received three separate grants worth a total of nearly $2.4 million from the NSF in order to conduct interdisciplinary research on Arctic issues including climate change, oil and natural gas development and physical changes to Arctic permafrost, soil that has remained below freezing for two or more years.

The Arctic is expected to be a major new source of oil and natural gas as more fields, both onshore and offshore, become accessible to drilling.

“There’s a huge amount of resource development planned for the Arctic,” said Robert Orttung, an associate research professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs and the assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies. “As it warms, obviously there’s more access to oil and natural gas and other minerals there.”

Dr. Orttung is the principal investigator for a five-year $561,377 project funded by the NSF to build a Research Coordination Network of scientists and policymakers studying Arctic urban centers. The project, which will focus on Russia, is a multidisciplinary, international effort to examine the interconnections among resource development, climate change and evolving demographic patterns. The goal is to provide advice to policymakers on how to develop Arctic oil and natural gas deposits and their related infrastructure in a way that produces minimal impact on the environment. The project will run for the next five academic years.

“We’re looking at the connections between resource development, climate change and human movement into this area,” Dr. Orttung said. “All these things are happening in the cities in the Russian Arctic.”

Other George Washington faculty involved in the project include Marlene Laruelle, research professor of international affairs in the Elliott School; Nikolay Shiklomanov, assistant professor of geography in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences; and Dmitry Streletskiy, a geography research scientist in the Columbian College. The professors are part of the GW Arctic Working Group, scholars in the fields of geography, sociology and political science who began meeting in 2011.

The project will be organized around five annual conferences, alternating between Washington, D.C., and Russia, which will each convene more than 30 scholars to present their research. The project will also foster dialogue through a dedicated web presence, a network newsletter highlighting current research and webinars that link project members.

“At the end of the day, the project is trying to figure out how you can develop the resources there in the most environmentally friendly way that will be sustainable – sustainable for the Arctic and sustainable for human development,” Dr. Orttung said.

Dr. Shiklomanov and Dr. Streletskiy, who both have conducted extensive field research in Arctic regions measuring the amount of permafrost that is thawing as a result of climate change, also were recently awarded a three-year $168,138 NSF grant to study interactions between air temperature, permafrost and hydrology in the high latitudes of Eurasia. This research aims to shed light on the connection between increases in air temperature and changes in the activity of river systems.

The project will build on the Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring (CALM) III program, an NSF-funded program launched in 2009 and led by Dr. Shiklomanov. The $1.66 million five-year grant, which will run through 2014, is funding a coordinated network of more than 200 sites that are measuring the effect of climate change on the active layer, the top layer of soil that thaws during summer and freezes in the autumn. As the Arctic gets warmer, more permafrost is thawing as a result.

“When you talk about the Arctic, climate change is a big elephant in the room that is already influencing or about to influence pretty much all human and social-related processes,” Dr. Shiklomanov said.

Earlier this year, Dr. Shiklomanov and Dr. Streletskiy presented research from CALM at the Tenth International Conference on Permafrost (TICOP) in Salekhard, Russia. Dr. Streletskiy’s presentation looked at how changes in permafrost can affect infrastructure such as roads and buildings.

“We can estimate how climate will influence the stability of infrastructure,” Dr. Streletskiy said. “We can look at roads, we can look at pipelines, we can look at houses and so on.”

These grants mark the first time George Washington has received research funding from the NSF’s Division of Arctic Sciences.

“This is a great example of interdisciplinary research at GW on a topic of major importance,” said Leo Chalupa, vice president for research. “The fact that these investigators have been able to obtain substantial funding from NSF to build this network of scientists and policy makers aptly attests to the high quality of these projects.”

The CALM program has created research opportunities for GW students. In August, geography graduate student Tim Swales, undergraduate Kelsey Nyland and recent graduate Casey Rudick, B.A. ’12, participated in field work to monitor permafrost in Alaska with Dr. Shiklomanov and Dr. Streletskiy. The students gained valuable technical skills including measuring the active layer, downloading temperature data for the soil surface and air, installing cameras for snow depth monitoring and taking GPS measurements. In addition, the students organized, processed, analyzed and archived the data to make it publicly available through the CALM website.

For Mr. Swales, working with Dr. Shiklomanov and conducting field work in the Arctic has shaped his GW experience.

“Although it was hard work, it was exciting to record observations during the day, and then input and analyze the numbers that night,” said Mr. Swales, who hopes to continue to work on projects relating to the Arctic and climate change. “I realized that my work in each of the plots contributed to something bigger. My accurate measurements and recordings could be used in future papers, presentations and analysis to assess conditions of the permafrost in Alaska.”

Ms. Nyland, a senior majoring in geography, was awarded the GW Undergraduate Research Fellowship in order to map the traditional ice cellars of the indigenous Iñupiaq subsistence whalers in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the U.S. Warming air temperatures are jeopardizing the structural integrity of these ice cellars, which the Iñupiaq use to store large quantities of meat. Climate change is the suspected cause of cellar failures, which pose a threat to traditional food supplies.

The CALM program has been monitoring the temperatures of six cellars in Barrow. Ms. Nyland, who was involved with monitoring these cellars in previous years, collected information on the location of cellars throughout the area in order to map them using aerial photos. Ms. Nyland and Professor Anna Klene from the University of Montana worked with local officials to host two community meetings, meet with students at the Barrow High School and hold interviews with local whaling crew captains.

Ms. Nyland hopes her research will facilitate other research into the cellar failures experienced in the community. She is currently working to produce a product that will map cellar locations and thus help protect these historically significant structures. Through her work with Dr. Shiklomanov, Ms. Nyland has also had the opportunity to present at several scientific conferences, including at the TICOP, where she was one of only a few undergraduate students to present as the lead author on a paper, which discussed the effect of temperature changes in Alaska on vegetation.

"All of the research experiences that I have been fortunate enough to have, both in the field and here at GW, are what brought my undergraduate experience to a much higher level,” said Ms. Nyland, who hopes to go to graduate school for geography and focus in Arctic studies. “Through this work I have been able to relate everything that I've learned in my classes to real-world problems and research.”

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