MBL | Biological Discovery in Woods Hole Contact UsDirectionsText SizeSmallMediumLarge

Resources for Reporters:

MBL Publications:

Join the Conversation:
Facebook Twitter Youtube Wordpress

Nobel Laureates

press releases

For further MBL News and Media Information, contact the MBL Communications Office at (508) 289-7423 or e-mail us at comm@mbl.edu .

MBL Scientists Go the Distance to Study Global Warming in Northern Alaska

Toolik Lake
Toolik Lake, a remote part of Northern Alaska,
is an ideal location to study a pristine ecosystem.

Photo credit: Laura Broughton

MBL, WOODS HOLE, MA--While most New Englanders are stocking up on suntan lotion and beach towels, scientists from the MBL (Marine Biological Laboratory) are loading up on wool socks, neck warmers, and mosquito nets. These are just a few of the essentials they pack for the summer field season at the MBL’s Arctic research site at Toolik Lake, a remote part of Northern Alaska where scientists from around the world gather annually to study one of the most pristine ecosystems on Earth.

Toolik Field Station is maintained by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and was established in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range in 1975, when construction of the oil pipeline and the road alongside made access to such a remote site possible. With funding from the National Science Foundation, MBL Ecosystems Center scientists John Hobbie and Gus Shaver co-direct the Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research project at Toolik to predict the impact of global warming.

Currently the summer research season is heating up. The project brings together more than 100 scientists—including MBL scientists Bruce Peterson, Linda Deegan, Anne Giblin, and Ed Rastetter—who study Arctic systems because climate warming is expected to happen there sooner and more extensively than on the rest of our planet. In fact, a steady warming has been taking place in northern Alaska for more than three decades, with an increase of about 3.6º F since the mid-1960s.

As the temperature warms Arctic soils, permafrost (the frozen soil found 12 to 20 inches below the surface) thaws and higher rates of decomposition lead to higher nutrient availability. These nutrients—mainly nitrogen and phosphorus—stimulate plant growth and could, in turn, run into the rivers and streams. MBL scientists have been studying the effects of increased nitrogen and phosphorus on tundra and stream ecosystems since 1976.

Results of the stream study, conducted in the Kuparuk River near Toolik Field Station, show a dramatic change in the river’s ecological structure, with increases in algae, some insect populations, and fish growth rates. The unexpected growth of one species of moss has completely changed the plants and animals that live in the stream, according to Hobbie. And scientists are uncertain about the long-term effects of these changes.

Other studies are underway at Toolik, too. Some scientists are studying Arctic soils, which contain large amounts of organic carbon—enough to double the atmospheric concentration and add to global warming if it were to change into carbon dioxide (CO2) when the permafrost thaws. Other researchers are analyzing the chemistry of Arctic lakes. And mathematicians are working on models to predict ecological changes for large regions over several centuries.

Scientists, research assistants, and students from the MBL’s Ecosystems Center will be conducting research at Toolik Lake from now through the end of August. Media interested in interviewing key scientists involved in this project can contact Andrea Early at 508-289-7139.

—### —

The MBL is an international, independent, nonprofit institution dedicated to improving the human condition through creative research and education in the biological, biomedical and environmental sciences. Founded in 1888 as the Marine Biological Laboratory, the MBL is the oldest private marine laboratory in the Western Hemisphere. For more information, visit www.mbl.edu.