NSF Awards MBL $6.8 Million for Arctic Ecology, Climate Change Research

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Tundra landscape near Toolik Field Station, with the Brooks Range in the distance.

Tundra landscape near Toolik Field Station, with the Brooks Range in the distance.

For the fourth consecutive decade, scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) will lead the nation’s primary research project on Arctic ecology and its responses to climate warming, with $6.8 million in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The grant was recently awarded to Senior Scientist Edward B. Rastetter, lead principal investigator of the NSF’s Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site at Toolik Lake, Alaska.

Thirty-two investigators from 22 institutions, including scientists from the MBL Ecosystems Center, are studying long-term changes in the interconnected tundra, streams, and lakes ecosystem in the Toolik Lake region, located 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The LTER’s research is based at Toolik Field Station, which is operated by the University of Alaska.

“This is a significant achievement for the MBL, for our Ecosystems Center, and for their colleagues involved in this project,” said MBL President and Director Hunt Willard.  “The LTERs are a critical part of our nation’s system for exploring ecological impact over time, never more important than now to inform important trends in climate change.”

Ed RastetterCredit Tom Kleindinst

Ed Rastetter
Credit Tom Kleindinst

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the world average, with impacts including thawing of long-frozen soil and an increase in landscape disturbances such as lightning-ignited wildfires. The LTER scientists are tracking the effects of this rapid warming on arctic permafrost, groundcover, and lakes and streams, and how these effects may feed back into the climate system.

A particular focus in the coming years will be comparing how the different parts of the Toolik Lake region ecosystem—and the species that reside within them—respond or are resilient to the direct and indirect effects of climate change. This includes, for example, changes in plant and animal populations due to changes in nutrient availability, alterations in carbon and nutrient fluxes across the arctic landscape, and carbon dioxide and methane exchange between land and atmosphere, which might drive further climate warming.

“We want to make predictions about where the ecosystem is going in relation to climate change,” Rastetter says, adding that insights and data gained are shared with federal and Alaska state officials who regulate land on Alaska’s North Slope.

The Arctic LTER project was first funded in 1987 under the direction of MBL Distinguished Scientist John Hobbie, who led the project until 2011. MBL Senior Scientist Gaius Shaver directed the project until 2017. Added Willard, “This long and distinguished history of leadership speaks to the MBL’s record of achievement and commitment to understanding complex ecosystems and their impact on our world.”