Searching for climate clues in the frozen north
Stars and Stripes June 17, 2007
European edition, Sunday, June 17, 2007
THULE AIR BASE, Greenland
To just about anyone else on the planet, it’s just a rectangular plot of muddy turf, marbled with stunted plants and topped with short brown grass that might be alive, might not.
But researcher Matthew Rogers has come a long, long way to get to this marshy little vale on top of a ridge called North Mountain, overlooked by the edge of the northern hemisphere’s most massive ice sheet. To him it’s something more.
For Rogers, a 28-year-old master’s degree student, the rectangular patch is his little portion of what is arguably the biggest and most sweeping scientific effort of the early 21st century — the drive to understand the effects of climate change.
Rising carbon dioxide levels, melting ice caps, increasing temperatures — the need to understand those changes is one of the most pressing in the scientific realm. To get at the raw data, scientists have to go to some of the most remote places on the planet.
So they come to Greenland, because it, like Antarctica in the South, is one of the most susceptible places on Earth to changes in climate. The effects of global warming are more evident here than almost anywhere else.
“The area is really a kind of canary in the coal mine,” Rogers said.
That makes Thule Air Base, with its extreme northern location and extensive logistics capability, a unique tool in climate change research. The U.S. base, in northwest Greenland some 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle, serves as part of the Missile Early Warning System and the U.S. space information system.
Because of its ability to provide power, accommodation, air and sealift services, vehicles, life support and other amenities in abundance in such a remote location, Thule is a one-of-a-kind place to stage research, Rogers said.
Rogers, for instance, is studying the effects of rising temperatures on the soil and plants of the Greenland tundra, and the amount of carbon dioxide they release as the temperature goes up.
To do so, he needs access to a relatively undisturbed portion of tundra, a place to store his equipment and, perhaps most importantly, a power supply for his heating lamps. Those types of things are hard to find in this region, but Thule can provide them, and does so for a number of projects throughout the year.
Other scientists are studying hydrology and the water content in the tundra this summer, and others have in the past researched everything from weather patterns to the thickness of the ozone layer.
With the onset of the International Polar Year — a periodic scientific emphasis on the polar regions — the base has made a special effort to accommodate unprecedented numbers of scientists. This month, an entire building will be dedicated to visiting scientists, complete with labs and equipment, base spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Paul said.
The scientists will be performing work like Rogers’, whose experiment is on the leading edge of climate-change research.
Conducted through the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and supported by the National Science Foundation, the experiment is a four-year study of the Thule-area ecology and how it reacts to warmer temperatures.
Basically, what Rogers and his team, called the Thule biocomplexity group, want to do is understand how plants and the Greenlandic soil will cycle carbon if temperatures continue to rise.
“That’s what the bulk of a lot of this work is, building really good models,” he said.
To do so, the researchers have placed heat lamps over more than 30 table-top sized plots of tundra to raise the temperature over the soil from 2 to 4 degrees. Last week, they took their first measurements of the summer, using an infrared gas analysis dome. They place it over the study area and read the amount of carbon dioxide being released by both the tiny plants and, more importantly, the tundra itself.
“Up here, the vast majority of [carbon dioxide], 80 percent of it, is in the soil microbial community,” Rogers said.
Rogers also analyzes different variables, from deeper snow coverage on some plots to the presence and proliferation of “prostrate dwarf shrubs,” to try to get a picture of what is happening to the land in Greenland.
For the most part it’s meticulous, tedious work. But over time it could become the basis for the greater theories that make up the scientific knowledge about climate change and global warming.
“This is the front end,” Rogers said.