Limit by limit: Nutrients control algal growth in Arctic streams

The Arctic Stream Team. Frances, Breck, Abby, Alex, Jay, and Arial at Toolik Field Station in 2019. 

The activities are as follows:

You rely on the nutrients from the foods you eat to grow and thrive. Other organisms, like microbes, do as well! Aquatic algae, a type of microbe that live in the water, need to take in nutrients from their surroundings for growth. Two important nutrients for algal growth are nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P).

Sometimes the environment does not have all the nutrients that aquatic algae need to grow. When one nutrient is less available compared to others, algae can become nutrient limited. Research on nutrient limitation started with Justus Liebig, a 19th century scientist who proposed the “law of the minimum.” The law states that the nutrient available in the lowest amount relative to demand will limit overall growth and production. This means that growth is not controlled by all the nutrients, but by the scarcest one (the “limiting factor”). When more than one nutrient limits growth, algae are considered co-limited. This just means that a combination of two nutrients are needed for algae to grow. Knowing what nutrients are limiting growth helps scientists understand how an ecosystem is working.  

From other research we know that many ecosystems, including those in the Alaskan Arctic, are phosphorus-limited. Scientists figured this out because they found if they added phosphorus, then algae growth increased. However, climate change could change this. As the Arctic warms, ecosystems on land might start to release nutrients in higher amounts or new proportions into the water. These extra nutrients will likely cause increases in algae growth in streams and ponds, which in turn could change food webs and nutrient cycling. It is therefore important to understand which nutrients are currently limiting algae growth before climate change changes things even more. This starts with tests to see how Arctic algae grow in response to changes in N, P, and N and P in the water.  

A team of scientists got to work on this question! Arial, Jay, Frances, Alex, Breck, and Abby are all interested in understanding how climate change may alter nutrient limitations in Arctic streams. Each team member has a unique role in the larger research project. For example, undergraduate researcher Abby spent her 2019 summer at Toolik Field Station in Northern Alaska as part of a research opportunity. She explored nutrient limitation in one particular lake, called Lake I8. 

Abby used small cups that placed into the streams that fed into Lake I8. These cups were filled with agar gel, a material used in labs to grow microbes. Each cup contained different nutrient treatments. Abby used four different treatments in her cups: (1) a control (agar only), (2) agar + nitrogen, (3) agar + phosphorus, and (4) agar + nitrogen + phosphorus. On the top of each cup, she placed a glass disk to provide a surface for the algae to grow.

A. Cups before going into the stream. B. Abby putting out her cup treatments into an Arctic stream. C. Cups incubating under water in an Arctic stream. D. Analyzing Chlorophyll a extracted from the cups. 

Abby put 5 replicate cups for each treatment at both the Inlet and Outlet streams on the I8 Lake. She left them underwater for 4 weeks. She brought the cups back to the lab to measure the algae that grew on each glass disk. Abby measured how much algae grew on each disk by measuring the amount of Chlorophyll a, the green pigment that helps plants photosynthesize. The more pigment, the more the algae is growing. Abby compared the data from the control to each of the other treatments. When there is more growth in a treatment compared to the control, that means a particular nutrient was limiting at that location. Abby expected that the streams would be limited by the amount of phosphorus, but not the amount of nitrogen. She predicted algae would grow more when they are given additional phosphorus compared to the control treatment.

Featured scientists: Abigail Rec from Gettysburg College; Frances Iannucci, Alex Medvedeff, and Breck Bowden from University of Vermont; Arial Shogren and Jay Zarnetske from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.6

Are plants more toxic in the tropics?

Carina looking for jaboncillo plants in Costa Rica.

The activities are as follows:

Long before chemists learned how to make medicines in the laboratory, and even long before there were chemists, people found their medicines in plants. To this day, people still extract some medicinal drugs from plants, while others that we used to get from plants are now manufactured in factories.

Why do plants make these chemicals that are often so useful to people? One reason is that plants can’t run away or hide from herbivores, the animals that eat them. So instead, many plants defend themselves using chemicals that are poisonous or toxic to herbivores. As pharmacists say, “the dose makes the poison,” meaning it all comes down to quantity. A tiny amount of caffeine helps you stay awake, but you wouldn’t feel so great if you ate a giant salad of coffee leaves. Similarly, an herbivore that tries to eat coffee leaves would get sick, so it will avoid eating coffee leaves. That’s why plants have evolved to make chemicals – because the chemicals discourage animals from eating the plants. This benefit helps plants survive and reproduce, and any benefit to humans is an unintentional side effect of evolution.

Carina is fascinated by the amazing ways that plants have evolved to avoid being eaten. She also loves researching tropical forests near the Equator. Tropical forests have many more kinds of plants and insects than temperate places, which are farther from the Equator. One important difference between the climates is that the tropics don’t have harsh winters that kill insects. Therefore, biologists think that tropical plants get eaten more by herbivores.

Some plants have high chemical diversity, and make many kinds of chemicals. Biologists have observed that some plants with high chemical diversity are especially difficult for herbivores to eat. Carina thought that maybe stronger insect attacks in the tropics would lead the tropical plants to evolve higher chemical diversity than temperate plants in order to better protect them from herbivory. She thought that over time, the individual plants that had more types of chemicals in their leaves would grow and reproduce more. This would allow them to pass on their traits to the next generation.

Jaboncillo plants with herbivore damage in Costa Rica.

To answer her question, Carina collected seeds from wild pokeweed plants in Michigan and Florida. She also collected seeds in Costa Rica from jaboncillo, a species closely related to pokeweed that lives in tropical countries in Latin America. She chose these locations because they vary in how close they are to the equator, and how severe their winters can be. Michigan has long and very cold winters (a temperate climate), Florida has mild winters with occasional freezing (a subtropical climate), and in Costa Rica temperatures never go below freezing (a tropical climate).

She started by growing 15-20 plants from each location in a greenhouse. Then, she extracted chemicals from their leaves and analyzed the chemical diversity of each plant. Chemical diversity is measured by an index that includes how many and how abundant different kinds of chemicals are. Carina predicted that the tropical plants would have the highest chemical diversity. She also predicted that the subtropical plants would have higher chemical diversity than the temperate plants.

Featured scientist: Carina Baskett, Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.8

Working to reduce the plastics problem

stretching the raw, preformed polymers
Nick (right) and one of his students (left) stretching the raw, preformed polymers.

The activities are as follows:

Plastics are materials that can be shaped easily and are used for many functions. This has made them extremely popular across the world. Thousands of products are made using plastic, including parts of cell phones, food wrappers from your lunch, and even the stitches you may need after an injury. In fact, if you look around right now, you can probably spot at least ten items made of plastic!

Once a plastic is made, it tends to stick around. Synthetic plastics, made by humans from petroleum, cannot be broken down by nature’s decomposers – bacteria and fungi. This means they impact the environment for many, many years. Some types can take thousands of years or longer to break down! 

Nick is a chemist concerned with the negative impacts caused by plastics. He knows that in order to reduce the amount of synthetic plastics in the environment, we need an alternative. And, this alternative needs to be just as good as the synthetic plastic it is replacing. Nick and his undergraduate students at Northland College are testing new ways to make plastics that are biodegradable, meaning they can be decomposed naturally and won’t last as long in the environment. His research focuses on stretchy plastics, called elastomers.Elastomers are what make up rubber bands, tires, hoses, non-latex gloves, and many more items we use every day. 

To try to solve the problem of making a biodegradable elastomer that has all the qualities of a synthetic one, Nick and his students got to work. First, they had to consider the chemical structure of plastics. Plastics are made of polymers. “Poly” means “many” and “mer” means “parts”. This means that plastics are made of long chain molecules with many repeating parts. These repeating parts are called monomers. Different monomers can be used to make different types of plastic.

Nick chose to test two biodegradable monomers – diglycerol and meso-erythritol. Diglycerol is cheap and easy to buy. However, it might be too soft when used on its own. Meso-erythritol is more expensive, but more rigid. They wanted to use diglycerol and meso-erythritol because the chemical structures have the potential to create something that is not too rigid and not too flexible.

Nick and his students designed an experiment in which they tested elastomers made from each of the monomers (diglycerol and meso-erythritol) alone, as well as elastomers made using both types of monomers. They made elastomers with the following percentage ratios of diglycerol over meso-erythritol: 100/0, 75/25, 50/50, 25/75, 0/100. The team was hoping to find the “sweet spot” between a product that is too stiff, and one that is not stiff enough to be useful in elastic materials. Once they finished making their elastomers, they prepared the stretch tests. 

To start a stretch test, the team had to stamp out a piece of material from each elastomer, creating samples with the same size, shape, and thickness. They also cut pieces from rubber bands made of synthetic plastics to compare as a control. Next, they tested the elastomers using a machine that measures how much force is applied (stress) as a material is stretched (strain), both important measures of elasticity. The stress, or force per unit of area, is measured in megapascals (MPa) while the strain, or amount of stretch, is measured as a percent of the original length. 

Featured scientist: Nick Robertson from Northland College. Written by: Theresa Paulsen from Ashland High School, Wisconsin

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.6

For additional information on the plastic problem, and Nick’s research, check out the following resources:

Where to find the hungry, hungry herbivores

Carina and some pokeweed plants in Tennessee.

The activities are as follows:

Éste Data Nugget también está disponible en Español:

When travelling to warm, tropical places you are exposed to greater risk of diseases like malaria, yellow fever, or dengue fever. The same pattern of risk is true for other species besides humans. For example, scientists have noticed that crops seem to have more problems with pests if they grow at lower latitudes (closer to the equator). Locations that are at lower latitudes have warm climates. We don’t know exactly why there are more pests in warmer places, but it could be because pests have a hard time surviving very cold winters. 

Carina is interested in figuring out more about this pest-y problem. She first got excited about plants in school, when she learned that they use photosynthesis to make their own food out of light, air, and water. She thought it was fascinating that plants have evolved so many different strategies to survive. Even though they don’t have brains, plants do have adaptations that help them compete for light and mate in many different habitats. Carina continues to learn more every day, and especially enjoys researching how plants defend themselves against herbivores, or animals that eat plants. Herbivores pose a challenge because plants can’t run away or hide! 

Carina studies ways wild plants can defend themselves against herbivores. What she learns in wild plants could give us ideas of how to help crops defend against pests too. Scientists aren’t sure why crops have more pest problems in warmer places, but it would help to understand if wild plants also have the same pattern. 

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a common wild plant that grows all over the eastern US. Pokeweed has beautiful pink stems and dark purple berries. In fact, the Declaration of Independence was written with ink made from pokeweed berry juice!

So Carina decided to travel all across the eastern United States to measure herbivory on pokeweed, a common wild plant there. Carina drove a lot for this project! In one summer, she visited ten patches of pokeweed spread out between Michigan and Florida. Carina thought that the pokeweed found at lower latitudes (Florida, 27° N) would have higher herbivory than pokeweed at northern latitudes (Michigan, 42° N) because pests may not be able to survive as well in places with harsh winters. 

At each of the ten sites, she marked five very young leaves on 30 to 40 plants. That equals over 1,500 leaves! She then came back six weeks later to measure how much the leaves were eaten as they grew into large, mature leaves. When leaves are young, they are more tender and can be more easily eaten by herbivores (that’s why we eat “baby spinach” salad). To measure herbivory she compared the area that was eaten to the total area of the leaf, and calculated the percent of the leaf area eaten by caterpillars, the main herbivores on pokeweed. She then averaged the percent eaten on leaves for each plant. Some plants died in those 6 weeks, so the sample size at the end of the study ranged from 4 to 37 depending on the site.

Featured scientist: Carina Baskett from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.4

There is one scientific paper associated with the research in this Data Nugget. The citation and link to the paper is below.

Baskett, C.A. and D.W. Schemske (2018) Latitudinal patterns of herbivore pressure in a temperate herb support the biotic interactions hypothesis. Ecology Letters 21(4):578-587.

Teacher Feature – Karen Murphy

Our first Teacher Feature is by Karen Murphy, who recently used one of our new Data Nuggets by the Harvard Forest LTER with her ecology students. Karen a high school science and special education teacher at Summit Academy, a public day school in Amherst, Massachusetts. 


I was able to use A window into a tree’s world Data Nugget with my ecology class as part of a unit on the carbon cycle. I found that students were interested in the relationship between tree rings and temperature/climate. They appreciated the idea of being able to determine past climate and tree age using tree rings. I asked one student for specific feedback and she said that the assignment was “interactive, informative, and fun.”

This Data Nugget provided students with access to a current, real example of the scientific method in action. For example, the class was able to practice identifying the independent and dependent variables, graph and analyze data, and to build on this knowledge to creatively form their own questions for further research. 

I greatly appreciate the Teacher Guide and PowerPoint that were found on the web page. There is a lot of valuable information to share with the class, including instructional material on the science of climate change and sources of evidence. I now hope to incorporate more Data Nuggets into future classes.

The end of winter as we’ve known it?

Forrest standing in front of the ice road that forms between Bayfield and LaPointe each winter, preventing ferry traffic but allowing cars to travel between the mainland and island.

The activities are as follows:

As a boy growing up in Bayfield, Wisconsin, Forrest was familiar with the seasonal rhythms of Lake Superior and the nearby Apostle Islands. Forrest watched each year as ice formed in the Bayfield Harbor, stopping the boat traffic each winter. Eventually, as the ice thickened even more, an ice road would open between Bayfield and LaPointe. The small town of LaPointe is located on Madeline Island just over two miles from the shore of Bayfield. When the ice road opens, it frees the island residents from working around the ferry schedule and they can drive on the ice to get to the mainland.

As a senior at Bayfield High School, Forrest became interested in conducting a scientific study related to the ice season on Lake Superior. He knew that Lake Superior plays a vital role in the lives of people who live and work on its shores and therefore all sorts of data are recorded to help understand and take care of it. Based on his own observations and comments of other area residents, Forrest thought that winters were getting shorter. He wanted to know whether the length of the ice season was changing over time. Forrest turned to historical data to answer his question. 

Forrest’s first stop on his quest to find data was the Madeline Island Ferry Line, a company that operates the ferries between Bayfield and LaPointe. Since 1970, the ferry line has kept yearly records of the date on which the last ferry traveled between Bayfield and LaPointe before the water was too frozen for travel. They also recorded the date on which the first ferry traveled the channel when ice melted in the spring. That gave Forrest a start, but he wanted data that would date farther back than 1970. 

Luckily, Forrest’s father, Neil, was an interpretive ranger for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Neil showed Forrest local newspaper archives that were stored in the basement of their headquarters building. News about shipping and fishing have been important to the people in the community throughout history, so it was common to find articles referencing the first and last boat of each year. Looking back through newspaper records, Forrest and Neil were able to collect data for almost every year dating back to 1857!

Armed with these data, Forrest began his analyses. He chose to define the length of the ice season as the time between the last boat each winter and the first boat each spring. This also represents the time during which there was no boat navigation due to ice cover. Forrest’s next step was to choose how to quantify the dates. He decided to use Julian dates, which start with January 1 as Day 1 and continue to count up by 1 for each day. This means that January 31 would be Day 31, February 1 would be Day 32, and March 1 would be Day 61. After assigning Julian dates to each historical data point, Forrest subtracted the day of the last boat from the day of the first boat to find the number of days without boat traffic each year. This number serves as a consistent way to estimate the length of the ice season each year. Winter begins in one calendar year but ends in the next, so Forrest identified the year based on the calendar year that the winter began.

Featured scientist: Forrest Howk, Bayfield High School. Written by: Richard Erickson, Bayfield High School and Hannah Erickson, Boston Public Schools

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.1

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:

  • If you would like your students to interact with the raw data, we have attached the original data here.
  • Forrest’s study was published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research. 
  • Dr. Jay Austin of the Large Lakes Observatory in Duluth, MN has conducted studies related to Lake Superior’s water temperatures. His website includes real-time data collection from buoys in Lake Superior that would likely yield usable data for student investigations.
  • Dr. John Magnuson of the University of Wisconsin has conducted studies of ice cover for lakes at latitudes across the globe. He wrote an article about projected changes in ice cover due to climate change at various latitudes around the world. In addition, his website has links to publications and further information.


Fishy origins

Fred Bogue holding a striped bass.

The activities are as follows:

Striped bass, or stripers, make up one of the most important fisheries for seafood and sport fishing on the East Coast of the United States. Carleigh and Chelsea, biology teachers in New Jersey, were at the beach one day when they saw a couple of stripers in the Barnegat Bay Inlet. Both teachers have always been interested in research and even met while participating in a summer research program as undergraduate students. Since then, both have gone on to complete more research projects in biology and education. Their curiosity about striper populations led them to work together yet again! 

They headed to Monmouth University in New Jersey, where they began working with two scientists, Megan and John. They learned that locations where fish reproduce are called spawning grounds. Young stripers spend 2-3 years developing in the spawning ground before moving downstream. When stripers become adults, they return to the same location to breed. 

There are four main spawning grounds for stripers on the East coast: the Hudson River, the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware River, and the Albermarle Sound. Stripers from these areas are considered to be different stocks. Stripers are migratory fish, and generally move north in the spring and south in the fall. Because they all migrate to New Jersey, fish from different stocks combine, which results in a mixed stock. When there is a population that has a mixed stock, we don’t know which spawning ground the fish originally came from. Conservation and management of New Jersey’s striper fishery requires knowing where the fish come from. Understanding which spawning grounds stripers are using helps managers make sure we are not overfishing or damaging these important environments. So, Carleigh and Chelsea joined a project that is working to find out how we can identify where mixed stock stripers come from. 

For their study, the scientists caught stripers in three different locations off the New Jersey coast in 2017. The fish were sampled by clipping off a small portion of the right pelvic fin. The scientists then extracted the DNA from each sample in the lab. They used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to then copy regions of the DNA, called microsatellites. Microsatellites are small, repeating sections of DNA that can be variable enough to distinguish even close relatives. These data were then used to compare DNA samples from the unknown mixed stocks to the known spawning ground stocks. The scientists also recorded whether each fish was young or mature. The scientists then used the age data to tell whether the spawning grounds might be changing over time. 

Featured scientists: Carleigh Engstrom, Chelsea Barreto, Megan Phifer-Rixey, and John Tiedemann from Monmouth University 

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.2

A window into a tree’s world

Neil taking a tree core from a pine tree.

The activities are as follows:

According to National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the years 2015-2018 were the warmest recorded on Earth in modern times! And it is only expected to get warmer. Temperatures in the Northeastern U.S. are projected to increase 3.6°F by 2035. Every year the weather is a bit different, and some years there are more extremes with very hot or cold temperatures. Climate gives us a long-term perspective and is the average weather, including temperature and precipitation, over at least 30 years. 

Over thousands of years, tree species living in each part of the world have adapted to their local climate. Trees play an important role in climate change by helping cool the planet – through photosynthesis, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and evaporate water into the air. 

Scientists are very interested in learning how trees respond to rapidly warming temperatures. Luckily, trees offer us a window into their lives through their growth rings. Growth rings are found within the trunk, beneath the bark. Each year of growth has two parts that can be seen: a light ring of large cells with thin walls, which grows in the spring; and a dark layer of smaller cells with thick walls that forms later in the summer and fall. Ring thickness is used to study how much the tree has grown over the years. Dendrochronology is the use of these rings to study trees and their environments.

Different tree species have different ranges of temperatures and rainfall in which they grow best. When there are big changes in the environment, tree growth slows down or speeds up in response. Scientists can use these clues in tree’s rings to decipher what climate was like in the past. There is slight variation in how each individual tree responds to temperature and rainfall. Because of this, scientists need to measure growth rings of multiple individuals to observe year-to-year changes in past climate.

Jessie taking a tree core in the winter.

Jessie and Neil are two scientists who use tree rings for climate research. Jessie entered the field of science because she was passionate about climate change. As a research assistant, Neil saw that warming temperatures in Mongolia accelerated growth in very old Siberian pine trees. When he later studied to become a scientist, he wanted to know if trees in the eastern U.S. responded to changes in climate in the same way as the old pine trees in Mongolia. As a result, there were two purposes for Jessie’s and Neil’s work. They wanted to determine if there was a species that could be used to figure out what the climate looked like in the past, and understand how it has changed over time.

Jessie and Neil decided to focus on one particular species of tree – the Atlantic white cedar. Atlantic white cedar grow in swamps and wetlands along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from southern Maine to northern Florida. Atlantic white cedar trees are useful in dendrochronology studies because they can live for up to 500 years and are naturally resistant to decay, so their well-preserved rings provide a long historical record. Past studies of this species led them to predict that in years when the temperature is warmer, Atlantic white cedar rings will be wider. If this pattern holds, the thickness of Atlantic white cedar rings can be used to look backwards into the past climate of the area. 

To test this prediction, Jessie and Neil needed to look at tree rings from many Atlantic white cedar trees. Jessie used an increment borer, a specialized tool that drills into the center of the tree. This drill removes a wood core with a diameter about equal to that of a straw. She sampled 112 different trees from 8 sites, and counted the rings to find the age of each tree. She then crossdated the wood core samples. Crossdating is the process of comparing the ring patterns from many trees in the same area to see if they tell the same story. Jessie used a microscope linked to a computer to measure the thickness of both the early and late growth to the nearest micrometer (1 micrometer = 0.001 millimeter) for all rings in all 112 trees. From those data she then calculated the average growth of Atlantic white cedar for each year to create an Atlantic white cedargrowth index for the Northeastern U.S. She combined her tree ring data with temperature data from the past 100 years.

Featured scientists: Jessie K Pearl, University of Arizona and Neil Pederson, Harvard University. Written by Elicia Andrews.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.9

Suggestions for inquiry surrounding this Data Nugget:

  • Set up a field plot on your campus to identify and monitor the diameter of different trees growing. If you have access to an increment borer, sandpaper and dissection scope you can have students date and complete a lab activity by crossdating trees. 
  • Hands on lesson using wood cookies “What can tree rings tell us about climate?” by Chicago Botanic Garden.
  • Join, set up and participate in School Yard Ecology LTER Program by Harvard Forest.
  • Students can also explore how are other forms of paleoclimatology used to generate and predict future changes in the environment. Assign a field of study and create mini presentations and a jigsaw activity.
  • Explore available data related to your region. Determine if there are trends and correlations within the data.
  • Explore various climate profiles of various regions
  • Create an assignment relating to climate data- Become involved in a local data jam and/or have students create an infographic relating to the lesson. 

These videos, demonstrating the science of dendrochronology, could be a great way to spark class discussions:

NABT 2019 – BEACON Evolution Symposium

In this workshop, we will share strategies for using Data Nuggets in the classroom and introduce one that features microsatellite data for various populations of striped bass. This Data Nugget will give students an opportunity to explore genetic markers and how they can be used to inform the management of an important sport fishery by deciphering which spawning grounds the fish were born in.

The materials from the Data Nugget workshop are as follows:

Workshop organized and presented by: Megan Phifer-Rixey, Chelsea Barreto, Carleigh Engstrom, Elizabeth SchultheisMelissa Kjelvik, and Louise Mead. For more information on the NABT 2019 conference, check out their website, here.

BEACON CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF EVOLUTION IN ACTION, MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY, THE AMERICAN SOCIETY OF NATURALISTS, & MONMOUTH UNIVERSITY

Streams as sensors: Arctic watersheds as indicators of change

Jay taking field notes next to a rocky Tundra stream.

The activities are as follows:

The Arctic, Earth’s region above 66° 33’N latitude, is home to a unique biome, known as tundra. A defining trait of tundra ecosystems is the frozen land. Permafrost is the underground layer of organic matter, soil, rock, and ice that has been frozen for at least 2 full years. Plant material decays slowly in the Arctic because of the cold temperatures. Building up over thousands of years, the plants become frozen into the permafrost. Permafrost represents a very large “sink” of dead plant material, nutrients, and soil that is locked away in a deep freeze. 

Though the Alaskan Arctic may seem far away from where you live, tundra permafrost is important for the entire globe. During the past few thousand years, Earth’s climate has naturally changed a little over time, but because humans are adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the average global temperature may increase by as much as 2 to 4oC over the next century. As a result of global climate change, permafrost has become less stable. By causing warmer and wetter conditions in the Arctic, thawing permafrost soils release ancient material that was previously frozen and locked away. Two important materials are dissolved nitrogen (N), which is a nutrient critical for plant growth, and carbon (C), which is stored in plant matter during photosynthesis. These released materials can be used again by plants, but some is carried away as melted water flows from the land into rivers and streams. You can imagine N and C in permafrost like a bank account where the landscape is the savings account. The land slowly deposits or withdraws N and C from the savings account, while the water receives any excess N and C that the land does not save.

Arial downloads data from a water quality monitoring station at the Kuparuk River. The station is connected a sensor that stays in the river and takes a reading for both carbon and nitrogen concentrations every 15 minutes.

The water that melts as permafrost thaws flows into a stream, ultimately ending up in an ocean. Watersheds are the network of streams and rivers that flow to a single point as they empty out into the ocean. The water at the end of the watershed therefore reflects all the changes that happened across a large area. Scientists use Arctic watersheds as large “sensors” to understand how and when landscapes may be releasing material from thawing permafrost. 

Because the Alaskan Arctic is a vast, sparsely populated area, scientists often rely on established field stations to conduct experiments, collect observational data, and develop new understanding of Arctic ecosystems. One of these field sites is Toolik Field Station. Scientists working at Toolik have been monitoring terrestrial and aquatic Arctic ecosystems since the late 1970s. 

Arial and Jay are aquatic scientists who work at Toolik. They are interested in how Arctic watersheds respond to climate change. Together, Arial and Jay act like ecosystem accountants: they use the chemistry within the water to monitor changes in ecosystem budgets of C and N. Arial and Jay used both historic data and water quality sensors deployed in 2017 and 2018 to monitor the N and C budget in the Kuparuk River. They use this data to calculate how much N and C the river is spending. They measure this as the total export in units of mass per year. This mass per year is determined by multiplying concentration (mass/volume) by flow (volume/day) and adding these values across the whole season (mass/year). These budgets at the watershed outlet help reveal signals of how this tundra landscape may be changing. In this way, they can assess if the landscape savings account for N and C is being depleted due to climate change. 

Featured scientists: Arial Shogren and Jay Zarnetske from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.8