Microbial Activity in Thawing Arctic Permafrost

What Are They Doing?

Underlying the northern arctic coast of Alaska is a thick layer of permafrost. As water melts and pools on top of the permafrost, thaw lakes are formed. There are many thaw lakes on the North Slope of Alaska. As they decompose organic material, the bacteria and other microorganisms living in thaw lakes produce methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas, and increased microbial activity in thawing permafrost areas could lead to changes in the atmosphere due to the release of methane.

Microbial activity in thaw lakes is not very well understood. This research was important for better understanding how microbial activities affect the biogeochemical cycle, or the way specific chemicals move through living and non-living processes on Earth.

To collect their data, the research team combined research methods from biology, ecology, and biotechnology. They collected data in the field including soil cores, thaw depth, water table depth, and dissolved oxygen measurements. Additionally, they monitored bacterial respiration and conducted related lab experiments.

Where Are They?

The team worked at five different field sites which are part of the Barrow Environmental Observatory (BEO). The Observatory is located near the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC) where the team lived and conducted lab work. BASC is just outside the community of Barrow, Alaska. Barrow is located on Alaska’s North Slope near the shoreline of the Arctic Ocean. Barrow is a small community of approximately 4,500 people. The climate is arctic, with the daily minimum temperature dropping below freezing 300 days a year. The community is primarily inhabited by Inupiat Eskimos, and it is only accessible by airplane.

Expedition Map

Expedition Resources

Project Information

Dates: 20 June 2011 to 15 August 2011
Location: Barrow, AK

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Meet the Team

Jim Miller's picture
Cleveland Heights High School
Cleveland Heights, OH
United States

Jim Miller grew up on the family farm outside of Sandusky, Ohio. He credits his family and the opportunity to explore the outdoors on the farm for his curiosity and passion for nature. Mr. Miller received his Bachelor's degree in Environmental Studies from Allegheny College, his teaching certificate from Ashland University, and is currently working towards his Master's degree by participating in the Global Field Master's Program (Project Dragonfly) through Miami University. Mr. Miller has been teaching Biology and Natural Studies at Cleveland Heights High School for the last five years. At Heights, Mr. Miller is involved in extracurricular activities as Head Swim Coach and Academic Challenge Advisor. In his free time, Mr. Miller enjoys traveling (having visited Scotland, South Africa, Namibia, Costa Rica, Spain, Puerto Rico, and Canada), photography, watching movies, going to concerts, cards and games, downhill skiing, reading, and spending time on Kelleys Island.

David Lipson's picture
San Diego State University
San Diego, CA
United States

David Lipson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at San Diego State University. His research interests include soil microbial ecology, plant-microbe interactions, and linking microbial diversity to ecosystem processes.

Lars Angenent's picture
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY
United States

Lars Angenent is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University. His research interests include the conversion of organic waste into bioenergy, the development of biosensors, photobioreactors and bioaerosols, and the creation of biocomputing devices that are based on microbial electrochemical technologies. Learn more about Dr. Angenent's research at his faculty webpage [http://angenent.bee.cornell.edu/DrLarsAngenent.html]

Ted Raab's picture
Stanford University
Palo Alto, CA
United States

Ted Raab is a Senior Investigator in the Carnegie Institute of Science at Stanford University. His research interests include plant physiological ecology, analytical chemistry and spectroscopy, synchrotron-based imaging, and cryosols.

Elliot Friedman's picture
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY
United States

Elliot Friedman is a PhD candidate in Dr. Angenent's Lab at Cornell University. His research focuses on engineering applications of microbial electrochemical technologies. He designed and constructed the biosensors being used in the Arctic.