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This summer, NHPR is bringing you a series of stories to help you stay cool during the hottest time of the year.

Cool, cold, and a vision of the future: why NH researchers are studying the Arctic

Sean Schaefer stands next to a tundra plant experiment in a basement at the University of New Hampshire.
Mara Hoplamazian
Sean Schaefer stands next to a tundra plant experiment in a basement at the University of New Hampshire.

In the basement of a building at the University of New Hampshire, under the soft glow of purple lights, two kinds of tundra plants are growing inside a big case. Their roots are reaching into small white containers full of permafrost – soil that remains frozen throughout the year.

“We have two different permafrost types. We have one that's like 11,000 years old, and then we have one that's like 4.5 million years old,” says Sean Schaefer, a PhD student studying microbial ecology.

These plants are a big part of his life. He even has a tattoo inspired by one of them. He worries about them. He’s set up their habitat carefully – it’s airtight. Small tubes irrigate the plants, and a vat of acid generates carbon dioxide to get blown in.

His dissertation is focused on how tiny beings living in the once-frozen soil affect the carbon cycle.

“When this permafrost thaws, it's really a really tasty thing for microbes to go and feast on. And then as a result, they release a bunch of that carbon that was frozen, that’s now in the atmosphere as greenhouse gasses,” he says.

A sedge and a shrub grow into collars full of permafrost.
Mara Hoplamazian / NHPR
A sedge and a shrub grow into collars full of permafrost.

Schaefer’s project is one of many at UNH’s growing Arctic Initiative.

Right now, it’s led by about 10 people from different parts of the university, and researchers collaborate on projects across the Arctic, from looking into sea level rise to measuring methane emissions.

The scientists doing this work say it’s essential to understanding how climate change will affect us. But the research is often uncomfortable.

Jessica Ernakovich, a professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, works with Schaefer on the permafrost project. She says the day they collected the frozen soil, hours north of Fairbanks, Alaska, was cold and miserable.

“The soil was so rocky that we couldn't collect it the way we normally do it. So we thought we'd maybe try to use a jackhammer,” she said.

She says the jackhammer was fun, but it didn’t work. They ended up collecting the permafrost with a mallet and a hand chisel.

“It's very precious to us, that soil that's in there in our experiment, because it was really hard won,” she said.

But though studying the Arctic can be difficult, the research is important, Ernakovich said.

“One of the reasons that we care about what happens in the Arctic is because we really only have one climate. We only have one global carbon cycle. And so any big change to the global carbon cycle matters for us, too,” she said.

As the climate changes, the Arctic is warming nearly four times faster than the global average. That means studying how things are going up there can help us understand what we’ll see back in New England.

“What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic. It has effects everywhere,” said Larry Mayer, director of UNH’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping and another researcher participating in UNH’s Arctic initiative. He says the Arctic is like the canary in the coal mine for climate change. And it shows up in our lives in New Hampshire.

“Just in the last few years, the melting of the Greenland ice cap has become the single largest contributor to the global rise in sea level,” he said.

Part of his work is mapping Arctic fjords to try and see if warmer water from the Arctic Ocean is coming in and accelerating melting. He says getting more accurate predictions of sea level rise can help people in New England plan more effectively for how we’ll deal with that effect of climate change.

Researchers at UNH’s budding program have worked closely with Dartmouth College on Arctic research.

That school has been involved with Arctic studies since its founding. But Melody Brown Burkins, who directs the Institute of Arctic Studies now, says in recent years there’s been a focus on working with indigenous Arctic communities who have in many cases been excluded from participating as co-creators in Western research.

“More and more, we're recognizing that we cannot address these global challenges from climate change to food security to international security without the voices of the people on the ground and in the Arctic at the frontlines are communities who hold indigenous knowledge,” she said.

Both UNH and Dartmouth say they’re working to partner more closely with Arctic residents. Burkins says that’s essential to learn about the changes happening in the Arctic first that will affect the rest of the world.

“The Arctic is really telling us our future,” she said. “And we need to listen.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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