UM Professors Work with NASA to Examine Climate Change Impacts

September 03, 2015

MISSOULA – As part of a broad effort to study the environmental and societal effects of climate change, NASA has begun a multiyear field campaign to investigate ecological impacts of the rapidly changing climate in Alaska and northwestern Canada, such as the thawing of permafrost, wildfires and changes to wildlife habitats. Two University of Montana professors will contribute to the study.

The Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) will bring together on-the-ground research with data collected by NASA airborne instruments, satellites and other agency programs.

John Kimball, UM professor of systems ecology, was a member of the original team that developed the NASA ABoVE scoping study. His role in the project will be to investigate the magnitude pattern and seasonality of greenhouse gas exchanges, including CO2 and methane, across Alaska and northwest Canada. He will investigate how recent warming trends and wildfires influence permafrost thawing and potential release of stored carbon to the atmosphere, which could further intensify global warming.

“Boreal forests and tundra are critical for understanding the ecological impacts of Earth’s changing climate,” said Jack Kaye, associate director for research in NASA’s Earth Science Division in Washington. “These ecosystems hold a third of the carbon stored on land – in trees, shrubs and the frozen ground of the permafrost. That’s a lot of potential greenhouse gases in play. We need to better understand these ecosystems and how a warming climate will affect forests, wildlife and communities both regionally and globally.”

Kimball will use a range of new satellite observations in conjunction with more detailed airborne data and field studies to assess recent environmental changes and impacts.

The ABoVE projects also will study impacts on the wildlife of Alaska and northern Canada, including habitat and migration changes for raptors, songbirds, Dall sheep, moose, caribou, wolves and brown bears.

UM Associate Professor Mark Hebblewhite will serve as a co-investigator of another part of the project. He will study how animals are faring in this rapidly warming region.

Caribou, photo credit: Mark Bradley

Hebblewhite, an associate professor of ungulate habitat ecology in UM’s Wildlife Biology Program, will study how both terrestrial and avian animals respond to changing habitats and environments. He’ll look at caribou, the most abundant long-range migratory herbivores in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as robins, thrushes and golden eagles. Golden eagles from Montana often will travel as far north as the Arctic to breed in summer, while robins and thrush that pass through Montana may also end up in the northern reaches of western Canada and Alaska.The research team, led by Natalie Boelman from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, will look at the vulnerability whole wildlife communities face when presented with higher temperatures, altered vegetation productivity and other changes.

“This project builds on our strength in linking applied science with remotely sensed data,” Hebblewhite said. “This region is among many on the planet undergoing rapid climate change and we’re studying how those changes impact both animal and human communities.”

He notes the important role caribou, moose and other mammals play in the cultural and socioeconomic lives of native peoples in this region.         

More information on the ABoVE project can be found online at http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-arctic-field-campaign-to-examine-ecosystem-impacts-of-changing-climate.

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Contact: John Kimball, UM professor of systems ecology, 406-243-4922, john.kimball@umontana.edu.