Following caribou and brown bear trails when possible, a small NASA-supported research team trekked 800 miles across Alaska’s Brooks Range last summer. With additional support from NSF, the Alaska Space Grant Program, and the Explorers Club/Discover, the research team is collecting extensive ecological field data that will be linked with satellite observations to better understand long-term changes in vegetation, including impacts of climate warming. The Arctic is warming nearly twice as rapidly as the rest of the planet and the impacts are becoming increasingly evident as glaciers melt, permafrost thaws, and tundra greens.
Arctic greening and browning
Earth-observing satellites have detected widespread increases in tundra greenness in the Arctic over the last four decades. The phenomena is caused, in part, by increases in vegetation growth as summers have become warmer and longer, and has been termed “Arctic greening.” On the other hand, satellite observations have also detected localized declines in tundra greenness attributed to surface flooding, extreme weather, and other disturbances. This has been termed “Arctic browning.” Satellite observations of greening and browning show that extensive changes are occurring in the Arctic, but much remains unclear about why specific regions have greened or browned in recent decades.
To better understand recent greening and browning in northern Alaska, Professor Roman Dial’s team from Alaska Pacific University (APU) has been collecting extensive ecological observations while trekking throughout Alaska’s Brooks Range. For nearly forty years, Dial has studied and traversed the Alaskan wilderness, including nearly 2,000 miles by foot and packraft throughout the Brooks Range during the last three field seasons. For 11 days last summer, Dial’s team was joined by Dr. Logan Berner and Patrick Burns who are research ecologists from Northern Arizona University (NAU) and members of NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE). While Dial is an expert in field ecology and wilderness travel, Berner and Burns are experts in satellite remote sensing and ecological informatics. By combining their expertise, these researchers hope to shed light on the extent, nature, and causes of vegetation changes during recent decades in the Brooks Range.
Trekking through the Brooks Range
The Brooks Range forms a natural barrier that separates the boreal forest of Alaska’s interior from the arctic tundra of Alaska’s North Slope. This mountain range includes the largest complex of protected wilderness in the United States, including 21,000,000 acres among the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Noatak National Preserve, and Gates of the Arctic National Park. Berner and Burns joined Dial’s research team as they trekked from the northern edge of boreal forest into the Noatak Wilderness where trees give way to thickets of shrubs, wetlands, and barren rocky ridges. During the course of 11 rain-soaked days, the team followed caribou and brown bear trails through verdant valley bottoms and over cloud-choked mountain passes as they traversed about 80 miles from the Ambler River to the Cutler River. While trekking, the researchers collected ecological field data to be linked with measurements of vegetation greenness from NASA Earth-observing satellites.
Ecological research often involves establishing field plots and then meticulously characterizing the composition and other attributes of the plant community in each field plot. Plot sampling provides valuable information, but the time consuming nature of the approach limits the spatial extent over which measurements can be made. Dial recognized that to better understand recent greening and browning, there is a need for more spatially extensive information on plant community composition than can be provided by field plots alone. He thus has pioneered an alternative approach that involves continuously documenting plant community composition and other attributes while trekking across the landscape. Termed “pixel-walking”, this approach harnesses the multifunctionality of smartphones to record and geolocate visual observations of vegetation composition and density for the overstory, midstory, and understory. While pixel-walking, researchers record a new observation every time they visually detect a change in vegetation composition or density at about a 30 meter spatial scale, corresponding to one pixel from the Landsat satellites. These spatially extensive field observations are thus collected with the explicit goal of being linked to decades of Landsat satellite observations.
During summer 2021, Dial’s research team pixel-walked over 800 miles from east to west through the Brooks Range, collecting data on vegetation composition for about 100,000 Landsat pixels. Over the coming year, Dial’s team will work with Berner, Burns, and Professor Scott Goetz (ABoVE Science Team Lead) at NAU to link these extensive field data with several decades of Landsat satellite observations provided by NASA. This collaboration will help unravel the mysteries of Arctic greening and browning by shedding light on where, how, and why plant communities changed in recent decades. NASA’s Earth-observing satellites provide long-term observations that are crucial for monitoring and understanding ongoing environmental changes in the rapidly-warming Arctic, especially when complemented by field data collected across large regions.