Understanding climate change

As the Arctic warms and the permafrost thaws at a rapid rate, significant amounts of methane and carbon dioxide are being released into the atmosphere—a phenomenon that has the potential to accelerate climate change at unprecedented rates. The question is: How rapidly are these carbon greenhouse gases being released, and what does that mean for the future of Earth?

In a significant leap forward for climate science, two grants have been awarded to Ted Schuur, Regents’ professor of biology in the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, to advance research on the release of methane and carbon dioxide from warming Arctic permafrost. These grants, totaling close to $5 million, are set to usher in a new era of understanding and monitoring of critical climate feedback loops.

Grant 1: Mindaroo Foundation grant fuels the Arctic Carbon Warning Network

The first grant, awarded in May, hails from the Mindaroo Foundation in Australia, a private organization that is committed to addressing climate challenges. The Mindaroo Foundation’s contribution totals more than $3.8 million—according to vice president of research Jason Wilder, this is the largest privately sponsored research award in NAU’s history. It has been allocated to establish the Arctic Carbon Warning Network (AWARE), an initiative that aims to provide real-time annual updates on Arctic carbon emissions by networking key sites, facilitating a comprehensive assessment of the changing Arctic landscape.

“This funding is a game-changer. It enables us to augment a detection network that can provide crucial insights into the release of greenhouse gases from permafrost, a wild card that could reshape the future trajectory of climate change,” Schuur said.

Grant 2: NSF funds the ACCLIMATE Observatory

A second grant awarded in August by the National Science Foundation, totaling nearly $640,000, will provide financial support to develop the Arctic Carbon and Climate (ACCLIMATE) permafrost supersite, based in Alaska that is also part of the AWARE network. This unique observatory will serve as the epicenter of groundbreaking research, offering observational and experimental studies combined with high-precision measurements of methane, carbon dioxide and radiocarbon emissions stemming from permafrost thaw.

“The ACCLIMATE Observatory is a one-of-a-kind facility that allows us to delve deep into the mysteries of permafrost carbon dynamics,” Schuur said. “By quantifying emissions and their pace, we aim to decipher the profound impacts on our climate system.”

Complementing these efforts is the Permafrost Carbon Network lead by Schuur, which connects researchers from the United States and throughout the world to comprehensively assess how the broader Arctic region responds to climate change. By pooling data from individual research sites, including the ACCLIMATE Observatory and AWARE, this network of researchers provides a holistic perspective on the complex interplay between permafrost, carbon emissions and climate change.

Schuur believes this Permafrost Carbon Network collaboration is key to maximizing our understanding of these critical processes.

“It allows us to connect, reanalyze and interpret data from various sources, ultimately providing real-time information to decision-makers and the public,” he said. “While the primary action lies in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, understanding Arctic carbon dynamics is equally vital. Real-time data allows us to make informed decisions and adjust policies accordingly. We estimate that the warming Arctic will release greenhouse gases on the scale of a large, industrialized nation, and accounting for the extra emissions will be crucial as society tries to meet safe global temperature targets.”


NAU Communications