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Science Picks


February 26, 2007
Clarice Nassif Ransom 703-648-4299 Clarice Nassif Ransom

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The polar regions play a critical role in the global climate system - and what happens in these often-remote areas greatly affects biological, atmospheric and human systems worldwide. The U.S. Geological Survey has been researching glaciers and climate change, including the changing conditions in the Arctic Ocean affecting the polar bear and walrus populations. The March edition of Science Picks focuses on International Polar Year, which kicks off February 26. USGS scientists will join researchers from more than 60 countries to conduct coordinated research and analysis in the Arctic and Antarctic during the IPY, which runs from March 2007-March 2009. For more information on IPY and related USGS activities, visit the USGS IPY Web site at http://international.usgs.gov/ipy/default.shtml. If you would like to receive Science Picks via e-mail, would like to change the recipient or no longer want to receive it, please e-mail dmakle@usgs.gov.

March Highlights


Leads

USGS Historical Information on Glaciers Tell Climate Change Story

Long before the phrase “climate change” became part of the national lexicon, the USGS was closely monitoring glaciers in the United States to help understand how they interact with climate and their impacts on water resources. The three benchmark glaciers that are monitored are the South Cascade Glacier in Washington State and Gulkana and Wolverine Glaciers in Alaska. Five decades of data from the USGS reveal rich and varied histories of glacier growth and decay. Beginning in the late 1980s, all three glaciers entered a period of rapid and sustained mass loss that continues to the present. Learn more about these studies and view photos of glaciers from 1928 to the present, by visiting http://ak.water.usgs.gov/glaciology/. For more information, contact Edward Josberger at (253) 552-1643 or ejosberg@usgs.gov.

Monitoring Melt in the Land of Ice and Snow

Many scientists believe that the effects of global climate change will appear first in regions like the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica, where streams spring to life during the brief Antarctic summer. USGS hydrologists have monitored the Dry Valleys for 17 years and currently operate a network of 18 streamgages that provide data on melt-water flowing from glaciers into permanently ice-covered lakes. The streamgages are part of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long-Term Ecological Research Project, which allows scientists to monitor significant changes over time. Accurate long-term streamflow measurements are critical in understanding how climate, glaciers and ecosystems interact. To learn more about the project or browse photos and journals from previous year’s trips, check out http://wy.water.usgs.gov/projects/antarctica/index.htm, or contact Kirk Miller at (307) 775-9168 or kmiller@usgs.gov.

Does Permafrost Thaw Increase Methane Emissions and Affect Climate?

Frozen ground, or permafrost, occupies almost one quarter of the Northern Hemisphere’s land surface. In recent decades, permafrost temperatures have increased in response to changing climate in Alaska, Canada and Siberia. These frozen soils often contain large amounts of organic carbon, and upon melting, this carbon may be emitted into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane gases, which could have significant impact on global climate. USGS scientists have been researching this issue — the study, “Effects of Permafrost Melting on CO2 and CH4 Exchange of a Poorly Drained Black Spruce Lowland,” can be accessed at: http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2006/2005JG000099.shtml. For more information, contact Kimberly Wickland at (303) 541-3072 or kpwick@usgs.gov.

Climate Warming is Affecting the Yukon River Basin

Since 2001, the USGS has conducted an intensive study of the hydrology and water chemistry of the Yukon River and its tributaries, which encompass 330,000 square miles in northwestern Canada and central Alaska. This study aimed to develop a detailed and reliable baseline of information invaluable to scientists and resource managers in understanding changes. Results to date suggest that warmer climate conditions may be causing a significant increase in organic carbon consumption in the soils, therefore influencing the greenhouse warming process. Want to learn more? Check out http://ak.water.usgs.gov/yukon/, or contact Rob Striegl at (303) 236-4993 or rstriegl@usgs.gov.

In an Ice-Jam, Alaska Waters Rise 15 Feet in 24 Hours

Water levels in the Kenai River at Soldotna, Alaska, rose 15 feet in 24 hours in late January because of a winter ice-jam flood during a glacier lake outburst. The unnamed lake dammed by Skilak Glacier commonly breaks out in late summer or fall, not in January. The USGS has been monitoring streamflow at this site since 1965 and has the critical historical data to help provide insights into whether these types of events reflect long-term, global influences or short-term or random hydrologic fluctuations. Two previously documented January outbursts occurred in 1969 and 1994. For more information, contact David Meyer at (907) 786-7141 or at dfmeyer@usgs.gov.

Understanding the Ecology of Polar Bear Populations in Beufort Sea, Alaska

USGS researchers are exploring better ways to estimate the numbers and trends in polar bear populations in Alaska and are developing new modeling approaches that make better use of data. A 5-year polar bear mark-and-recapture effort going on right now will provide new data for estimating the population in the southern Beaufort Sea. Research efforts focus on movements, movement patterns and distribution of polar bears in northern Alaska. Using radio-telemetry data, a new way to help model and predict probabilities, this research has suggested ways to improve the understanding of the sources of harvested bears and the relative vulnerabilities of polar bears to potential oil spills in the Beaufort Sea. USGS work in the region also includes research to understand aspects of polar bear denning ecology in northern Alaska, as well as how to detect dens through the snow with forward-looking infrared (FLIR) viewing. For more information, visit http://alaska.usgs.gov/ or contact Steve Amstrup at (907) 786-3424 or steven_amstrup@usgs.gov.

What About the Walrus?

Pacific walruses occur throughout the Chukchi and Bering Seas and are important to native subsistence in Alaska and Russia. USGS researchers at the Alaska Science Center are developing a method to better estimate walrus populations through aerial surveys. In addition, USGS scientists are identifying potential genetic structuring in the Pacific walrus population and are exploring new techniques to study walrus distributions, migrations and foraging ecology. Information from these walrus research projects is particularly important in light of the recent, substantial decline of Arctic sea ice, which walruses depend on for part of their life cycle. For more information, visit http://alaska.usgs.gov/, or contact Chad Jay at 907-786-7414 or cjay@usgs.gov.


Feeds

New Landsat 7 Image Mosaic of Antarctica

Antarctica exists as a frozen dream to most people, yet what is happening in the southernmost environment affects us all. In support of the IPY, the new Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica (LIMA) brings the coldest place on Earth alive with a comprehensive view of Antarctica. The USGS, the British Antarctic Survey and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, with funding from the National Science Foundation, are developing the new mosaic along with an Antarctic Web portal and online map viewer. From the Antarctic Web portal, scientists and the general public will be able to download the entire mosaic and all of the original 1,065 hand-selected Landsat scenes used to create the mosaic. Besides hosting the mosaic, the Web portal includes links to previous USGS Antarctic research, the Atlas of Antarctica, GIS resources and a digital library of previous and current research. The image can be downloaded from the Landsat Image Gallery at http://landsat.usgs.gov/gallery/detail/mcmurdo/. For more thorough on the Landsat Image Mosaic and Antarctic Web portal, please contact Jean Paulson at (605) 549-6560 or paulson@usgs.gov, or Doug Binnie at (605) 549-6160 or binnie@usgs.gov.

USGS Educational Tools for the International Polar Year

The USGS Educational Resources Index for IPY lets you explore a variety of USGS resources on polar research, from maps and fact sheets to photographs and databases. Designed for researchers, students, teachers and others interested in research and findings related to polar science, this index contains more than 65 different resources. Check it out at http://international.usgs.gov/ipy/ed_resources.shtml, and keep checking for updates. For more information, contact Robert Ridky at (703) 648-4713 or rridky@usgs.gov.

Story Seeds

Assessing Arctic Petroleum Resources

The USGS World Petroleum Assessment of 2000 indicated that a large portion of the world’s remaining oil and gas resources may be in the Arctic. In 2003, the USGS began a more thorough and rigorous assessment of the petroleum resources in the Arctic. The first results of this study will be completed during the IPY. For more information, visit

http://certmapper.cr.usgs.gov/rooms/we/index.jsp?thePage=include_arctic.jsp, or contact Brenda Pierce at (703) 648-6421 or bpierce@usgs.gov.

USGS Science at the Ends of the Earth

During the IPY, scientists will research both Poles, collecting information on polar conditions and studying their interaction with and influence on oceans, the atmosphere, landmasses and ecosystems to understand current and forecast future global climate. To find out more about USGS IPY 2007-2008 projects, visit http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2007/3013/pdf/fs2007-3013-web.pdf, or contact Jessica Robertson at 703-648-6624 or jrobertson@usgs.gov.


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