Arctic Coastal Plain Studies

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The Arctic Coastal Plain (ACP) is a large region of low-lying, lake-rich land on the North Slope of Alaska. This region is underlain by thick ground ice, which is susceptible to erosion and thaw. These physical changes are likely to alter ecosystems by changing the availability of habitats and food resources upon which wildlife depends. Our studies on the ACP aim to understand the link between hydrological changes, altered thermal states, and nutrient and contaminant cycling, in order to explain and predict changes to ACP ecosystems.

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Chipp River Studies

Thawing ice wedges create ponds on the Arctic Coastal Plain

Thawing ice wedges create ponds on the Arctic Coastal Plain.  The shape of these ponds influences how their water levels and nutrient concentrations change over the year.  These variables in turn influence pond ecosystems and use by waterbirds.(Credit: Josh Koch, USGS. Public domain.)

This project, conducted from 2011 to 2014, investigated the hydrology and biogeochemistry of small ponds and large lakes on the ACP. We looked at the importance of surface and subsurface water movement to nutrient and habitat availability in lakes and ponds. This project was part of the Changing Arctic Ecosystem Initiative, which aims to better understand the link between physical changes and wildlife response in the changing arctic.


Defining the effects of climate change in shallow lake ecosystems of the Arctic Coastal Plain

Air temperatures are increasing in Arctic Alaska, and little is known regarding how aquatic ecosystems will respond to these changes. We are conducting an interdisciplinary, collaborative study on several lakes in the Barrow/Utqiaġvik-Atqasuk watershed to better understand how and to what extent continued changes in thermal regimes may affect fish growth, food web structure, and bioaccumulation of mercury. Our research includes both collection of empirical data and modeling, and our overall aim is to enable better predictions of broad-scale ecological and ecotoxicological consequences of climate change in Arctic lakes. Study lakes were selected from lakes monitored by the Circumarctic Lake Observation Network (CALON). Researchers in this program (funded by the NSF Arctic Observing Network) are monitoring a suite of physical and chemical parameters in several lakes in the Barrow/Utqiaġvik-Atqasuk watershed through 2016. Lakes in the CALON network are distributed across a thermal gradient and we are using this gradient as a natural experiment to examine physical and biological response to a range of thermal regimes.

Three scientists sorting through samples for invertebrates

Three researchers from the University of Waterloo hunt for aquatic insects among the detritus scooped from the lake’s nearshore zone.

(Credit: Sarah Laske, USGS. Public domain.)

Arctic Coastal Plain Nest Colonies

The Arctic Coastal Plain is a primary nesting site for many migrating birds, including the Black Brant. From year to year, the location of brant colonies varies. One explanation for these changes is that the springtime flooding determines which nest sites are available when the brant first arrive in the spring. This study aims to quantify the availability of nesting sites in 13 colonies across the ACP to help explain the movement and habitat use of brants, and to consider how this may be affected by earlier spring thaw.

Prudhoe Bay Thermokarst

Prudhoe Bay is the center of oil development on the ACP of Alaska, and is an area that has exhibited substantial permafrost thaw over the past several decades. This project aims to understand the processes of permafrost thaw and ecosystem stabilization that are responsible for the growth and shrinkage of ponds on the landscape that surrounds Prudhoe Bay. By monitoring water, nutrients, and carbon budgets in a series of ponds, this study aims to understand how Arctic Coastal Plain ecosystems are impacted by thaw.

Researchers collect water chemistry and invertebrates from a degrading trough pond

Researchers collect water chemistry and invertebrates from a degrading trough pond. (Credit: Josh Koch, USGS. Public domain.)