Team will study microbes’ effect on climate change

Climate change’s outsized impact on the northern  landscape ⸺ everything from markedly shrunken glaciers to forests ravaged by wildfire ⸺  is apparent to the naked eye. 

But Mario Muscarella, assistant professor of microbiology with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology, is interested in what the naked eye can’t see. 

He and a team of researchers recently received $2 million in funding from the National Science Foundation to study linkages between microbes and plants and how they affect sweeping climate-induced changes in northern tundra. 

Mario Muscarella in his lab.
Photo by Amy Loeffler
Mario Muscarella in his lab in the West Ridge Research Building at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“We can easily see the effects of climate change at the landscape level and in the composition of plant communities,” said Muscarella. “It’s far more difficult to mechanistically link changes at the microbial level.”

Permafrost thaw is leaving Arctic landscapes pockmarked with freshwater ponds — a terrain known as thermokarst. The ponds can become supercharged “hot spots” that release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. 

Muscarella and his collaborators at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are hoping not only to uncover relationships driving hot-spot carbon release but also to shed light on “hot moments” that are characterized by extraordinarily high emission rates.

Researchers will use a three-tiered approach to assess hot-spot and hot-moment activity. They’ll measure microbial activity, identify above- and below-ground plant properties, and use aircraft, including drones, and infrared imaging to identify key gradients in carbon emissions. Using these data points, the team hopes to determine the location and assess the magnitude of carbon dioxide and methane hot spots.

Mark Lara is the lead principal investigator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

“Coupled ground and remote sensing observations will establish the baseline for the spatial distribution of hot spots, while sustained observations will enable the quantification of hot moments across plants, microbes and landforms,” said Lara. 

Information gleaned from remote sensing and sustained observation will be “coupled with the timing of permafrost degradation and allow the research team to interpret where hot moments exist,” Lara said, “while incubation experiments will illuminate the mechanisms driving hot moments across sites of the Arctic Coastal Plain of northern Alaska.”

The project also will involve Alaska Native high school students. They’ll use drones to measure their environment and will share results with the broader scientific community. 

“Our goal is to discover strong linkages between ecosystems, plants and microbes that will allow us to better understand and predict behaviors at the landscape level in the future,” Muscarella said.