UAF, Toolik Field Station join Arctic climate initiative

An aerial photo shows Toolik Field Station in 2019.
Photo by Jason Stuckey
An aerial photo shows Toolik Field Station in 2019.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks will help host and support a new $15-million federal initiative to better understand the resilience of Arctic organisms and ecosystems amid rapid climate change.

Bringing together experts from 14 institutions, the Evolving Meta-Ecosystems Institute will focus on improving scientific and public understanding of how Arctic ecosystems are responding — and will continue to respond — as their environment shifts. The Arctic is at the forefront of climate change, warming at least three times faster than the global average.

The EvoME Institute will be led by Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts. The 6-year initiative is being funded by the National Science Foundation.

Much of the fieldwork for the EvoME project will be based at Toolik Field Station, UAF’s research station in Arctic Alaska operated by the Institute of Arctic Biology. As the world’s largest Arctic research station, Toolik allows the institute to leverage ongoing long-term research projects while tying in UAF’s Arctic expertise and facilities.

In addition to their scientific goals, EvoME leads will closely mentor both undergraduate and graduate students at the station to help them build skills critical to their success as future scientists. EvoME will also bring six journalists to Toolik every other year for an immersion in scientific reporting. 

“This new project serves as an example for how science can meaningfully span a wide spectrum of research disciplines and impact areas,” said Syndonia Bret-Harte, Toolik Field Station’s science director and a collaborator on the grant.

The EvoME Institute plans to bring together experts from diverse disciplines and backgrounds to collaborate on research efforts across the Arctic and generate new biological insights. The institute also aims to foster a new generation of cross-disciplinary biologists, with special attention to increasing the inclusion and retention of researchers from backgrounds currently underrepresented in the field.

UAF’s participation also will include research on how Arctic grayling on both slopes of the Brooks Range are adapted to different temperature conditions and how they might respond to a warming climate. The study will examine traits like egg development and juvenile growth. Scientists want to determine how much those traits are shaped by genetics and environmental conditions, said Erik Schoen, a research assistant professor at the International Arctic Research Center.

“While we focus on grayling, we’re excited to team up with colleagues who will measure how other parts of the ecosystem respond to changing temperatures, including stream insects, land insects, willows and birds,” Schoen said. “Understanding how climate change is affecting whole food webs might help us better understand how the fish we care about — like grayling — are going to respond.”

Other UAF researchers on the project include Peter Westley, an associate professor at the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and Matt Gilbert, an assistant professor at the Institute of Arctic Biology.

“It has long been known that ecology can influence evolution, but only in the past few decades has it become clear that evolution can influence ecology, which in turn has consequences for whole ecosystems,” Westley said. “EvoME takes it to the next level by seeking to understand how the interplay between ecology and evolution shape connections between adjacent ecosystems, in this case terrestrial and aquatic systems.”

ADDITIONAL CONTACTS: Erik Schoen,; Peter Westley,; Syndonia Bret-Harte,