Long-term records track climate change effects on Alaska’s North Slope

December 14, 2022

Haley Dunleavy

a person drills into lake ice with an auger
Photo by Amanda Young/Toolik Field Station
Toolik Field Station staff member Mayra Melendez Gonzalez drills into the ice on Toolik Lake to measure its thickness for long-term records in June 2022.

For 15 years, staff at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Toolik Field Station, located north of the Brooks Range, have kept a close eye on the tundra’s daily activity. They record everything from lake ice thickness and precipitation to the date when each year’s first blueberry ripens. It’s a practice that’s left Amanda Young, a co-principal investigator for Toolik, questioning what “normal” means in a rapidly changing Arctic, especially when temperatures unseasonably rose above freezing earlier this month.
These consistent records of daily to weekly environmental variation may seem mundane, but, together, they tell a story about the changing tundra that large-scale models and one-time sampling campaigns miss. By having this long-term record of change, Young said in a poster she’s presenting at the American Geophysical Union’s 2022 fall meeting, “visiting researchers can get a better idea of where their shorter-term projects fall into the larger picture and avoid misinterpreting their findings.”
Often, the data will show connections between seemingly disparate variables, said Young. For example, an abnormally large snowstorm in May 2015 might be the reason savannah sparrow and Lapland longspur populations noticeably dropped in 2016.
Young said the biggest trend occurred in deep permafrost soils, where temperatures are warming, a concerning early indicator of permafrost thaw.
“These are the things people have been measuring for ages,” Young said. “They’re useful for science because they show how the plants, animals, microbes and everything else are responding in the landscape. But these parameters also influence how we live on the landscape.”
These datasets are available to access and explore via the Environmental Data Center website.

ADDITIONAL CONTACTS: Amanda Young, ayoung55@alaska.edu, 907-474-6826