As part of climate study, ORNL-led team will turn up the heat in Alaska

Experimental sites must be near power source at Barrow. Alaska.
ORNL photo
fairbanks.jpgStan Wullschleger, distinguished research scientist in ORNL’s Environmental Sciences Division, is heading up a new project in Alaska that ultimately will evaluate the effects of global warming on areas with layers of permanently frozen soil (permafrost).
In the initial stages, which may get started before the end of September, the team will test the heating systems needed to raise the soil temps (in 20-meter plots) by 4 degrees centigrade and then eventually build that capability to 8 degrees C, Wullschleger said this morning. The heating elements are similar to those that have been used for studies on the Oak Ridge reservation, but they’ve been tweaked a bit to adapt to extraordinarily cold temperatures in Alaska.
The initial test site will be near Fairbanks (photo, left, of boreal forest) and Barrow, which is the northernmost city in the United States. “If you go farther north, you’re in the Arctic Ocean,” said Wullschleger, who’s a newbie to Alaska but has been there a few times in recent months to get ready for the research project.

If the technology proves worthy over the next couple of years, the reseachers expect to move foward with the scientific study of how rising temperatures may affect the permafrost areas and vegetation in Alaska, Wullschleger said. Ultimately, the scientist would like to combine the higher temperatures with higher levels of CO2 and methane to simulate and evaluate the effects of climate change, he said.
alaskaheat.jpgThe project is funded at about $2 million this year, with an expectation of a similar amount next year, Wullschleger, a plant ecologist, said.
One reason for doing the research project in Alaska is that the northern latitudes appear to be experiencing global warming to a greater extent than other areas, he said, and the study will take a more detailed look at the sensitive ecosystems there.
The experiments also will enable scientists to compare the field results with computer simulations that are already being done, Wullschleger said.
Researchers at Brookhaven and Los Alamos National Laboratories are involved in the project, he said, and the team is collaborating with the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Fairbanks and the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium in Barrow. He said there also has been consultation with scientists at the University of Alaska.
Wullschleger said the reseachers have selected the initial sites for the tech tests and are currently have parts of the heating systems manufactured, with the plan to have that available for installation in August and September.
The initial studies will be pretty simple, with one field plot at Fairbanks and one at Barrow, but eventually the goal would be to develop a system that heats the ground and above ground (to better test effects on vegetation) and ultimately incorporate the other factors, such as higher levels of carbon dioxide.
The in-ground heating elements (shown in illustration) reach a depth of about 4 meters, Wullschleger said.
Asked whether the experiments themselves would have any impact on the environment, he said, “The experiments initially are small scale. We always want to make sure we’re not disturbing the ecosystem that eventually we would like to study . . . That is one of the engineering challenges.”
Eventually, the research group might install 18 to 24 of the 20-meter test plots in Alaska, Wullschleger said.
The ORNL researcher said there’s quite a scientific community in Barrow, which has a nominal population of 4,400. With the sun up 18 to 20 hours a day, “You could literally work 24 hours a day.”
Where there’s been a polar bear sightingon the Barrow Environmental Observatory, researchers have to have an armed escort before going to the field site, Wullschleger said.
“You think we have security here in Oak Ridge,” he joked.

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Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics ā€” nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.