In the Field: UW researcher headed to Alaska to study factors that lead to permafrost thaw and to educate foster care youth

A person sits in the middle of grassland with a laptop. There are trees surrounding the researcher.

UW doctoral student Joel Eklof downloads data from temperature sensors in the center of a permafrost-surrounded bog in Alaska’s Kenai Wildlife Refuge. Eklof is standing on a board to disperse his weight, which helps reduce his environmental impact.Katie Ring

As the Earth warms due to climate change, soil that has been frozen for thousands of years is beginning to thaw. In some cases, this permafrost releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is known to trap heat in our planet’s atmosphere.

Joel Eklof, a University of Washington doctoral student of civil and environmental engineering, has been investigating which environmental factors contribute to permafrost thaw and the release of methane into the atmosphere. For this research, Eklof has traveled to a field site southwest of Fairbanks, Alaska, every year for the past five years.

“This area is changing rapidly,” Eklof said. “And it already had a reputation as the ‘land of extremes’ because its annual temperatures range from below -40 degrees Celsius (-40 F) to above 27 degrees Celsius (80 F), one of the largest temperature ranges in the world.”

In addition to doing research in Alaska, Eklof has spent the past three years as an instructor and co-coordinator of the Fostering Science program, a free science summer camp for youth in foster care.

Now Eklof is headed back to Alaska for one last data collection season before he graduates. UW News asked him about the upcoming trip as part of an occasional series, “In the Field,” highlighting UW field efforts.

Tell us about this site. What does it look like?

Joel Eklof: The site was established almost 20 years ago and has been the subject of numerous publications as part of the Bonanza Creek Long-Term Ecological Research network and the Alaska Peatland Experiment.

I love hosting visitors, so I am going to talk through what you would see if you came to the field to visit, which is an open invitation to all readers – just know you will likely be put to work!

First, you pass a lush forest of towering deciduous and coniferous trees with grasses and mushrooms springing up at the edges of the trail. As you swipe at a few mosquitos, you continue to walk gently downhill and the compact trail morphs into a bouncy and narrow wooden boardwalk hovering low over the forest floor. Then the deciduous trees disappear and only coniferous black spruce trees remain. These trees are an indicator of frozen permafrost soils residing beneath your feet.

As you slowly gain more confidence treading on the boardwalk, the black spruce trees become progressively smaller as permafrost creeps closer to the surface. Tree size is limited by how deeply roots can grow, and because roots cannot grow into permafrost, shallow permafrost allows for only miniature versions of the towering black spruce seen earlier on the walk.

Just as your confidence in your balance is reaching a new high, a steep ramp transitions the boardwalk from inches above the surface to a full precarious meter (about 3 feet) above the surface. By now, the black spruce trees are becoming increasingly sparse.

Suddenly, you look up and notice the few remaining black spruce are leaning at a 45-degree angle. These are referred to as “drunken trees.” In this area, soil becomes too wet for black spruce to sustain themselves, creating an ensemble of dying trees marking the transition out of permafrost terrain.

Looking further down the boardwalk, we are greeted by a vibrantly green and moss-covered wetland, which is called a collapse scar bog. This bog formed as the soil surface dropped in response to permafrost thaw. As ground ice melted, soil from above filled the space once taken up by ice, causing the entire land surface to descend toward the water table.

We have now made it to our destination, and it is time to enjoy a field snack. At this point, I would offer some chocolate-covered almonds – my personal go to during fieldwork.

I have spent over 16 months at the site balancing on the boardwalks while collecting data. We collect over 40 types of data which include information about water, soil, vegetation, snow and greenhouse gas emissions.

In the foreground is a section of a tree with pinecones on it. The tree and pinecones are covered in frost. Behind the tree is a forest. There's a boardwalk going straight through the middle of the picture. The sun is shining in the background.

For years, Eklof has traveled to a field site southwest of Fairbanks, Alaska. To get to the field site, researchers must traverse across a narrow boardwalk (shown here in the center).Katie Ring

What do you hope to learn on this trip?

JE: We have two main questions. The first question is how and why soil temperatures and permafrost thaw rates vary from year to year and location to location. The second question is how water, energy and nutrient inputs from the permafrost plateau impact how much methane the bog releases into the air. We explore these questions by observing how the site responds to natural variations in factors like air temperature, snow and rain.

The site has experienced a wide variety of conditions over the last six years. On December 26, 2022, more than an inch of rain fell when temperatures are usually below -20 degrees Celsius (-13 F). During this abnormal rain-on-snow event, we observed soil temperatures rise sharply at all site locations. Most researchers in the permafrost community, including us, expected this rain event to lead to a massive thaw. But, to our surprise, the permafrost did not thaw that year. This rain-on-snow event was followed by an unusually dry summer, and that likely protected the permafrost because thermal energy moves through dry soil more slowly than wet soil.

The longer we collect data, the more potentially insightful scenarios we observe. Each observation is another puzzle piece to better understand permafrost physics, wetland greenhouse gas emissions and how this system may change in the future.

This time next year, we will take one last trip to the site to do a final data offload, remove our instruments and send field materials back to Seattle.

Who will be participating in this field effort?

JE: I will be the only one from our team collecting data, but I will be surrounded by friends and colleagues from other groups. The culture of fieldwork here is that of collaboration, community and mutual support. We often eat lunch together overlooking the bog and help one another out whenever possible. Sometimes we dress up in preposterous, colorful and impractical outfits for what we call “Field Fashion Fridays.”

What’s something you really enjoy about doing this work – especially something that might not occur to most people?

JE: This fieldwork has a lot of exceptionally enjoyable moments. Some days, the sun is shining through the branches of larches as they change to a breathtaking golden color, the energetic population of dragonflies succeed in keeping the mosquitoes at bay, and data collection goes smoothly and efficiently. Those days are amazing!

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