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Introduction to Field Data Collection - Overview

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Is global warming occurring or not? How can we find out? Many researchers believe that if global warming is occurring, the first place to show the impact of the warming would be in the most sensitive environments. One of the most sensitive of environments is the tundra biome. A small change in temperature would have a dramatic affect on the tundra. Increased temperature could lead to increased thaw, and therefore increased release of carbon dioxide and methane that is stored in the tundra and produced by bacteria living in the tundra. This increased release of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere, in turn, could cause further warming and thaw.

In the summer of 1997 I had the good fortune to work with a group of physical geographers on a study of tundra permafrost active layer depth. The active layer is the layer of thawed tundra; its depth and volume increases as temperatures go up. We were trying to map the changes in the area and depth of the active layer in the Kuparuk River Basin to provide accurate data to constrain the global change computer models being formulated today. To do this we have to know...... How do the extent and depth of thaw change during the year? Is the thaw different on steep slopes and flat regions? Is the depth and extent of thaw changing over several years?

Our investigation was a part of a much larger study looking at the flux, or transfer, of greenhouse gasses from the tundra into the atmosphere. The ARCSS/LAII Program (Arctic System Science/Land-Atmosphere-Ice Interactions) is looking at how changes in the extent and depth of tundra thaw could impact the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

Some of the questions that need to be answered by the research teams studying the tundra environment include:

  • How do you measure the changes over an area that includes all the main landforms?
  • How do you incorporate changes in latitude, altitude, angle of slope, direction faced, soil type, and type of vegetation into your study?
  • Is there be a direct relationship to the thaw depth of the active layer (the part of permafrost that thaws each summer) and the climate?
  • How can the researcher represent that data on a map of the region?
  • I have used the following activities to illustrate the methods of field data collection in several of my classes.

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