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The Permafrost Climate Feedback

Arctic and Boreal ecosystems contain a huge stockpile of organic matter. High latitudes are warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and this abrupt defrost is triggering landscape collapse and the decomposition of permafrost carbon and nitrogen. We are using the water chemistry in stream networks around the Toolik Field Station to identify where and how permafrost is degrading and what happens to the carbon and nutrients liberated by thaw.

Key questions

  1. How will carbon and nutrient balance in the permafrost zone change as the Arctic and Boreal thaw?
  2. How will permafrost degradation influence local ecosystems (distribution of vegetation and changes in aquatic food webs) and global teleconnections (biogeochemistry of the Arctic Ocean and the global climate system)?
  3. How much of this change can be avoided if human greenhouse gas emissions are reduced?

This project is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, award #1916565. Additional funding provided by the BYU Graduate School through a High Impact Doctoral Research Assistantship awarded to Qiwen Zhang.

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An exposed bluff of yedoma permafrost on the North Slope of Alaska.

Megafire in the Western US

The area of wildfire that burns each year in the western United States has doubled since the 1980s. The occurrence of larger and more severe wildfires is straining already stressed ecosystems, creating air pollution, and threatening water security throughout the region. This project takes an ecosystem approach, integrating terrestrial, aquatic, and human dynamics to understand how megafires are affecting Utah's ecosystems and society.

Key questions

  1. As wildfires become larger and more frequent, how do burn size and severity interact with ecosystem type and post-fire management to influence the likelihood of state changes in both the terrestrial and aquatic system?
  2. How do megafires affect lateral fluxes of water, carbon, nutrients, and sediment from burned catchments in semi-arid regions and how do these terrestrial subsidies influence stream and lake habitats already impaired by chronic, anthropogenic nutrient loading?

This project is funded by the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Onlookers watch a human-caused wildfire in late autumn.

Freshwater Landscapes in the Anthropocene

Human survival depends on access to clean water, but agriculture and urbanization dump hundreds of millions of tons of fertilizers and other pollutants into freshwater ecosystems every year. At the same time, land use and climate change are eroding the capacity of ecosystems to recover from disturbance. These dynamics are causing toxic cyanobacteria blooms and expansive dead zones with no oxygen that damage ecosystems and undermine human food and water security. Anthropogenic pressures on aquatic ecosystems are expected to intensify due to population growth and increasing meat consumption through the middle of the century. To address this crisis, we are applying new ecohydrological and data science tools to assess the resilience (ability to recover from disturbance) of freshwater landscapes. Using hydrological and biogeochemical data from across North America, we are testing how multiple dimensions of ecological resilience (e.g. carbon, nutrients, habitat, human use) interact. We are involving middle and high school students in this research to serve underprivileged communities and support understanding and stewardship of the ecosystems that sustain us all.

Key questions

  1. What determines a catchment’s resilience to human disturbance?
  2. Why do some catchments retain or remove nutrients and contaminants, while other readily export inputs to rivers, lakes, and estuaries?
  3. How long will it take ecosystems to recover after we reduce pollutant loads?

This project is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, award #2011439.

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Aerial photo of a human-dominated ecosystem in western France.

Improving Public Understanding of the Environment

We can only care for what we know about. Despite widespread interest in environmental and human health, many people lack quality information on environmental issues. For example, can you identify the top three most pressing environmental crises (click here to see if you got it right)? Our lab group is trying to improve how environmental science is taught, spoken, blogged, and reported by evaluating the tools we use to teach science, organizing citizen science, and by generating original, non-technical content. In one project, we have analyzed 600 images of the global water cycle, noting how human activity is depicted (or not) in each diagram. In another, we partnered with 150 citizen scientists to sample all the tributaries to Utah Lake. We collaborate with partners from the social sciences and humanities to learn how best to communicate complex science in an intelligible and palatable way.

Key Questions

  1. How can we better educate everyday citizens about environmental issues?
  2. How can we get this information to elementary and secondary teachers?
  3. How can we reach cultural groups that have previously been resistant or skeptical of scientific evidence?

This project is funded by multiple sources, including the Simmons Research Endowment, BYU College of Life Sciences, BYU Department of Plant & Wildlife Sciences, Provo River Watershed Council, and Utah Lake Collaborative.

Students take a water sample from the Provo River in preparation for a citizen science event. Photo by Nate Edwards.

Accelerating Decarbonization of the Global Economy

The world is going through an unprecedented energy revolution. In just the past 10 years, prices of solar production and battery storage have decreased by 90% or more. This has opened up opportunities for much faster decarbonization of electricity production than expected just a few years ago. We are working with energy systems modelers, power utilities, and policy experts to accelerate this transition and integrate new economic parameters into the Earth system models that we use to predict future climate.

Key Questions

  1. How rapidly can we sustainably and equitably roll out solar, wind, and storage technologies to meet demand while protecting the environment?
  2. On this accelerated decarbonization timeline, can we avoid major tipping points in the Earth system such as ice-sheet loss and disruption of terrestrial precipitation?
  3. How can we overcome policy and regulatory barriers to taking advantage of this new clean, cheap, and reliable source of energy?
Photo by Levelized cost of energy from various sources (Abbott et al. in prep).

Combining Expert Opinions to Inform Policy

Many environmental issues such as climate change, eutrophication, and air pollution are both complex and time sensitive. Delaying action can cause ecological disaster and massive human suffering, but there is often insufficient or conflicting evidence. When data are sparse but management decisions are pressing, expert judgement has long been used to constrain possible system response and risk of dangerous or undesired outcomes. We use expert assessment, a technique for combining many subjective estimates, to distill diverse and disparate types of scientific knowledge into policy-relevant summaries. The approach is similar to the concept of ensemble models where multiple estimates built on different assumptions and data provide a more robust estimate and measure of variance. Because the experimental units are individual researchers, each data point represents an integration of quantitative knowledge from modeling, field, and laboratory studies as well as qualitative information based on professional opinion and personal experience with the system. We are currently using expert assessment to explore the possible responses of subsea permafrost and global wildfire to environmental change. We are developing and administering surveys to identify sources of uncertainty and quantify the distribution of current expert opinion.

Key Questions

  1. How can you combine and compare knowledge from different fields generated in different ways?
  2. What information is reliable when trying to predict responses of complex systems?
  3. What new research would most reduce uncertainty regarding urgent environmental problems?

This project is funded by the BYU Graduate School through a High Impact Doctoral Research Assistantship awarded to Sara Sayedi.

Diagram of information flow between science and society. Adapted from Abbott et al. 2016.