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The Earth is constantly changing. Some changes are natural and occur quickly, like a passing storm, or very slowly, like the retreat of the great glaciers that once covered much of Canada during past Ice Ages. Other changes are the direct result of things people are doing with purpose and forethought, like the harvesting of a forest for timber, or the damming of a river. But sometimes people do things for good reasons (like burning fossil fuels for energy to power our cars, homes and factories), which produce unintended effects such as climate change.

Sicence_1The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on earth. New development opportunities are being pursued and community populations are changing dramatically. All of these factors may result in rapid changes to northern eco systems. People who live in the region depend on these ecosystems to provide clean air and water, plants to harvest, animals to hunt, and permanently frozen solid ground on which to build roads and houses.

Permafrost thawing, changes to snow, ice and river flow, and changes in timing of arrival and departure of migratory animals, are having direct impacts on the people who live in communities along rivers, among boreal forests or on the Arctic tundra. These people, and people around the world, depend on deep frozen soils to stay frozen to keep our planetary climate stable by storing carbon for long periods of time and preventing it from moving into the atmosphere.

The Terrestrial Ecology Program of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is organizing the Arctic-Boreal vulnerability Experiment, or ABovE. The ABovE Field Campaign will focus on studies across northwestern Canada and Alaska (Figure 1). While NASA is known for its manned space flight program, it also has a mission “to understand and protect our home planet”. Thus, since the late 1960s, NASA engineers and scientists have designed, launched, and operated a large number of Earth observing satellites, and have used data from these satellites for research to develop a deeper understanding of the processes causing changes to Earth’s oceans, atmosphere and land surfaces. A “field campaign” involves a large group of scientists who join together to collect and analyze data from satellite and aircraft remote sensing, along with observations from field studies on the ground to investigate a variety of topics within a region.

research during ABovE will focus on how and why Arctic and boreal ecosystems are changing in response to global climate change, human development, and other environmental changes. ABovE will include a four- to five-year long period of collection of data on the ground in conjunction with airborne and satellite data. In addition, ABovE research will focus on developing the information people need to plan for and respond to these changes, especially for the Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups who call this region home.

A key goal for ABovE will be to develop new satellite and airborne remote sensing information products. For example, a common use of satellite remote sensing data is to map the amount of live vegetation present in a region. regular collection of these data over time allows for monitoring seasonal patterns of vegetation growth.

Using satellite data collected from the late 1970s into the 21st century, scientists have determined that vegetation in some areas in northwestern North America has seasonally experienced increased growth, while other areas have experienced a decrease (Figure 1). The increases in vegetation have mainly occurred in tundra where increased shrub growth has been observed, while decreases have mostly occurred in boreal forests, and have been attributed to water stress. While some of the reasons for the changing vegetation growth are known, many questions remain.

Changes in hydrology can also be mapped with satellite remote sensing systems. The extensive areas of small lakes and ponds in the ABovE region provide habitat for a range of fish and wildlife species, and are important for winter transportation. Due to changes in climate, thawing permafrost, and human activities, some lakes and small ponds are draining, while in other cases, they are increasing in size (Figure 2).

As part of ABovE, NASA is developing an expansive, detailed map of small lake and ponds for the region for the years 1990, 2000, and 2010. On-the-ground research during the ABovE field campaign will help scientists understand the processes that are causing changes to lake area over the past two decades observed in the satellite imagery (Figure 3).

In addition to providing data that can be used to analyze long-term changes in environmental characteristics, remote sensing data are also used to routinely generate information that is vital for management of natural resources.

Sicence_2For example, satellites easily detect forest and tundra fires with thermal infrared sensors. This has allowed the U.S. Forest Service’s remote Sensing Applications Center to develop a system to produce maps of active wildland fires for Canada and the United States three times each day — a valuable information source for monitoring burning in remote areas that experience extensive wildland fires, such as Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories (Figure 4). Moderate resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) system fire maps for different regions of Canada can be downloaded at http://activefiremaps.fs.fed.us/activefiremaps.php?sensor=modis&extent=canada.

In addition to studies of the factors that are causing changes in the patterns of wild land fires, during ABovE scientists will use satellite observations and field studies to understand how and why forests are changing as they regrow after fires (Figure 5). The extensive fires in the Northwest Territories last summer will provide an ideal opportunity to study factors controlling forest recovery in this region during ABovE. In other areas of the ABovE study region, more severe wildfires and northward migration of tree species are leading to complex patterns of recovery in black spruce forests across the ABovE study region.

In planning the ABovE research activities, NASA is actively working on developing partnerships with a range of organizations in Canada, including federal agencies (e.g., Natural resources Canada, Environment Canada, the Canadian Space Agency, and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada) and territorial governments (Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories). A high priority for NASA is the active engagement of Aboriginal groups and members of local communities throughout the ABovE campaign. This will include consulting with groups with land ownership/usage rights in areas where the  research will take place, learning about local and regional scientific information needs to support planning, incorporating traditional knowledge into ABovE research, and meetings to inform members of local communities about the planned research activities and results.

For more information about ABoVE, visit the ABoVE website at: above.nasa.gov and follow us on twitter at: @NASA_ABoVE.

Eric S. Kasischke, Elisabeth K. Larson, and Peter C. Griffith