In July, Professor Phil Camill and Ana Gunther ’23 traveled to Baffin Island in Canada, in search of color on its remote and rocky terrain. What they discovered far exceeded their expectations.
Shortly after arriving in Iqaluit, Baffin’s main town, Camill and Gunther knew they were in a country that was changing faster and more drastically than they had anticipated.
Their research team, which also included Alexis Stansfield, a doctoral student at Lehigh University, and Charles Umbanhowar Jr., a professor at St. Olaf College, settled down at the Nunavut Research Institute, where they were staying. Then they ventured on foot into the tundra outside the city. Camille was the first to spot a clump of Sphagnum moss, and the others quickly found a few other small patches nearby.
Sphagnum is one of the major peat moss in the North and the greatest source of soil carbon. Because it does not decompose well, it ends up storing large amounts of carbon in the ground, up to ten meters deep.
The next day, they flew their chartered helicopter to their first site to begin collecting soil samples. As they traversed the landscape, they stared in amazement at the greenery that stretched for miles. Their helicopter landed on a carpet of moss in a large, lush valley. “It was amazing!” said Gunther. “That’s when we realized we would find a lot of stuff there.”
The team had traveled to Baffin Island to investigate the presence of moss, particularly Sphagnum peat moss – in an area that for thousands of years was barren, cold and dry.
But as the climate warms, parts of the High Arctic, a traditionally cold and inhospitable region, are becoming wetter and hotter, leading to changes in its vegetation. Scientists are studying this phenomenon closely because as the land becomes occupied by mosses and other plants, it will absorb and store more of the excess carbon dioxide produced by human activity.
“As things get greener, these regions can absorb carbon from the atmosphere,” Camill said. “And there’s this question of what the balance is: will the high Arctic green more than the low Arctic and the boreal forest will brown?” Browning refers to areas that lose peat as they dry out, get hotter, decompose and burn more.
Many scientists were unsure what role Baffin Island, which is roughly the size of Spain, played in this carbon seesaw.
While it is speculated that the High Arctic is “on the verge of exploding in terms of peat initiation,” Camill said, he and his team have observed that in Baffin, the bogs “have already started; there is already peat everywhere”.
once in a lifetime
Along with colleagues and students, Camill travels frequently to the Arctic in the summer to collect soil samples, which provide clues about how warming affects landscapes and their carbon dynamics, and how landscapes in turn affect climate change.
Each time it heads north, it collects more data and publishes new findings, adding new knowledge to our understanding of the progress of global warming.
But on this trip, the discovery was on a larger scale than usual. “As a scientist, it’s kind of a special discovery, to be able to say, ‘Wow, there’s a really big peat cluster in an area that nobody really talked about.'”
And while Camill and Gunther say the potential climate-stabilizing impact of a greener Baffin Island probably isn’t very significant in the global carbon cycle, it still makes a difference.
“To prevent the really serious impacts of climate change, you have to do everything you can,” Gunther said. “While this discovery doesn’t seem to offer much hope for the future, we do show that there is something in the natural environment that can act as a feedback to dampen warming. It’s worth looking into. ‘be known and valuable.’
Clues pointing to a green oasis
Camill’s colleague Umbanhowar, a plant ecologist who uses remote sensing to map vegetation, was the first to suggest that southern Baffin Island might be worth exploring.
“He developed a greenness index based on land cover,” Camill said, “so you can tell from remote sensing satellites how green the landscape is. bogs are likely to be.”
“There are no trees anywhere, there is no darkness. The landscape redirects you when you are up there. And these particular landscapes are geologically spectacular, with valleys and beautiful rocky outcrops and river terraces.And the greenery of the boggy landscape was beautiful.
Over two weeks, the researchers visited seventeen sites within a 100-mile radius of Iqaluit (the range of their helicopter fuel supply). At each site, they took soil samples to bring back to the lab for testing.
One of the first questions they seek to answer is when the Baffin bogs began. “We now know peat is there in great abundance, so it’s just a matter of radiocarbon dating the basal layer to determine when it started. Is it 6,600 years old or 100 years old?” Camilla said. Glaciers retreated from the landscape around 6,600 years ago, so peatlands could have started to develop at any time since then.
A source of information could also include the Inuit of Baffin Island, who chronicle the changing seasons, animals and plants. Camille referred to a well-known book by Inuit elders titled Caribou tastes different now. “They’re talking about things getting more shrubby, and trees growing and popping up in areas that they weren’t before. They’re seeing the landscape greening up,” he said.
The research team will also try to determine the extent of peat on the island and how much it might green in the future.
Gunther, who specializes in earth and ocean sciences and environmental studies, specifically studies how vegetation and land topography – its hills and valleys – affect peat formation and carbon storage. She will write her conclusions for publication and for an honors thesis in her final year. So far, “we see that the most boggy regions tend to have areas of low water retention,” she said.
“It was amazing for me to start this project for myself, and I’m working on such an exciting topic. Also, traveling for field research was really special, and I think it will be rewarding to conduct my research. through a whole year,” she said.
Calculating carbon in arctic or boreal areas is an active and challenging area of research, Camill said. Scientists combine their soil measurements, determined by soil samples, with remote sensing to map vegetation and soil types over large areas. They can then estimate the amount of carbon in an area.
Now, new, higher-resolution remote sensing is giving scientists better insight into how the land is changing. “Using the old resolution sensors, we were underestimating the amount of boggy lowlands,” Camill said. “With new remote sensing data and soil carbon estimates, we could double or triple the amount of carbon we know is in these soils, which is cool.”