New data is rapidly improving our understanding of the Arctic’s permafrost

The Arctic covers about 20 percent of the planet, but we know very little about its soil, specifically its permafrost. This layer holds vast amounts of carbon, and thanks to researchers from the University of Texas, Austin, we now have a much more complete dataset on Arctic soil composition. 

The researchers spent several years surveying a 5,000 square mile area of Alaska’s North Slope and taking 300 soil samples. That’s roughly the size of Connecticut. They came to an interesting conclusion: The hydrologic properties of different permafrost soil types are very consistent and can be predicted based on the surrounding landscape. They were able to identify five categories of soil type based on soil thickness and composition as well as landscape slope and nearby water features. 

These different categories also correlated with trends in water and greenhouse gas mobility. Using their research, scientists can now more accurately predict how different areas of the Arctic will behave under warming conditions. 

The team relied on a helicopter and a bread knife to venture into largely untouched regions of the Arctic and gather samples. Thanks to their work, climate models can be scaled up to account for larger swaths of land and make broader conclusions about the role that permafrost plays in climate science. 

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