Rawlins Receives Two New Arctic Research Grants

Michael Rawlins
Michael Rawlins

Michael Rawlins, associate professor of geosciences and associate director of the Climate System Research Center, has received two grants, one from NASA and the other from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), for work in Alaska and western Canada that will complement a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded multi-institution study of how climate changes such as thawing permafrost, soil carbon mobilization and precipitation changes are altering the Arctic’s ecosystems. Carbon that has been sequestered for thousands of years in permafrost soils is being released as climate warming and other environmental changes take place there.

Rawlins is the principal investigator on a grant from NASA’s Terrestrial Hydrology and Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry programs with a total budget of $922,000. Of that, approximately $450,000 will go to a subcontract at the University of Montana. He is also the lead investigator for a $276,000 award from DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research.

The grants will allow Rawlins and his team to expand on his multi-institutional effort to understand biological processes and land-ocean interactions controlling the structure and function of the Beaufort Lagoons complex in northern Alaska. That project is supported by a $307,000 grant to Rawlins from NSF’s Office of Polar Programs awarded earlier this year.

Rawlins says, “For the NASA sponsored study, my team will use ground-based and remote-sensing measurements to quantify water and carbon exports along the arctic coast from the Yukon to Mackenzie Rivers. The DOE grant will support the development of models that quantify the ‘leaching’ of carbon from soils and the fate of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in rivers due to processes involving microbes and sunlight.”

He and his collaborators are planning a workshop in 2018 on campus that will gather approximately 20 experts in watershed hydrology and biogeochemisty with a goal of bringing together a diverse suite of field data to better parameterize the DOC modeling. “The lack of information on carbon cycle dynamics within Arctic watersheds is a critical unknown which has hindered the merging of field data and models to understand the Arctic as a system. Our goal is to advance knowledge in this area,” he says.   

Rawlins adds that NASA and other federal agencies are making significant investments to understand the impacts of environmental change for Arctic social and ecological systems. He served on the NASA team that produced a research plan for its Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) launched in 2015. ABoVE is an 8- to 10-year field campaign in Alaska and western Canada. He currently serves on a team supported by NSF’s Arctic Systems Science Program that is exploring approaches for uncovering the systems-level behavior in the natural and social sciences. “I’m delighted to be involved in this important work,” he says.

In addition to his research in Arctic environments, Rawlins has published studies of projected climate change in the Northeast United States and North America. Last year he and geosciences colleague Raymond Bradley published a study that characterized possible future changes in freezing days across North America.