Research

How life shapes cold environments

Willows

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My research operates at the intersection of geomorphology (how landscapes evolve) and ecology (the stuff that lives there). My interests lie primarily in the cold, periglacial environments of the high Arctic and Antarctic, where I examine feedbacks between biology and permafrost processes. More specifically, I look at how key permafrost features such as ice wedges, thermokarst, and patterned-ground affect the vegetation that inhabits them, and in turn how this plant life alters the ground beneath its feet.

 

The changing polar desert

thermokarst

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The high Arctic is the world’s fastest warming biome and one of the last relatively untouched places on the planet. This is an area with nowhere to retreat to, no more northern place of refuge – the polar desert is shrinking. The consequences of this warming climate on both the physical and biological components of the environment are fairly unknown. My research examines how the coupled feedbacks between permafrost and plant life adapt and change with a warming world. I showed that climate-driven thermokarst in the high Arctic has increased ecological heterogeneity in high arctic ecosystems. This has serious implications for biodiversity, landscape stability, and carbon flux balances.

 

Human impacts in the Arctic

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With a warming climate, large sections of previously logistically unfeasible land are becoming accessible to industry. Much of the Arctic is a ‘resource frontier region’ and many governments have introduced policies to encourage further resource development. Canada has recently expanded mining in its far north, despite significant industry concerns over the threat of future climate change and the lack of adaptation plans. Major sites of my research (Fosheim Peninsula, Ellesmere Island) are on one of the largest undeveloped coal seams in the world. By examining one of the few records of historical industrial impact, I show that the high Arctic landscape is irrevocably impacted by even minor human activity. These findings should serve as a warning to the speed at which we develop the Arctic, and draw specific concerns as how to most carefully tread in the north.