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UND Geologist takes part in multinational climate change research

International project involved researchers from 65 institutions around the world

Jaakko Putkonen, associate professor of geology at UND’s Harold Hamm School of Geology and Geological Engineering, adjusts equipment in Spitsbergen, Norway. Photo courtesy of Pirjo Berg

A UND geologist participated in lengthy periods of field work in Norway to study the effects of Arctic vegetation on global warming. That work has contributed to a large research project that aims to improve climate modeling in the Arctic, and the impact of warming temperatures elsewhere on the globe.

Over a period of five years until 2021, Jaakko Putkonen, associate professor of geology at UND’s Harold Hamm School of Geology and Geological Engineering, spent months at a time doing field work in the tundra in Spitsbergen, in northern Norway. His goal: studying the effects of the warming climate on permafrost and reindeer.

He found that rain-on-snow events there were warming the permafrost and killing off reindeer, due to the changing nature of the environment. His research highlighted the impact that future increases in rain-on-snow events in the northern hemisphere will threaten northern ungulates—large, hooved mammals.

Putkonen’s research was combined with the research of 64 other international scholars and was published in a paper titled “Vegetation Type is an Important Predictor of the Arctic Summer Land Surface Energy Budget,” by the journal Nature Communications. Lead writers of the paper are from the University of Zurich in Switzerland and McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Other contributing scholars are from universities in Australia, Germany, Canada, Switzerland and Poland, among others. Several universities in the United States are represented in the research alongside UND.

Doing research in polar regions is difficult and expensive, Putkonen said, and the scope of this research project could not have been carried out by one individual. He said he was pleased to take part in the rare occasion of so many universities working together on a difficult issue. International collaboration allows researchers to better understand large problems that would be unsolvable for a single researcher working alone.

Putkonen said his inclusion in the multi-national research team also show’s UND rising status in cold-weather related research, which is needed to understand the implications of the changing climate.

“This large, international collaborative project is a great example of the growing stature of UND in polar and cold region research,” Putkonen said. “The Arctic is critical to all of us, because the rapid climate change there will likely have large effects on the global climate.”

According to a release from Nature Communications, the rate of warming in the Arctic is double that of the global average. Rising temperatures lead to thawing permafrost, melting glaciers, drought, fires and changing vegetation. As temperatures rise, the density of Arctic vegetation such as shrubs expands, which contributes to the energy exchange between the Earth’s surface and the atmosphere—in effect, speeding up the warming process.

“The shrubs’ dark branches emerge from under the snow early, absorb sunlight and pass it on to the surface long before the snow melts away,” said Jacqueline Oehri, a biology professor at McGill University and one of the principal writers of the research paper.

What is poorly accounted for in climate modeling, however, is the role plant cover plays in energy transfer in the Arctic. Putkonen said data in the research paper can be used to create more accurate climate models.

“Our paper not only highlights the importance of the vegetation cover on Arctic climate change, but it also helps scientists improve the models and make more accurate predictions of the upcoming changes in the Arctic,” he said.

Lead authors of the research paper say they now have a better understanding of which plant communities contribute to cooling or warming. Still, they require improvements in data collection in the region, and there are only a few reliable measuring stations for that purpose. The authors are calling for those stations to remain in operation, while adding new stations in Arctic regions that could only partially be analyzed.