Measuring Environmental Change in the Arctic

Photo of Arctic landscape.

Earth and Environmental Studies Professor Mark Chopping is directing a three-year, NASA-funded project that is part of the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), a large-scale NASA Terrestrial Ecology Program study of environmental change in the region and its social and ecological implications.

“NASA scientists have seen large changes in vegetation over the last few decades, mostly towards greater shrub cover and a corresponding lowering of albedo — the reflection of solar energy back into space,” says Chopping. “However, we need to know more about the rates and directions of change and the magnitude of the impact on summer albedo, when there is sunlight for more than 20 hours a day.”

Using semi-automated interpretations of high-resolution satellite imagery, Chopping and Montclair State graduate students will assess the changes in Arctic tundra shrub cover since 2002. These changes not only affect Arctic climate and ecosystems, but also have the potential to accelerate permafrost thawing and global warming.

“Permafrost holds huge volumes of carbon that will outgas as methane or carbon dioxide — both important greenhouse gases,” explains Chopping. “The effects are not restricted to the Arctic, but will ultimately contribute to more extreme weather in New Jersey.

“This research builds on our earlier NASA-funded project that created a shrub abundance database for over 1,000 sites in Alaska using satellite imagery, field survey data and our canopy analysis software.”