Starting in the 1950s, Rutgers University professor and world-renowned soil scientist Dr. John C. F. Tedrow joined a group of researchers as part of a U.S. Air Force project to learn more about soils of Alaska’s treeless North Slope. With this project, Dr. Tedrow — who continued to venture out from his home base in New Jersey for countless research trips to both the Arctic and Antarctica (he worked well into his 90s) — started what has become more than a half century of strong polar research at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, one of the state’s leading institutions of research and higher learning.
Dr. Tedrow also literally helped put Rutgers, the eighth-oldest college in the United States, on the Arctic map. When given the opportunity to name a lake in Greenland, he christened it “Queens College Lake,” after the name that Rutgers was first chartered under in 1766. (In further testament to Dr. Tedrow’s prominence in polar research, in Antarctica you can also find Tedrow Glacier as well as Rutgers Glacier.)
Like the Arctic, which is feeling the effects of global climate change, New Jersey residents are already feeling the result of sea-level rise, which has elevated the baseline for coastal flooding during high tides and coastal storms. The Arctic has a direct effect on these — and New Jersey natural and social scientists are working to better understand the connections.
The Arctic has been described as unraveling. Arctic sea ice has lost over half of its volume, thawing permafrost is damaging pipelines and buildings, increased meltwater coming from Greenland’s ice sheet is raising global sea levels, and declining spring snow cover around the United States is jump-starting summer heat waves and wildfires. The pace of Arctic warming is double of that of other places on earth, a change that Rutgers University atmospheric scientist Jennifer Francis says is affecting the jet stream in ways that make our weather patterns more persistent. Remember the long, stormy winters the eastern United States has faced in recent years along with droughts out west? These extreme and destructive events — and others like them all around the northern hemisphere — were caused by a highly wavy jet stream path. Francis’s research suggests that amplified Arctic warming is causing these types of patterns to occur more often.
A decline in spring snow cover extent across Northern Hemisphere lands that was first recognized 25 years ago has accelerated in the Arctic over the past decade. Rutgers has a Global Snow Lab, where the changes in snow extent are documented by cryospheric climatologist Dave Robinson. Spring warmth, enhanced wildfire activity, and water availability during subsequent summer months are all affected by the early loss of snow cover. This early loss may also affect the depletion of summer Arctic sea ice
In the Arctic, the early loss of spring snow cover is also impacting the stability of permafrost, resulting in associated impacts on ground transportation and other infrastructure impacts throughout this region.
Åsa Rennermalm leads the Rutgers Arctic Hydroclimatology Research Lab; her team studies climate, glaciers and water in the Arctic region. The production, transport, and export of water from the Greenland ice sheet is critical to our understanding of global sea-level rise, yet remains one of the least studied water-related processes.
Rutgers’ researchers are working to understand how melting water from the Greenland ice sheet is affecting coastal ocean physics, biogeochemistry, and ecology.
Understanding the nexus of climate, environmental, and social change is the focus of Rutgers sociologist Hal Salzman. For New Jersey, revival plans following recent extreme storms focus on building resilient infrastructure, protecting shorelines, and creating an economy that enables communities to stay together and prosper. Salzman’s work in the Arctic similarly examines the challenges facing local communities in balancing socioeconomic development needs — income, employment, education, technology and health — with community survival that is based on subsistence hunting and harvesting, maintaining strong cultural traditions, and creating opportunities that support the aspirations of the next generation. Rutgers Arctic Planning Studio students developed future scenarios that could leverage industrial investments to support village infrastructure, energy needs, and employment.
As policy and planning researchers, the goal is to bring the analytic tools of the trade to help communities address common social, economic, and environmental challenges in a wide range of environments, from the Eastern to Northern shores of the United States, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
Rutgers Geography graduate student Michael Brady drew from his Arctic Planning Studio experience to develop his dissertation on collaboratively mapping coastal asset exposure to erosion risk along the North Slope’s rapidly eroding shoreline driven by Arctic sea ice melt, permafrost thaw, and sea-level rise. With National Science Foundation support, Brady’s work includes developing an erosion risk database in collaboration with local communities in Alaska’s North Slope and employing highly accessible Web-based story maps to engage communities in research while simultaneously providing a means to focus public and scientist attention on specific local vulnerabilities within the remote region.
Elsewhere in New Jersey, Princeton University researchers are investigating the carbon locked in the Arctic’s once-permanently frozen ground, called “permafrost.” Research has suggested that the methane and carbon dioxide from Arctic permafrost could potentially add a huge amount of carbon to an already warming atmosphere. A three-year study on Axel Heiberg Island in Canada’s Arctic led by Princeton researchers suggests that certain methane-hungry bacteria may be able to absorb methane not just from the Arctic soil, but also from the atmosphere. This could have huge implications for researchers trying to predict the effects of permafrost thawing on future climate change.
Princeton University researchers have also developed an enhanced approach to capturing changes on the Earth’s surface via satellite that could provide a more accurate account of how geographic areas are changing as a result of natural and human factors. In a first application, the technique revealed sharper-than-ever details about Greenland’s massive ice sheet, including that the rate at which it is melting might be accelerating more slowly than predicted.
In addition to Arctic work being carried out at our universities, other New Jerseyans are working on Arctic-related matters. The New Jersey Audubon, one of the country’s oldest independent Audubon societies, is working on an Arctic-related project with the Arctic Shorebird Demographic Network (ASDN), an international program that conducts demographic analyses for certain shorebird species in an effort to determine why their populations are declining. As part of this effort, New Jersey Audubon’s avian ecologists are studying Semipalmated Sandpipers. These sandpipers winter in the coastal regions of northern South America and some stop in the Delaware Bay (located in between the southern coast of New Jersey and Delaware) as they migrate northward to their summer breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic, according to Dr. David Mizrahi, New Jersey Audubon’s Vice President for Research.
Thank you for reading!
About the contributors:
Michael Brady is a Ph.D. candidate in the Rutgers University Department of Geography.
Dr. Jennifer Francis is a Research Professor with the Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences and studies Arctic climate change and Arctic-global climate linkages with ~40 peer-reviewed publications on these topics. She co-founded and co-directed the Rutgers Climate and Environmental Change Initiative.
Dr. Marjorie Kaplan is Associate Director of the Rutgers Climate Institute. She also co-facilitates the New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance.
Dr. Åsa Rennermalm studies hydrology and climate in the Arctic region with emphasis on Greenland ice sheet hydrology. She joined the Rutgers faculty in 2009, coming from the Department of Geography at UCLA.
Dr. David Robinson is a professor in the Department of Geography at Rutgers University and also serves as New Jersey’s State Climatologist. He is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and sits on climate advisory committee for the National Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Hal Salzman is a Professor of Planning and Public Policy at the Edward J. Bloustein School and Senior Faculty Fellow at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development.
With special thanks to:
Morgan Kelly of Princeton University’s Office of Communications; and
Dr. David Mizrahi, New Jersey Audubon’s Vice President for Research.