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GVSU receives $1 million grant to study impact of climate change on Arctic vegetation

  • Alumni AJ Smith and Jessica Gregory sampling vegetation in Atqasuk, Alaska.
  • Robert Hollister, professor of biology, making repairs to data loggers in Utqiagvik, Alaska.
  • GVSU student Hana Christoffersen sampling vegetation in Utqia!vik, Alaska.
  • Graduate student Katlyn Betway downloading sensor observations in Utqiagvik, Alaska.
  • Alumna Michaela Clingaman downloading sensor observations in Atqasuk, Alaska.
  • Alumnus Jeremy May sampling vegetation in Utqiagvik, Alaska.

Posted on October 05, 2018

A Grand Valley faculty member has been awarded a $1 million grant by the National Science Foundation to work with students to study the impact climate change has on vegetation in the Arctic tundra.

The funding will support the next five years of research by Robert Hollister, professor of biology, and a team of five Grand Valley undergraduate and graduate students in northern Alaska. The team will specifically explore how climate change impacts vegetation in the regions of Utqiagvik, Atqasuk and Toolik Lake.

Hollister established the Arctic Ecology Program at Grand Valley in 2007, and the project is funded as part of the Arctic Observatory Network. The team's research sites were originally established as part of the International Tundra Experiment (ITEX) — a collective of researchers conducting similar warming experiments in the tundra since the early 1990s. Hollister currently serves as the co-chair of the ITEX.

Graduate student Katlyn Betway has been working with Hollister for three years; she started as an undergraduate biology major. She said the research is important because it connects to the larger climate change conversation.

“Everyone is talking about climate change, and the implications it has for our future are worrisome,” said Betway, from Flat Rock, Michigan. “We are attempting to understand how it is affecting plant life which will then fuel further research on how ecosystems as a whole might respond to a warming climate. Ecosystems are very complex, so we are focusing on just one piece of the puzzle.”

One of the main aspects of the vegetation that Hollister and his team will continue to monitor is energy balance, which effects how certain plants grow. Hollister said the most significant changes happen in the spring.

“The Arctic is cold because there is less light during the 24 hours of darkness each day in the winter. Then in the spring, there is a lot of light, but it’s all reflected away by the snow," Hollister said. "If plants become taller and stick out of the snow, they can absorb light and melt the snow creating an earlier growing season.”

Another area of study is carbon balance and how fast or slow carbon metabolizes in the soil of the region.

“There is more carbon in the soils of the tundra than there is in the trees of the Rainforest, so people talk about deforestation as being a big contributor to climate change, and that’s true, but the soil in cold regions contains a huge amount of carbon,” said Hollister.

Hollister added that this region is unique because it is both a desert and a wetland.

“There’s almost no rainfall, so by definition it’s a desert, but if you look around the area, there are ponds everywhere,” said Hollister.

The final focus of the research is on the habitat quality for Caribou and water fowls in the region.

To monitor the vegetation over time, Hollister and his team of rotating students conduct a variety of experiments. Students monitor plants each summer by estimating the quantity of different species, measuring when plants flower and produce seeds and when they go dormant, among other measurements.

Hollister said another main objective of the research is to make the data understandable for the general public.

Betway has contributed to that effort through various presentations during Grand Valley’s Student Scholar’s Day, at an ITEX conference in Scotland in April, and at the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters in March.

She said she hopes to continue with the project throughout her graduate program and would like to continue conducting research in the Arctic after Grand Valley.

“The tundra is both beautiful and fascinating and I would love to continue learning as much about it as I can,” said Betway. “Being involved with this project has helped me form professional relationships that will help me continue in this line of work.”

Hana Christoffersen, who graduated in April with a bachelor’s degree in biology, has been involved with the project for a year-and-a-half. She said conducting this type of research as a student was an invaluable experience.

“Students participating in this research will learn what it mentally and physically takes to accomplish scientific field work. I have learned how to enjoy working in 25 mile-per-hour winds, 35-degree temperatures, and rain,” said Christoffersen, from Grand Rapids. “Not only do students gain a greater education from scientific research, but the data analyses and findings contribute to a greater global understanding of ecological function.”

For more information, visit the Arctic Ecological Program website.