skip to main content

Science Nation: Arctic Soils Key to Future Climate

4 minutes

(Describer) In an animation, streams of light collide to create a globe filled with water. Title: Science Nation. As one man holds a large auger, another starts its motor in a brown field with snow in the background.

(male narrator) Suggest to ecologist Matthew Wallenstein that he's come to the Alaskan Arctic to study dirt, and he's quick to correct you. This is more than mere dirt, it's soil.

(Describer) They get a large sample.

That's dirt plus all the plant detritus and microscopic critters that live in it.

(male) Since the last Ice Age, plants have been taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in the soil. This has been, essentially, depositing carbon from the atmosphere into this vault.

(Describer) Another sample is taken.

(narrator) But with the Arctic warming at a rapid rate, the vault is set to open, and the key is in the soil.

(Describer) Miles O'Brien:

Just mention the word "tundra," and you probably think of a barren, lifeless landscape. And looking across the horizon here,

(Describer) In the field.

you might think, "Well, that is, in fact, the case." But on closer inspection, this place is just brimming with life.

(Describer) He kneels on brush and grass.

With support from the National Science Foundation, Wallenstein and a team from Colorado State University have come to the Toolik Field Station deep inside the Arctic Circle to drill soil cores for study.

(Describer) Layers in a cylindrical sample are noted.

That's a very nice mineral line.

(narrator) The soil itself is home to a vast number of tiny microbes, all feeding on the tundra vegetation. Just like we breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2, the microbes are doing something very similar. They're also, essentially, breathing out CO2 as a waste product.

(Describer) A sample is measured.

(narrator) For thousands of years, the soil microbes have subsisted on a limited carbon diet. That's because much of the organic matter is frozen into the permafrost layer, which starts about a foot underground. But now it's starting to thaw, and that means all those microbes are about to find themselves at an all-you-can-eat carbon buffet.

(Describer) Two women drill for another sample.

[motor buzzing]

(narrator) Team members Laurel Lynch and Megan Machmuller will spend much of the season here collecting cores. On this spring day, the cold cut right to the bone. But it's the overall warming trend that matters. Well, we're cold right now and this is frozen.

(Describer) Machmuller:

So that prevents the release of the carbon to the atmosphere.

(Describer) She cuts into the soil with a machete.

But as temperatures are warming very fast, here, in the Arctic, this, the microbes, speed up, decompose carbon faster, perhaps releasing more carbon to the atmosphere. That's really what we're trying to understand.

(Describer) She starts the auger again.

(narrator) As they see it, the stakes couldn't be higher.

(female) Right now, our current estimates are that the Arctic stores more carbon in this landscape than is currently held in our entire atmosphere.

(Describer) Lynch:

And so, if that carbon is released , it has the potential to really impact climate, not only in the Arctic, but globally. So it can affect things like fire intensity and crop productivity, drought-- issues that are affecting people all around the world.

(Describer) They push down on the auger.

(narrator) Digging in to learn more about how soil microbes are cycling carbon from the earth to the atmosphere. Now that's drilling down to pay dirt.

(Describer) A globe turns beside the title.

For Science Nation, I'm Miles O'Brien.

Transcript Options


Now Playing As: Captioned (English) (change)

Report a Problem

Since the last ice age, plants in the Alaskan Arctic have been taking carbon out of the atmosphere and locking it away in the soil. But now, the permafrost is starting to thaw. That means all those microbes are about to find themselves at an all-you-can-eat carbon buffet. With support from the National Science Foundation, ecologist Matthew Wallenstein and a team from Colorado State University have come to the Toolik Field Station, deep inside the Arctic Circle, to drill soil cores for study. The researchers are trying to find out more about how microbes in the soil are cycling carbon from the Earth to the atmosphere. Part of the National Science Foundation Series “Science Nation.”

Media Details

Runtime: 4 minutes

Science Nation
Episode 1
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 2
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 3
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 4
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 5
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 6
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 7
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 8
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 9
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 10
4 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12