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Drowned tundra emits more carbon

I’ve always been fascinated with large-scale ecological manipulation experiments. This week, at the Ecological Society of America meeting in Albuquerque, I got perhaps more than I was looking for.

During a session on results from the recently-concluded International Polar Year, Walt Oechel and Donatella Zona of San Diego State University presented a pair of talks about their work at the Barrow Environmental Observatory. This is a 3,000-hectare reserve, set aside by the Ukpeagvik Inupiat, about 10 kilometers from the coastal town of Barrow, Alaska. The far north coastal town. You really just can’t get any farther north in Alaska than Barrow.

Which all goes to show that Barrow is a convenient place for the US to measure changes in the Arctic, and atmospheric researchers have been working there for decades. In the latest work, Oechel and Zona took a lake, 1.2 kilometers long, and divided it into three parts. One part they left alone. One part they pumped water out of, into the third part.

The objective? To manipulate the water table and see what effect that had on greenhouse gas emissions from the tundra. As I report in a story over on Nature News, they found the higher the water table, the more carbon dioxide was given off. This observation relies on just a single year of data so far, but if it turns into a trend – as so many things in the Arctic are these days – it would be more grim news for Arctic carbon fluxes in a globally warmed world.

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