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Global Warming Among UC Topics at Permafrost Conference


Changes in the permafrost concern researchers from all over the world, including the University of Cincinnati. Researchers meet in Alaska this week to discuss 'Permafrost on a Warming Planet.'

Date: 7/3/2008 12:00:00 AM
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826

UC ingot  

Global warming and other human activities are significantly changing the permafrost — permanently frozen ground that covers 20 percent of Earth’s land surface.

UC Professor Ken Hinkel is president of the U.S. Permafrost Association.
UC Professor Ken Hinkel is president of the U.S. Permafrost Association.

Researchers from the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Geography in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences are among those gathered for the Ninth International Conference on Permafrost (NICOP) in Fairbanks, Ala., hosted by the University of Alaska.  The U.S. Permafrost Association and NICOP U.S. National Committee are the hosts of the conference. UC Professor Ken Hinkel, as president of the U.S. Permafrost Association, will act master of ceremonies during the closing banquet.

“The issues that we are raising are of concern not just in the high polar regions. We are receiving a lot of interest from high altitude, high latitude areas — Antarctica, the Alps, the Andes, plus Tibet, mountainous plateau regions,” Hinkel explains. “People all over are facing challenges in changing climate with a heightened resurgence in both science and engineering and pressures in mineral exploration and exploitation: Canada and Russia, for example.”

Geography professor Wendy Eisner (left) and Hinkel are both presenting papers in Fairbanks this week.
Geography professor Wendy Eisner (left) and Hinkel are both presenting papers in Fairbanks this week.

Hinkel, along with fellow UC Geography faculty Wendy Eisner and Richard Beck, grad student Barry Winston and former grad student Ben Jones are all presenting papers at the conference, which runs from June 29 to July 3.

“Bathymetric Mapping of Lakes in the Western Arctic Coastal Plain, Alaska” is being presented by grad student Barry Winston, Hinkel and Beck.
 
Hinkel is a co-author on the plenary paper delivered by Fritz Nelson entitled “Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring Investigators: Decadal results from the Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring (CALM) program,” with co-authors Shiklomanov and Brown; this is available as a Webcast. Hinkel is also presenting “A Permafrost Observatory at Barrow, Alaska: Long-Term Observations of Active-Layer Thickness and Permafrost Temperature” in a session that he chairs.

“My papers relate to detecting change in areas underlain by permafrost, looking at such things as longer summers, the thaw penetrating deeper, and how lakes are responding to that change,” says Hinkel.

Researchers are concerned with the effects of climate change on the permafrost, freeze-thaw lakes and ice thickness, among other issues.
Researchers are concerned with the effects of climate change on the permafrost, freeze-thaw lakes and ice thickness, among other issues.

Wendy Eisner’s paper, “Using Indigenous Knowledge to Assess Environmental Impacts of Overland Travel Routes, Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska,” written with current and former UC co-authors Ken Hinkel, Ben Jones and Chris Cuomo, looks at how technology and changing morés affect travel routes. The paper reflects the work of a five-year research project on the North Slope region of Alaska. Jones is now a doctoral student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and is working for the U.S. Geological Survey, another sponsor of the conference.

With chief editor Doug Kane (of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks), Ken Hinkel was also tasked with editing the 400 papers and 200 posters into the conference proceedings.

“The proceedings are a two-volume set that is 5½ inches thick!” says Hinkel. “Wendy and I get two sets, of course, so we’ll be donating one set to the college.” He and fellow faculty member Wendy Eisner are husband-and-wife geographers from the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences. As a special offering this year, the proceedings from all eight previous conferences are available on CD, which Hinkel is especially pleased to offer, even to researchers who are not able to make the trek north to Alaska. 

“Just this year, we arranged to get the copyrights on all the proceedings from the previous eight conferences so this is a fantastic library of information on permafrost to add to one’s collection.”

Hinkel will lead the Barrow leg of the Coastal field trip following the conference.
Hinkel will lead the Barrow leg of the Coastal field trip following the conference.

Planning for the conference began immediately following the 2003 conference in Zurich.  And as always, besides planning for NICOP, Hinkel has been busy — and cold. He’s been working on Alaska’s North Slope since May 25.

“I came over from Barrow about a week before the conference started,” he says. “Then I’ll fly back up to Barrow where I’m in charge of the July 8 and 9 coastal portion of that post-conference field trip. We’ll walk out to the research site, so I’m taking care of last-minute arrangements like making sure there are enough tall boots and such.”

Hinkel says that permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, underlies about 20 percent of the earth's land surface. Global warming is expected to be enhanced at high latitudes and, for this reason, should be detected there first.

“An increase in air temperatures would cause warming of the ground surface and melting of the upper regions of permafrost,” Hinkel says. “Upon melting, this ice-rich frozen ground would sink and the ground surface would be displaced downward, disrupting any engineering structures such as roads, house foundations and pipelines.” The carbon stored in the frozen materials in the form of partially decomposed organic material would then be released into the atmosphere as “greenhouse gases,” thus providing a positive feedback to warming.

It is for this reason that the polar regions are becoming more important to researchers around the world as the role that these regions play in the global climate scenario becomes clearer.

Hinkel flies back to Barrow in August to continue his research.
Hinkel flies back to Barrow in August to continue his research.

Related stories:

“Red Flags in the Great White North: Using traditional native knowledge to study climate change and landscape evolution,” UC Research, summer 2006

9/10/2005   UC Faculty Members Break New Ground While Treading Gently on the Alaskan Tundra
Three University of Cincinnati faculty members are combining their separate disciplines and areas of expertise to study the effects of global warming on indigenous peoples in Alaska. Their research has lessons for us all.

10/28/2005   UC Prof Makes Waves in Cincinnati -- Airwaves
UC geography professor Wendy Eisner talks in WVXU interview about her research on the Alaskan North Slope. Groundbreaking, yes, but no ground was harmed.