Scientific Teams Explore the Effects of Thawing Permafrost on the Environment

Feb. 19, 2020

The Onstott lab at Princeton University as part of a team led by University of Tennessee, Knoxville, professors, Karen Lloyd, Tatiana Vishnivetskaya and Andrew Steen, and including Dr. Robert Hettich at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Dr. John Cliff at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have received a $2.5 million, three year grant from the Department of Energy to conduct research on the effects of thawing permafrost on the environment.

Permafrost—ground that remains below freezing for more than two years—is a natural reservoir of soil organic carbon. As it thaws, microbes break down the newly available carbon in the soil, possibly resulting in a flux of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Lloyd’s research will focus on this process, studying the production and recycling of greenhouse gases in permafrost microbes.

Researchers will use core samples from Bayelva, Svalbard, the location of a 20-year permafrost monitoring program and one of the most rapidly thawing areas of the Arctic. These core samples will be subjected to multi-year thawing experiments at Princeton University. The sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the permafrost as it thaws will be monitored by mapping the metagenomes, metatranscriptomes, metaproteomes, and single cell carbon and nitrogen tracking using NanoSIMs. These various geochemical and microbial analyses will be compiled into a model, allowing future predictions of the effects of microbial communities’ activities on changes in greenhouse gases released from surface permafrost and newly exposed permafrost layers.

The project will run through September 2022.