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NASA's Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment







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Intro to The Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment — ABoVE

Climate change in the Arctic and Boreal region is unfolding faster than anywhere else on Earth, resulting in reduced Arctic sea ice, thawing of permafrost soils, decomposition of long- frozen organic matter, widespread changes to lakes, rivers, coastlines, and alterations of ecosystem structure and function. NASA's Terrestrial Ecology Program is conducting a major field campaign, the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), in Alaska and western Canada, for 8 to 10 years, starting in 2015. ABoVE seeks a better understanding of the vulnerability and resilience of ecosystems and society to this changing environment.

What is ABoVE?

The Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) is a NASA Terrestrial Ecology Program field campaign that will be conducted in Alaska and Western Canada (see Study Domain). ABoVE is a large-scale study of environmental change and its implications for social-ecological systems.

ABoVE’s science objectives are broadly focused on (1) gaining a better understanding of the vulnerability and resilience of Arctic and boreal ecosystems to environmental change in western North America, and (2) providing the scientific basis for informed decision-making to guide societal responses at local to international levels. Research for ABoVE will link field-based, process-level studies with geospatial data products derived from airborne and satellite sensors, providing a foundation for improving the analysis, and modeling capabilities needed to understand and predict ecosystem responses and societal implications.

The planning for ABoVE started in 2009 with a scoping study. Throughout 2013, the science definition team wrote a concise experiment plan that was completed 2014. The first ABoVE call for proposals appeared in ROSES 2014 (see Timeline).

Why do we need to study the Arctic and Boreal Region?

Climate change in the Arctic and Boreal Region (ABR) is unfolding faster than anywhere else on Earth, resulting in reduced volume and area of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean during summer, warming and thawing of permafrost, increases in the frequency and severity of climate-driven disturbances, and widespread changes to surface water extent, soil moisture, and vegetation structure and function. Environmental and climate change in the ABR is increasingly affecting society both locally and globally. Changes to forests from insects and fires, erosion of Arctic coastlines, and altered wildlife habitats that support subsistence opportunities may affect residents of the ABR both positively and negatively. The ABR also contains a globally significant amount of carbon in both the soils and vegetation, and it is unknown how much of this sequestered carbon will be released to the atmosphere as permafrost thaws and forests burn, potentially further accelerating global climate change.


Research addressing the ABoVE research objectives benefits from the unique capabilities provided by remote sensing data. Data products from new and existing satellite and airborne remote sensing systems allow for the study of seasonal and inter-annual variability over large geographic regions. At landscape to regional scales, these data products will be critical to the spatial and temporal scaling of observations made from field studies. Conversely, field observations play a vital role in the refinement and validation of remotely sensed data products.

Science Questions and Objectives

  • Science Questions

    1. How are environmental changes affecting critical ecosystem services - natural and cultural resources, human health, infrastructure, and climate regulation - and how are human societies responding?

    2. What processes are contributing to changes in disturbance regimes and what are the impacts of these changes?

    3. What processes are controlling changes in the distribution and properties of permafrost and what are the impacts of these changes?

    4. What are the causes and consequences of changes in the hydrologic system, specifically the amount, temporal distribution, and discharge of surface and subsurface water?

    5. How are flora and fauna responding to changes in biotic and abiotic conditions, and what are the impacts on ecosystem structure and function?

    6. How are the magnitudes, fates, and landatmosphere exchanges of carbon pools responding to environmental change, and what are the biogeochemical mechanisms driving these changes?

  • Science Objectives: Ecosystem Dynamics

    1. Determine how interactions among vegetation, soil characteristics, hydrology, and disturbances influence surface energy exchange and mediate permafrost vulnerability and resilience to climate change.

    2. Determine how and where interactions among microbes, plants, and animals exert control over ecosystem responses to climate change and disturbances.

    3. Understand how vegetation attributes and hydrologic conditions interact, and respond and feedback to disturbance.

    4. Quantify how changes in the spatial and temporal distribution of snow impacts ecosystem structure and function.

    5. Determine the causes of greening and browning trends and their impacts on ecosystem form and function.

    6. Elucidate how climate change and disturbances interact with above- and belowground communities and processes to alter carbon biogeochemistry, including release to surface waters and the atmosphere.

    7. Determine how the spatial and temporal dynamics in both faunal abundance and characteristics of fish and wildlife habitat co-vary across gradients of climate and disturbance.

  • Science Objectives: Ecosystem Services

    1. Assess how future climate warming is likely to affect infrastructure and transportation networks.

    2. Determine how changes to disturbance regimes, flora and fauna, permafrost conditions, and/or hydrology influence human health outcomes in the ABR.

    3. Evaluate how changes to ecosystems will influence subsistence opportunities.

    4. Analyze how changes to natural and cultural resources will impact local communities as well as influence land management policies and practices.

    5. Determine the sources of variations in climate feedbacks from Arctic and boreal ecosystems and assess the potential for future changes to climate regulating services at regional to global scales.

    6. Determine the degree to which changing environment and altered human activities result in synergistic or antagonistic changes in ecosystem services.

Study Domain

Research and analysis activities for ABoVE will be carried out in study sites located across western Canada and Alaska. Studies will be carried out over a range of spatial scales, including within different terrestrial ecoregions, within primary and secondary research areas, within discrete landscape units (such as a watershed ordisturbance event), and within plots (at a scale of 10 m to 1 km). The exact geographic boundaries and location of study sites will be determined in the more detailed planning activities to follow, and will be influenced by collaborating programs and projects.

ABoVE Study Domain
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Download the ESRI Shapefile and/or TIFF of the ABoVE Study Domain, or access on the web as an item in ArcGIS Online where it can be viewed, downloaded locally, or added to a map as a web feature service.

Research Phases and Timeline

The conceptual timeline for ABoVE Research Activities presented in the ABoVE Concise Experiment Plan (ACEP Table 4.1 below) generally follows three objective-driven phases over the 9 to 10 year period of the Field Campaign. The research focus will evolve across each phase as guided by the Vulnerability/Resilience Framework, where studies of ecosystem dynamics provide the foundation for further research on the consequences to and responses of society to changes in ecosystem services. The first two phases will predominately focus on the Ecosystem Dynamics Objectives and the Ecosystem Services Objectives, respectively, and will include the bulk of the Intensive Study Period. While each phase has a focus area of research, this should not preclude studies designed to address the other questions and objectives as warranted. A final phase focused on the analysis and synthesis of ABoVE research is needed following the completion of the main portion of field and airborne data collection activities.

Project Teams will collect data for Phases I and II over a 5 to 7 year Intensive Study Period. The major portion of the field-based studies and airborne remote sensing campaigns will occur during this time. Research contributing to the Ecosystem Dynamics Objectives is emphasized during Phase I. These investigations focus on the major ecosystem responses to changes in drivers, along with the complex interactions among the drivers and the responses. To establish a basis for research on the Ecosystem Services Objectives that will be the focus of Phase II, some studies on the societal drivers and responses to change will need to begin during Phase I. Phase I research will make significant contributions to the observational data collections, model refinements and geospatial synthesis products that will provide the foundation for the Phase II and III research activities addressing the interdisciplinary research objectives.

Following the completion of the Intensive Study Period, studies conducted during Phase III will focus on cross-activity, cross-disciplinary research involving the Analysis and Synthesis of data and findings from the first two phases. This phase includes the synthesis, integration and scaling of basic social and ecological research, the employment of integrated modeling frameworks for diagnosis and prediction, and the development of decision support information products.

From ABoVE Concise Experiment Plan --Table 4.1. Schedule for Research Activities required for ABoVE that would be carried out over the timeline of the Field Campaign to address the objective-driven focus of each of three Phases of research. The darker shade of gray indicates when more intensive activities are expected to occur. (Note: sections denoted below refer to the ACEP)

Relevant Codes of Conduct for ABoVE Researchers and Partners

American Geophysical Union Scientific Integrity and Professional Ethics

AGU has established a set of guidelines for scientific integrity and professional ethics for the actions of the members and the governance of the union in its internal activities; in its public persona; and most importantly, in the research and peer review processes of its scientific publications, its communications and outreach, and its scientific meetings.

American Geoscience Institute Guidelines of Ethical Professional Conduct

Geoscientists play a critical role in ethical decision making about stewardship of the Earth, the use of its resources, and the interactions between humankind and the planet on which we live. Geoscientists must earn the publicís trust and maintain confidence in the work of individual geoscientists and the geosciences as a profession. The American Geosciences Institute (AGI) expects those in the profession to adhere to the highest ethical standards in all professional activities. Geoscientists should engage responsibly in the conduct and reporting of their work, acknowledging the uncertainties and limits of current understanding inherent in studies of natural systems. Geoscientists should respect the work of colleagues and those who use and rely upon the products of their work. AGI Guidelines of Ethical Professional Conduct

Fundamental Principles for the Use of Traditional Knowledge in Strengthening the work of the Arctic Council

Since its inception the Arctic Council has recognized the central role of the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic in all aspects of the Arctic Council mandate and has formally endorsed the importance of including the Indigenous residents of the Arctic in its deliberations. Guiding Principle #1: Recognize the value of Traditional Knowledge (TK) as a systematic way of thinking which will enhance and illuminate our understanding of the Arctic environment and promote a more complete knowledge base.

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  • 2016 ABoVE Implementation Plan: June 15th>>
  • 2016 A Notional Airborne Science Research Strategy for NASA ABoVE: May 27th [PDF]
  • 2014 ABoVE Concise Experiment Plan >>
    Figures and Appendices as web maps
  • 2014 Final Report on the Workshop on Future Directions for Arctic Research Logistics: Increasing Arctic Accessibility Over the Next Twenty Years [PDF]
  • 2012 Report of ABoVE Workshop with Revised Executive Summary [PDF]
  • (2011) Scoping Completed for an Experiment to Assess Vulnerability of Arctic and Boreal Ecosystems, Eos Trans. AGU, 92(18), 150–151, doi:10.1029/2011EO180002. Copyright 2011 American Geophysical Union. Reproduced/modified by permission of American Geophysical Union. [PDF]
  • 2010 Final Scoping Study Report: The Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE): A Concise Plan for a NASA-Sponsored Field Campaign -Authors: Eric S. Kasischke (University of Maryland), Scott J. Goetz (Woods Hole Research Institute), John S. Kimball (University of Montana), Michelle M. Mack (University of Florida) [PDF]


  • 2017 Science Team Meeting (Jan 18—20) Boulder, CO
  • 2017 ABoVE Leadership Meeting: Jan 17
  • 2016 Airborne Campaign Planning Workshop: Dec 17, San Francisco, CA
  • 2016 NASA NRA ABoVE Airborne Proposals due Aug 1 >>
  • 2016 Stakeholders Meetings in NW Canada (3 held in May) >>
  • 2016 2nd Science Team Meeting: January 19th -22nd >>
  • 2015 1st Science Team Meeting: September 29- October 2
  • 2015 Twenty-one projects selected: August 25, 2015
  • 2015 Proposals Due: March 20, 2015
  • 2014 NASA solicits proposals for ABoVE December 9 [NASA ROSES Appendix A.4 TERRESTRIAL ECOLOGY]
  • 2014 Science Definition Team Disbanded July 2 [Thank you Letter from Diane Wickland]
  • 2014 Concise Experiment Plan released June 23
  • 2014 Concise Experiment Plan released for community comment until May 28
  • 2014 SDT Lanham, Maryland meeting, February 3-5
  • 2013 SDT Ottawa, Ontario Canada meeting, December 3-5
  • 2013 SDT Fairbanks, AK meeting, July 9-11
  • 2013 NASA TE NRA proposals due May 15 [link]
  • 2013 SDT meets in La Jolla, CA, May 2-3
  • 2013 5 Data projects selected from NASA TE NRA [Projects]
  • 2013 NASA TE NRA released February 14 [link]
  • 2013 SDT developing Concise Experiment Plan
  • 2013 The ABoVE Science Definition Team was announced on February 14
  • 2012 Call for Members of the Science Definition Team for the ABoVE Field Campaign December 14
  • 2012 NASA TE NRA call for data products due in 2012
  • 2012 Report of ABoVE Workshop with Revised Executive Summary [PDF] – June 13-15, Boulder, Colorado
  • 2012 Workshop held in Boulder, Colorado for community review and input. [Organizing Committee]
  • 2011 ABoVE selected for Field Campaign
  • 2011 Summary of Community-Submitted Comments on ABoVE Final Report available here. Comment period closed August 5.
  • 2011 (May) Eos article published. (2011), Scoping Completed for an Experiment to Assess Vulnerability of Arctic and Boreal Ecosystems, Eos Trans. AGU, 92(18), 150–151, doi:10.1029/2011EO180002. Copyright 2011 American Geophysical Union. Reproduced/modified by permission of American Geophysical Union. [PDF]
  • 2010 (Oct) Final Scoping Study Report: The Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE): A Concise Plan for a NASA-Sponsored Field Campaign -Authors: Eric S. Kasischke (University of Maryland), Scott J. Goetz (Woods Hole Research Institute), John S. Kimball (University of Montana), Michelle M. Mack (University of Florida) [PDF]
  • 2010 (Spring) Draft Scoping Sudy Report sent out to community for comments
  • 2009 (Aug) ABoVE Scoping Study conducted meeting in Fairbanks, AK
  • 2009 Two scoping studies were selected. ABoVE (Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment formerly known as VuRSAL (Vulnerability and Resiliency of Arctic and Sub-Arctic Landscapes) (abstract) and Tree-Grass Study (abstract) selected for 1 year.
  • 2008 NASA TE NRA — NASA’s Terrestrial Ecology Program solicited proposals in ROSES 2008 for scoping studies to identify the   scientific questions and develop the initial study design and implementation concept for possible future NASA field campaigns.