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National Aeronautics and Space Administration

NASA's Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment


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Section 1.1 Introduction to the Implementation Plan

The northern high latitudes have experienced more rapid climate warming than anywhere else on Earth over the past 100 years, and this trend is expected to accelerate over the next several decades. Ecosystems in arctic and boreal regions are already changing in response to this warming, often caused by thawing of frozen ground and changes to disturbance regimes and surface hydrology. These changes to the land surface can exert strong feedbacks to regional and global climate as well as impact the goods and services ecosystems provide, with far-ranging consequences for society. How society responds to these changes through economics, governance and policy will in large part shape the region’s and the planet’s future. These global-scale forcings and responses form the setting within which local-to-regional scale disturbances and socio-economic drivers are driving the changes being observed across the intricately linked ecological and societal systems of northwestern North America. In selecting this region as the study domain for its next major field campaign, the Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), NASA and it partners aim to understand the processes and interactions controlling the vulnerability and resilience of the region’s social-ecological systems, and to assess how people within and beyond this region can respond and adapt to current and future environmental and social change.

Figure 1: Boundary of the study domain for the ABoVE field campaigns.

Individual disciplinary WG sections that follow present additional figures that illustrate specifics of various working groups field sites and intensive study areas.

Following is a hyperlink to view an interactive web map of ABoVE study site locations.

This Implementation Plan for ABoVE puts forward a framework for studying the vulnerability and resilience of arctic and boreal ecosystems through a series of interconnected, theme-based science questions that together address a key set of cross-cutting science objectives – all of which are laid out in the ABoVE Concise Experiment Plan (ACEP, 2014). Research carried out during ABoVE is and will address key uncertainties in the regional-scale responses of social-ecological systems to changes in disturbance regimes, hydrology, permafrost, vegetation, wildlife, and carbon biogeochemistry. ABoVE research will improve our understanding of the consequences of these critical environmental changes occurring across the study domain and build confidence in the quality of the information derived from remote sensing and predictions from a suite of terrestrial biosphere models (TBMs). Some further studies conducted during ABoVE are designed to investigate the changes to Arctic and boreal ecosystems as viewed through the lens of the services that they provide to society, including infrastructure and transportation, human health, subsistence opportunities, natural and cultural resources, and climate regulation. Addressing the ABoVE science objectives requires an integrated study design in which targeted field-based, remote sensing and modeling studies are synthesized according to the scale and information content needed to support decision-making. In addressing these objectives, ABoVE is building a lasting legacy of research through an expanded knowledge base, the provision of key datasets, the development of decision support products and the fostering of new partnerships.
The ABoVE Concise Experiment Plan provides the conceptual basis for the field campaigns and expresses the compelling rationale explaining the scientific and societal importance of ABoVE. It presents both the science questions and objectives driving the research as well as the top-level requirements for a study designed to address them. In contrast, the ABoVE Implementation Plan (AIP) provides the specifics regarding where and how ABoVE research will be conducted. It defines the study domain for ABoVE and provides the specific locations and approaches being used for field work (measurements, protocols), remote sensing science (approaches, data sources, derived products), and modeling efforts. The Core and Extended research areas of the study domain encompass a wide range of research activities further defined in this Implementation Plan. The domain covers most of the land area in Alaska in addition to all or parts of seven western Canadian provinces and territories. This large area contains vast expanses of arctic tundra and boreal forest, as well as peatlands, wetlands, lakes, and rivers– globally unique and important biomes because of the ecosystem services that they provide to society, both within and beyond the region.

The research conducted as part of ABoVE falls under a Vulnerability/Resilience Framework that provides a structure for developing synthetic, interdisciplinary and integrated studies of the social-ecological systems across the study domain. That framework identifies the complex interdependencies and feedbacks across the various components of ABoVE research.

Research conducted as part of ABoVE is organized around science themes that largely represent disciplinary efforts, around which Working Groups (WGs) have been organized. Leaders of each WG have been identified for Phase 1 of ABoVE, and these leads have been instrumental in coordinating their groups to develop the AIP sections describing the various thematic WG research and monitoring activities.

For each theme / WG there are associated science questions  and objectives (which are detailed in the individual WG sections). The science objectives follow the Vulnerability/Resilience Framework, with a set of Ecosystem Dynamics Objectives focused on the drivers and impacts of change on ecosystems and a set of Ecosystem Services Objectives focused on the consequences of and responses to environmental change.

The AIP puts forward specifics of the overall research strategy and approach of the WGs, based on a study design in which targeted field measurements, remote sensing and modeling studies are integrated according to the scale and information content needed to advance the science, assess vulnerability, and support land management and decision-making. While the overall strategy for ABoVE follows an experimental design similar to those used for previous NASA Terrestrial Ecology field campaigns, it also uses novel approaches to address the full scope of research, particularly with respect to incorporating approaches to assess the societal responses to environmental change based on changes to key ecosystem services. This latter component will be more fully developed as ABoVE advances into phases 2 and 3, over the planned 9 to 10 year duration of investigations conducted by individual Investigator teams supported by NASA and its partners.

The timeline for the three phases of ABoVE is designed to address ecosystem dynamics and ecosystem services objectives in phases I and II, and then to focus on analysis and synthesis of ABoVE research in the third and final phase. This design does not mean that synthesis activities are restricted only to phase III – rather they are encouraged through all phases of ABoVE research, culminating in phase III. The major portion of the field-based studies and airborne remote sensing campaigns will occur during a 5 to 7 year Intensive Study Period spanning phases I and II. Integration and scaling research will occur throughout, as will an emphasis on stakeholder engagement and the development of decision support products derived from ABoVE research.The ABoVE Science Cloud computing environment will play a key role in the experiment through near-term archiving and sharing of data, communicating the results from scientific research, and supporting the development and delivery of data products tailored for use by decision makers.

Top-level implementation requirements for conducting ABoVE include a schedule of activities related to data collection needs from both field research and airborne remote sensing campaigns. The organization and operation of the Science Team and support office are designed with respect to their key roles in science coordination, planning and logistical support. ABoVE also includes training and education across a broad community of students and early career scientists provided by PIs and their institutions, professional development for environmental educators, K12 education, citizen science, and a strong commitment to public engagement. ABoVE will not only provide many opportunities for interactions with complementary research programs, but also successful implementation will leverage partnerships fostered with other national and international organizations, institutions and agencies.

ABoVE research will improve our understanding of the consequences of environmental changes occurring across the study domain, as well as increase our confidence in making projections of the ecosystem responses and vulnerability to changes taking place both within and outside the domain. ABoVE will also build a lasting legacy of research through an expanded knowledge base, the provision of key datasets archived for a broader network of researchers and managers, and the development of data products and knowledge designed to foster decision support and applied research partnerships with broad societal relevance.