Department of Agriculture

The Department of Agriculture supports and conducts research to improve understanding, use and management of renewable resources at high latitudes. Research is directed toward solving problems in agriculture, forestry and the environment and improving technology for enhancing the economic well-being and quality of life for Alaskans.

Forest Service

The northern boreal forest of Alaska-the taiga-lies in the zone of discontinuous permafrost. The more than 100 million acres of Alaska's northern boreal forest is a heterogeneous mix of warm, productive sites supporting white spruce, paper birch, aspen and balsam poplar stands, intermingled with permafrost-underlain black spruce stands and shrub, riparian and wetland vegetation. About one-third of Alaska's taiga lies within the Arctic as defined by the Arctic Research and Policy Act; some two-thirds occupies sites that, by virtue of elevation, slope and aspect, have climatic conditions equivalent to those of the Arctic.

The USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station (PNW) has been responsible for boreal forest research in Alaska. This research has been directed toward improving the understanding, use and management of Alaska's natural resources, especially the northern boreal forest. PNW scientists have been stationed at the Institute of Northern Forestry in Fairbanks and the Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Anchorage. However, budget cuts in 1996 forced the closure of the lab at Fairbanks, terminating all research save the commitment the Forest Service is maintaining toward the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) work conducted at the Bonanza Creek LTER site [sponsored jointly by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the USDA Forest Service and the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF)]. This is being accomplished through the Institute of Northern Forestry Cooperative Research Unit at UAF. Work in entomology has been sharply curtailed but continues to be sponsored by State and Private Forestry out of Anchorage, while work in silviculture, genetics, harvesting and sustainable development has been discontinued.


FY 96 FY 97

Forest Service - Environment 700 700
Cooperative State Res - Environment 725 725
Cooperative State Res - Food/Safety 793 793
Natural Resources Conservation Svc S - Global Change 560 560
Total 2,778 2,778

The PNW Long-Term Ecological Research program has been directed toward improving understanding of biological, physical and ecological processes and components of terrestrial ecosystems. PNW Ecosystems Processes scientists stationed at the Institute of Northern Forestry were actively involved in research into forest succession on highly productive forest lands (flood plains and warm slopes) and on cooler, less-productive permafrost terrain. The present level of effort is chiefly aimed at safeguarding the LTER work, which has been ongoing for over three decades.

Ecosystems Processes scientists will continue to play an important role in the LTER program. This work is centered on the 5000-ha Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest (BCEF) near Fairbanks. BCEF-LTER is led by co-principal investigators from the Institute of Northern Forestry (INF) Cooperative Research Unit and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The primary areas of research in BCEF-LTER include:

Current LTER research in BCEF addresses vegetation succession in floodplain and uplands, herbivory, and resource availability to specific vegetation communities in relation to climate, nutrient availability and biogeochemical processes, but the research program is undergoing a thorough re-examination of long-term goals to provide for the development of new paradigms of boreal forest successional dynamics. This will be done by establishing a PNW research cooperative unit at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, permitting the participation of 1.5 PNW scientists, and attempting to integrate the terrestrial research described above with the aquatic work described below.

PNW Aquatic/Land Interactions research at the Institute of Northern Forestry has been terminated. The research has addressed landscape-scale processes affecting watershed stability, streamflow patterns, stream quality, and stream productivity and ecological relationships in Alaska's boreal forests. However, research centered on the 10,400-ha Caribou-Poker Creeks Research Watershed (CPCRW) near Fairbanks will be integrated into the LTER program shared between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the new INF research cooperative unit. The composite BCEF/CPCRW LTER site encompasses more than 150 km2 and includes environmental settings varying from highly productive floodplain forests and permafrost-free coniferous and hardwood forest stands on south-facing slopes, to low-productivity permafrost-underlain coniferous woodland on north-facing slopes and in poorly drained cold valley settings. Research includes determining the effects of permafrost on catchment hydrologic regime, and analysis of hydrologic behavior of periglacial land forms. Included are studies of the ecological relationships of headwater streams, and the linkage between landscape (catchment slopes), riparian zone and stream channel. Hydrogeochemical monitoring of headwater streams in CPCRW provides the foundation for process research, which has already documented the influences of permafrost on streamflow patterns, on steam biota and on sub-Arctic hydrologic phenomena including aufeis and pingos. This work, if supported by the PNW research cooperative unit and the National Science Foundation, will furnish a basis for assessing terrestrial/aquatic (watershed) ecosystem change in response to changing climate or environmental contamination. It is anticipated that the nationwide National Atmospheric Deposition Program (NADP) in Caribou-Poker Creeks Research Watershed will continue. Water quality of first- and second-order streams in CPCRW has been monitored for more than a decade and will continue to be monitored. The broad objectives of continuing research at CPCRW are to develop an understanding of hydrologic, climatologic and environmental relationships in taiga ecosystems, to support catchment-scale experimentation on the effects of resource management practices on these relationships, and to support multi-disciplinary long-term environmental monitoring of the stream/landscape biological and physical system.

Many general circulation models of climate change indicate that regions north of 60 latitude may be subjected to major warming in coming decades, producing increased permafrost thaw, altered vegetation distribution, altered biological productivity, altered wildfire regime, and perhaps the release of large quantities of stored organic carbon into the global carbon cycle. Soils in the taiga are rich in organic carbon, much of which is stored in permafrost. In the event that central Alaska were to experience 4-8C of warming over the next century, much of the permafrost (currently at -0.5 to -2C) would thaw, potentially releasing large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere and hydrosphere. It is unclear what continued research in this important arena will be permitted under the present support. It might have been possible to construct a model of the effect of discontinuous permafrost on organic carbon dynamics in streams. An ongoing experiment is testing the effects of elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration and +4C soil temperatures on the carbon and nitrogen balance of a model white spruce and soil ecosystem.

Wildfire is a major determinant of boreal forest pattern and productivity in central Alaska. Research at INF is continuing into fire ecology and fire effects on ecosystem processes, forest succession in relation to wildfire, and forest productivity including the stability and productivity of forest streams affected by fire. Pre-burn and post-burn research has continued in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, on the 1988 Selawik fire in northwest Alaska, and on the 1950 and 1985 Porcupine River fires, providing pioneering information on the long-term consequences of wildfire in Alaska's boreal forest. Detailed study of wildfire history (Project Frostfire) has been initiated at BCEF and CPCRW in support of the expanding LTER program and has been funded by the Department of Energy. Prescribed burning of an experimental site will be initiated in 1998, and research is expected to peak in that year and the following two.

An Ecosystem Processes scientist at the Forestry Sciences Laboratory, Anchorage, has terminated research on the population dynamics of moose in the Copper River Deltaa non-Arctic biomedue to funding constraints but is continuing research on moose population and behavioral ecology in Denali National Park. This work will be expanded and redirected to encompass the feedback relationship between ungulate herbivory and successional responses of the tundra floral associations in Alaska's interior. At the Copper River Delta, research had concentrated on defining the basic seasonal movement patterns and seasonal use patterns in relation to habitat, determining seasonal foraging habits, defining sexual activity and reproduction, and determining winter habitat and possibilities for habitat enhancement. While the field work has been brought to a close, publication of the analytical results is continuing for the near term.

PNW Environmental Health and Protection Research has been terminated under the anticipated funding for FY 97 and beyond.

PNW Inventory and Economics Research scientists at the Forestry Sciences Laboratory, Anchorage, are responsible for the inventory and analysis of the boreal forests of Alaska. A state-wide cooperative soils and vegetation inventory was initiated in 1981 and is continuing. Satellite imagery and aerial photography are used in classifying land cover types; analysis addresses timber, understory vegetation, biomass, soils and wildlife habitat. The project has completed inventorying nearly two thirds of the state and has produced numerous resource bulletins describing the resources. Additional scientific papers covering wildlife, biomass, forest products and inventory techniques have also been published.

Natural Resources Conservation Service

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) cooperates and coordinates with state, village, regional and Federal land owners; NRCS field office personnel in Alaska; and other agencies in Alaska to provide technical resource planning and application assistance to these landowners, users and planners. Coordinated resource management plans, allotment management plans or interim plans are developed. Soil maps are made of Native lands along with other private and government lands in Alaska.

The NRCS has continued to work in conjunction with UAF and Agriculture Canada to measure soil moisture and temperature along several transects in areas extending from non-permafrost zones to areas of intermittent permafrost to areas of continuous permafrost. Studies are also being conducted on the active layer in the permafrost zone. The information gathered from these transects and similar ones in Canada and Russia has allowed a group to develop a new soil order in soil taxonomy: Gelisols. This proposal has been finalized and is ready for inclusion in the next additions of the Keys to Soil Taxonomy. Its implementation will greatly help in mapping and interpreting soils in Alaska and other parts of the world where there is permafrost. This will allow the transfer of technology from region to region. In the last couple of years more soil moisture and temperature sites have been added along the Haul Road at Happy Valley, Toolik Lake and Coldfoot. Also, sites were added near Fairbanks, at Barrow and at Atquasuk. New dataloggers have been added to record soil moisture and temperature data, and new sensors that work over a wider range of conditions and hold up under extreme temperatures have been tested and put on line at these sites.

The NRCS is also actively working with the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Arctic System Science (ARCSS) program on the North Slope of Alaska, where greenhouse gas fluxes and changes to carbon sequestration may be subject to potential changes from global climate change. This work has added more sensors for soil moisture and temperature south of Deadhorse along the Haul Road and also at Barrow. Sites were sampled in 1995, 1996 and 1997 at various locations related to NSF projects and other projects of UAF. These sites were sampled in conjunction with scientists from UAF. Complete characterization is being run on these samples in the laboratory in Lincoln, Nebraska. The information gathered from this sampling and others will help develop a much larger soil database for Alaska. Earlier work showed up to 30% or more carbon storage in the sensitive permafrost area than was previously thought. The data from these and other samplings will be used in many soil process models being developed. These areas in the Arctic may be either sources or sinks of carbon if there is global warming. Estimates of the amounts and possible changes cannot be made by modelers, however, until the baseline information is gathered. NRCS soil scientists and a group of university scientists will be using ground-penetrating radar to see if it can help determine the amount of carbon in the permafrost.

NRCS is also working with a new NSF proposal to look at soil and vegetation changes from Barrow to the Seward Peninsula. Planning work is underway, and field work will start in the summer of 1998.

The NRCS, with the University of Alaska and in cooperation with the Forest Service and Park Service, has established some new sites to study soil processes in wetlands. The same parameters that have been monitored at the sites established several years ago will be measured (soil temperature, moisture, redox properties, depth of the water table etc.). Wetlands are a major component of soils in Alaska, and this work will help NRCS and others better understand, identify and manage these critical areas. Selected sites were sampled in the summer of 1996 to look at the effects of biological activities. This is part of a broad NRCS project to look at wetland sites from the warm south (Texas) to cold northern areas (Alaska).

A joint cooperative activity has been established between cryopedologists from the NRCS(see note 14), the University of Alaska, Agriculture Canada and the International Permafrost Association, as well as many other scientists from the U.S. and Europe. A draft circumpolar map has been produced showing soils in Canada, Alaska and far-eastern Russia within the limits of northern discontinuous permafrost. The map is in a GIS environment at a scale of 1:10,000,000. The map units contain the classifications of the U.S., Russia and Canada. There will be a supporting database that contains the polygon identification, percentage of each component in the polygon, parent material, drainage, local surface form, soil classification, texture, vegetation and soil code. Other items could include carbon and nitrogen contents and particle size distribution. A variety of maps can be made from this information to help understand and manage areas containing continuous permafrost. The draft map has been presented at meetings in the U.S. and Russia, and modifications are being made and more information added based on comments received. There has been widespread interest in the map from many sources. It is also being expanded to include the soils area of Greenland and parts of northern China.

A joint soil carbon map of North America was produced by scientists in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. This map has shown where there are data problems in Alaska, as the Alaskan part shows much lower carbon values than found in adjoining areas of Canada. The map shows the large amount of carbon at the high latitudes that is at risk of mineralization if there is global warming.

NRCS soil scientists started soil survey work in the summer of 1997 on Fort Wainwright under contract to the Defense Department; preliminary maps are being made and data collected. Also, with the National Park Service, extensive work was done in Denali National Park.

Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service

The Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) funds research projects at the University of Alaska's Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station (AFES). AFES research projects are aimed at solving problems related to agriculture, forestry and the environment. The AFES research objectives are to provide new information for managing renewable resources at high latitudes and to improve technology for enhancing economic well-being and quality of life at high latitudes. AFES is part of the School of Agriculture and Land Resources Management at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This association provides direct linkage between research and teaching in forestry, agriculture and natural resources. Scientists who conduct research at the experiment station also teach, sharing their expertise with both undergraduate and graduate students.

In identifying local Alaskan research needs, experiment station scientists regularly meet with land managers, foresters and farmers from throughout the state to discuss specific needs and problems. AFES researchers also work directly with producers through farm forums, agricultural field days, greenhouse workshops, vegetable conferences, reindeer herder workshops and forestry workshops. Because of these contacts, most AFES research projects in the plant and animal sciences and resources management program were developed in cooperation with industry and state and Federal agencies. Research results are frequently reported in Agroborealis, a journal of AFES.

In one recent project Jay McKendrick has been studying long-term tundra revegetation and continuing changes in plant communities on gravel pads in the Prudhoe Bay vicinity. The application of 7-8 cm (3 inches) of topsoil provided the best results, with significant increases in both vascular plant cover and moss cover on abandoned exploration pads. Revegetation experiments that began in 1972 have provided valuable information for long-term management decisions. Conclusions and recommendations drawn from the first 10 years of study have now been reversed as more information has become available. More value and better management decisions should provide a better understanding of the natural potential that tundra has for accelerating the rehabilitation process. More detailed results can be found in the spring 1997 issue of Agroborealis.

C.L. Ping has been studying the characteristics of permafrost soils along a north-south transect in the Kuparuk River Basin of Arctic Alaska. He studied the morphological, chemical and physical properties of the cryogenic soils and estimated the carbon storage in soils of different ecosystems. Permafrost soils are significant in that they account for almost 30% of the total terrestrial carbon and could act as a large positive feedback to global warming. Initial results from studies by Ping and G.J. Michaelson indicate that previous estimates of carbon storage in the Arctic tundra were underestimated by a factor of two. The carbon content in their samples ranged from 24 to 52%, which is lower than the 58% reported for soils in the temperate region.

Such long-term studies are the result of a viable partnership between the Land-Grant system and the Federal government. Formula funding from USDA's CSREES allows high-priority state needs to be met.