Understanding the metabolism of the Arctic landscape

Published: 23 September 2011

Scientists don’t always like to admit to ignorance. But according to McGill geography professor Nigel Roulet, at the moment there are some basic gaps in their knowledge of Northern ecosystems. “We are being asked questions about what we think will happen to Arctic ecosystems over the next 50 to 100 years. And we just don’t have the answers. We only know bits and pieces about it.” The impetus for these questions is the rapid climate change, which is already having an effect on the snow, ice and permafrost in the Arctic.

Thanks to a  4 year - $4 million grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the first Discovery Frontiers grant ever awarded, scientists from ten Canadian universities will now be able to collaborate with one another and with organizations from around the world to create a reference for the arctic land system. The Canada-wide research project is entitled Arctic Development and Adaptation to Permafrost (ADAPT).

Roulet is one of 15 experts whose research experience ranges from geomorphology, to civil engineering, geophysics, hydrology, biogeochemistry, paleoclimatology, plant and animal ecology, and microbiology. They will spend the next four years studying how the changing permafrost and snow conditions affect the landscape, water, and wildlife of the tundra. They will also look at the impact of these changes on northern communities.

Understanding fluxes in the nutrients and carbon contained in water

Roulet’s own field of expertise is landscape biogeochemistry. This involves looking at the way physical, geological and biological processes interact to govern the transport and transformation of chemicals and compounds of the natural world. In particular, he studies dissolved organic carbon in water, a group of compounds that is both an important food supplement for aquatic microorganisms but which also affects the quality of drinking water. “The dissolved organic carbon is what makes streams and lakes look brown, and it’s important for the bacteria and algae at the bottom of the food chain.” he explains. “But we can’t obtain drinking water from these sources by using the same treatment methods we use in more southern regions because that may produce other harmful compounds.”

Roulet works at the scale of metres to hundreds of square kilometres. But the changes he observes in dissolved carbon at these large scales depend on the activity microbes which are decomposing plant material in the soils.

By working with microbial biologists, landscape ecologists and physical scientists who are also part of the ADAPT team, Roulet hopes to learn more about the many ways in which microbial communities and biogeochemical processes are linked to permafrost, liquid water and snow conditions, and how these links might change as arctic terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems are influenced by climate change. “We are attempting to understand the processes and the linkages,” says Roulet. “If one understands them, one can develop simple models based on various scenarios of climate change that will allow us to have some idea of the possible future outcomes.”

ADAPT is the first project to be carried out thanks to a Discovery Frontiers grant offered as part of the NSERC Frontiers initiative. This initiative addresses national research priorities and global challenges by supporting a small number of major new transformative and integrative activities.

The research was funded by NSERC

For more information about the ADAPT project:


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