As Earth’s climate changes, the frozen soils at the planet’s poles have started to thaw – threatening to release the massive amount of carbon stored inside this melting permafrost. Ellen Dorrepaal wants to pinpoint exactly how thawing permafrost ecosystems work, in order to forecast how they might affect the planet’s changing climate.
Dorrepaal, now a researcher at Umeå University in Abisko, was among the first scientists to document how fast carbon gets released from thawing peat. She and her colleagues carried out experiments in Arctic Sweden and published their results in the journal Nature in 2009. Deep-rooting plants will thrive more and more in the warming sub-Arctic. These plants’ roots are home to microbes that, in order to live, break down the carbon stored in the soil. In the process, the microbes release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, where these greenhouse gases will further warm the planet.
As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, Dorrepaal proposes to focus in on the ecosystem interactions between the microbes and Arctic plants with deep roots, as more permafrost thaws across the Arctic. She wants to quantify how these changes will contribute to climate change. Her interdisciplinary team will use tools from a variety of fields, including the plant sciences, microbiology, and geochemistry.