2017-03-16 / Front Page

UTMSI gets big grant for research in Arctic

Dan Parker
News editor


University of Texas Marine Science Institute researcher Ken Dunton collects sediment samples through the ice at Angun Lagoon in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska in April 2012. Dunton will be the principal investigator involved with a grant that’s been awarded to the institute to establish a Long-Term Ecological Research site along the northern Alaska coast. 
Courtesy photo by Jim McClelland University of Texas Marine Science Institute researcher Ken Dunton collects sediment samples through the ice at Angun Lagoon in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska in April 2012. Dunton will be the principal investigator involved with a grant that’s been awarded to the institute to establish a Long-Term Ecological Research site along the northern Alaska coast. Courtesy photo by Jim McClelland A $5.6 million grant has been awarded to the University of Texas Marine Science Institute to establish a Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site along the northern Alaska coast.

“This is a big deal,” said Ken Dunton, the institute researcher who will be the project’s principal investigator. “This is a really prestigious award. Once this program is established, it can operate indefinitely, as long as the National Science Foundation (NSF) likes what we’re doing. It’s renewed in six-year increments and can go on forever.”


Jim McClelland, a researcher with the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, collects water samples in an Antarctic lagoon in June 2013. McClelland will be a co-principal investigator involved in research funded with a grant recently awarded to the institute to establish a Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site along the northern Alaska coast. 
Courtesy photo by Ken Dunton Jim McClelland, a researcher with the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, collects water samples in an Antarctic lagoon in June 2013. McClelland will be a co-principal investigator involved in research funded with a grant recently awarded to the institute to establish a Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site along the northern Alaska coast. Courtesy photo by Ken Dunton The UT proposal competed against 60 to 80 other proposals and was one of only three selected for funding, Dunton said.

UTMSI is one of only eight research institutions in the U.S. that manages a marine LTER.

The new LTER has three co-principal investigators: Jim McClelland, associate professor of marine science at UTMSI; Amber Hardison, assistant professor of marine science at the institute; and Bailey McMeans, adjunct assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

The University of Texas announced the grant award from NSF this week.

Research at the Alaskan site will focus on “interactions between land and ocean processes that shape coastal ecosystems in the Arctic over different time scales,” according to a news release issued by UT.

“The coastal zone of the Arctic is under-studied, yet we know from our previous work that the high productivity of lagoons along Alaska’s northern coastline is related to the dynamic exchanges that occur between the land and ocean,” Dunton said.

“These exchanges are influenced by factors that change over a wide range of time scales, and the LTER program provides us with a unique opportunity to link physical events with ecological responses over seasonal to multi-decade periods.”

UTMSI will collaborate in the research with scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Oregon State University, the University of Texas at El Paso, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Toronto Mississauga.

“This project brings together fantastic scientific talent from across the nation, including experts in field ecology, water chemistry, physical oceanography, sea-ice processes, remote sensing, hydrological modeling, and ecological modeling,” McClelland said. “Collectively, this group has many decades of experience working on and thinking about how Arctic systems operate, but this new LTER provides a really exciting opportunity to work together toward integrated, interdisciplinary goals.”

This is Dunton’s 40th year of doing scientific research in the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea.

The Beaufort Sea Lagoons LTER will work with members of Alaskan communities and with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Long-term changes along the northern Alaska coast are having effects on the types of fish and other organisms that thrive in the lagoons, and that’s expected to continue, according to the news release.

The release quoted William Ambrose, director of the Arctic Observing Network within the Office of Polar Programs.

“This LTER project includes the study of processes such as shoreline erosion, watershed runoff, and sea ice dynamics that are central to coastal ecosystem function across the Arctic,” Ambrose said.

“An important aspect of this LTER is the collaboration between scientists and the Iñupiat residents of the Beaufort Sea coast, which will greatly deepen our comprehensive understanding of these ecosystems,” he said.

The LTER will include seasonal field work during ice-covered, ice break-up, and open-water periods as well as deploying sensors to make continuous measurements of key biogeochemical and other aspects of the water system.

Researchers will track how natural climate cycles influence coastal ecosystems in the Arctic and how the effects of Arctic climate-change, such as thawing permafrost, changes in precipitation, and changes in sea ice coverage, alter those ecosystems.

“We are particularly excited to examine the processes that occur under the ice and during ice break-up, which we believe regulate food web pathways and species diversity,” Dunton said.

The LTER research will help to create a framework for predicting the impacts of future changes on the coastal ecosystem, the release said.

Those changes could have important effects on native (Iñupiat) communities and their reliance on lagoon and coastal fisheries for their subsistence way of life, according to the news release.

The lagoon food webs support large-scale coastal fisheries and more than 150 species of migratory birds and waterfowl.

The research team will include young citizen scientists from the communities of Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) and Kaktovik, two of the nation’s three largest Iñupiat communities, in the research.

The research will be based in Utqiagvik, Prudhoe Bay, and Kaktovik, Alaska, and will focus on Elson Lagoon, along the western Beaufort Sea; Simpson Lagoon and Stefansson Sound adjacent to the central Beaufort Sea; and Kaktovik and Jago lagoons, in the eastern Beaufort Sea.

NSF supports a network of 25 LTER sites in ecosystems including the open ocean, coral reefs, deserts and grasslands.

The LTER network includes several polar sites in ecosystems different from the one to be involved in the UTMSI research. They include the Arctic LTER in the foothills of the Brooks Range on Alaska’s North Slope at Toolik; and the Bonanza Creek LTER, located in the boreal forests of interior Alaska. The Palmer and Mc- Murdo Dry valleys LTER’s are in Antarctica.

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