Scientist Spotlight: Jeremy Littell and Alaska’s Alpine Areas

 

When asked what the most exciting part of his work is, Jeremy Littell has a two part answer: “When you wake up at 3:00 in the morning to physically measure ecosystem changes and collect data out in the field - that’s the captivating part,” he says. “But it’s also putting the science into the context of what really matters to people. How can I better use my skillset and challenge myself to get a better answer to a problem?”

Undertaking scientific projects that are useful to people - specifically land and natural resource managers - is an important part of Jeremy’s work as the Lead Research Ecologist for the Alaska Climate Science Center.

Jeremy’s role with the Alaska CSC encompasses many different tasks. One major piece of what he does is collaborating with research partners on science efforts that aim to help managers and planners understand how resources are affected by climate change. Jeremy is also working with other Centers and universities in the CSC Network to expand the discussion around the topic of “translational science”, science that directly fulfills the information needs of resource managers. And for a few days every year, Jeremy can be found in the field - deep in an Alaskan forest or in the alpine zone of a snow-capped mountain.

One of Jeremy’s current projects is focused on understanding how alpine treelines are changing as temperatures rise in Alaska. This initiative is one piece of a larger effort to understand environmental changes in Alaska and how alpine ecosystems are responding. “Our study will help inform a whole set of research questions that can be useful to land and resource managers at Chugach National Forest, for example, or at Alaska state parks who are planning for the future,” explains Jeremy.

Alpine treelines are found in high elevations and mark the limit after which trees can no longer grow (due to cold temperatures or snow conditions, etc.). Snow-covered alpine zones (the areas above the treelines) are popular for skiers and recreationists and are also an iconic part of the Alaskan landscape that brings thousands of tourists to the state every year. The glaciers found in alpine ecosystems also play an important role in contributing water and nutrients, which are critically important for Alaska fisheries, into the Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska. Therefore, changes to alpine ecosystems, due to warming temperatures, could have consequences for downstream environments, important natural resources and the state’s economy.

Jeremy, who grew up in Alaska and happens to be an avid Nordic skier, has seen these changes to Alaska’s environment firsthand. “There’s a difference between when we started skiing in high school, anticipating the racing season, and when we’re starting now - it’s very different.”

To better understand how quickly alpine areas are changing, Jeremy is collecting data at 11 sites running from Juneau, in the southeast coast, to near Fairbanks, in interior Alaska. At one of these sites, Wolverine Glacier, Jeremy and his team are collaborating with the USGS Alaska Science Center, which has been measuring glacial changes in that area for the last 50 years. “This collaboration has made the Wolverine site particularly interesting because we can build on this long record of observation to put our data into a much longer context of environment and ecosystem change,” Jeremy says.

At Wolverine Glacier and the other 10 sites, Jeremy and other scientists are trying to determine how air temperatures in the alpine zone are fluctuating compared to other locations in the state, how long the snowpack persists and how much snow is there, and how soil and air temperatures are limiting tree growth in the alpine area, among other things.

Jeremy has been collecting data at these sites for three years now, but there is still much to learn. “This is a vast region larger than the whole state of California,” Jeremy says. “There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about how climate and ecosystems function at these high elevations.”

Alpine areas in Alaska also come with a set of unique characteristics that make them difficult to compare to other places, like the Rocky Mountains. “In the growing season in Alaska, we can get 20 or more hours of sunlight, so we don’t get growing season frosts like in Colorado or Wyoming which is where a lot of the previous literature on this topic has been developed,” Jeremy explains. “This area in Alaska can also get a tremendous amount of snow and be extremely windy - making precise snow measurements particularly difficult to obtain. Collecting data from these sites will give us a new understanding of how these areas are changing and will feed into a broader picture of what managers and decision makers can expect in the future.”

Managers and planners throughout the state, and the country, are faced with important decisions that only seem to be getting more complex. “I don’t envy [the resource managers]. They’re in the hot seat,” says Jeremy. “A lot of the partners we work most closely with are recognizing that the world they have management experience in is no longer the one they’re making decisions on now. Things are changing so fast in Alaska.”