Physical Science

The Physical Science component of Alaska EPSCoR Phase III focused on permafrost, in particular permafrost-ecosystem interactions, ground ice formations, and construction methods for building on permafrost.

One major research goal was to quantify the direct and indirect ways in which a changing arctic ecosystem influences permafrost extent. EPSCoR physical scientists determined that outside factors – namely groundwater, vegetation and soil – can have a more significant effect on permafrost extent than air temperature. For example, they found that groundwater can raise permafrost temperatures by up to 12 degrees Celsius, while insulation by soil and vegetation can reduce temperatures by up to 8 degrees Celsius – both higher numbers than the 5-degree rise in air temperature anticipated by many climate models.

Members of the physical science component also:

  • Discovered glacial ice on the Arctic coastal plain, a find which has rewritten the recent geologic history of the area
  • Developed a new permafrost map of Alaska, the first since 1965
  • Modeled frost heaves and explored techniques to build roads and bridges on unstable permafrost and in earthquake areas
  • Created Permafrost Watch (, a web site which combines remote sensing, ground measurements, and climate modeling to create both retrospective and predictive models of permafrost extent and related phenomena
  • Designed a predictive map of Alaskan permafrost extent through 2100 and a ‘hindcast’ model of historic permafrost in Interior Alaska stretching back a millennium
  • Built a statewide permafrost monitoring network along a north-south transect
  • Held an international workshop on “Permafrost and Sustainable Development of Northern Communities”

Permafrost studies were augmented in 2010-12 through the introduction of the “Human-Hydrological Systems” theme. The theme encompassed permafrost study but broadened its scope to include interrelated changes to climate, permafrost, and hydrology, the feedbacks which link them together, and the societal implications of a changing water regime.