Uneven Ground: What Happens When Permafrost Thaws?

Bob Bolton, Deputy of Operations for the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments in the Arctic (NGEE Arctic) Project, Oak Ridge National Laboratory



The Arctic, including Alaska, is currently experiencing an unprecedented degree of environmental change, warming at a pace three to four times faster than the rest of the Earth. This trend is expected to continue through the end of the century. This change in the climate has had a profound impact on permafrost – a defining characteristic of the northern terrestrial environment. 


Permafrost, defined as ground that is continuously frozen (≤0°C) for two or more consecutive years, dominates the arctic tundra and boreal forest landscapes and processes. The thawing of ice-rich soils in permafrost landscapes can result in a complex and interwoven cascade of impacts on energy and water balance, carbon fluxes, wildlife habitat and existing infrastructure. Over the past 12+ years, Oak Ridge National Laboratory has led the Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment in the Arctic (NGEE Arctic) project. Using a combination of field observations, laboratory experiments, and multi-scale modeling activities, NGEE Arctic is working to understand and predict the evolution of arctic ecosystems in a changing climate. 

In this talk, I will present an overview of my permafrost-related research in the context of the NGEE Arctic project. I will also talk about an outreach project that gives voice to the people who live and work in these rapidly changing landscapes.

Biographical Sketch

Dr. Bob Bolton joined Oak Ridge National Laboratory in July 2023 as a Staff Research Scientist and is the Deputy of Operations for the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments in the Arctic (NGEE Arctic) project. His research has focused on understanding the magnitude, timing, and pathways of water fluxes in permafrost-affected environments, with recent focus on vegetation-snow-permafrost interactions. As the Deputy of Operations for the NGEE Arctic project, he is responsible for all aspects of safety, community engagement and outreach, and international collaborations.

Prior to his arrival at ORNL, Bob Bolton spent 12 years as a Research Assistant/Associate Professor at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Bolton is particularly interested in developing a culture of safety, trust, and community engagement as a foundation for scientific endeavors. He is also a co-founder of the Alaska Voices podcast. Bolton received his B.A. degree in geology from California Lutheran University, an M.Sc. degree in geologic engineering from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and a Ph.D. in hydrologic engineering (Interdisciplinary Studies) from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Bob Bolton