Amy Breen, AK CASC scientist

amy breen

You have several neat projects going on right now—everything from ecosystem modeling to creating an Arctic Vegetation Archive—what has been the most interesting thing you have been working on lately?

My colleagues at the Alaska Geobotany Center & I are immersed in the early steps toward creating the Alaska prototype for the Arctic Vegetation Archive, so I suppose that is currently my most interesting project. The Arctic Vegetation Archive is a circumpolar effort to assemble Arctic vegetation plot data into a publically accessible web-based archive and promote its application to northern issues, including a pan-Arctic vegetation classification and as a resource for climate-change and biodiversity research. We had a workshop this fall in Boulder, Colorado where vegetation scientists contributed data to the archive. That established a lot of momentum, and now we are working on compiling the workshop proceedings and finalizing the data dictionary for the database. I am a biologist by training, and not a programmer, so it has been a learning process as we work toward establishing the archive.

I really enjoy the process of data discovery, especially for projects of historical significance. We recently learned that the original notebooks and data sheets from vegetation surveys in the late 1950s at Cape Thompson are in the UAF library archives. Cape Thompson was the site proposed by the US Atomic Energy Commission to construct an artificial harbor by burying and detonating a string of nuclear devices. Thankfully, this project was never completed. The biological studies that were done at Cape Thompson, however, were some of the earliest and best work documenting arctic vegetation accomplished in arctic Alaska.

You have attended AGU with other researchers from the IEM for Alaska and Northwest Canada Project. What did you present? Did you learn anything surprising or new from your colleagues?

I presented results from the IEM Vegetation Dynamics group. We used a spatially explicit model to try to better understand how climate change will affect fire regime and plant succession in the tundra. Our simulations suggest that warming will cause an increase in the total area burned per decade. This will result in changes to the vegetation. Graminoid tundra dominated by grasses and sedges, will become more shrubby. A modest amount of previously treeless tundra also converts to white spruce forest through the 21st century. Through this study, we learned that it is important to take tundra fire into account when creating models of arctic vegetation dynamics, because the changes can affect other biological and physical processes.

I also learned about some exciting work underway by colleagues at Michigan Tech Research Institute. A group led by Dr. Nancy French are using remote sensing-based resources to improve maps of past fire activity in arctic landscapes across North America. Because tundra fires are often of low severity, short-lived and in remote areas, they are often underreported. An improvement in the fire record, even if just for the past 10-20 years, will help us to better understand climatic conditions associated with fire ignition and spread in the tundra. This will also help to decrease the uncertainty associated with our models of future tundra fire regimes.

What excites you most about the Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center?

I am most impressed with the diversity of Alaska CASC affiliated research, and researchers. I attended a gathering of Alaska CASC scientists at UAF in November and was amazed to learn of all of the exciting projects that are underway, from climatic and ecological modeling to human dimensions of climate change. Even within the IEM for Alaska and Northwest Canada Project, our research expertise ranges from the physical to the biological sciences. I enjoy working with an interdisciplinary group of scientists as I am continually challenged to synthesize and integrate broad perspectives – therefore not only do I contribute to our research goals, but I also learn from my colleagues.