At the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, a SERDP project team gathered and analyzed over a decade’s worth of climate-related data in Alaska to support more resilient infrastructure on military training lands. 

By Laura Mack 

The Arctic region is a growing national security concern amid the worsening effects of climate change. As sea ice melts, new trade routes and energy resources have emerged and attracted more human activity in contested areas. Strategic competitors, such as Russia and China, are attempting to lay claims to and control these assets. To deter conflict and protect national interests, the Department of Defense (DoD) maintains a strong presence across Alaska and is focused on improving Arctic capabilities. 

Scientists are providing critical information about Alaska’s rapidly shifting climate to help the military sustain operations. At the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (ERDC-CRREL), Dr. Tom Douglas has been working for nearly 20 years to understand and project the impacts of climate change on Alaskan ecosystems. 

“We’ve been trying to find ways to assess the permafrost conditions and the soil both remotely and on-the-ground,” said Dr. Douglas. “We’re focused on protecting training lands from negative impacts and supporting mobility needs across changing seasons.” 

Researchers collect and study permafrost cores to learn more about the history of the local environment. Photo Credit: Dr. Thomas Douglas, U.S. Army ERDC

Discontinuous permafrost, or a mix of permafrost and pockets of unfrozen ground, characterizes the landscape around Fairbanks, Alaska, where multiple military bases and vast training lands are situated. Seasonality has greatly impacted the terrain; the soil thaws in the spring and summer and freezes in the fall and winter. In the winter, a snow vehicle is sufficient for traveling to most places, but by mid-to-late summer, many areas are inundated with four or five feet of water. 

These freeze and thaw cycles are changing, making it difficult to maintain infrastructure and conduct operations. “Since the 1970’s, our summer has expanded by 35 days, and the melt-to-freeze timeframe is increasingly unpredictable [in Alaska],” Dr. Douglas explained. 

In 2011, Dr. Douglas assembled a team for a Strategic Environmental Research and Development (SERDP) project focused on collecting and analyzing data to understand how climate change would impact vegetation, soils, hydrology, and permafrost across Army training lands at U.S. Army Garrison Fort Wainwright Alaska (USAG-AK). This effort concluded in 2016 and continued as a follow-on project with an expanded focus, aiming to answer the question, “where, when, and how will projected climate warming in the area affect habitat access, suitability, and use?” The team assessed the Alaskan landscape over time, taking stock of permafrost degradation and burn back rates following forest fires, and tracked the current species that reside within these areas. They provided a “scientifically-based geospatial framework” that projected how the land will have changed by 2100 and how species will fare within these altered ecosystems. 

Gathering enough data to make such projections was no small task. Almost 100 people worked on this project by its conclusion, using many different methods to collect information at about 850 locations to create the largest database ever accumulated across Alaskan training lands. To draw comparisons over the past few decades, they worked from old photographs dating back as far as the 1940s, matching similar areas up and using a point scale to determine what alterations occurred. To draw yearly comparisons from the present and recent past, the team surveyed the land using light detection and ranging, or LiDAR, which is a remote sensing technology. Researchers would fly an airplane and trace the terrain with a laser. 

To draw comparisons over the past few decades, the project team worked from old photographs dating back as far as the 1940s, matching similar areas up and using a point scale to determine what alterations occurred. Photo Credit: Dr. Thomas Douglas, U.S. Army ERDC

“If you measure with LiDAR one year and then go back a year or two later, places that have moved even just a few centimeters can be mapped,” said Dr. Douglas. “A human can’t tell in a couple of years that the ground subsided much, and the vegetation doesn’t change that quickly, so LIDAR allowed us to assess micro-rates of change and of course also the formation of large thaw features.” 

The team took field measurements in areas that had exhibited drastic changes. They used a site that burned shortly before their project began to study forest regrowth and focused on thermokarst, or areas where the ground subsided because of ice rich permafrost degradation. It would be nearly impossible to cover every inch of the 1.5 million acres that the Army manages in Alaska, so the team often collaborated with other Alaskan projects, such as NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) and the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research APEX site, and worked to scale their data across similar sites for the development of ecosystem models. 

They ran simulations using the Alaskan Thermokarst Model (ATM), a statewide model developed by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks from sites all over Alaska that represent ice content, soil, vegetation, wildfire effects, and other ecosystem dynamics. The model needs a large time horizon to more accurately demonstrate how the land will change overall, which is why their projections were set to 2100. 

According to their projections, the Alaskan landscape will see the formation of more wetlands as ice rich permafrost thaws and causes the ground to subside, catching snowmelt and rainwater that will slowly shift forested areas into bogs. Although wildland fire is a natural part of Alaska’s ecosystems, warmer temperatures are producing fires that occur more often and burn more severely through the forest floor. With a shorter fire return interval, there will be less forest growth, and permafrost will continue to thaw in more areas without the added protection of dead leaves and organic matter that protect permafrost from summer heat but burn up in more severe fires. Depending on how permafrost thaws – which is mostly determined by ice content in the subsurface – some areas will become drier if the thaw sinks into sand or bedrock, where there is space for the water to retreat downwards. 

While the team does not anticipate these changes will endanger any current species, there will be some habitat reorganization. This information is helping natural resource managers understand and prepare for redistribution of species across the landscape. During the project, Dr. Douglas and his team collaborated often with personnel at Fort Wainwright, assessing the conditions of planned construction sites and providing recommendations for the design and maintenance of infrastructure. Their data has also guided the development of thermokarst risk maps, which are particularly helpful for planning vehicle traffic and expanded drop zones for the installation to conduct more airborne training exercises. 

Today, Dr. Douglas is working on his next effort under the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP), which is developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) for linear infrastructure projects managed by the Army and Air Force in Alaska. His team is working to create risk maps for infrastructure maintenance and new construction of winter roads, fire breaks, drop zones, low water crossings and other projects that currently have little documented guidance for permafrost environments. The SOPs are intended to reduce operating costs and environmental damage and improve personnel safety. 

SERDP and ESTCP will leverage Dr. Douglas’ current demonstration efforts and other arctic projects to establish an innovation network with partnering agencies for accelerating technology adoption on a larger scale across the Arctic region. 



The Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) and the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP) harness the latest science and technology to improve the Department of Defense’s environmental performance, reduce costs, and enhance and sustain mission capabilities. The programs respond to energy and environmental technology requirements across the military services. SERDP and ESTCP are independent DoD programs managed jointly to coordinate the full spectrum of research and development efforts, from the laboratory to field demonstration and validation. For more information, visit Follow us on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn