This project was awarded through the “Signals in the Soil (SitS)” opportunity, a collaborative solicitation that involves the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) and the following United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) research councils: 1) The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), 2) the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), 3) the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Melting ice sheets and glaciers are exposing vast landscapes dominated by seemingly barren post-glaciation soils. These new habitats support specialized and resilient microorganisms and, after many years, even lichens and plants. However, access to and measurements of these remote sites are typically restricted to the summer and, thus, seasonal effects including prolonged cold, dark winters are under-studied. This collaborative effort between U.S. (University of Utah; University of Colorado, Boulder) and U.K. (Queen Mary University of London; British Geological Survey) researchers will measure biological, hydrologic, and chemical activity under the winter and spring snowpack in soils near a retreating glacier in Svalbard, Norway, via continuously operated sensors and repeated field measurements. This will enable scientists to understand how under-snow processes contribute to the functioning and development of these unique soil ecosystems now and into the future. Additionally, project researchers will bring interactive lessons to classrooms in underserved areas in rural Colorado and Utah, remotely reach classrooms and podcast audiences around the world, provide research training for high school students from rural Colorado, and training for two university students and three postdoctoral researchers.

The spatial extent of Arctic soils is rapidly expanding due to glacier retreat. These soils are of ever-increasing importance as a climate mediator and provider of ecosystem services and are also experiencing the effects of the polar amplification of climate change. Despite previous efforts to trace the development of soils following glacier retreat, it remains unknown to what extent seasonal processes affect their evolution on annual to multi-decadal timescales. Due to the inaccessibility of most Arctic regions outside of a brief summer period, the seasonal dynamics of pioneer Arctic soil systems are largely unexplored. To resolve these challenges, the project’s goal is to achieve continuous year-round monitoring of dynamic processes across an age gradient of Arctic soils using a network of buried geophysical sensors in a High-Arctic glacier forefield. This effort will be coupled with repeated field monitoring of soil biogeochemical processes via state-of-the-art molecular techniques, and development of a microbially-explicit biological-geophysical model to describe soil evolution. Using a space-for-time chronosequence approach that for the first time captures intra-annual (i.e. seasonal) variability, this project aims to improve understanding of how seasonal processes contribute to long-term development of Arctic soils. This cross-disciplinary collaboration among researchers with expertise in geophysics, engineering, microbial ecology, biogeochemistry, and Earth system modelling, will permit mechanistic inference and projections, and transform the capacity to conduct year-round research in remote and complex environments. Data and model code will be shared via web-based archives, enabling a new generation of soil models. Findings will be disseminated to the scientific community through publications and conferences, and communicated more broadly through public engagement.

This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.