Studying climate change, Korean scientists warm to Western Alaska

Members of the Korean Polar Research Institute research team take samples at their site near Council, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Min Jung Kwon)

Members of the Korean Polar Research Institute research team take samples at their site near Council, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Min Jung Kwon)

A team of South Korean researchers were in Nome during September to study the effects of climate change on Arctic permafrost ecosystems. The project is one of many throughout the Arctic and Antarctic sponsored by the Korean Polar Research Institute, or KOPRI.

The small group of scientists and technicians on this Western Alaska expedition stayed in Nome for several weeks and drove daily to a site near Council. They used a special automated chamber system to measure concentrations of carbon dioxide in the permafrost and how fast it’s being released into the atmosphere. They also looked at some of the physical and chemical properties of the permafrost and its microorganisms.

Min Jung Kwon is a postdoctoral researcher with KOPRI.

“With the atmospheric temperature rising, and sea level rise, and all the sorts of phenomena associated with climate change, we’re trying to understand it,” she said through a a translator about the urgency of the research. “We’re trying to see the big picture in how the phenomena of climate change is affecting the environment.”

Building that big picture includes gathering data from KOPRI’s two Antarctic research stations and its Dasan Research Station, on Norway’s Svalbard Island.

KOPRI also operates an icebreaker, Aeron, which stopped in Nome on Sept. 16 as part of its annual Arctic voyage. It visits the Arctic in the summer and the Antarctic the other half of the year, during the southern hemisphere’s summer.

KOPRI also collaborates with institutions around the world, including the University of Alaska Fairbanks specifically for this Western Alaska project.

For a non-Arctic country like South Korea, Kwon said such collaboration is essential:

“We rely on the cooperations with institutes and researchers in the Arctic countries to not only give us tips on where we should set up our research stations but if we have common interests and research fields, then we will try to collaborate and see where we can help one another.”

Kwon’s collaborative research has taken her around the world, to sites in Russia and Canada. But, she says, “In Nome is where I find the most beautiful landscape. To see the many trees, to see the many mountains — it’s a great sight.”

And it’s an odd place, she admits, to find researchers from Korea. But Kwon stressed that Arctic climate change is a global issue.

“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. It’s actually affecting the entire globe. And we, as a mid-latitude country, we are also very much affected by the changes in the Arctic climate. Qe have been experiencing more and more colder temperatures during the winter and more extreme weather. I don’t think we try to see it as an isolated phenomenon, but we try to see it as a connected system.”

Kwon and her colleagues are back in Korea for now, compiling and analyzing the data they’ve collected.

But she said, in the future, KOPRI hopes expand its work in the Alaskan Arctic to the winter months, though they’ll probably need a few more layers for that.

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