Engineers Investigate Rapid Ice Melt in the Arctic

By: Marie McCarthy

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere on the globe. The rapid warming is melting ice, crumbling layers of permafrost, eroding shoreline and drastically altering local ecosystems and indigenous communities. The worrying trend is raising alarm bells in the scientific community and beyond: experts believe the Arctic’s melt will impact the entire world. Now, the National Science Foundation is investing $35 million in research grants to advance the world’s understanding of the global warming in the Arctic.

“Arctic change will fundamentally alter climate, weather and ecosystems globally in ways that we do not yet understand but that will have profound impacts on the world's economy and security,” the National Science Foundation says on their website.

Civil engineers at Penn State University received $1 million from the foundation to focus on major shoreline erosion on the Alaskan coast. PSU says rising waters have eroded 300 meters of frozen soil along the coastline since 1955. Lead researcher Ming Xiao says the erosion has been disruptive for coastal communities. The erosion is eating away at their properties and land. Beside aesthetic disturbances, permafrost melt can be damaging for the atmosphere at large.

Permafrost acts as a carbon sink of sorts, and when it melts, carbon is released, thus contributing to greenhouse gas emissions in the ozone. Xiao’s team will be creating a forecasting model to predict how the erosion will change over time. He will also be studying the cultural impact of the changing landscape.

“Our project has three main focuses,” Xiao said in a university press release. “We are working to understand how the ground is changing as it thaws, how the changing ground affects the infrastructure along the Alaska coast, and how these changes influence the social system of the people living in these areas.”

Xiao’s research will be contributed to the National Science Foundation’s “Navigating the New Arctic” network of studies. As a whole, the suite of research and grants will help fill in major knowledge gaps about Arctic systems.

“Current Arctic observations are sparse and inadequate for enabling discovery or simulation of the processes underlying Arctic system change or to assess their environmental and economic impacts on the broader Earth system,” said the NSF on their website.

For more information about the research, visit