MSUToday
Published: Feb. 27, 2017

MSU assistant professor leads innovative research in the Arctic 

Contact(s): Val Osowski College of Natural Science office: (517) 432-4561 osowskiv@msu.edu

From the North Slope of Alaska as a graduate student to the banks of the Red Cedar as an MSU assistant professor, Jay Zarnetske recently returned to the Arctic to continue the hydrology research he began over a decade ago.

In August of 2016, Zarnetske participated in the Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) project, part of the network of sites established by the National Science Foundation to support long-term ecological research in the United States.

Assistant professor in the earth and environmental sciences department, Zarnetske focuses on the relationship between ground and surface waters. This is an integral part of the emerging field of hydroecology, which seeks to understand how the movement of earth’s water influences ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles.

“I often say, ‘Physics sets the limit and the biology gets it done,’” Zarnetske said. “That’s our approach to science—how does the physics of the movement of water dictate or set the template for biological systems.”

Zarnetske’s Arctic LTER team is implementing cutting-edge techniques to understand how water and ecology interact in one of Earth’s most rapidly warming and changing environments.

By using new, high-frequency water sensors to “take the pulse of the river,” the team was able to measure the dissolved carbon and nitrogen in two Arctic rivers every minute. As the building blocks for all ecosystems on the planet, the dissolved carbon and nitrogen conditions are key to understanding global climate cycles.

“This resolution of measurements had never been collected before in the Arctic,” Zarnetske said. “The main reason for going there [the Arctic] with these instruments was to collect data no one had ever collected before, so we can ask questions no one has ever asked before.”

Now back on campus, Zarnetske and his students are working as a team to analyze all of the data collected.

In addition to his Arctic research, Zarnetske also led an international team of researchers in the temperate rain forests of the Oregon Cascade Range last year as part of the Andrew’s Forest LTER project. Closer to home in Michigan, three of his students recently conducted multiple field campaigns in Augusta Creek, one of the watersheds affiliated with the Kellogg Biological Station LTER.

“Water is our expertise,” he said. “It’s what we look at to bring understanding to other disciplines.”

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