‘We’re better off if things stay frozen,’ says FIU arctic researcher

FIU biologist Steve Oberbauer is back at Toolik Field Station — one of the world’s most remote research sites, located hundreds of miles above the Arctic circle. Spending time in one of the harshest, most unforgiving environments on Earth would change anyone. But, Oberbauer has changed very little. In some ways, the 64-year-old still resembles his younger self — the one who first traveled to Toolik in 1985 when he was 30. His curly hair is only slightly greyer. He’s still slender. Although he is the shortest of his two brothers, Oberbauer still towers over most people at 6 feet 5 inches tall. And he still wears a bright blue puffer jacket — an upgraded version of the one he bought more than 40 years ago for $20 that never kept him warm enough.

The Arctic, on the other hand, has changed.

“There’s always been changes. Just not this fast,” said Oberbauer, who is a botanist in FIU’s International Center for Tropical Botany at the Kampong.

The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of anywhere else on Earth. It’s in the midst of a dangerous transformation. The rules are unraveling. Timing is being thrown off track. Oberbauer has had a front seat to these changes: The tundra soil is breaking down. Permafrost is thawing at the surface and collapsing. There are more shrubs, less moss and less lichens. Plants are growing taller and flowering earlier in the season.

“What happens in the Arctic is important globally. There’s enough carbon in the tundra that if it were to thaw and that carbon release, that’s at least twice of what’s currently in the atmosphere,” Oberbauer said. “We’re better off if things stay frozen.”

But, things aren’t staying frozen. This is why every summer, before the snow melts and the plants on the tundra begin to green, Oberbauer climbs behind the wheel of “Big Red” — a Ford F-350 Super Duty truck — and sets out north from Fairbanks, Alaska.

 “We’re better off if things stay frozen.”— Steve Oberbauer

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