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Imnavait Creek beaded stream in Alaska

Impacts of Climate Change on Arctic Rivers & Streams 

Temperature drives nearly every ecosystem on earth, and changes in temperature inevitably bring changes to the ways those ecosystems function. For the past 7 years, UWRL researcher Bethany Neilson and her students have been studying the linkages between Arctic landscape processes and the surface water response, particularly the influences of climate variability on instream temperature regimes.


False color thermal imageryTyler King performing field work in the Kuparuk River, Alaska.

Study Area:

Kuparik River Basin, AK

Principal Investigators:

Bethany Neilson


Doug Kane (University of Alaska Fairbanks) 

Kuparuk river basin in Alaska

Tyler King (PhD), Levi Overbeck (MS), Mitchell Rasmussen (BS)

Project Description

Temperature drives nearly every ecosystem on earth, and changes in temperature inevitably bring changes to the ways those ecosystems function.The Arctic has been experiencing unprecedented environmental impacts as climate change influences the hydrologic cycle.  Increasing air temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns have biological, ecological, and land stability implications.  Shifts in vegetation due to climate change also have the potential to alter the surface energy balance and snowmelt patterns, leading to changes in the Arctic permafrost, which in turn affect stream flows and water quality. 

The research team began by quantifying individual heat fluxes in the higher order Kuparuk River and lower order Imnavait Creek.  The data collection and modeling efforts identified heat fluxes at the reach and basin scale and compared the results to heat flux distributions found in literature focused on temperate regions.  The team has developed models to account for radiative, sensible, and latent heat fluxes at the air-water interface, conductive and friction heat fluxes at the water-sediment interface, and lateral inflows of heat and mass from surface and subsurface hillslope drainage adjacent to the river.  Subsequent research has been investigating the most sensitive drivers associated with instream temperature regimes under low flow conditions and the influence of hyporheic exchange and thaw depths during these times. Additional complementary ongoing research is investigating the ways that carbon stored in Arctic soils is transported to aquatic ecosystems to get at some of the possible influences of these small scale processes on global carbon cycling.

The USU College of Engineering magazine "Creating Tomorrow" recently featured Neilson's work. Click the title (right) to read more about the results of this project:


Aggies in the Arctic: USU Environmental Engineers Decode Icy Watersheds

Tyler King and Bethany Neilson prepare a midnight tracer injection in the Kuparuk River in Alaska in 2015

Tyler King and Bethany Neilson prepare a midnight tracer injection at the
Kuparuk River in Alaska (2015).

Alaska helicopterAlaska remote sensing flightAlaska fieldwork winterAlaska fieldworkAlaska view through scope

Utah Connection

Click the title below to access an informative article by Bethany Neilson and Tyler King about the hydrological similarities between Utah's dusty deserts and northern Alaska's lush landscapes recently published onlineby the U.S. Department of State.

Utah Alaska deserts

Utah and the Arctic: From One Desert to Another

By Tyler King, Ph. D. candidate at Utah State University and Dr. Bethany Neilson, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Utah State University. (photo credit: Tyler King)

Other Related Grants and Publications:

To view current and past publications and grants related to this project, please visit Dr. Bethany Neilson's website at: 

Other Water Resources Engineering Project Highlights:

Integrated Cyberinfrastructure Development and Data Collection
Remote Sensing
Impacts of Climate Change on Arctic Rivers & Streams
Aquifer Saline Injection in Utah's Uintah Basin
Managing Water to Improve Wetland Functions & Ecosystems
Cyberinfrastructure for Intelligent Water Supply


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