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Bob Bolton: Stewarding science at the top of the world

  • Bob Bolton has spent much of his career studying environmental change in Alaska. He recently moved to East Tennessee to join the ORNL-led NGEE Arctic project as deputy for operations. Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

  • ORNL’s Bob Bolton conducts fieldwork for his research on Alaskan tundra hydrological processes. Credit: Katrina Bennett/LANL, U.S. Dept. of Energy
  • Bob Bolton has spent much of his career studying environmental change in Alaska. He recently moved to East Tennessee to join the ORNL-led NGEE Arctic project as deputy for operations. Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

  • ORNL’s Bob Bolton conducts fieldwork for his research on Alaskan tundra hydrological processes. Credit: Katrina Bennett/LANL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Bob Bolton may have moved to a southerly latitude at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but he is still stewarding scientific exploration in the Arctic, along with a project that helps amplify the voices of Alaskans who reside in a landscape on the front lines of climate change.

Bolton recently assumed the role of deputy of operations for the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments Arctic, or NGEE Arctic project, led by ORNL. The project’s goal is a better understanding of carbon-rich processes and climate feedbacks in Alaska to improve Earth system models that help predict and prepare for the future.

He was previously with the International Arctic Research Center and worked as a research professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, or UAF, including serving as the institutional lead for NGEE Arctic. Bolton got to know the leaders of NGEE Arctic well over the years, having been involved in the project since its inception and leading a team studying a key question about permafrost: whether it may become wetter or drier as the tundra warms and what that means for the future.

Bolton and colleagues have spent many hours in the Arctic tundra collecting and analyzing soil and water samples to gauge what’s happening as the permafrost thaws. Since joining ORNL and making the move to Tennessee this year, Bolton has made several trips back to continue NGEE Arctic fieldwork that mostly takes place during the summer months, when conditions are suitable.

When NGEE Arctic’s first director, Stan Wullschleger, announced his retirement, his successor Colleen Iversen asked Bolton if he’d be interested in joining the ORNL team. “It came out of the blue,” Bolton said. But the offer also coincided with his interest in a change of career focus and a desire to help guide  large scientific collaborations.

The move itself was an intense experience, Bolton said, including the act of driving all 5,130 miles from Alaska to Tennessee. He’s been at ORNL since July, and he and his wife are already enjoying the outdoors opportunities afforded by the lab’s setting near the Great Smoky Mountains.

Bolton lived in Alaska for more than 35 years after his parents were inspired by what he calls “that one week in summer when the weather was perfect” and moved their family to Fairbanks in 1985. He returned to the Lower 48 to study at California Lutheran University, where he earned a bachelor’s in geology. He then came back to UAF to earn both a master’s degree in geologic engineering and a doctorate in hydrologic engineering.

Translating impacts from global to local

Bolton joined the NGEE Arctic project 12 years ago at the urging of Larry Hinzman, who was both NGEE Arctic’s first chief scientist and institutional lead at UAF and a mentor of Bolton’s. “That’s how I first became interested in permafrost hydrology, by my interactions with Larry and the fascinating research around how these unique frozen landscapes, which lock away vast amounts of carbon, may respond to environmental change,” Bolton said.

The permafrost is said to contain around 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon, more than has ever been released by humans through fossil fuel combustion, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Permafrost thaw is a key science area for those studying the changing Arctic, including whether there may be an unavoidable feedback loop that triggers even more thaw.

Bolton said the NGEE Arctic team also reaches out to local communities in Alaska to help translate the project’s findings into real-world impact. “One of the things we’re looking at is what impact permafrost degradation may have on stream temperatures and fisheries, which have been in decline in recent years. Science can help understand what effect increased sedimentation may be having as the ground thaws and sinks, and whether changing stream temperatures may be affecting processes like fish spawning,” he said. Permafrost thaw can also lead to a cascade of effects such as ground moisture changes that affect the berry crops some rural Alaskans rely on as a food source.

Another example is the impact of soil subsidence on infrastructure like roads, houses and even airport runways. “Because the ground is not thawing uniformly, you might get these wavy roads or impacts on houses. We’re taking what we’ve learned from the core science that’s fed into the DOE land model and stepping back and translating it into knowledge that can inform the local communities where we work.”

Alaska is seeing more rain in the winter, which interrupts what are traditionally continual snow events, Bolton said. “When you have really cold roads and then it warms enough that you suddenly get a half inch of rain on top, it’s going to turn into an ice skating rink pretty fast, and that ice can stick around for months.” In Fairbanks, that’s meant problems with food deliveries as trucks overturn on the roads. Or the rain freezes and downs trees, which fall on power lines, resulting in wintertime power outages. There have also been effects on caribou populations. The animals have specialized hooves to dig through snow to get to the lichens they feed on, but they can’t penetrate ice.  

“When people talked about climate change it always felt like something that would happen down the road,” Bolton said. “But in Alaska it’s happening in real time year to year and season to season. The speed at which change is happening there has been surprising.”

Leaving no trace, and the road ahead

Currently, Bolton and the NGEE Arctic team are working to decommission one of the first field sites for NGEE Arctic, near Utqiaġvik on Alaska’s North Slope, the northernmost town in the United States, where access and use of the land was carefully negotiated with the UIC Native Corporation and its subsidiary UIC Science. The work includes dismantling and removing sensors and other scientific equipment, trail mats and other infrastructure and returning the land to its original condition.

“It's an effort to pull out some things that have been buried 10 to 12 years, but it’s important to all of us to honor our commitment and DOE’s legacy to fulfill the promise we made when we asked permission to work on these lands,” Bolton said. The remediation work will last into 2024.

NGEE Arctic scientists continue to support the Utqiaġvik community. Bolton, Iversen and ORNL’s Peter Thornton this summer participated in the Barrow Arctic Research Center Science and Culture Fair in the town, sponsored by UIC Science. They developed and hosted science activities for children and presented their research findings from NGEE Arctic as part of the fair.

In the second phase of NGEE Arctic, fieldwork has primarily shifted south and west to the discontinuous permafrost landscape of the Seward Peninsula near Nome, Alaska. The project hopes to take its tundra model on the road, in a cyber sense, to other regions of the Arctic known as the Pan-Arctic. The scientists would like to check their model against similar observations and measurements to test its accuracy in simulating climates and vegetation of other tundra regions around the world.

Amplifying Alaska voices

Bolton intends to keep a hand in another project that began in the Arctic, a podcast focused on giving a platform to scientists and other Alaska citizens called Alaska Voices.

The project had its beginnings at an American Geophysical Union annual conference in San Francisco several years ago where Bolton and UAF colleague Jessie Young-Robertson came up with the idea. “It’s a very large conference of Earth scientists with many, many presentations and posters. It can be a bit overwhelming,” Bolton said. “That’s when we started talking about our interest in the backstories of science. What happened during fieldwork? What’s up with the missing data point or the data outlier in the presentation? We wanted to hear more of the stories behind the science.”

The project quickly evolved into letting people tell their stories about their work, art, lives, culture and the environment, Bolton said. “We wanted to humanize science, to build bridges between science and the university and the general public.”

The first podcasts were released in the summer of 2020 and broadcast throughout the state by radio station KUAC. The series struck a chord, especially as it was launched during the pandemic. In Alaska, particularly in remote areas, radio is the primary means of communication. Bolton and his colleagues have now released 60 stories in the Alaska Voices series, available on the project’s website, Apple's podcast app and all major podcast platforms.

“I try to get people together who look at issues from different angles,” Bolton said. “You might have someone who relies on sea ice for hunting and survival talking to a scientist who looks at sea ice for climate change. Those are the kind of conversations that interest me most.”

Joining ORNL’s large, supportive team has been a positive experience, Bolton said. “I enjoy the human aspect of the work, encouraging colleagues and helping set them up for success. Supporting the next generation of scientists is very important to me. That’s where I get the most satisfaction in my job.”

His advice for young scientists? “Relationships are critical,” Bolton said. “Having allies, and being an ally to others, is important. My relationships and network have advanced me in my career and helped me grow and be flexible when new opportunities come along. As much as I am proud of my science, I’m also proud of having worked with good people on good projects.”

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit— Stephanie Seay