The Permafrost Discovery Gateway: Navigating the new Arctic tundra through Big Data, artificial intelligence, and cyberinfrastructure


Permafrost is ground that remains frozen for at least two consecutive years. It occurs under approximately one fourth of the northern hemisphere's land surface. In the far north, the permafrost is continuous across the landscape and contains large amounts of ice in its upper few meters. Thawing of permafrost has been observed at several locations across the Arctic in recent decades, yet the pan-Arctic extent of ice-rich permafrost and permafrost degradation is not fully described. This is because it is difficult to directly measure permafrost. However, the presence and health of permafrost can be inferred from characteristic ground surface features. For example, permafrost can be detected from detailed satellite images through the presence of 30-meter-wide ice-wedge polygons. It is important to detect areas with ice-rich thawing permafrost to identify challenges for infrastructure that depend on a foundation of solid ground. This project is developing the Permafrost Discovery Gateway, an online platform that creates and makes permafrost information more accessible and discoverable by the public in a submeter resolution across the pan-Arctic scale. The public includes industry, non-profit organizations, and people living and working in the Arctic. Future workforce development includes the training of graduate students and postdocs in remote sensing technology and big data creation. Several early career researchers are the lead investigators. The K-12 education community are receiving virtual resources to help them interact with the Permafrost Discovery Gateway. In addition, a collaborative art exhibition, an interactive digital story, and an online Earth as Art gallery are displaying Arctic landscapes to the general public. These tools enable diverse peoples of different technical backgrounds to interact with permafrost knowledge across the entire Arctic. This project informs the economy, security, and resilience of the U.S., the larger region, and the globe with respect to Arctic change.


The main goal of this project is to develop supporting cyberinfrastructure to harness information from high-resolution satellite imagery. This approach is advancing the understanding of ice-rich permafrost and permafrost degradation across the entire Arctic. This project is: (1) utilizing existing Big Imagery, (2) refining and developing new automated remote sensing classification tools and big data creation workflows based on machine and deep learning techniques, (3) applying the mapping tools to pan-Arctic satellite imagery, (4) making permafrost map products and tools publicly accessible, and (5) enabling discovery through visualization and analysis tools designed with users of the Permafrost Discovery Gateway. The project is producing a cyberinfrastructure framework that also includes existing Arctic map products. This framework, along with an engaged user community, is allowing researchers to better quantify the spatial extent of ice-rich permafrost and permafrost degradation across the Arctic. Potential controls (weather, topography, vegetation, soil properties) on permafrost degradation are also being evaluated. The Permafrost Discovery Gateway helps ensure big geospatial data information access to the broader research community and encourage new partnerships around knowledge and role of Arctic permafrost.

Logistics Summary

In this four-year collaboration between Liljedahl (1927872, LEAD, UAF), Witharana (1927723, UConn), Jones (1927720, UCSB), McHenry (1927729, UIUC), and Cervenec (1927920, OSU) researchers seek to empower the broader Arctic community with a cyberinfrastructure platform, the permafrost Discovery Gateway (PDG), aimed at making Big Imagery permafrost information accessible and discoverable. This will include 1) utilizing existing public and license-restricted Big Imagery, 2) developing automated remote sensing classification tools based on machine and deep learning techniques, 3) applying tools to pan-Arctic satellite imagery to address a fundamental research question, 4) making permafrost map products and tools publicly accessible, and 5) enabling discovery and knowledge-generation through novel visualization and analysis tools designed with input from users of the PDG, e.g. the diverse peoples living, working, and/or studying in the Arctic. Regular online webinars and in-person workshops will foster continuous communication throughout the project. No fieldwork will be conducted. Two subawards are included for Alfred Wegener Institute for data processing and analysis and to Alaska Pacific University, who also represent the Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network to gather and organize anecdotal data, facilitate connections and identify opportunities.


A Permafrost Virtual Tour to Enhance the Permafrost Discovery Gateway
Amadou Agnem, Daniel Hamilton, Jason Cervenec, Jennifer Moss, Tom Douglas, Anna Liljedahl, Eric Lonn

Virtual tours of landscapes and facilities may be created using low-cost 360-cameras, standard software packages, and basic web-hosting capabilities. Additional media may be layered onto tours to enhance the user experience. While the workflow is not arduous, time needs to be dedicated by a staff member who is comfortable with technology and willing to learn the process. Having a team willing to co-create a compelling narrative for the tour and design it with end use in mind is critical.

Project PI(s)
Funded Institutions
Woodwell Climate Research Center
University of California, Santa Barbara
University of Connecticut
University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign
Ohio State University
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Project Start Date
Nov 2019
Award Year
Funding Track