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ABoVE (Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment)

Airborne Science    NASA EO Imagery regarding ABoVE    References

Climate change in the Arctic and Boreal region is unfolding faster than anywhere else on Earth, resulting in reduced Arctic sea ice, thawing of permafrost soils, decomposition of long- frozen organic matter, widespread changes to lakes, rivers, coastlines, and alterations of ecosystem structure and function. NASA's Terrestrial Ecology Program is conducting a major field campaign, the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), in Alaska and western Canada, for 8 to 10 years, starting in 2015. ABoVE seeks a better understanding of the vulnerability and resilience of ecosystems and society to this changing environment. 1)

What is ABoVE?

The Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) is a NASA Terrestrial Ecology Program field campaign that will be conducted in Alaska and Western Canada (see Study Domain). ABoVE is a large-scale study of environmental change and its implications for social-ecological systems.

ABoVE’s science objectives are broadly focused on (1) gaining a better understanding of the vulnerability and resilience of Arctic and boreal ecosystems to environmental change in western North America, and (2) providing the scientific basis for informed decision-making to guide societal responses at local to international levels. Research for ABoVE will link field-based, process-level studies with geospatial data products derived from airborne and satellite sensors, providing a foundation for improving the analysis, and modeling capabilities needed to understand and predict ecosystem responses and societal implications.

ABoVE resulted from a 2008 solicitation by the Terrestrial Ecology program for white papers for a new field campaign. A number of workshops and the efforts of a formal Science Definition Team resulted in a Concise Experiment Plan. Solicitations for pre-ABoVE data product creation were done in 2012 and 2013. Solicitation for Phase 1 was done in 2014; for the Airborne Campaign in 2016; for Phase 2 in 2018; and for Phase 3 in 2021.

Why do we need to study the Arctic and Boreal Region?

Climate change in the Arctic and Boreal Region (ABR) is unfolding faster than anywhere else on Earth, resulting in reduced volume and area of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean during summer, warming and thawing of permafrost, increases in the frequency and severity of climate-driven disturbances, and widespread changes to surface water extent, soil moisture, and vegetation structure and function. Environmental and climate change in the ABR is increasingly affecting society both locally and globally. Changes to forests from insects and fires, erosion of Arctic coastlines, and altered wildlife habitats that support subsistence opportunities may affect residents of the ABR both positively and negatively. The ABR also contains a globally significant amount of carbon in both the soils and vegetation, and it is unknown how much of this sequestered carbon will be released to the atmosphere as permafrost thaws and forests burn, potentially further accelerating global climate change.


Research addressing the ABoVE research objectives benefits from the unique capabilities provided by remote sensing data. Data products from new and existing satellite and airborne remote sensing systems allow for the study of seasonal and inter-annual variability over large geographic regions. At landscape to regional scales, these data products will be critical to the spatial and temporal scaling of observations made from field studies. Conversely, field observations play a vital role in the refinement and validation of remotely sensed data products.

Study Domain

Research and analysis activities for ABoVE will be carried out in study sites located across western Canada and Alaska.


Figure 1: Studies will be carried out over a range of spatial scales, including within different terrestrial ecoregions, within primary and secondary research areas, within discrete landscape units (such as a watershed ordisturbance event), and within plots (at a scale of 10 m to 1 km). The exact geographic boundaries and location of study sites will be determined in the more detailed planning activities to follow, and will be influenced by collaborating programs and projects (image credit: NASA)

Research Phases and Timeline

The conceptual timeline for ABoVE Research Activities presented in the ABoVE Concise Experiment Plan (ACEP Table 4.1 below) generally follows three objective-driven phases over the 9 to 10 year period of the Field Campaign. The research focus will evolve across each phase as guided by the Vulnerability/Resilience Framework, where studies of ecosystem dynamics provide the foundation for further research on the consequences to and responses of society to changes in ecosystem services. The first two phases will predominately focus on the Ecosystem Dynamics Objectives and the Ecosystem Services Objectives, respectively, and will include the bulk of the Intensive Study Period. While each phase has a focus area of research, this should not preclude studies designed to address the other questions and objectives as warranted. A final phase focused on the analysis and synthesis of ABoVE research is needed following the completion of the main portion of field and airborne data collection activities.

Project Teams will collect data for Phases I and II over a 5 to 7 year Intensive Study Period. The major portion of the field-based studies and airborne remote sensing campaigns will occur during this time. Research contributing to the Ecosystem Dynamics Objectives is emphasized during Phase I. These investigations focus on the major ecosystem responses to changes in drivers, along with the complex interactions among the drivers and the responses. To establish a basis for research on the Ecosystem Services Objectives that will be the focus of Phase II, some studies on the societal drivers and responses to change will need to begin during Phase I. Phase I research will make significant contributions to the observational data collections, model refinements and geospatial synthesis products that will provide the foundation for the Phase II and III research activities addressing the interdisciplinary research objectives.

Following the completion of the Intensive Study Period, studies conducted during Phase III will focus on cross-activity, cross-disciplinary research involving the Analysis and Synthesis of data and findings from the first two phases. This phase includes the synthesis, integration and scaling of basic social and ecological research, the employment of integrated modeling frameworks for diagnosis and prediction, and the development of decision support information products.


Table 1: Schedule for Research Activities required for ABoVE that would be carried out over the timeline of the Field Campaign to address the objective-driven focus of each of three Phases of research. The darker shade of gray indicates when more intensive activities are expected to occur

Relevant Codes of Conduct for ABoVE Researchers and Partners

Principles for Conducting Research in the Arctic: Researchers working in the Arctic have a responsibility to respect local culture and knowledge and advance stewardship of the Arctic environment. The original principles, released in 1990, have been revised to provide guidelines for the conduct of research, to better align with U.S. Arctic policy, to incorporate the latest advances in research methods, and to reflect expanded research efforts and disciplinary breadth in a rapidly changing Arctic. —

American Geophysical Union Scientific Integrity and Professional Ethics

AGU has established a set of guidelines for scientific integrity and professional ethics for the actions of the members and the governance of the union in its internal activities; in its public persona; and most importantly, in the research and peer review processes of its scientific publications, its communications and outreach, and its scientific meetings.

American Geoscience Institute Guidelines of Ethical Professional Conduct

Geoscientists play a critical role in ethical decision making about stewardship of the Earth, the use of its resources, and the interactions between humankind and the planet on which we live. Geoscientists must earn the public’s trust and maintain confidence in the work of individual geoscientists and the geosciences as a profession. The American Geosciences Institute (AGI) expects those in the profession to adhere to the highest ethical standards in all professional activities. Geoscientists should engage responsibly in the conduct and reporting of their work, acknowledging the uncertainties and limits of current understanding inherent in studies of natural systems. Geoscientists should respect the work of colleagues and those who use and rely upon the products of their work. AGI Guidelines of Ethical Professional Conduct.

Fundamental Principles for the Use of Traditional Knowledge in Strengthening the work of the Arctic Council

Since its inception the Arctic Council has recognized the central role of the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic in all aspects of the Arctic Council mandate and has formally endorsed the importance of including the Indigenous residents of the Arctic in its deliberations. Guiding Principle #1: Recognize the value of Traditional Knowledge (TK) as a systematic way of thinking which will enhance and illuminate our understanding of the Arctic environment and promote a more complete knowledge base.

ABoVE Science Team Statistics - All Projects (2013 - present)


Table 2: ABoVE Science Team Statistics

Scott Goetz (Lead) (Northern Arizona University

Chip Miller (Deputy) NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Organization Chart

• Science Team Members: 854

• Project Leads: 105

• Project Leads & Co-Investigators: 298

• Project Leads, Co-Investigators & Collaborators: 462

• ABoVE All (includes science team, management, interested): 1625

• Projects:

- NASA-Other: 31

- NASA: 66

- Partner: 2

- Affiliated: 28.

Airborne Science

The ABoVE Airborne Campaign began in 2017. See the tab for each year (2017, 2018, 2019) to learn about the types of data collected during that year and download kmls of the flightlines. The 2017 tab also links to an ERL article overviewing the Airborne Campaign and a list of sites used to plan the campaign. See the Data tab to discover where to download data collected for each flight. The Projects tab shows projects selected during the ABoVE Airborne call in 2016.

2017 Completed Flights

The 2017 Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment Airborne Campaign (AAC) was one of the largest, most complex airborne science experiments conducted by NASA's Earth Science Division. Between April and November, the AAC involved ten aircraft in more than 200 science flights that conducted surveys across over 4 million km2 in Alaska and northwestern Canada. Many flights were coordinated with same-day ground-based measurements to link process-level studies with geospatial data products derived from satellite sensors. The AAC collected data spanning the critical intermediate space and time scales that are essential for a comprehensive understanding of scaling across the ABoVE Study Domain and ultimately extrapolation to the pan-Arctic using satellite data and ecosystem models. The AAC provided unique opportunities to validate satellite and airborne remote sensing data and data products for northern high latitude ecosystems. The science strategy coupled domain-wide sampling with so-called “Foundational Instrument", L-band and P-band synthetic aperture radar (SAR), imaging spectroscopy, full waveform LIDAR, atmospheric trace gases (including carbon dioxide and methane), as well as PI-led studies using Ka-band SAR and solar induced chlorophyll fluorescence. Targets of interest included field sites operated by the ABoVE Science Team as well as the intensive and/or long-term sites operated by US and Canadian partners. 2)

Detailed flight lines for each sensor were constructed to overlap the ground projections for each sensor while simultaneously maximizing field site sampling. The ~12 km swath of the P-band SAR was used to anchor all flight lines. The L-band SAR (~15 km swath) flight lines were designed with the requirement to maximize near-field overlap of the P-band and L-band swaths, while extending past the P-band swath in the far field. Flight lines for LVIS (~1.4 km swath), AVIRIS-NG (~3.6 km swath) and Ka-band SAR (~4 km swath) were slaved to the centerline of the P-band swath, except where deviations were required to capture critical ground sites.

2018 Completed Flights

NASA conducted flights using AVIRIS-NG, L-band SAR (UAVSAR), and G-LiHT in 2018. Coordinated flights and ground validation were conducted with the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Targets of interest included field sites occupied by the ABoVE Science Team as well as the intensive sites operated by the DOE NGEE-Arctic on the Seward Peninsula and in Barrow, NSF's LTER sites at Toolik Lake (Arctic/North Slope) and Bonanza Creek (Boreal/Interior Alaska), the Canadian Cold Regions Hydrology sites in the Arctic tundra near Trail Valley Creek NT, the interdisciplinary science station at Scotty Creek NT, the Government of the Northwest Territories Slave River/Slave Delta watershed time series, the Kluane Lake (YT) Research Station, and numerous forest and fire disturbance US and Canadian Forest Services. NASA Stories organized with help from the NASA Office of Communications are posted here and Media Coverage articles are available here.


Figure 3: 2018 AVIRIS-NG and L-band data (image credit: NASA)

2019 Completed Flights

NASA conducted flights using AVIRIS-NG, L-band SAR (UAVSAR), and LVIS in 2019. As in past years, targets of interest included field sites occupied by the ABoVE Science Team as well as the intensive sites operated by the DOE NGEE-Arctic on the Seward Peninsula and in Barrow, NSF’s LTER sites at Toolik Lake (Arctic/North Slope) and Bonanza Creek (Boreal/Interior Alaska), the Canadian Cold Regions Hydrology sites in the Arctic tundra near Trail Valley Creek NT, the interdisciplinary science station at Scotty Creek NT, the Government of the Northwest Territories Slave River/Slave Delta watershed time series, the Kluane Lake (YT) Research Station, and numerous forest and fire disturbance plots maintained by the National Park Service, and the US and Canadian Forest Services.

Statistics for the AVIRIS 2019 ABoVE Airborne Campaign

• Campaign Duration: 36 Days (30 June – 4 August)

• Number of Science Flight Days: 27

• Number of Sorties: 37

• Number of flight hours: 129

• # lines acquired: 193 (this number will increase given some lines were flown multiple times)

• Estimated km of flight lines: 15,712 km (see column U, this number will increase given some lines were flown multiple times)

• Estimated number of km2 mapped: 51,850 km2 (see column W, this number will increase given some lines were flown multiple times)


NASA5 and the LVIS team conducted science sorties (91 flight hours), including during the two transit legs, between 12 July and 7 August 2019 for the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment. Targets requested by the Science Team included TomoSAR swaths at BERMS and Delta Junction for NISAR; underflights of IceSAT-2 Reference Ground Tracks; first-time observations and revisits of L-ban SAR swaths across the ABoVE domain for the Active Layer Working Group; opportunistic data acquisition of the Shovel Creek fire perimeter near Fairbanks, including reflights of an line flown in 2014 by G-LiHT; NGEE-Arctic sites in Barrow and the Seward Peninsula; and numerous burn scars around Yellowknife/Great Slave Lake for the Phase 2 Wildfire projects. Weather provided daily challenges to acquisition, but due to the excellent performance of the LVIS instruments and NASA5’s extended range and duration, in the end, the only targets not acquired were the Anaktuvuk Burn Scar on the North Slope of Alaska, and two SAR swaths on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

L-band SAR

NASA conducted L-band SAR flights 4-17 September, 2019, repeating lines flown during the 2017 and 2018 campaigns to continue the multi-year time series, and enable accurate interferometric differencing and comparisons of interannual variability in permafrost active layer thickness, thermokarst, post-fire permafrost degradation and boreal forest structure. Sites included the BERMS site in Saskatchewan, the Peace-Athabascan Delta, road-accessible sites near Yellowknife and Inuvik, and sites in Alaska and Yukon that were of greatest interest to the SAR Working Group. The L-band SAR flights provide key precursor data for NASA’s upcoming NISAR satellite mission.


Figure 4: 2019 AVIRIS-NG, L-band, LVIS data (image credit: NASA)

Some NASA Earth Observatory Imagery regarding ABoVE

• December 24, 2021: Caribou are complicated. Across the species Rangifer tarandus (which includes reindeer) there is huge variety in size, color, and behavior. For instance, some caribou generally stay put, while others migrate vast distances. Even the way the migraters migrate has perplexed some scientists. 3)

- “There is an incredible amount of unexplained and unexplainable mystery to the drivers of caribou migration,” said Elie Gurarie, an assistant professor at SUNY (State University of New York) College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY. Some aspects of this great migration, however, are becoming better understood.

- The timing of the migration—when the caribou depart their wintering ranges and when they arrive at their calving grounds—was thought to depend on factors such as the timing of snowmelt and the availability of vegetation for forage. In research published in 2019, Gurarie (previously at the University of Maryland) and colleagues showed that other factors mattered more. “Nothing that we expect to be important—snow, vegetation, etc.—ended up being important,” he said. 4)


Figure 5: This map shows the range of seven major caribou herds in northern Alaska and Canada. These are barren-ground (migratory tundra) animals. This “ecotype” of caribou migrates hundreds of miles each spring, moving toward the continent’s northern coast, where they birth their young. In contrast, woodland caribou live throughout the boreal forests and mountain ranges of North America. They are less social and do not migrate. Herd migration remains mostly an “unexplained and unexplainable mystery.” (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using data from Gurarie, E., et al. (2019). Story by Kathryn Hansen)

- The research, funded in part by NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), involved tracking more than 1,000 caribou from seven herds between 1995 and 2017. Their movements were correlated with factors such as local weather, the timing of melting snow, vegetation availability, and global climate patterns.

Figure 6: NASA Earth Observatory (video/animation by Elie Gurarie)

- Gurarie and colleagues observed that the start of the spring migration each year was generally synchronized among all herds across the continent. This coordinated departure in March or April, they found, depends primarily on large-scale climate cycles. You can see the synchronous departure in the video of Figure 6, which shows the animals’ tracked movements between February and July in 2013 and 2014.

- The arrival of caribou at their calving grounds, however, is much more staggered and depends on weather conditions during the previous summer—namely, whether it was a warm and windless summer that favors insects. Harassment by insects such as mosquitoes, black flies, and botflies can have a detrimental effect on the health of female caribou, so a buggy summer this year can mean a delayed arrival at the calving grounds next spring.

- Gurarie said he was equally surprised by the massive, continental-wide synchrony of the start of the migration, and the delayed effect of last summer’s insects on the current year’s migration arrival time. What this relationship between climate, weather, and migration means for the future of caribou herds amid warming Arctic summers remains to be seen. As Gurarie and colleagues wrote in their paper: “A central challenge in arctic ecology is understanding the potential effects of a changing climate on caribou and reindeer, the most widespread terrestrial herbivore in the Arctic.”

1) ”About ABoVE (Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment),” NASA, January 2022, URL:

2) C E Miller, P C Griffith, S J Goetz, E E Hoy, N Pinto, I B McCubbin, A K Thorpe, M Hofton, D Hodkinson, C Hansen, J Woods, E Larson, E S Kasischke and H A Margolis, ”An overview of ABoVE airborne campaign data acquisitions and science opportunities,” Environmental Research Letters, Volume 14, Number 8, Published: 26 July 2019, URL:

3) ”Caribou on the Move,” NASA Earth Observatory, 24 December 2021, URL:

4) Eliezer Gurarie, Mark Hebblewhite, Kyle Joly, Allicia P. Kelly, Jan Adamczewski, Sarah C. Davidson, Tracy Davison, Anne Gunn, Michael J. Suitor, William F. Fagan, Natalie Boelman, ”Tactical departures and strategic arrivals: Divergent effects of climate and weather on caribou spring migrations,” ECOSPHERE, An ESA Open Access Journal, Volume 10, Issue 12, Published: 12 December 2019,, URL:

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

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