Feature Story | 11-Oct-2022

Daniel Hayes: Then and Now / 2012 Early Career Award Winner

Daniel Hayes collaborates with scientists around the world to study the impacts of thawing permafrost on Arctic and boreal ecosystems.

DOE/US Department of Energy


A rapid increase in global temperatures is causing soils in Arctic and boreal ecosystems to thaw out, releasing back into the atmosphere their stored carbon as heat-trapping greenhouse gases – a feedback loop that accelerates climate warming. While scientists have long been concerned about this so-called “permafrost carbon feedback,” there was a lack of key data that prevented scientists from properly representing these mechanisms in Earth system models.

For the Department of Energy (DOE) Early Career Award, I proposed to conduct research on the impacts that landscape changes caused by warming permafrost (such as wildfire and rapid thaw) have on the carbon budget of these ecosystems. This work combined field measurements, remote observations, and modeling. The combined data was designed to tackle these questions at multiple scales from individual research sites in Alaska and Canada to the overall Arctic-boreal biome.

The award allowed me to collaborate with scientists around the world to work on several studies that gave us a better understanding of these processes. The studies also provided our first global estimates of how deep the soils were thawing, how much previously frozen carbon was vulnerable, how fast it could be released, and the factors influencing the resulting emissions as carbon dioxide or methane.

The award also led to several opportunities to connect with larger scientific endeavors whose legacies continue today. I was among the first to “scout” the field sites on the Seward Peninsula of Alaska that became the focus of DOE’s Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment (NGEE) in the Arctic. I also had the privilege of serving as an unofficial liaison between DOE and NASA’s related research, including as co-chair of the team that developed the Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment. Even though I’ve since changed institutions, I continue in my new role to draw on the research foundation and collaboration network that the award made possible.


Daniel Hayes is an associate professor of Geospatial Analysis and Remote Sensing and the director of the Barbara Wheatland Geospatial Analysis Laboratory at the University of Maine.


The Early Career Research Program provides financial support that is foundational to early career investigators, enabling them to define and direct independent research in areas important to DOE missions. The development of outstanding scientists and research leaders is of paramount importance to the Department of Energy Office of Science. By investing in the next generation of researchers, the Office of Science champions lifelong careers in discovery science.

For more information, please go to the Early Career Research Program.


Title: Model‐Data Fusion Approaches for Retrospective and Predictive Assessment of the Pan‐Arctic Scale Permafrost Carbon Feedback to Global Climate


Land areas spanning the northern high latitudes currently store enormous quantities of carbon as frozen organic matter in the region's soils and peatlands. The long‐term fate of this carbon will be determined by changing temperatures already observed in these environments. These same environments are projected to warm faster than most other places on Earth over the next century. Rising temperatures will result in more and faster thawing of frozen organic matter. Once thawed, this carbon‐rich material is subject to degradation by microbial organisms and/or transport through runoff to aquatic systems. 

Coupled with these anticipated changes is the role of disturbance from fire, invasive species, and the changing land surface resulting from soil thaw. The combination of global change and disturbance will alter historic patterns of carbon cycling with potentially large additions of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, thereby further increasing temperatures.   

The current scientific understanding of these processes in northern environments is quite limited and the existing knowledge is not consolidated in any one place or system.   

Data and information exist in different forms and in different places, ranging from satellite‐based measurements to individual cores of soils taken for various research purposes. This project intends to survey, integrate, model, and evaluate existing information on key processes that control the transfer of carbon from frozen organic material to atmospheric greenhouse gasses (mostly carbon dioxide and methane).  

The increased understanding that is expected from this project will help to design and implement future state‐of‐the‐art scientific activities by providing priorities to different research areas and will also inform future decisions regarding energy and natural resources of the Arctic.


EA Schuur, AD McGuire, C Schädel, G Grosse, JW Harden, DJ Hayes, ... & JE Vonk, “Climate change and the permafrost carbon feedback.” Nature, 520, 174 (2015). [DOI: 10.1038/nature14338

D Olefeldt, S Goswami, G Grosse, D Hayes, G Hugelius, P Kuhry, ... & MR Turetsky, “Circumpolar distribution and carbon storage of thermokarst landscapes.” Nature Communications, 7, 1 (2016). [DOI:10.1038/ncomms13043]

DJ Hayes, DP Turner, G Stinson, AD McGuire, Y Wei, TO West, ... & RB Cook, “Reconciling estimates of the contemporary North American carbon balance among terrestrial biosphere models, atmospheric inversions, and a new approach for estimating net ecosystem exchange from inventory‐based data.” Global Change Biology, 18, 1282 (2012). [DOI:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2011.02627.x]


DOE Explains… offers straightforward explanations of key words and concepts in fundamental science. It also describes how these concepts apply to the work that the Department of Energy’s Office of Science conducts as it helps the United States excel in research across the scientific spectrum. For more information on the carbon cycle, Earth system and climate models and DOE’s research in this area, please go to “DOE Explains…the Carbon Cycle” and DOE Explains…Earth System and Climate Models.  

Additional profiles of the Early Career Research Program award recipients can be found at /science/listings/early-career-program

The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit the Office of Science website.



Sandra Allen McLean (sandra.mclean@science.doe.gov) is a communications specialist in the Office of Science’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs.

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