SULI intern studies Arctic landscape to better understand greenhouse gas release

Nicolle Di Domenico grew up making maps of the forests and rock formations surrounding her family’s apartment. When choosing a major during her time at Kent State University, Di Domenico rekindled the curiosity she had for nature while growing up and pursued a degree in geology.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in geology and a minor in geographic information systems, Di Domenico joined the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) as a participant in the Plant-Soil Interactions Group, part of the Environmental Sciences Division.

Under the mentorship of Staff Scientist Elizabeth Herndon, Ph.D., and Distinguished R&D Staff Peter Thornton, Ph.D., Di Domenico focused on developing new remote sensing approaches to identify Arctic landscape features that are difficult for scientists to quantify across large areas due to their small size. These features, called polygonal ground, are caused by freeze-thaw cycles that allow water to flow into cracks in the soil and then freeze belowground as ice wedges. Accumulation of ice over time pushes up soil at the ground surface to create these characteristic features.

“The reason climate scientists are fascinated by polygonal ground is that this very small landscape feature can have very large influences on carbon release from Arctic soils and into the atmosphere,” said Di Domenico. “This means Arctic polygonal ground distribution and abundance influences global climate change, so locating this landscape feature is imperative to understanding current and future carbon dynamics.”

Arctic soils hold most of the world’s belowground carbon, and temperatures in the Arctic are increasing two times faster than anywhere else on Earth. In order to better understand the rates at which Arctic soil carbon is released into the atmosphere as climate changes, scientists need to identify the landscapes that influence carbon release.

“My research helps identify and describe these changing arctic landscapes, which is a current knowledge gap in my field,” said Di Domenico. “Addressing this knowledge gap will allow scientists to better understand Arctic carbon dynamics, and predict future climate scenarios. Basically, if we know where there are landscapes which affect the release of Arctic soil carbon, we can model and predict Arctic and global carbon dynamics with much higher accuracy.”

Through her internship at ORNL, Di Domenico picked up skills in special data analysis methods and learned important high-level communication skills. As part of the SULI program, Di Domenico and the other interns each delivered a five-minute summary of their research projects in an Ignite Talk format, and Di Domenico won Best Ignite Talk honors for her presentation.

“The skills I’ve gained in my internship have made me a more confident young scientist, and have given me the tools and expertise to begin my career,” she said.

Going forward, Di Domenico hopes to attend graduate school and continue her studies in geospatial data analytics.

The SULI program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists. The program at ORNL is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). –By Jenna Harpenau