INTERNATIONAL ARCTIC RESEARCH CENTER — UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA FAIRBANKS

People of IARC

iwahana

Go Iwahana

As a geocryologist, Research Assistant Professor Go Iwahana studies the dynamics and makeup of frozen rock, soil, and ground. By focusing on permafrost, Iwahana addresses a prominent geological feature long understudied and with potentially vast implications.

Contact Dr. Iwahana

How did you get interested in studying permafrost?

When I was younger, I was always interested in Siberia, which I remember seeing and reading about in the world atlas. I studied natural science in school, but it wasn’t until I decided to focus more closely on geophysics that I found it might offer the opportunity to travel widely and see some of the Arctic places I had been thinking about for such a long time. These feelings were reinforced when I spent a year of travel, including to Siberia, while I was an undergraduate.

During this early period of my study as a geophysicist, I developed relationships with other scientists, including one who worked in Siberia, along with a further interest in the Arctic and permafrost science. This culminated in a bachelor’s thesis on the frost heave mechanism of freezing ground, as well as more detailed investigations into permafrost throughout my graduate study.

Further, observing frozen ground up close has provided many other dynamics for study, including the phenomena of shimo bashira (or “needle ice”) and ice lenses, in which moisture accumulates and freezes in pools underground.

What might people find interesting about your current research?

Here in Alaska’s Subarctic, my study of permafrost has examined vast areas of long-term thaw and surface subsidence after wildfires, observed using field surveys and satellite imagery analyses. Ice-rich permafrost contains 60-90% ground ice, so when the ground thaws, its surface often plunges dramatically, a process known as thermokarst.

In addition, permafrost has led me to other northern and mountainous regions. Besides Siberia and Alaska, where permafrost scientists have observed large-scale instances of thermokarst, I’ve also conducted research regarding permafrost in the mountains of Japan. This work in particular represents important progress, as to this point, there has been little understanding or study at all of Japanese permafrost conditions.

All of these findings increase and clarify the potential impact of permafrost degradation, especially in the face of drastic climate change. Permafrost subsidence due to thermokarst completely alters the surface ecosystems and presents enormous challenges for the future of communities and civil engineering in the Arctic.

Climate scientists are also gravely concerned about the prospect of the thaw and release of organic materials (including powerful greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide) contained within frozen permafrost. Further, we note that post-thaw conditions, which leave land particularly boggy and swampy, present very good conditions for methane-producing microorganisms to reproduce.

What interests do you have outside of your field of study?

I love spending time outdoors among our unique landscapes, by rock climbing, skiing, and hiking. Meanwhile, I’d also observe that when I have time to spend in and around the city, I definitely appreciate the amenities and refinements it can offer. I always look forward to seeing new places and new communities.

Iwahana approaches the summit of Mt. Daisetu in Japan, carrying measuring equipment. (Photo by Y. Sawada)
Iwahana approaches the summit of Mt. Daisetu in Japan, carrying measuring equipment. (Photo by Y. Sawada)
Iwahana examines an outcrop of ice-rich permafrost of the North Slope, Alaska. (Photo by M. Uchida)
Iwahana examines an outcrop of ice-rich permafrost of the North Slope, Alaska. (Photo by M. Uchida)
Iwahana examines large ground ice of the North Slope, Alaska. (Photo by M. Uchida)