Merritt Turetsky

Merritt Turetsky

Associate Professor

  • Director of INSTAAR



  • Mendenhell Fellow: U.S. Geological Survey, 2004
  • PhD: University of Alberta, 2002

Contact Information


Ecosystem ecology, Wetland ecology, Carbon cycling, Permafrost science, Fire ecology, Biogeochemistry

Research Interests

With more than 20 years of experience working in boreal and arctic ecosystems, my work contributes to theoretical predictions of ecosystem structure and function, but it also applies to regulation of carbon in a global change world.  I am passionate about northern ecosystems and the people who depend on them. Through research, engagement, and teaching, my primary aim is to train the next generation of scientists in the interdisciplinary skills required to tackle ongoing challenges in the north related to food and water security, energy sustainability, carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, and landscape change.


I am a broadly trained ecosystem ecologist with interests in plant ecology, biogeochemistry, and global change. My students and I use a variety of approaches, from large-scale manipulations to laboratory experiments and paleoecological reconstructions, to understand the resilience of communities and ecosystems to environmental change.

We tend to work on a variety of research issues including permafrost degradation and changing wildfire regimes that are important to global change and environmental policy arenas. In both northern Canada and Alaska, my research is moving towards fundamental research questions that also are of interest to stakeholders in the north. Northerners are experiencing the most rapid climate change on the planet, and my research interests are aimed at helping them address what these rapid changes mean for their land, traditional foods and the quality of their water. Landscape changes associated with climate warming also will influence the resilience of power and energy systems in northern regions. For example, permafrost thaw is leading to land subsidence (thermokarst) and affects the ability of subsidence harvesters to travel across their land and access traditional foods. By conducting user-driven research that also addresses fundamental questions in ecology and global change biology, I strike to build knowledge and capacity for northern communities and governments.

Recognitions and key accomplishments

  • Founding member, Permafrost Carbon Network
  • Member, Permafrost Action Team (SEARCH)
  • Member, National Academies' Polar Research Board
  • Steering committee to create the Canadian Permafrost Association
  • Senior scientist, Bonanza Creek Long Term Ecological Research Program
  • Academic liaison to NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE)
  • AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Science Engagement Fellow

Please visit my lab website ( to see examples of research projects, products (including conference posters) and videos and photos of field sites. 

I also frequently engage with the media and have even produced my own science segment on live TV!  Check out short clips of science communication on our lab website ( or


  • Web of Science Highly Cited Researcher, Clarivate, 2020


Research Statement

Several important research themes in Dr. Turetsky's lab include:

The biology of biogeochemical cycling

Plants and microbes have direct and indirect influences on ecosystem processes.  Plant-microbial interactions govern several important aspects of soil nutrient cycling. In northern regions, our research investigates changing community structure along disturbance gradients and how functional traits assemble to influence decomposition and exchange of carbon between the biosphere and the atmosphere. Dr. Turetsky is broadly interested in plant and microbial communities that thrive in permafrost and wetland systems and how they adapt to stressful environments (cold, wet soils). 

Climate change and disturbance in boreal and taiga regions

In many regions, climate change has caused pronounced shifts in the frequency and severity of disturbances such as wildfire, permafrost degradation, and insect outbreaks. Fire has strong controls over carbon sequestration across boreal landscapes.  Dr. Turetsky and her students are examining the influence of burning on aspects of water and air quality such as nitrogen and mercury cycling. While the short-term influence of fires includes these biogeochemical alterations, they also study how burning influences long-term ecosystem behavior through vegetation composition and by potentially triggering permafrost thaw.

Dr. Turetsky is interested in using a variety of scientific approaches - including descriptive studies, gradient studies, paleoecology, modeling, and experiments – to understand how ecosystems and ecosystem services are responding to changing climatic and disturbance regimes. More than 15 years ago, Dr. Turetsky initiated a series of water table drawdown and soil warming experiments in fens in interior Alaska (the APEX experiment), and she remains committed to using this experimental design to collect long term data. This work is affiliated with the Bonanza Creek LTER site.  Dr. Turetsky and her colleagues also are conducting research in Alaska and Canada following up on the immediate and long-term consequences of major fire seasons, such as the 2004 fires in Alaska and the 2014 fires in the Northwest Territories.

Carbon cycle research to address northern food and water security

Dr. Turetsky's northern research program is now posing a variety of research questions linking ecosystem services and carbon cycle science to water and food security.  Indigenous households experience far more food insecurity than other households, and this is intimately connected to water.  For example, her team studies how permafrost thaw affects water quality and the ability of subsistence harvesters to travel and access traditional foods. Dr. Turetsky works with communities to identify how thermokarst is affecting culturally important lands.

Many models also show that northern Canada will become more suitable for certain crops under future climate change. This makes the north one of the most important agricultural frontiers.  Productivity on northern soils will require drainage, which causes large carbon emissions.  Dr. Turetsky's group is using a number of approaches to help build capacity in northern communities to better adjust to this shifting agricultural landscape and embrace climate-smart food production and agriculture.

For additional information on our projects and field sites, please visit 



Bourgeau-Chavez, L. L., Grelik, S. L., Billmire, M., Jenkins, L. K., Kasischke, E. S., Merritt Turetsky 2020: Assessing boreal peat fire severity and vulnerability of peatlands to early season wildland fire. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, 3: 20. DOI: 10.3389/ffgc.2020.00020

Merritt Turetsky, Abbott, B. W., Jones, M. C., Anthony, K. W., Olefeldt, D., Schuur, E. A. G., Grosse, G., Kuhry, P., Hugelius, G., Koven, C., Lawrence, D. M., Gibson, C., Sannel, A. B. K., McGuire, A. D. 2020: Carbon release through abrupt permafrost thaw. Nature Geoscience, 13: 138-143. DOI: 10.1038/s41561-019-0526-0

Oke, T. A., Merritt Turetsky 2020: Evaluating Sphagnum traits in the context of resource economics and optimal partitioning theories. Oikos, 129(8): 1204-1215. DOI: 10.1111/oik.07195

Day, N. J., White, A. L., Johnstone, J. F., Degre-Timmons, G. E., Cumming, S. G., Mack, M. C., Merritt Turetsky, Walker, X. J., Baltzer, J. L. 2020: Fire characteristics and environmental conditions shape plant communities via regeneration strategy. Ecography, 43(10): 1464-1474. DOI: 10.1111/ecog.05211

Rogers, B. M., Balch, J. K., Goetz, S. J., Lehmann, C. E. R., Merritt Turetsky 2020: Focus on changing fire regimes: Interactions with climate, ecosystems, and society. Environmental Research Letters, 15(3): 030201. DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ab6d3a

Walker, X. J., Rogers, B. M., Veraverbeke, S., Johnstone, J. F., Baltzer, J. L., Barrett, K., Bourgeau-Chavez, L., Day, N. J., de Groot, W. J., Dieleman, C. M., Goetz, S., Hoy, E., Jenkins, L. K., Kane, E. S., Parisien, M.-A., Potter, S., Schuur, E. A. G., Merritt Turetsky, Whitman, E., Mack, M. C. 2020: Fuel availability not fire weather controls boreal wildfire severity and carbon emissions. Nature Climate Change, 10(12): 1130-1136. DOI: 10.1038/s41558-020-00920-8

Turner, J. C., Moorberg, C. J., Wong, A., Shea, K., Waldrop, M. P., Merritt Turetsky, Neumann, R. B. 2020: Getting to the root of plant-mediated methane emissions and oxidation in a thermokarst bog. Journal of Geophysical Research—Biogeosciences, 125(11): e2020JG005825. DOI: 10.1029/2020JG005825

Day, N. J., Cumming, S. G., Dunfield, K. E., Johnstone, J. F., Mack, M. C., Reid, K. A., Merritt Turetsky, Walker, X. J., Baltzer, J. L. 2020: Identifying functional impacts of heat-resistant fungi on boreal forest recovery after wildfire. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, 3: 68. DOI: 10.3389/ffgc.2020.00068

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