Gradual and Abrupt Permafrost Thaw as Drivers of Rapid Geomorphic Change in Arctic Permafrost Regions
In this presentation, we will highlight some of the overarching geomorphic dynamics of gradual and abrupt permafrost thaw using examples from Siberia, Alaska, and Canada, their role in Arctic landscapes transitioning to a warmer world, and implications for the Earth System. Northern high latitude regions are particularly vulnerable to warming and changes in climatic patterns, which leads to the thaw of ice-rich permafrost across vast Arctic and sub-Arctic landscapes. Permafrost thaw and subsequent geomorphological change directly interact with hydrology, biogeochemistry, and biology and thus have been major agents of Arctic ecosystem change since the last deglaciation. The changes are also important contributors to cumulative impacts associated with historic and current development of the Arctic, including in association with infrastructure. Today, in a rapidly warming Arctic, permafrost thaw processes, both gradual and abrupt, are accelerating in a manner comparable to the Holocene Thermal Maximum. At the same time, other environmental forcing factors, such as wildfires, precipitation, and hydrological processes, are also changing, either further reinforcing thaw dynamics or enhancing drainage and stabilizing the ground. Many of the resulting gradual and abrupt thaw processes are non-linear. Their dynamics are still poorly understood and insufficiently quantified in large-scale models due to lacking or limited representation of water-ice phase transitions during freeze-thaw cycles, ground ice distribution and loss, and challenging implementation of sub-gridcell scale interactions between frozen ground and hydrology. Gradual thaw impacts are especially pronounced in regions with an abundance of ice wedge polygons, and include changes in microtopography and extensive ponding in natural landscapes and those adjacent to infrastructure, where soils are warmed due to increased dust, flooding, snowdrifts, and altered vegetation. Abrupt thaw processes such as thermokarst and thermo-erosion represent rapid dynamics that are widespread in Arctic lowlands but poorly represented in observations and models. Characteristic landforms that result from abrupt thaw include thermokarst lakes and basins, retrogressive thaw slumps, and steep coastal bluffs. These landscape changes may be triggered by climate-driven press disturbances such as sea ice loss or increases in precipitation, pulse disturbances such as wildfires, or by anthropogenic disturbances such as road construction. When loss of excess ground ice is involved, positive feedbacks can result in a decoupling of further geomorphological change from climate. Once initiated, this may lead to continued or even accelerated growth of such features under a wide range of climate conditions, including in the high Arctic. Most abrupt thaw processes produce lasting impacts on northern permafrost landscapes that are irreversible over millennial timescales and result in the short-term mobilization of large amounts of permafrost carbon that may further contribute to climate warming.
EGU General Assembly Conference Abstracts
- Pub Date:
- May 2020