Thawing ice wedges substantially change the permafrost landscape
Throughout the Arctic, ice wedges are thawing at a rapid pace. Changes to these structures, which are very common in permafrost landscapes, have a massive impact on the hydrology of the tundra. This is the result of a study carried out by an international research team in cooperation with the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), which will be published in the journal Nature Geoscience today.
Ice wedges are a major feature of the Arctic permafrost landscape: They extend up to 40 metres into the ground and formed over the course of hundreds to thousands of years. Freezing and melting processes are responsible for the ice wedge polygon structures in the Arctic lowlands typically found in permafrost. A team of researchers around lead author Anna Liljedahl of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks has compiled and analysed the results of field studies and remote sensing analyses carried out around the polar circle.
They found that even very brief periods of above-average warm temperatures can cause rapid changes to near-surface ice wedges in the permafrost. In nine out of the ten areas under investigation, the international research team, using historical aerial images and the latest high-resolution satellite data, observed that ice wedges thawed near the surface and that the ground subsided as a result.
"The subsiding of the ground changes the ground's water flow pattern and thus the entire water balance," says Dr Julia Boike, permafrost researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute, and one of the researchers involved in the study.
"In particular runoff increases, which means that water from the snowmelt in the spring, for example, is not absorbed by small polygon ponds in the tundra but rather is rapdily flowing towards streams and larger rivers via the newly developing hydrological networks along thawing ice wedges," the scientist explains. Model calculations performed in the study suggest that the Arctic will lose many of its lakes and wetland areas if the permafrost retreats.
"At first glance, the thaw in these areas does look insignificant, because the subsidence is often only a few decimetres," co-author Dr Guido Grosse, also based at the AWI in Potsdam, adds. However, the reorganisation of the flow pattern associated with the subsidence of the ground causes rather dramatic hydrological changes. This results in changes to the biochemical processes, which very much depend on ground moisture saturation. "We are currently observing how a permafrost-dominated system is changing into a hydrologically more complex system that is less permafrost-dominated," says Grosse about the investigations.
The permafrost contains huge amounts of frozen carbon from dead plant matter. When the temperature rises and the permafrost thaws, microorganisms become active and break down the previously trapped carbon. This in turn produces methane and carbon dioxide, which accelerates the greenhouse effect. These processes have already been investigated for slow and steady temperature increases and near-surface thawing of permafrost. However, thawing ice wedges locally lead to massive changes in such patterns.
"The future carbon balance in the permafrost regions depends on whether it will get wetter or dryer. While we are able to predict rainfall and temperature, the moisture state of the land surface and the way the microbes decompose the soil carbon also depends on how much water drains off," says Julia Boike.
Guido Grosse adds: "The processes that we have identified during these investigations and that we have modelled on local scales now can and have to be integrated into the large land surface models to allow us to better predict hydrological and biochemical processes. There will also be an indirect influence on the Arctic infrastructure, part of which is built in regions rich in ice wedges and which will thus be affected by their thawing."
Anna K. Liljedahl, Julia Boike, Ronald P. Daanen, Alexander N. Fedorov, Gerald V. Frost, Guido Grosse, Larry D. Hinzman, Yoshihiro Iijima, Janet C. Jorgenson, Nadya Matveyeva, Russian Academy of Sciences; Marius Necsoiu, Martha K. Raynolds, Jorg Schulla, Ken D. Tape, Donald A. Walker, Cathy Wilson, Hironori Yabuki, and Donatella Zona: Pan-Arctic ice-wedge degradation in warming permafrost and influence on tundra hydrology, Nature Geoscience 2016; DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2674
Notes for Editors:
Changing Permafrost - a topic of the Arctic Science Summit Week - see webcast: http://livestream.com/ua-fairbanks/asswnews
Please find printable pictures on: http://www.awi.de/nc/en/about-us/service/press/press-release/ein-blick-in-die-zu...
Our new animation on permafrost - see our YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ND7TrKFm-eo&index=1&list=PLFCwd9Up8tvCdlCyXKSWxggqim0gy3TLw
More information on the topic: http://www.awi.de/en/focus/permafrost.html
Your contact persons at the Alfred Wegener Institute are:
Dr Julia Boike, tel. ++49 (0)331 288-2219 (e-mail: Julia.Boike(at)awi.de)
Dr Guido Grosse, tel. ++49 (0)331 288-2150 (e-mail: Guido.Grosse(at)awi.de) and
Dr Folke Mehrtens, Communications Dept., tel. ++49 (0)471 4831-2007 (e-mail: Folke.Mehrtens(at)awi.de)
The Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) conducts research in the Arctic, Antarctic and oceans of the high and mid-latitudes. It coordinates polar research in Germany and provides major infrastructure to the international scientific community, such as the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations in the Arctic and Antarctica. The Alfred Wegener Institute is one of the 18 research centres of the Helmholtz Association, the largest scientific organisation in Germany.
Ralf Röchert | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung
In times of climate change: What a lake’s colour can tell about its condition
21.09.2017 | Leibniz-Institut für Gewässerökologie und Binnenfischerei (IGB)
Did marine sponges trigger the ‘Cambrian explosion’ through ‘ecosystem engineering’?
21.09.2017 | Helmholtz-Zentrum Potsdam - Deutsches GeoForschungsZentrum GFZ
Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.
A warming planet
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.
The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...
Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...
Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!
When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...
For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.
Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...
19.09.2017 | Event News
12.09.2017 | Event News
06.09.2017 | Event News
22.09.2017 | Life Sciences
22.09.2017 | Medical Engineering
22.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy