Thermokarst and thermal erosion: Degradation of Siberian ice-rich permafrost

Anne.Morgenstern [ at ]


Current climate warming is affecting arctic regions at a faster rate than the rest of the world. This has profound effects on permafrost that underlies most of the arctic land area. Permafrost thawing can lead to the liberation of considerable amounts of greenhouse gases as well as to significant changes in the geomorphology, hydrology, and ecology of the corresponding landscapes, which may in turn act as a positive feedback to the climate system. Vast areas of the east Siberian lowlands, which are underlain by permafrost of the Yedoma-type Ice Complex, are particularly sensitive to climate warming because of the high ice content of these permafrost deposits. Thermokarst and thermal erosion are two major types of permafrost degradation in periglacial landscapes. The associated landforms are prominent indicators of climate-induced environmental variations on the regional scale. Thermokarst lakes and basins (alasses) as well as thermo-erosional valleys are widely distributed in the coastal lowlands adjacent to the Laptev Sea. This thesis investigates the spatial distribution and morphometric properties of these degradational features to reconstruct their evolutionary conditions during the Holocene and to deduce information on the potential impact of future permafrost degradation under the projected climate warming. The methodological approach is a combination of remote sensing, geoinformation, and field investigations, which integrates analyses on local to regional spatial scales. Thermokarst and thermal erosion have affected the study region to a great extent. In the Ice Complex area of the Lena River Delta, thermokarst basins cover a much larger area than do present thermokarst lakes on Yedoma uplands (20.0 and 2.2 %, respectively), which indicates that the conditions for large-area thermokarst development were more suitable in the past. This is supported by the reconstruction of the development of an individual alas in the Lena River Delta, which reveals a prolonged phase of high thermokarst activity since the Pleistocene/Holocene transition that created a large and deep basin. After the drainage of the primary thermokarst lake during the mid-Holocene, permafrost aggradation and degradation have occurred in parallel and in shorter alternating stages within the alas, resulting in a complex thermokarst landscape. Though more dynamic than during the first phase, late Holocene thermokarst activity in the alas was not capable of degrading large portions of Pleistocene Ice Complex deposits and substantially altering the Yedoma relief. Further thermokarst development in existing alasses is restricted to thin layers of Holocene ice-rich alas sediments, because the Ice Complex deposits underneath the large primary thermokarst lakes have thawed completely and the underlying deposits are ice-poor fluvial sands. Thermokarst processes on undisturbed Yedoma uplands have the highest impact on the alteration of Ice Complex deposits, but will be limited to smaller areal extents in the future because of the reduced availability of large undisturbed upland surfaces with poor drainage. On Kurungnakh Island in the central Lena River Delta, the area of Yedoma uplands available for future thermokarst development amounts to only 33.7 %. The increasing proximity of newly developing thermokarst lakes on Yedoma uplands to existing degradational features and other topographic lows decreases the possibility for thermokarst lakes to reach large sizes before drainage occurs. Drainage of thermokarst lakes due to thermal erosion is common in the study region, but thermo-erosional valleys also provide water to thermokarst lakes and alasses. Besides these direct hydrological interactions between thermokarst and thermal erosion on the local scale, an interdependence between both processes exists on the regional scale. A regional analysis of extensive networks of thermo-erosional valleys in three lowland regions of the Laptev Sea with a total study area of 5,800 km² found that these features are more common in areas with higher slopes and relief gradients, whereas thermokarst development is more pronounced in flat lowlands with lower relief gradients. The combined results of this thesis highlight the need for comprehensive analyses of both, thermokarst and thermal erosion, in order to assess past and future impacts and feedbacks of the degradation of ice-rich permafrost on hydrology and climate of a certain region.

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Thesis (PhD)
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Morgenstern, A. (2012): Thermokarst and thermal erosion: Degradation of Siberian ice-rich permafrost , PhD thesis, University of Potsdam.

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