Rapid disturbances in Arctic permafrost regions

guido.grosse [ at ] awi.de


Permafrost thaw is often perceived as a slow process dominated by press disturbances such as gradual active layer thickening. However, various pulse disturbances such as thermokarst formation can substantially increase the rate of permafrost thaw and result in rapid landscape change on sub-decadal to decadal time scales. Other disturbances associated with permafrost thaw are even more dynamic and unfold on sub-annual timescales, such as catastrophic thermokarst lake drainage. The diversity of processes results in complex feedbacks with soil carbon pools, biogeochemical cycles, hydrology, and flora and fauna, and requires a differentiated approach when quantifying how these ecosystem componentsare affected,how vulnerablethey are to rapid change, and what regional to global scale impacts result. Here we show quantitative measurements for three examples of rapid pulse disturbances in permafrost regions as observed with remote sensing data time series: The formation of a mega thaw slump (>50 ha) in syngenetic permafrost in Siberia, the formation of new thermokarst ponds in ice-rich permafrost regions in Alaska and Siberia, and the drainage of thermokarst lakes along a gradient of permafrost extent in Western Alaska. The surprising setting and unabated growth of the mega thaw slump during the last 40 years indicates that limited information on panarctic ground ice distribution, abundance, and vulnerability remains a key gap for reliable projections of thermokarst and thermo-erosion impacts, and that the natural limits on the growth and size of thaw slumps are still poorly understood. Observed thermokarst pond formation and expansion in our study regions was closely tied to ice-rich permafrost terrain, such as syngenetic Yedoma uplands, but was also found in old drained thermokarst lake basins with epigenetic permafrost and shallow drained thermokarst lake basins whose ground ice had not been depleted by the prior lake phase. The very different substrates in which new ponds have been forming indicate a broad range of possible biogeochemical feedbacks that require further study. Finally, thermokarst lake drainage observed in regions of continuous permafrost shows that local permafrost degradation, such as thermo-erosional gully formation, may increase permafrost extent in a region, in particular by new permafrost aggradation in freshly exposed, refreezing lake basin sediments. Thermokarst lake drainage across all types of permafrost extent increases habitat diversity, is important for regional biogeochemical cycling, and results in carbon sequestration. While all three disturbance types differ in spatial scale and current abundance, they also point at specific vulnerabilities of permafrost landscapes that are tied to local factors such as ground ice, highlight critical knowledge gaps for predictive ecosystem and biogeochemical models, and indicate the potential for rapid, substantial, and surprising changes in a future warmer Arctic.

Item Type
Conference (Invited talk)
Primary Division
Primary Topic
Peer revision
Not peer-reviewed
Publication Status
Event Details
AGU Fall Meeting, 09 Dec 2013 - 13 Dec 2013, San Francisco.
Eprint ID
Cite as
Grosse, G. , Romanovsky, V. , Arp, C. and Jones, B. (2013): Rapid disturbances in Arctic permafrost regions , AGU Fall Meeting, San Francisco, 9 December 2013 - 13 December 2013 .


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