It’s all about water: from small scale hydrologic processes in ice wedge polygonal tundra and thermokarst lakes to larger scale river runoff (Lena River Delta, Siberia)

Julia.Boike [ at ]


The Lena River Delta in Northern Yakutia forms one of the largest deltas in the Arctic and its catchment area (2 430 000 km2) is one of the largest in the whole of Eurasia. The Lena River distributes water and sediment in four main channels before discharging in total about 30 km3 of water through the delta into the Arctic Ocean every year and its discharge has been observed to be increasing. The goal of this presentation is to characterize the hydrologic processes that are strongly affected by a transient climate component- the permafrost. Permafrost plays a major role for storage and release of water to rivers and surface and subsurface water bodies. Conversely, the coupled water and heat fluxes in the atmosphere and below ground have a marked influence on the permafrost’s thermal regime. Our study site, the Lena River Delta, is also one of the coldest and driest places on Earth, with mean annual air temperatures of about -13 °C, a large annual air temperature range of about 44 °C and summer precipitation usually less than 150 mm. Very cold continuous permafrost of about −8.6 °C (11 m depth) underlays the area between about 400 and 600 m below surface and since 2006 the permafrost has warmed than 1 °C at 10.7 m. Roughly half of the land surface is dominated by wet surfaces, such as polygons, ponds and thermokarst lakes. This contribution summarizes past and ongoing research on hydrologic processes across spatial scales, from microtopographic processes of polygonal tundra to regional scale deltaic processes to assess short and long term changes in water fluxes. We quantify unfrozen water in soils, streams and river discharges and water bodies’ storage at larger scales. Water bodies were mapped using optical and radar satellite data with resolutions of 4 m or better, Landsat-5 TM at 30 m and the MODIS water mask at 250 m resolution. Ponds, i. e. water bodies with surface are smaller than 104 m, make over 95 % of the total number of water bodies and are not resolved in Landsat-scale land cover classifications. Ponds are generally well mixed and experience high water temperatures up to 23 °C during the summer and are, therefore, hotspots for biological activity and CO2 emission. The ponds in the study area freeze completely in winter, whereas the deeper thermokarst lakes do not freeze to the bottom, with implications for coupling of the permafrost to the atmosphere. These deep thermokarst lakes are thermally stratified during winter and reach maximum water temperatures of up to 19 °C during summer. The summer water balance at the catchment scale was found to be mainly controlled by vertical fluxes (precipitation and evapotranspiration). On the other hand, redistribution of storage water due to lateral fluxes takes place within the microtopography of polygonal tundra. The long-term summer storage (precipitation minus evapotranspiration) from 1958-2011 indicates a reasonably balance on the polygonal tundra with an average surplus of 5 mm, but it is also characterized by high interannual variability due to precipitation input. During negative water balance years where evapotranspiration exceeds precipitation, shallower water bodies dry out. The extent of wetlands and water bodies will shift with changes in vertical water fluxes as well as permafrost warming and thaw. Thus, water bodies can serve as sentinels of environmental change and we present applicable remote-sensing observations and upscaling methods

Item Type
Conference (Invited talk)
Primary Division
Primary Topic
Peer revision
Not peer-reviewed
Publication Status
Event Details
Fall meeting, 09 Nov 2013 - 13 Dec 2013, San Francisco.
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Cite as
Boike, J. , Langer, M. , Fedorova, I. , Kutzbach, L. and Cresto Aleina, F. (2013): It’s all about water: from small scale hydrologic processes in ice wedge polygonal tundra and thermokarst lakes to larger scale river runoff (Lena River Delta, Siberia) , Fall meeting, San Francisco, 9 November 2013 - 13 December 2013 .


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