Patterns and rates of riverbank erosion involving ice-rich permafrost (yedoma) in northern Alaska

Jens.Strauss [ at ]


Yedoma, a suite of syngenetically frozen silty ice- and organic-rich deposits with large ice wedges that accumulated during the late Pleistocene, is vulnerable to thermal degradation and erosion because of the extremely high ice contents. This degradation can result in significant surface subsidence and retreat of coastal bluffs and riverbanks with large consequences to landscape evolution, infrastructure damage, and water quality. We used remote sensing and field observations to assess patterns and rates of riverbank erosion at a 35-m-high active yedoma bluff along the Itkillik River in northern Alaska. The total volumetric ground-ice content—including wedge, segregated, and pore ice—was estimated to be ~ 86%. The process of riverbank erosion and stabilization include three main stages typical of the areas with ice-rich permafrost: (1) thermal erosion combined with thermal denudation, (2) thermal denudation, and (3) slope stabilization. Active riverbank erosion at the main study site started in July 1995, when the Itkillik River changed its channel. The total retreat of the riverbank during 1995–2010 within different segments of the bluff varied from 180 to 280 m; the average retreat rate for the most actively eroded part of the riverbank was almost 19 m/y. From August 2007 to August 2011, the total retreat varied from 10 to almost 100 m. The average retreat rate for the whole 680-m-long bluff was 11 m/y. For the most actively eroded central part of the bluff (150 m long) it was 20 m/y, ranging from 16 to 24 m/y. More than 180,000 m3 of ground ice and organic-rich frozen soil, or almost 70,000 metric tons (t) of soil solids including 880 t of organic carbon, were transported to the river from the retreating bank annually. This study reports the highest long-term rates of riverbank erosion ever observed in permafrost regions of Eurasia and North America.

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DOI 10.1016/j.geomorph.2015.10.023

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Kanevskiy, M. , Shur, Y. , Strauss, J. , Jorgenson, T. , Fortier, D. , Stephani, E. and Vasiliev, A. (2016): Patterns and rates of riverbank erosion involving ice-rich permafrost (yedoma) in northern Alaska , Geomorphology . doi: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2015.10.023

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