Climatic drivers of retrogressive thaw slump activity and resulting sediment and carbon release to the nearshore zone of Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, Canada

stefanie.weege [ at ]


The Yukon Coast in Canada is an ice-rich permafrost coast and highly sensitive to changing environmental conditions. Retrogressive thaw slumps are a common thermoerosion feature along this coast, and develop through the thawing of exposed ice-rich permafrost on slopes and removal of accumulating debris. They contribute large amounts of sediment, including organic carbon and nitrogen, to the nearshore zone. The objective of this study was to 1) identify the climatic and geomorphological drivers of sediment-meltwater release, 2) quantify the amount of released meltwater, sediment, organic carbon and nitrogen, and 3) project the evolution of sediment-meltwater release of retrogressive thaw slumps in a changing future climate. The analysis is based on data collected over 18 days in July 2013 and 18 days in August 2012. A cut-throat flume was set up in the main sediment-meltwater channel of the largest retrogressive thaw slump on Herschel Island. In addition, two weather stations, one on top of the undisturbed tundra and one on the slump floor, measured incoming solar radiation, air temperature, wind speed and precipitation. The discharge volume eroding from the ice-rich permafrost and retreating snowbanks was measured and compared to the meteorological data collected in real time with a resolution of one minute. The results show that the release of sediment-meltwater from thawing of the ice-rich permafrost headwall is strongly related to snowmelt, incoming solar radiation and air temperature. Snowmelt led to seasonal differences, especially due to the additional contribution of water to the eroding sediment-meltwater from headwall ablation, lead to dilution of the sediment-meltwater composition. Incoming solar radiation and air temperature were the main drivers for diurnal and inter-diurnal fluctuations. In July (2013), the retrogressive thaw slump released about 25 000 m³ of sediment-meltwater, containing 225 kg dissolved organic carbon and 2050 t of sediment, which in turn included 33 t organic carbon, and 4 t total nitrogen. In August (2012), just 15 600 m³ of sediment-meltwater was released, since there was no additional contribution from snowmelt. However, even without the additional dilution, 281 kg dissolved organic carbon was released. The sediment concentration was twice as high as in July, with sediment contents of up to 457 g l-1 and 3058 t of sediment, including 53 t organic carbon and 5 t nitrogen, being released. In addition, the data from the 36 days of observations from Slump D were upscaled to cover the main summer season of 1 July to 31 August (62 days) and to include all 229 active retrogressive thaw slumps along the Yukon Coast. In total, all retrogressive thaw slumps along the Yukon Coast contribute a minimum of 1.4 Mio. m³ sediment-meltwater each thawing season, containing a minimum of 172 000 t sediment with 3119 t organic carbon, 327 t nitrogen and 17 t dissolved organic carbon. Therefore, in addition to the coastal erosion input to the Beaufort Sea, retrogressive thaw slumps additionally release 3 % of sediment and 8 % of organic carbon into the ocean. Finally, the future evolution of retrogressive thaw slumps under a warming scenario with summer air temperatures increasing by 2-3 °C by 2081-2100, would lead to an increase of 109-114% in release of sediment-meltwater. It can be concluded that retrogressive thaw slumps are sensitive to climatic conditions and under projected future Arctic warming will contribute larger amounts of thawed permafrost material (including organic carbon and nitrogen) into the environment.

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Weege, S. (2017): Climatic drivers of retrogressive thaw slump activity and resulting sediment and carbon release to the nearshore zone of Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, Canada , PhD thesis, Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät / Institut für Erd- und Umweltwissenschaften.

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