Thaw processes in ice-rich permafrost landscapes represented with laterally coupled tiles in a land surface model

Julia.Boike [ at ]


Earth system models (ESMs) are our primary tool for projecting future climate change, but their ability to represent small-scale land surface processes is currently limited. This is especially true for permafrost landscapes in which melting of excess ground ice and subsequent subsidence affect lateral processes which can substantially alter soil conditions and fluxes of heat, water, and carbon to the atmosphere. Here we demonstrate that dynamically changing microtopography and related lateral fluxes of snow, water, and heat can be represented through a tiling approach suitable for implementation in large-scale models, and we investigate which of these lateral processes are important to reproduce observed landscape evolution. Combining existing methods for representing excess ground ice, snow redistribution, and lateral water and energy fluxes in two coupled tiles, we show that the model approach can simulate observed degradation processes in two very different permafrost landscapes. We are able to simulate the transition from low-centered to high-centered polygons, when applied to polygonal tundra in the cold, continuous permafrost zone, which results in (i) a more realistic representation of soil conditions through drying of elevated features and wetting of lowered features with related changes in energy fluxes, (ii) up to 2 ∘C reduced average permafrost temperatures in the current (2000–2009) climate, (iii) delayed permafrost degradation in the future RCP4.5 scenario by several decades, and (iv) more rapid degradation through snow and soil water feedback mechanisms once subsidence starts. Applied to peat plateaus in the sporadic permafrost zone, the same two-tile system can represent an elevated peat plateau underlain by permafrost in a surrounding permafrost-free fen and its degradation in the future following a moderate warming scenario. These results demonstrate the importance of representing lateral fluxes to realistically simulate both the current permafrost state and its degradation trajectories as the climate continues to warm. Implementing laterally coupled tiles in ESMs could improve the representation of a range of permafrost processes, which is likely to impact the simulated magnitude and timing of the permafrost–carbon feedback.

Item Type
Primary Division
Primary Topic
Research Networks
Publication Status
Eprint ID
DOI 10.5194/tc-13-591-2019

Cite as
Aas, K. S. , Martin, L. , Nitzbon, J. , Langer, M. , Boike, J. , Lee, H. , Berntsen, T. K. and Westermann, S. (2019): Thaw processes in ice-rich permafrost landscapes represented with laterally coupled tiles in a land surface model , The Cryosphere, 13 (2), pp. 591-609 . doi: 10.5194/tc-13-591-2019

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