Subsea permafrost in the Laptev Sea: Influences on degradation dynamics, state and distribution

Paul.Overduin [ at ]


During lower sea levels in glacial periods, deep permafrost formed on large continental shelf areas of the Arctic Ocean. Subsequent sea level rise and coastal erosion created subsea permafrost, which generally degrades after inundation under the influence of a complex suite of marine, near-shore processes. Global warming is especially pronounced in the Arctic, and will increase the transition to and the degradation of subsea permafrost, with implications for atmospheric climate forcing, offshore infrastructure, and aquatic ecosystems. This thesis combines new geophysical, borehole observational and modelling approaches to enhance our understanding of subsea permafrost dynamics. Three specific areas for advancement were identified: (I) sparsity of observational data, (II) lacking implementation of salt infiltration mechanisms in models, and (III) poor understanding of the regional differences in key driving parameters. This study tested the combination of spectral ratios of the ambient vibration seismic wavefield, together with estimated shear wave velocity from seismic interferometry analysis, for estimating the thickness of the unfrozen sediment overlying the ice-bonded permafrost offshore. Mesoscale numerical calculations (10 1 to 10 2 m, thousands of years) were employed to develop and solve the coupled heat diffusion and salt transport equations including phase change effects. Model soil parameters were constrained by borehole data, and the impact of a variety of influences during the transgression was tested in modelling studies. In addition, two inversion schemes (particle swarm optimization and a least-square method) were used to reconstruct temperature histories for the past 200–300 years in the Laptev Sea region in Siberia from two permafrost borehole temperature records. These data were evaluated against larger scale reconstructions from the region. It was found (I) that peaks in spectral ratios modelled for three-layer, one-dimensional systems corresponded with thaw depths. Around Muostakh Island in the central Laptev Sea seismic receivers were deployed on the seabed. Derived depths of the ice-bonded permafrost table were between 3.7–20.7 m ± 15 %, increasing with distance from the coast. (II) Temperatures modelled during the transition to subsea permafrost resembled isothermal conditions after about 2000 years of inundation at Cape Mamontov Klyk, consistent with observations from offshore boreholes. Stratigraphic scenarios showed that salt distribution and infiltration had a large impact on the ice saturation in the sediments. Three key factors were identified that, when changed, shifted the modelled permafrost thaw depth most strongly: bottom water temperatures, shoreline retreat rate and initial temperature before inundation. Salt transport based on diffusion and contribution from arbitrary density-driven mechanisms only accounted for about 50 % of observed thaw depths at offshore sites hundreds to thousands of years after inundation. This bias was found consistently at all three sites in the Laptev Sea region. (III) In the temperature reconstructions, distinct differences in the local temperature histories between the western Laptev Sea and the Lena Delta sites were recognized, such as a transition to warmer temperatures a century later in the western Laptev Sea as well as a peak in warming three decades later. The local permafrost surface temperature history at Sardakh Island in the Lena Delta was reminiscent of the circum-Arctic regional average trends. However, Mamontov Klyk in the western Laptev Sea was consistent to Arctic trends only in the most recent decade and was more similar to northern hemispheric mean trends. Both sites were consistent with a rapid synoptic recent warming. In conclusion, the consistency between modelled response, expected permafrost distribution, and observational data suggests that the passive seismic method is promising for the determination of the thickness of unfrozen sediment on the continental Arctic shelf. The quantified gap between currently modelled and observed thaw depths means that the impact of degradation on climate forcing, ecosystems, and infrastructure is larger than current models predict. This discrepancy suggests the importance of further mechanisms of salt penetration and thaw that have not been considered – either pre-inundation or post-inundation, or both. In addition, any meaningful modelling of subsea permafrost would have to constrain the identified key factors and their regional differences well. The shallow permafrost boreholes provide missing well-resolved short-scale temperature information in the coastal permafrost tundra of the Arctic. As local differences from circum-Arctic reconstructions, such as later warming and higher warming magnitude, were shown to exist in this region, these results provide a basis for local surface temperature record parameterization of climate and, in particular, permafrost models. The results of this work bring us one step further to understanding the full picture of the transition from terrestrial to subsea permafrost.

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Thesis (PhD)
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Not peer-reviewed
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Kneier, F. (2018): Subsea permafrost in the Laptev Sea: Influences on degradation dynamics, state and distribution , PhD thesis, University of Potsdam.


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