Quantifying rapid permafrost thaw with computer vision and graph theory

Tabea.Rettelbach [ at ] awi.de


With the Earth’s climate rapidly warming, the Arctic represents one of the most vulnerable regions to environmental change. Permafrost, as a key element of the Arctic system, stores vast amounts of organic carbon that can be microbially decomposed into the greenhouse gases CO2 and CH4 upon thaw. Extensive thawing of these permafrost soils therefore has potentially substantial consequences to greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. In addition, thaw of ice-rich permafrost lastingly alters the surface topography and thus the hydrology. Fires represent an important disturbance in boreal permafrost regions and increasingly also in tundra regions as they combust the vegetation and upper organic soil layers that usually provide protective insulation to the permafrost below. Field studies and local remote sensing studies suggest that fire disturbances may trigger rapid permafrost thaw, with consequences often already observable in the first years post-disturbance. In polygonal ice-wedge landscapes, this becomes most prevalent through melting ice wedges and degrading troughs. The further these ice wedges degrade; the more troughs will likely connect and build an extensive hydrological network with changing patterns and degrees of connectivity that influences hydrology and runoff throughout large regions. While subsiding troughs over melting ice wedges may host new ponds, an increasing connectivity may also subsequently lead to more drainage of ponds, which in turn can limit further thaw and help stabilize the landscape. Whereas fire disturbances may accelerate the initiation of this process, the general warming of permafrost observed across the Arctic will eventually result in widespread degradation of polygonal landscapes. To quantify the changes in such dynamic landscapes over large regions, remote sensing data offers a valuable resource. However, considering the vast and ever-growing volumes of Earth observation data available, highly automated methods are needed that allow extracting information on the geomorphic state and changes over time of ice-wedge trough networks. In this study, we investigate these changing landscapes and their environmental implications in fire scars in Northern and Western Alaska. We developed a computer vision algorithm to automatically extract ice-wedge polygonal networks and the microtopography of the degrading troughs from high-resolution, airborne laserscanning-based digital terrain models (1 m spatial resolution; full-waveform Riegl Q680i LiDAR sensor). To derive information on the availability of surface water, we used optical and near-infrared aerial imagery at spatial resolutions of up to 5 cm captured by the Modular Aerial Camera System (MACS) developed by DLR. We represent the networks as graphs (a concept from the computer sciences to describe complex networks) and apply methods from graph theory to describe and quantify hydrological network characteristics of the changing landscape. Due to a lack of historical very-high-resolution data, we cannot investigate a dense time series of a single representative study area on the evolution of the microtopographic and hydrologic network, but rather leverage the possibilities of a space-for-time substitution. We thus investigate terrain models and multispectral data from 2019 and 2021 of ten study areas located in ten fire scars of different ages (up to 120 years between date of disturbance and date of data acquisition). With this approach, we can infer past and future states of degradation from the currently prevailing spatial patterns and show how this type of disturbed landscape evolves over time. Representing such polygonal landscapes as graphs and reducing large amounts of data into few quantifiable metrics, supports integration of results into i.e., numerical models and thus largely facilitates the understanding of the underlying complex processes of GHG emissions from permafrost thaw. We highlight these extensive possibilities but also illustrate the limitations encountered in the study that stem from a reduced availability and accessibility to pan-Arctic very-high-resolution Earth observation datasets.

Item Type
Conference (Poster)
Primary Division
Primary Topic
Helmholtz Cross Cutting Activity (2021-2027)
Publication Status
Event Details
ESA Living Planet Symposium, 23 May 2022 - 27 May 2022, Bonn, Germany.
Eprint ID
Cite as
Rettelbach, T. , Langer, M. , Nitze, I. , Helm, V. , Freytag, J. C. and Grosse, G. (2022): Quantifying rapid permafrost thaw with computer vision and graph theory , ESA Living Planet Symposium, Bonn, Germany, 23 May 2022 - 27 May 2022 .

[thumbnail of rettelbach_poster_icrss_lps.pdf]

Download (2MB) | Preview


Research Platforms

POLAR 6 > P6_219_ThawTrendR_Air_2019

Edit Item Edit Item