Regional patterns and asynchronous onset of ice-wedge degradation since the mid-20th century in Arctic Alaska

Frost, G. V., T. Christopherson, M. T. Jorgenson, A. K. Liljedahl, M. J. Macander, D. A. Walker, and A. F. Wells. 2018. Regional patterns and asynchronous onset of ice-wedge degradation since the mid-20th century in Arctic Alaska. Remote Sensing 10:1312. DOI:10.3390/rs10081312.

Abstract

Ice-wedge polygons are widespread and conspicuous surficial expressions of ground-ice in permafrost landscapes. Thawing of ice wedges triggers differential ground subsidence, local ponding, and persistent changes to vegetation and hydrologic connectivity across the landscape. Here we characterize spatio-temporal patterns of ice-wedge degradation since circa 1950 across environmental gradients on Alaska’s North Slope. We used a spectral thresholding approach validated by field observations to map flooded thaw pits in high-resolution images from circa 1950, 1982, and 2012 for 11 study areas (1577–4460 ha). The total area of flooded pits increased since 1950 at 8 of 11 study areas (median change +3.6 ha; 130.3%). There were strong regional differences in the timing and extent of degradation; flooded pits were already extensive by 1950 on the Chukchi coastal plain (alluvial-marine deposits) and subsequent changes there indicate pit stabilization. Degradation began more recently on the central Beaufort coastal plain (eolian sand) and Arctic foothills (yedoma). Our results indicate that ice-wedge degradation in northern Alaska cannot be explained by late-20th century warmth alone. Likely mechanisms for asynchronous onset include landscape-scale differences in surficial materials and ground-ice content, regional climate gradients from west (maritime) to east (continental), and regional differences in the timing and magnitude of extreme warm summers after the Little Ice Age.

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