Ice wedges are common features of the subsurface in permafrost regions. They develop by repeated frost cracking and ice vein growth over hundreds to thousands of years. Ice-wedge formation causes the archetypal polygonal patterns seen in tundra across the Arctic landscape. Here we use field and remote sensing observations to document polygon succession due to ice-wedge degradation and trough development in ten Arctic localities over sub-decadal timescales. Initial thaw drains polygon centres and forms disconnected troughs that hold isolated ponds. Continued ice-wedge melting leads to increased trough connectivity and an overall draining of the landscape. We find that melting at the tops of ice wedges over recent decades and subsequent decimetre-scale ground subsidence is a widespread Arctic phenomenon. Although permafrost temperatures have been increasing gradually, we find that ice-wedge degradation is occurring on sub-decadal timescales. Our hydrological model simulations show that advanced ice-wedge degradation can significantly alter the water balance of lowland tundra by reducing inundation and increasing runoff, in particular due to changes in snow distribution as troughs form. We predict that ice-wedge degradation and the hydrological changes associated with the resulting differential ground subsidence will expand and amplify in rapidly warming permafrost regions.
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Financial assistance was provided by the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE Arctic) project, which is supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the Department of Energy Office of Science (DE-AC02-05CH11231), National Science Foundation (OIA-1208927, DPP-1304271, PLR-1204263), Arctic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (ALCC2014-02), the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (26242026), European Research Council (ERC-338335), Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE) of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and via the PAGE21 project sponsored by the European Commission (FP7-ENV-2011, no. 282700). Recent high-resolution satellite imagery was provided by the Polar Geospatial Center, University of Minnesota. A. Chamberlain, A. Kholodov and R. Busey provided field and/or data processing support. M. Rohr assisted in designing the schematic figure. C. Tweedie, University of Texas El Paso provided the LiDAR DEM. R. Thoman at the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, Fairbanks, provided historical weather observations near Prudhoe Bay. The Arctic Region Supercomputing Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, offered computational support. This work also used the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE), which is supported by National Science Foundation (ACI-1053575).
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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Liljedahl, A., Boike, J., Daanen, R. et al. Pan-Arctic ice-wedge degradation in warming permafrost and its influence on tundra hydrology. Nature Geosci 9, 312–318 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2674
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