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Warming-driven erosion and sediment transport in cold regions

Abstract

Rapid atmospheric warming since the mid-twentieth century has increased temperature-dependent erosion and sediment-transport processes in cold environments, affecting food, energy and water security. In this Review, we summarize landscape changes in cold environments and provide a global inventory of increases in erosion and sediment yield driven by cryosphere degradation. Anthropogenic climate change, deglaciation, and thermokarst disturbances are causing increased sediment mobilization and transport processes in glacierized and periglacierized basins. With continuous cryosphere degradation, sediment transport will continue to increase until reaching a maximum (peak sediment). Thereafter, transport is likely to shift from a temperature-dependent regime toward a rainfall-dependent regime roughly between 2100–2200. The timing of the regime shift would be regulated by changes in meltwater, erosive rainfall and landscape erodibility, and complicated by geomorphic feedbacks and connectivity. Further progress in integrating multisource sediment observations, developing physics-based sediment-transport models, and enhancing interdisciplinary and international scientific collaboration is needed to predict sediment dynamics in a warming world.

Key points

  • A global inventory of cryosphere-degradation-driven increases in erosion and sediment yield is presented, with 76 locations from the high Arctic, European mountains, High Mountain Asia and Andes, and 18 Arctic permafrost-coastal sites.

  • Sediment mobilization from glacierized basins is dominated by glacial and paraglacial erosion; transport efficiency is controlled by glaciohydrology and modulated by subglacial, proglacial and supraglacial storage and release, but is interrupted by glacial lakes and moraines.

  • Degraded permafrost mainly mobilizes sediment by eroding thermokarst landscapes in high-latitude terrain and unstable rocky slopes in high-altitude terrain, which is sustained by exposing and melting ground ice and sufficient water supply; transport efficiency is enhanced by hillslope-channel connectivity.

  • The sediment-transport regime will shift in three stages, from a thermal-controlled regime to one jointly controlled by thermal and pluvial processes, and finally to a regime controlled by pluvial processes.

  • Peak sediment yield will be reached with or after peak meltwater.

  • Between the 1950s and 2010s, sediment fluxes have increased two- to eight-fold in many cold regions, and coastal erosion rates have more than doubled along many parts of Arctic permafrost coastlines.

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Fig. 1: Glacier melt.
Fig. 2: Permafrost thaw in the Northern Hemisphere.
Fig. 3: Impacts of glacier dynamics on sediment transport.
Fig. 4: Impacts of permafrost degradation and thermokarst processes on sediment transport.
Fig. 5: Increased sediment fluxes due to modern climate change and cryosphere degradation.
Fig. 6: Peak sediment and transport regime changes.
Fig. 7: Changes in basin-scale sediment source-to-sink processes in response to climate change and human activities.

Data availability

The warming-driven changes in erosion and sediment yield inventory is available at: https://zenodo.org/record/7109898.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by Singapore MOE (A-0003626-00-00; D.L., X.L.), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Cuomo Foundation (D.L.). The authors acknowledge comments provided by M. Church. We thank O. Jaroslav, R. MacLeod, J. Comte, L. Huang and W. Pollard for providing field photos. Any use of trade, firm or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

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T.Z. and D.L. conceived the study and assembled the authorship team. T.Z. and D.L. drafted the paper. All authors contributed to the discussion and editing of the manuscript prior to submission.

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Correspondence to Dongfeng Li.

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Glossary

Active layer

The top layer of soil or rock overlying the permafrost that experiences seasonal freeze (in winter) and thaw (in summer).

Basal sliding velocity

The speed of slip of a glacier over its bed, which is facilitated by lubricating meltwater and limited by frictional resistance between the glacier sole and its bed.

Cold regions

High-altitude and/or high-latitude low-temperature environments, where hydrogeomorphic processes are influenced by glacier, permafrost, snow, or river, lake and sea ice.

Cryosphere

The portion of the Earth’s surface where water exists in solid form, including glaciers, ice sheets, permafrost, snowpack, and river, lake and sea ice.

Cryospheric basins

Basins where hydrological and geomorphic processes are influenced or even dominated by the cryosphere.

Glacial lake outburst floods

A flood caused by the rapid draining of an ice-marginal or moraine-dammed glacial lake, or supraglacial lake.

Glacier equilibrium line altitudes

The elevation on a glacier where the accumulation of snow is balanced by ablation over a 1-year period.

Ice-free erodible landscapes

Landscapes that are not covered by glaciers and contain no ground ice, where erosion is controlled neither by glacial processes nor by other ice processes and is characterized as pluvial and fluvial processes.

Paraglacial erosion

Erosional processes directly conditioned by (de)glaciation, characterized by fluvial erosion and mass movements, including landslides, debris flows and avalanches.

Peak meltwater

The maximum of the meltwater in flux from the glacierized drainage basin; the meltwater flux initially increases with atmospheric warming and glacier melting, and then peaks, followed by a decline as glaciers shrink below a critical size.

Periglacial

Refers to cold and non-glacial landforms on the margin of past glaciers or geomorphic processes occurring in cold environments.

Permafrost

Ground, consisting of ground ice, frozen sediments, biomass and decomposed biomass, that remains at or below 0 °C for at least two consecutive years.

Talik

A layer of soil or sediment in permafrost that remains unfrozen year-round, usually formed beneath surface water bodies.

Thermally controlled erodible landscapes

Landscapes covered by glaciers and/or containing ground ice where erosion is dominated by glacial erosion and/or thermokarst erosion.

Thermokarst landscapes

Landscapes with a variety of topographic depressions or collapses of unstable ground surface arising from ground-ice thawing, including active-layer detachment, thermal erosion gullies, retrogressive thaw slumps and ice-rich riverbank collapse.

Yedoma permafrost

A type of Pleistocene-age permafrost that contains a substantial amount of organic material (2% carbon by mass) and ground ice (ice content of 50–90% by volume).

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Zhang, T., Li, D., East, A.E. et al. Warming-driven erosion and sediment transport in cold regions. Nat Rev Earth Environ 3, 832–851 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-022-00362-0

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