IAB Research Project Description

Collaborative Research: Spatial and Temporal Influences of Thermokarst Failures on Surface Processes in Arctic Landscapes

Thermokarst landscape, North Slope, Alaska. Credit: Andrew Balser

Scientists investigating thermokarst landscape, North Slope, Alaska. Credit: Andrew Balser

Caribou cross thermokarst landscape in Alaska. Credit: Andrew Balser

Any and all uses of these images must include photographer credit.

Recent summaries of international research clearly document the past and future extent of climate warming in the Arctic. The ACIA report, for example, reports that in the decades between 1954 and 2003 annual average temperatures in the Arctic rose ~1°C and that average winter temperatures increased 2-4oC. Results from general circulation models (GCMs) differ somewhat regarding future trends, but the models and scenarios selected for the ACIA report (2004) conclude that average annual temperatures in the Arctic are expected to rise a further 3-5oC and winter temperatures may increase by 4-7oC by 2100. These models also suggest that the rising temperatures will be accompanied by increased precipitation, mostly as rain: 20% more over the Arctic as a whole and up to 30% more in coastal areas during the winter and autumn. These climatic changes will have important impacts on Arctic systems. Of direct interest to the research we propose here is the likelihood that these changes will promote the formation of thermokarst terrain; i.e., uneven ground caused by thawing of ice-rich permafrost. Warming is causing large areas of permafrost to thaw. Zhang et al. note that Canadian permafrost has thinned by 3 m and that the mean active layer has increased by 21 cm since 1850. Permafrost across the Arctic has already warmed by up to 2oC and projections are that 10-20% of the area currently occupied by permafrost will thaw in the next 100 years, shifting permafrost boundaries 100’s of kilometers north. These formerly frozen soils may be further destabilized by increasing precipitation, leading to hillslope failures. These failures take several different forms; e.g., thaw slumps, active lay displacements, tunnel gulley erosion, etc. For the purposes of this proposal we will refer to these features as thermokarst failures.

Project Funding

National Science Foundation
1 Jul 2008 – 30 Jun 2012
IAB Proposal #08-036
UAF Grant #G5130
IAB Project #158

Outreach & Media

News and Outreach Articles

  • Nutrient Transport in Arctic Watersheds
    [ link ]
  • The big thaw: Experts expect significant climatic impact of carbon from permafrost
    [ link | pdf ]

Media Contact

Marie Thoms
Communications/Web Manager
Institute of Arctic Biology
302A Irving I
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Fairbanks, AK 99775-7000
email: methoms@alaska.edu
phone: 907.474.7412