What does groundwater have to do with ice in Alaska?

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USGS scientists are working alongside university researchers in Alaska to understand how groundwater and permafrost conditions change over time due to seasonal variations and climate change. Changes in permafrost can pose a threat to built infrastructure (like roads, homes, and pipelines) and to valued ecological resources that provide important habitats for wildlife.

Scientist operates equipment console while towing GPR on ice

Research Hydrologist Neil Terry (USGS) collects ground-penetrating radar (GPR) data. Using hydrogeophysical tools such as GPR enables scientists to collect images of the structure and conditions of the ice below them.

During the cold Alaska winters, groundwater discharging in springs at the ground surface freezes, causing thick accumulations of ice called aufeis in areas with permafrost. Scientists from the USGS Water Resources Mission Area and the USGS Energy and Minerals Mission Area are using geophysics to study aufeis features, including potential thawed zones beneath. Geophysical tools provide us with noninvasive ways to see through ice and the earth, much like how medical imaging lets us see inside the human body.

USGS scientists returned to Alaska in April 2017 as part of this ongoing research led by several university collaborators. Using geophysical methods such as ground-penetrating radar (GPR), passive seismic, electromagnetic induction, infrared, and nuclear magnetic resonance, USGS scientists are studying aufeis in Alaska to understand:

  • how groundwater and streams interact in permafrost regions;
  • how aufeis form and change seasonally; and
  • how new or emerging hydrogeophysical tools and methods can be used to improve our understanding of groundwater/surface-water exchange in cold regions.

Learn more about geophysics for USGS groundwater/surface-water interaction studies.