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Thawing Permafrost Spells More than Climate Change for Earth’s Underground Layers

The thawing of the planet’s permafrost is replumbing arctic environments, creating several hydrologic consequences and possibly some opportunities according to a new study published in Vadose Zone.

The paper, authored by Denver-based U.S. Geological Survey researcher Michelle Walvoord and a colleague from University of Calgary, notes that hydrologic change has been causally linked to permafrost thaw. However, applications of process-based models needed to support these linkages have often been restricted to generalized representations, hence, opening the door to multiple new areas of hydrologic study.


The field of permafrost hydrology is undergoing rapid advancement with respect to multiscale observations, subsurface characterization, modeling and integration with other areas of scientific study. Gaining predictive capability of the many interrelated consequences of climate change is a persistent challenge due to several factors.


“Basically, as new pathways for water flow underground open up, you could think of this as the potential for a replumbing of arctic and subarctic environments. However, we currently have limited capability to predict how the system will be replumbed and how fast,” said Walvoord, the study’s lead author.


Permafrost is defined as ground that remains frozen throughout the year; it covers about a quarter of the land surface in the Northern Hemisphere. Permafrost has been long considered a terrestrial indicator of long-term changes in the climate system as the subsurface slowly response to changes in atmospheric conditions. Studies have shown that the rate of air temperature warming is greater in high latitudes and altitudes than the global average, thereby enhancing the vulnerability of permafrost to thaw.


As many of the world’s large river systems originate in high latitudes and altitudes, understanding changes in the hydrology of frozen regions under a warming climate is an important aspect to quantifying Earth’s freshwater resources.



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