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Distribution of near-surface permafrost in Alaska: estimates of present and future conditions

August 5, 2015

High-latitude regions are experiencing rapid and extensive changes in ecosystem composition and function as the result of increases in average air temperature. Increasing air temperatures have led to widespread thawing and degradation of permafrost, which in turn has affected ecosystems, socioeconomics, and the carbon cycle of high latitudes. Here we overcome complex interactions among surface and subsurface conditions to map nearsurface permafrost through decision and regression tree approaches that statistically and spatially extend field observations using remotely sensed imagery, climatic data, and thematic maps of a wide range of surface and subsurface biophysical characteristics. The data fusion approach generated medium-resolution (30-m pixels) maps of near-surface (within 1 m) permafrost, active-layer thickness, and associated uncertainty estimates throughout mainland Alaska. Our calibrated models (overall test accuracy of ~85%) were used to quantify changes in permafrost distribution under varying future climate scenarios assuming no other changes in biophysical factors. Models indicate that near-surface permafrost underlies 38% of mainland Alaska and that near-surface permafrost will disappear on 16 to 24% of the landscape by the end of the 21st Century. Simulations suggest that near-surface permafrost degradation is more probable in central regions of Alaska than more northerly regions. Taken together, these results have obvious implications for potential remobilization of frozen soil carbon pools under warmer temperatures. Additionally, warmer and drier conditions may increase fire activity and severity, which may exacerbate rates of permafrost thaw and carbon remobilization relative to climate alone. The mapping of permafrost distribution across Alaska is important for land-use planning, environmental assessments, and a wide-array of geophysical studies.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2015
Title Distribution of near-surface permafrost in Alaska: estimates of present and future conditions
DOI 10.1016/j.rse.2015.07.019
Authors Neal J. Pastick, M. Torre Jorgenson, Bruce K. Wylie, Shawn J. Nield, Kristofer D. Johnson, Andrew O. Finley
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Remote Sensing of Environment
Series Number
Index ID 70155172
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center

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