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Thermokarst and thaw-related landscape dynamics -- an annotated bibliography with an emphasis on potential effects on habitat and wildlife

July 24, 2013

Permafrost has warmed throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere since the 1980s, with colder permafrost sites warming more rapidly (Romanovsky and others, 2010; Smith and others, 2010). Warming of the near-surface permafrost may lead to widespread terrain instability in ice-rich permafrost in the Arctic and the Subarctic, and may result in thermokarst development and other thaw-related landscape features (Jorgenson and others, 2006; Gooseff and others, 2009). Thermokarst and other thaw-related landscape features result from varying modes and scales of permafrost thaw, subsidence, and removal of material. An increase in active-layer depth, water accumulation on the soil surface, permafrost degradation and associated retreat of the permafrost table, and changes to lake shores and coastal bluffs act and interact to create thermokarst and other thaw-related landscape features (Shur and Osterkamp, 2007). There is increasing interest in the spatial and temporal dynamics of thermokarst and other thaw-related features from diverse disciplines including landscape ecology, hydrology, engineering, and biogeochemistry. Therefore, there is a need to synthesize and disseminate knowledge on the current state of near-surface permafrost terrain.

The term "thermokarst" originated in the Russian literature, and its scientific use has varied substantially over time (Shur and Osterkamp, 2007). The modern definition of thermokarst refers to the process by which characteristic landforms result from the thawing of ice-rich permafrost or the melting of massive ice (van Everdingen, 1998), or, more specifically, the thawing of ice-rich permafrost and (or) melting of massive ice that result in consolidation and deformation of the soil surface and formation of specific forms of relief (Shur, 1988). Jorgenson (2013) identifies 23 distinct thermokarst and other thaw-related features in the Arctic, Subarctic, and Antarctic based primarily on differences in terrain condition, ground-ice volume, and heat and mass transfer processes. Typical Arctic thermokarst landforms include thermokarst lakes, collapsed pingos, sinkholes, and pits. Thermokarst is differentiated from thermal erosion, which refers to the erosion of the land surface by thermal and mechanical processes (Mackay, 1970; van Everdingen, 1998). Typical thermal erosional features include thermo-erosional gullies. Thermal abrasion is further differentiated from thermokarst and thermal erosion by association with the reworking of ocean, river, and lake bluffs (Are, 1988). Typical thermo-abrasion features include erosional niches at the base of bluffs. Thermal denudation is another distinct term that refers to the effect of incoming solar energy on the thaw of frozen slopes and permafrost bodies that subsequently become transported downhill by gravity (Shur and Osterkamp, 2007). Active layer detachment slides and thaw slumps are typical thermal denudation features. Shur and Osterkamp (2007) noted that these various transport processes may occur together with thermokarst or in instances that would not be considered thermokarst.

This compilation of references regarding thermokarst and other thaw-related features is focused on the Arctic and the Subarctic. References were drawn from North America as well as Siberia. English-language literature mostly was targeted, with 167 references annotated in version 1.0; however, an additional 28 Russian-language references were taken from Shur and Osterkamp (2007) and are provided at the end of this document. This compilation may be missing key references and inevitably will become outdated soon after publication. We hope that this document, version 1.0, will serve as the foundation for a comprehensive compilation of thermokarst and permafrost-terrain stability references, and that it will be updated continually over the coming years.

Publication Year 2013
Title Thermokarst and thaw-related landscape dynamics -- an annotated bibliography with an emphasis on potential effects on habitat and wildlife
DOI 10.3133/ofr20131161
Authors Benjamin M. Jones, Courtney L. Amundson, Joshua C. Koch, Guido Grosse
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2013-1161
Index ID ofr20131161
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center