Climate sensitivity of high arctic permafrost terrain demonstrated by widespread ice-wedge thermokarst on banks Island

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Ice-wedge networks underlie polygonal terrain and comprise the most widespread form of massive ground ice in continuous permafrost. Here, we show that climate-driven thaw of hilltop ice-wedge networks is rapidly transforming uplands across Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Change detection using high-resolutionWorldView images and historical air photos, coupled with 32-year Landsat reflectance trends, indicate broad-scale increases in ponding from ice-wedge thaw on hilltops, which has significantly affected at least 1500 km2 of Banks Island and over 3.5% of the total upland area. Trajectories of change associated with this upland ice-wedge thermokarst include increased micro-relief, development of high-centred polygons, and, in areas of poor drainage, ponding and potential initiation of thaw lakes. Millennia of cooling climate have favoured ice-wedge growth, and an absence of ecosystem disturbance combined with surface denudation by solifluction has produced high Arctic uplands and slopes underlain by ice-wedge networks truncated at the permafrost table. The thin veneer of thermally-conductive mineral soils strongly links Arctic upland active-layer responses to summer warming. For these reasons, widespread and intense ice-wedge thermokarst on Arctic hilltops and slopes contrast more muted responses to warming reported in low and subarctic environments. Increasing field evidence of thermokarst highlights the inherent climate sensitivity of the Arctic permafrost terrain and the need for integrated approaches to monitor change and investigate the cascade of environmental consequences.




Fraser, R. H., Kokelj, S. V., Lantz, T. C., McFarlane-Winchester, M., Olthof, I., & Lacelle, D. (2018). Climate sensitivity of high arctic permafrost terrain demonstrated by widespread ice-wedge thermokarst on banks Island. Remote Sensing, 10(6).

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