The residence time of ice in permafrost is an indicator of past climate history, and of the resilience and vulnerability of high-latitude ecosystems to global change. Development of geochemical indicators of ground-ice residence times in permafrost will advance understanding of the circumstances and evidence of permafrost formation, preservation, and thaw in response to climate warming and other disturbance. We used uranium isotopes to evaluate the residence time of segregated ground ice from ice-rich loess permafrost cores in central Alaska. Activity ratios of 234U vs. 238U (234U/238U) in water from thawed core sections ranged between 1.163 and 1.904 due to contact of ice and associated liquid water with mineral surfaces over time. Measured (234U/238U) values in ground ice showed an overall increase with depth in a series of five neighboring cores up to 21m deep. This is consistent with increasing residence time of ice with depth as a result of accumulation of loess over time, as well as characteristic ice morphologies, high segregated ice content, and wedge ice, all of which support an interpretation of syngenetic permafrost formation associated with loess deposition. At the same time, stratigraphic evidence indicates some past sediment redistribution and possibly shallow thaw among cores, with local mixing of aged thaw waters. Using measures of surface area and a leaching experiment to determine U distribution, a geometric model of (234U/238U) evolution suggests mean ages of up to ~200kyBP in the deepest core, with estimated uncertainties of up to an order of magnitude. Evidence of secondary coatings on loess grains with elevated (234U/238U) values and U concentrations suggests that refinement of the geometric model to account for weathering processes is needed to reduce uncertainty. We suggest that in this area of deep ice-rich loess permafrost, ice bodies have been preserved from the last glacial period (10-100kyBP), despite subsequent fluctuations in climate, fire disturbance and vegetation. Radiocarbon (14C) analysis of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in thaw waters supports ages greater than ~40kyBP below 10m. DOC concentrations in thaw waters increased with depth to maxima of >1000ppm, despite little change in ice content or cryostructures. These relations suggest time-dependent production of old DOC that will be released upon permafrost thaw at a rate that is mediated by sediment transport, among other factors.
Ewing, S. A., Paces, J. B., O’Donnell, J. A., Jorgenson, M. T., Kanevskiy, M. Z., Aiken, G. R., … Striegl, R. (2015). Uranium isotopes and dissolved organic carbon in loess permafrost: Modeling the age of ancient ice. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 152, 143–165. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gca.2014.11.008