A synthesis of three decades of hydrological research at Scotty Creek, NWT, Canada
William L. Quinton,
Ryan F. Connon,
James R. Craig,
Kristine M. Haynes,
Robert A. Schincariol,
Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, Volume 23, Issue 4
Abstract. Scotty Creek, Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada, has been the focus of hydrological research for nearly three decades. Over this period, field and modelling studies have generated new insights into the thermal and physical mechanisms governing the flux and storage of water in the wetland-dominated regions of discontinuous permafrost that characterises much of the Canadian and circumpolar subarctic. Research at Scotty Creek has coincided with a period of unprecedented climate warming, permafrost thaw, and resulting land cover transformations including the expansion of wetland areas and loss of forests. This paper (1) synthesises field and modelling studies at Scotty Creek, (2) highlights the key insights of these studies on the major water flux and storage processes operating within and between the major land cover types, and (3) provides insights into the rate and pattern of the permafrost-thaw-induced land cover change and how such changes will affect the hydrology and water resources of the study region.
Measurements of active layer thickness (ALT) are typically taken at the end of summer, a time synonymous with maximum thaw depth. By definition, the active layer is the layer above permafrost that freezes and thaws annually. This study, conducted in peatlands of subarctic Canada, in the zone of thawing discontinuous permafrost, demonstrates that the entire thickness of ground atop permafrost does not always refreeze over winter. In these instances, a talik exists between the permafrost and active layer, and ALT must therefore be measured by the depth of refreeze at the end of winter. As talik thickness increases at the expense of the underlying permafrost, ALT is shown to simultaneously decrease. This suggests that the active layer has a maximum thickness that is controlled by the amount of energy lost from the ground to the atmosphere during winter. The taliks documented in this study are relatively thin (<2 m) and exist on forested peat plateaus. The presence of taliks greatly affects the stability of the underlying permafrost. Vertical permafrost thaw was found to be significantly greater in areas with taliks (0.07 m year−1) than without (0.01 m year−1). Furthermore, the spatial distribution of areas with taliks increased between 2011 and 2015 from 20% to 48%, a phenomenon likely caused by an anomalously large ground heat flux input in 2012. Rapid talik development and accelerated permafrost thaw indicates that permafrost loss may exhibit a nonlinear response to warming temperatures. Documentation of refreeze depths and talik development is needed across the circumpolar north.