In the discontinuous permafrost zone of the Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada, snow covers the ground surface for half the year. Snowmelt constitutes a primary source of moisture supply for the short growing season and strongly influences stream hydrographs. Permafrost thaw has changed the landscape by increasing the proportional coverage of permafrost-free wetlands at the expense of permafrost-cored peat plateau forests. The biophysical characteristics of each feature affect snow water equivalent (SWE) accumulation and melt rates. In headwater streams in the southern Dehcho region of the NWT, snowmelt runoff has significantly increased over the past 50 years, despite no significant change in annual SWE. At the Fort Simpson A climate station, we found that SWE measurements made by Environment and Climate Change Canada using a Nipher precipitation gauge were more accurate than the Adjusted and Homogenized Canadian Climate Dataset which was derived from snow depth measurements. Here, we: (a) provide 13 years of snow survey data to demonstrate differences in end-of-season SWE between wetlands and plateau forests; (b) provide ablation stake and radiation measurements to document differences in snow melt patterns among wetlands, plateau forests, and upland forests; and (c) evaluate the potential impact of permafrost-thaw induced wetland expansion on SWE accumulation, melt, and runoff. We found that plateaus retain significantly (p < 0.01) more SWE than wetlands. However, the differences are too small (123 mm and 111 mm, respectively) to cause any substantial change in basin SWE. During the snowmelt period in 2015, wetlands were the first feature to become snow-free in mid-April, followed by plateau forests (7 days after wetlands) and upland forests (18 days after wetlands). A transition to a higher percentage cover of wetlands may lead to more rapid snowmelt and provide a more hydrologically-connected landscape, a plausible mechanism driving the observed increase in spring freshet runoff.
Abstract Developing spatially explicit permafrost datasets and climate assessments at scales relevant to northern communities is increasingly important as land users and decision makers incorporate changing permafrost conditions in community and adaptation planning. This need is particularly strong within the discontinuous permafrost zone of the Northwest Territories (NWT) Canada where permafrost peatlands are undergoing rapid thaw due to a warming climate. Current data products for predicting landscapes at risk of thaw are generally built at circumpolar scales and do not lend themselves well to fine-scale regional interpretations. Here, we present a new permafrost vulnerability dataset that assesses the degree of permafrost thaw within peatlands across a 750 km latitudinal gradient in the NWT. This updated dataset provides spatially explicit estimates of where peatland thermokarst potential exists, thus making it much more suitable for local, regional or community usage. Within southern peatland complexes, we show that permafrost thaw affects up to 70% of the peatland area and that thaw is strongly mediated by both latitude and elevation, with widespread thaw occuring particularly at low elevations. At the northern end of our latitudinal gradient, peatland permafrost remains climate-protected with relatively little thaw. Collectively these results demonstrate the importance of scale in permafrost analyses and mapping if research is to support northern communities and decision makers in a changing climate. This study offers a more scale-appropriate approach to support community adaptative planning under scenarios of continued warming and widespread permafrost thaw.
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.
Time series remote sensing vegetation indices derived from SPOT 5 data are compared with vegetation structure and eddy covariance flux data at 15 dry to wet reclamation and reference sites within the Oil Sands region of Alberta, Canada. This comprehensive analysis examines the linkages between indicators of ecosystem function and change trajectories observed both at the plot level and within pixels. Using SPOT imagery, we find that higher spatial resolution datasets (e.g. 10 m) improves the relationship between vegetation indices and structural measurements compared with interpolated (lower resolution) pixels. The simple ratio (SR) vegetation index performs best when compared with stem density-based indicators (R2 = 0.65; p < 0.00), while the normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) and soil adjusted vegetation index (SAVI) are most comparable to foliage indicators (leaf area index (LAI) and canopy cover (R2 = 0.52-0.78; p > 0.02). Fluxes (net ecosystem production (NEP) and gross ecosystem production (GEP)) are most related to NDVI and SAVI when these are interpolated to larger 20 m × 20 m pixels (R2 = 0.44-0.50; p < 0.00). As expected, decreased sensitivity of NDVI is problematic for sites with LAI > 3 m2 m-2, making this index more appropriate for newly regenerating reclamation areas. For sites with LAI < 3 m2 m-2, trajectories of vegetation change can be mapped over time and are within 2.7% and 3.3% of annual measured LAI changes observed at most sites. This study demonstrates the utility of remote sensing in combination with field and eddy covariance data for monitoring and scaling of reclaimed and reference site productivity within and beyond the Oil Sands Region of western Canada.
Ecosystem trajectories are inextricably linked to hydrology; however, water availability is not easily observed within the landscape. The response of vegetation to soil water availability may provide an indicator of local hydrology and the resilience or sensitivity of ecosystems to long‐term changes in water balance. In this study, vegetation trajectories derived from Landsat Modified Soil Adjusted Vegetation Index over a 22‐year period are used as an indicator of spatio‐temporal changes of watershed water balance and surface water storage within 6 proximal watersheds of the Boreal Plains ecozone of Alberta, Canada. The interactions between hydrology, topography, geology, and land cover type are examined as they relate to vegetation change.
Evapotranspiration (ET) is a key component of the water cycle, whereby accurate partitioning of ET into evaporation and transpiration provides important information about the intrinsically coupled carbon, water, and energy fluxes. Currently, global estimates of partitioned evaporative and transpiration fluxes remain highly uncertain, especially for high‐latitude ecosystems where measurements are scarce. Forested peat plateaus underlain by permafrost and surrounded by permafrost‐free wetlands characterize approximately 60% (7.0 × 107 km2) of Canadian peatlands. In this study, 22 Picea mariana (black spruce) individuals, the most common tree species of the North American boreal forest, were instrumented with sap flow sensors within the footprint of an eddy covariance tower measuring ET from a forest–wetland mosaic landscape. Sap flux density (JS), together with remote sensing data and in situ measurements of canopy structure, was used to upscale tree‐level JS to overstorey transpiration (TBS). Black spruce trees growing in nutrient‐poor permafrost peat soils were found to have lower mean JS than those growing in mineral soils. Overall, TBS contributed less than 1% to landscape ET. Climate‐change‐induced forest loss and the expansion of wetlands may further minimize the contributions of TBS to ET and increase the contribution of standing water.
Permafrost vulnerability to climate change may be underestimated unless effects of wildfire are considered. Here we assess impacts of wildfire on soil thermal regime and rate of thermokarst bog expansion resulting from complete permafrost thaw in western Canadian permafrost peatlands. Effects of wildfire on permafrost peatlands last for 30 years and include a warmer and deeper active layer, and spatial expansion of continuously thawed soil layers (taliks). These impacts on the soil thermal regime are associated with a tripled rate of thermokarst bog expansion along permafrost edges. Our results suggest that wildfire is directly responsible for 2200 ± 1500 km2 (95% CI) of thermokarst bog development in the study region over the last 30 years, representing ~25% of all thermokarst bog expansion during this period. With increasing fire frequency under a warming climate, this study emphasizes the need to consider wildfires when projecting future circumpolar permafrost thaw.