Ryan F. Connon


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The implications of permafrost thaw and land cover change on snow water equivalent accumulation, melt and runoff in discontinuous permafrost peatlands
Ryan F. Connon, L. Chasmer, Emily Haughton, Manuel Helbig, Chris Hopkinson, Oliver Sonnentag, William L. Quinton
Hydrological Processes, Volume 35, Issue 9

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.


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Pore-scale controls on hydrological and geochemical processes in peat: Implications on interacting processes
Colin P.R. McCarter, Fereidoun Rezanezhad, William L. Quinton, Behrad Gharedaghloo, Bernd Lennartz, Jonathan S. Price, Ryan F. Connon, Philippe Van Cappellen
Earth-Science Reviews, Volume 207

Peatlands are wetlands that provide important ecosystem services including carbon sequestration and water storage that respond to hydrological, biological, and biogeochemical processes. These processes are strongly influenced by the complex pore structure of peat soils. We explore the literature on peat pore structure and the implications for hydrological, biogeochemical, and microbial processes in peat, highlighting the gaps in our current knowledge and a path to move forward. Peat is an elastic and multi-porous structured organic soil. Surficial (near-surface) peats are typically dominated by large interconnected macropores that rapidly transmit water and solutes when saturated, but these large pores drain rapidly with a reduction in pore-water pressure, and disproportionally decrease the bulk effective hydraulic conductivity, thus water fluxes that drive ecohydrological functions. The more advanced state of decomposition of older (deeper) peat, with a greater abundance of small pores, restricts the loss of moisture at similar soil water pressures and is associated with higher unsaturated hydraulic conductivities. As evaporation and precipitation occur, peat soils shrink and swell, respectively, changing the hydrological connectivity that maintain physiological processes at the peat surface. Due to the disproportionate change in pore structure and associated hydraulic properties with state of decomposition, transport processes are limited at depth, creating a zone of enhanced transport in the less decomposed peat near the surface. At the micro-scale, rapid equilibration of solutes and water occurs between the mobile and immobile pores due to diffusion, resulting in pore regions with similar chemical concentrations that are not affected by advective fluxes. These immobile regions may be the primary sites for microbial biogeochemical processes in peat. Mass transfer limitations may therefore largely regulate belowground microbial turnover and, hence, biogeochemical cycling. For peat, the development of a comprehensive theory that links the hydrological, biological, and biogeochemical processes will require a concerted interdisciplinary effort. To that end, we have highlighted four primary areas to focus our collective research: 1) understanding the combined and interrelated effects of parent material, decomposition, and nutrient status on peat pore connectivity, macropore development and collapse, and solute transport, 2) determining the influence of changing pore structure due to freeze-thaw or dewatering on the hydrology and biogeochemistry, 3) better elucidating the non-equilibrium transport processes in peat, and 4) exploring the implications of peat’s pore structure on microbiological and biogeochemical processes.


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A synthesis of three decades of hydrological research at Scotty Creek, NWT, Canada
William L. Quinton, Aaron Berg, Michael Braverman, Olivia Carpino, L. Chasmer, Ryan F. Connon, James R. Craig, Élise Devoie, Masaki Hayashi, Kristine M. Haynes, David Olefeldt, Alain Pietroniro, Fereidoun Rezanezhad, Robert A. Schincariol, Oliver Sonnentag
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.


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The Influence of Shallow Taliks on Permafrost Thaw and Active Layer Dynamics in Subarctic Canada
Ryan F. Connon, Élise Devoie, Masaki Hayashi, Tyler Veness, William L. Quinton
Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, Volume 123, Issue 2

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.