Arctic conditions changing with thawing permafrost, UMass Amherst researcher finds  

  • A caribou on cliff bluffs in the North Slope region of Alaska, which are eroding into a coastal lagoon along the Beaufort Sea.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/UMASS AMHERST, MICHAEL RAWLINS

  • Michael Rawlins UMASS AMHERST

Staff Writer
Published: 12/26/2019 9:09:00 AM

AMHERST — A University of Massachusetts Amherst researcher has found evidence that thawing permafrost in northern Alaska is altering the hydrological system of the Arctic, which disrupts the region’s inhabitants and changes the environment into a source of carbon emission. 

Looking at hydrological elements in the North Slope region of Alaska, a multi-institution team led by Michael Rawlins, associate director of the Climate System Research Center at UMass, found that increasing subsurface runoff and cold season discharge suggest that thawing permafrost is shifting the Arctic to a system dominated by groundwater, rather than surface water. 

“As the climate warms, we’re seeing less frozen ground, so that’s allowing for more runoff to originate below the surface,” Rawlins said. The rivers are primarily fed by snowmelt runoff. 

Cold season discharge saw an average long-term increase of 134 percent on the North Slope and a 215 increase in the region’s Colville River basin, according to the study, which was published in the open-access journal The Cryosphere last week. The researchers used a model that simulates soil freeze-thaw cycles, as field measurements in the area are limited.

This shift can make global and local impacts — while permafrost regions have previously been carbon sinks, meaning that they absorb more carbon than they emit, warming and its hydrological consequences are changing these areas into sources of carbon output as permafrost thaws. Carbon has been stored for thousands of years in permafrost, and as this soil thaws, this ancient carbon passes into rivers and can reach the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane, accelerating global warming.

“The Arctic may soon shift from a net sink to a net source of carbon,” Rawlins said. While Rawlins’ study focuses on the North Slope region of Alaska, the results are “consistent with other studies focused on the broader pan-Arctic.”

These hydrological impacts can also take a toll on local native communities, including Utqiagvik, Nuiqsut and Kaktvik, where residents rely on fish and birds supported by local lagoons.

Freshwater and nutrients carried from rivers to coastal lagoons “support the high bioproductivity and associated food webs that the communities rely on,” Rawlins said, “so our results point to the changes in the amount of freshwater being exported from the land to the coastal lagoons, and this has implications for the coastal lagoons — in particular, food webs and biological productivity.”

Rawlins' research is funded by a five-year, $370,000 grant awarded by the National Science Foundation to study the impact of land-ocean interactions and other biological processes in northern Alaska's coastal lagoons. 

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jacquelynvoghel@gmail.com.
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