U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Influences and Interactions of Inundation, Peat, and Snow on Active Layer Thickness
Published: May 18, 2016
Posted: November 17, 2016

New study details active layer response across gradients of environmental conditions in Arctic permafrost.

The Science
Researchers used a physics-based numerical model validated at the Barrow (Alaska) Environmental Observatory to simulate the subsurface thermal hydrological response in permafrost tundra due to changing environmental conditions in organic soil layer thickness, snow depth, soil saturation, and ponded depth. 

The Impact
Researchers mapped the complex interaction of isolated environmental conditions that govern permafrost conditions. As a result, Arctic tundra response to changing conditions either by naturally occurring environmental gradients or by climate-induced perturbations can be inferred.

The collective work provides details on active layer thickness (ALT), or annual thaw depth above permafrost, related to three important environmental conditions characteristic of Arctic permafrost tundra: (1) organic soil layer thickness, (2) snow depth, and (3) unsaturated to inundated conditions. The work teases out how ALT will change as gradients along these environmental conditions are traversed in either space or time. One finding indicates that wetting or drying of polygonal tundra appears to have a minor effect on ALT compared to organic layer thickness and snow. At the same time, however, the inundation state is very interactive and can act to amplify other conditions that influence ALT; so much so, that subsurface thermal tipping points can be crossed. For example, the combined effect of inundation depth and snow can cause taliks, zone of year-round unfrozen soil, to form.

Contacts (BER PM)
Daniel Stover and Jared DeForest
Daniel.Stover@science.doe.gov, 301-903-0289; and Jared.DeForest@science.doe.gov, 301-903-1678

(PI Contact)
Adam Atchley
Los Alamos National Laboratory
aatchley@lanl.gov; 505-665-6803

This work was supported by Los Alamos National Laboratory, Laboratory Direction Research and Development project LDRD201200068DR; and the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE-Arctic) project, which is supported by the Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Terrestrial Ecosystem Science program.  

Atchley, A. L., E. T. Coon, S. L. Painter, D. R. Harp, and C. J. Wilson. 2016. “Influences and Interactions of Inundation, Peat, and Snow on Active Layer Thickness,” Geophysical Research Letters 43(10), 5116-23. DOI: 10.1002/2016GL068550. (Reference link)

Atchley, A. L., S. L. Painter, D. R. Harp, E. T. Coon, C. J. Wilson, A. K. Liljedahl, and V. E. Romanovskey. 2015. “Using Field Observations to Inform Thermal Hydrology Models of Permafrost Dynamics with ATS (v0.83),” Geoscientific Model Development 8, 2701-22. DOI: 10.5194/gmd-8-2701-2015. (Reference link)

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Earth and Environmental Systems Modeling
  • Research Area: Subsurface Biogeochemical Research
  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


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