Permafrost holds back Arctic rivers, but thawing may unleash carbon flood

New research from Dartmouth College provides the first evidence that the Arctic’s frozen soil is the dominant force shaping Earth’s northernmost rivers. Permafrost, the thick layer of soil that stays frozen for two or more years at a time, is the reason that Arctic rivers are uniformly confined to smaller areas and shallower valleys than rivers to the south, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But permafrost also is an increasingly fragile reservoir of vast amounts of carbon. As climate change weakens Artic permafrost, the researchers calculate that every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) of global warming could release as much carbon as 35 million cars emit in a year as polar waterways expand and churn up the thawing soil.

“The whole surface of the Earth is in a tug of a war between processes such as hillslopes that smooth the landscape and forces like rivers that carve them up,” said first author Joanmarie Del Vecchio, who led the study as a Neukom Postdoctoral Fellow at Dartmouth with her advisers and study co-authors Marisa Palucis, an assistant professor of earth sciences, and engineering professor Colin Meyer.

“We understand the physics on a fundamental level, but when things start freezing and thawing, it’s hard to predict which side is going to win,” Del Vecchio said. “If hillslopes win, they’re going to bury all that carbon trapped in the soil. But if things get warm and suddenly river channels start to win, we’re going to see a large amount of carbon get released into the atmosphere. That will likely create this warming feedback loop that leads to the release of more greenhouse gases.”

The researchers set out to understand why Arctic watersheds—the total drainage area of a river and its connected waterways—tend to have less river area than watersheds in warmer climates, which can have extensive tributaries that spread over the landscape. Del Vecchio, now a visiting scholar at Dartmouth and an assistant professor at the College of William and Mary, conceived of the study in 2019 while conducting fieldwork in Alaska. She hiked uphill from her riverside worksite and beheld a vista of sheer mountain slopes unbroken by rivers or streams.

“It seemed like the hillslopes were winning and the channels were losing,” Del Vecchio said. “We wanted to test whether it was temperature shaping this landscape. We’re very lucky to have had the amount of surface and digital elevation data that’s been produced in the past few years. We couldn’t have done this study a few years ago.”

The researchers examined the depth, topography, and soil conditions for more than 69,000 watersheds across the Northern Hemisphere—from just above the Tropic of Cancer to the North Pole—using satellite and climate data. They measured the percentage of land each river’s channel network occupies within its watershed, as well as the steepness of river valleys.

Forty-seven percent of the analyzed watersheds are shaped by permafrost. Compared to temperate watersheds, their river valleys are deeper and steeper and about 20% less of their surrounding landscape is occupied by channels. These similarities are despite any differences in glacial history, background topographic steepness, annual precipitation, and other factors that would otherwise govern the push and pull of water and land, the researchers report. Arctic watersheds are shaped by the one thing they have in common—permafrost.

Dartmouth researchers set out to understand why Arctic watersheds tend to have less river area than watersheds in warmer climates. First author Joanmarie Del Vecchio (pictured) conceived of the study while conducting fieldwork in Alaska after she hiked uphill from her riverside worksite and beheld a vista of sheer mountain slopes unbroken by rivers or streams. Credit: Mulu Fratkin

“Any way we sliced it, regions with larger, more plentiful river channels are warmer with a higher average temperature and less permafrost,” Del Vecchio said. “You need a lot more water to carve valleys in areas with permafrost.”

Source: Dartmouth College

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