Hydrologic Connectivity in Headwater Catchments Underlain by Continuous Permafrost: Hydrological, Thermal and Biogeochemical Patterns

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Sarah Godsey1, Caitlin R Rushlow1 and Tamara Harms2, (1)Idaho State University, Idaho Falls, ID, United States, (2)University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, United States
Hydrologic connectivity within headwater fluvial networks depends largely on subsurface patterns of moisture. Dynamic subsurface properties that control those patterns can vary widely and are poorly constrained in many systems. However, subsurface conditions change seasonally in a predictable way in catchments underlain by permafrost due to increasing thaw throughout the summer season, and those changes can be systematically measured. Zero-order linear flow features known as water tracks are found in upland permafrost hillslopes and occupy up to 35% of the landscape. Water tracks often connect to downstream fluvial systems via subsurface pathways, but those connections are poorly understood. We present data from six water tracks underlain by permafrost in northern Alaska. We improve our understanding of water tracks and their connections to downstream fluvial systems in two ways. First, we compare the fraction of snow and rain comprising flows in water tracks and the downstream systems to which they connect, and we discuss the resulting constraints on biogeochemical fluxes in these systems. Second, we examine the subsurface controls on water track connectivity patterns by characterizing the water tracks’ thermal signatures. We demonstrate that a shallow unfrozen layer permits subsurface flow to continue below a surface frozen layer for up to 6 months after air temperatures drop below freezing, enhancing fall and winter water track downstream connectivity. Because winter air temperatures are projected to increase and become more variable, we examine the role of freeze-thaw events on hydrologic connectivity: some water tracks are less responsive to rapid air temperature changes than surrounding hillslopes. At these sites, soils inside the water tracks remain frozen and impermeable for ~10 more days each year and cycle through fewer freeze-thaw cycles than the same soils outside water tracks. Some shallow soils outside some water tracks freeze and thaw up to 3-fold more times per year than water track soils. We discuss how thermal responses of water tracks influence downstream biogeochemical fluxes in the dynamic freeze-thaw periods.