Landscape and Hydrological Transformation in the Canadian High Arctic: Climate Change and Permafrost Degradation As Drivers of Change

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Scott F Lamoureux and Melissa J Lafreniere, Queen's University, Kingston, ON, Canada
Recent climate warming and landscape instability arising from permafrost degradation in the Canadian High Arctic have resulted in significant changes to the hydrological system. We have undertaken an integrated watershed and permafrost research program at the Cape Bounty Arctic Watershed Observatory (75°N, 109°W) in paired watershed-lake systems to assess the impact of these changes. Research has captured hydrological changes resulting from exceptional warmth, and permafrost degradation and disturbance.

Results highlight the contrasting effect of thermal (deeper soil thaw) versus physical perturbation (slope failures and permafrost degradation). Thermal perturbation applies to most of the landscape, and results indicate that ground ice melt alters flow and mobilizes solutes for a number of years following a single warm year. These effects are measureable at the slope-catchment scale, especially during baseflow. By contrast, physical disturbance is highly localized and produces high sediment and particulate carbon erosion from slopes, but downstream particulate delivery is dependent on surface connectivity. Recovery from disturbances appears to occur rapidly, and continued geomorphic change and new slope channels result in sustained delivery of particulates to channels. The result is increased long term landscape heterogeneity with respect to erosion compared to the pre-disturbance condition. Downstream channel response to particulate loading further dampens the response to physical disturbance through channel storage of material. Hence, at the larger watershed scale, the effect of physical perturbation is minimal in the initial years of recovery.

These results point to a landscape that has been substantially impacted by recent hydrological and permafrost changes. Understanding and distinguishing these impacts provides a basis for systematically evaluating biogeochemical cycling and ecosystem responses in aquatic settings.