Permafrost degradation after the 2002 wildfire in Kougarok, Seward Peninsula, Alaska
Monday, 15 December 2014
Geomorphological and thermo-hydrological changes after wildfire were investigated here to clarify the rates of permafrost degradation and impacts on the surrounding environment. Study sites are located in Kougarok on the central Seward Peninsula of northwestern Alaska. This area is classified as zones of either continuous and discontinuous permafrost. In 2002, wildfire burned a large area of this region. We selected an intact area and a burned area as research sites located close to one another and divided by a road. The surface organic layer was either combusted or reduced in thickness during the fire. It is assumed that the vegetation cover and subsurface conditions were similar between both sites before the fire. General vegetation at unburned sites was shrub-tussock tundra with more than 30 % evergreen shrubs, about 30 % deciduous shrubs and about 20 % sedges. Our studies of aerial photography and high-resolution satellite images showed that surface subsidence due to thermokarst developed differentially within some of the burned and vehicle-disturbed areas, exposing the polygonal reliefs on the surface. Within burned areas absent the thermokarst polygonal reliefs, soil moisture was higher at burned areas than unburned, and the active layer thickness was about 1.5-2.0 times deeper at the burned area during the initial stage of the study (2005-2007). In the following years, however, the difference in active layer thickness decreased, and thickness for the burned area seemed to be recovering to pre-fire status. Geophysical surveys demonstrated that there had been no detectable difference in the depth of the permafrost base between the burned and unburned areas. On the other hand, at the burned site with thermokarst polygonal reliefs, we confirmed using differential GPS that the polygonal reliefs actually coincides with depression lines along the subsurface ice wedge network. Near-surface unfrozen and frozen soil cores down to 1.6 m depth were sampled at seven and three points at burned and intact sites, respectively. Our geocryological analysis of cores has added evidence for permafrost disturbance, also suggesting that permafrost could be used for the reconstruction of development and degradation history of the study site.