Rapid Recovery of a Gully Thermokarst: 10 Years of Observation of the Toolik River Thermokarst, North Slope, Alaska

Monday, 15 December 2014
William B Bowden1, Michael N Gooseff2, Jason J. Stuckey3, Randy Fulweber3 and Julia R Larouche1, (1)University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, United States, (2)Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, United States, (3)University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, United States
As permafrost thaws, previously frozen soils may become unstable and subside, in some cases forming thermo-erosional features such as gully thermokarst (GTKs). The formation of these features can result in sediment and nutrient inputs to local streams and lakes. The initial evolution of GTKs is rapid (months to several years) and appears to follow a progression in which the loss of ground ice in the soil creates a subsurface cavity that allows for the transport of water downslope, followed by the collapse of the overlying soil into the cavity, with a subsequent period of sediment and nutrient export. However, there is considerable uncertainty about the length of time these features remain unstable and actively transport sediments and nutrients. We followed the evolution of one moderately-sized (~5,000 m2) GTK located in the headwaters of the Toolik River (N68.692733° W149.205433°) on the North Slope of Alaska (USA). This feature formed in July 2003 and we monitored it for several years thereafter. In 2007 we began to monitor the shape and contours of this feature and quantified the level of ecologically important solutes it exports to the local stream. As expected, large quantities of sediment and nutrients were exported from this feature when it first formed. However, within a year or two the sediment export decreased to episodic events and the nutrient export, while elevated above reference levels, was not remarkably high. Between 2007 and the present (2014), the shape and topography of the feature have changed very little (Figure) except for some headwall retrogression, suggesting that long-term sediment transport has decreased dramatically. Thus, the overall sediment loading to the river was smaller and has decreased more rapidly than we expected. The rapid reduction in sediment and nutrient delivery is consistent with the more recent geomorphic evolution and stabilization of this feature. We conclude – contrary to our initial hypotheses – that these features form and stabilize rather quickly (~10 years) and that their influences on local streams and lakes might be ephemeral. Thus, the greater importance of these features may be as indicators of general permafrost degradation in the area and the attendant losses of carbon and other nutrients that this degradation implies.