Urban Geocryology: Mapping Urban-Rural Contrasts in Active-Layer Thickness, Barrow Penninsula, Northern Alaska

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Anna Elizabeth Klene, University of Montana, Geography, Missoula, MT, United States and Frederick E Nelson, University of Delaware, Milwaukee, WI, United States
As development proceeds in the high latitudes, information about interactions between urban influences and the thickness of the active layer above permafrost becomes vital, particularly given the possibility of increasing temperatures accompanying climate change. Permafrost characteristics are often mapped at small geographical scales (i.e., over large areas), at low resolution, and without extensive field validation. Although maps of active-layer thickness (ALT) have been created for areas of relatively undisturbed terrain, this has rarely been done within urbanized areas, even though ALT is a critical factor in the design of roads, buildings, pipelines, and other elements of infrastructure. The need for detailed maps of ALT is emphasized in work on potential hazards in permafrost regions associated with global warming scenarios. 
Northern Alaska is a region considered to be at moderate to high risk for thaw-induced damage under climatic warming. The Native Village of Barrow (71°17’44”N; 156°45’ 59”W), the economic, transportation, and administrative hub of the North Slope Borough, is the northernmost community in the USA, and the largest native settlement in the circum-Arctic. A winter urban heat island in Barrow, earlier snowmelt in the village, and dust deposition downwind of gravel pads and roads are all urban effects that could increase ALT. A recent empirical study documented a 17 to 41 cm difference in ALT between locations in the village of Barrow and surrounding undeveloped tundra, even in similar land-cover classes.
We mapped ALT in the Barrow Peninsula, with particular attention to contrasts between the urbanized village and relatively undisturbed tundra in the nearby Barrow Environmental Observatory. The modified Berggren solution, an advanced analytic solution to the general Stefan problem of calculating frost and thaw depth, was used in a geographic context to map ALT over the 150 km² area investigated in the Barrow Urban Heat Island Study. The Berggren solution performed well for estimating mean values of ALT in rural and urban land-cover classes. Compared to the Stefan solution, it provides highly accurate results and is promising for use in urban environments as a vehicle for mapping fine-scale variations in ALT.