National Research Program | Climate and Disturbance Impacts on Hydrologic Processes

Research | Permafrost Hydrology

Permafrost, perennially frozen ground, covers nearly a quarter of the terrestrial northern hemisphere and is vulnerable to thaw with continued climate warming. Changes in permafrost distribution affect flowpaths, fluxes, and distribution of surface and subsurface waters, thereby impacting aquatic chemical exports, hydrologic connectivity, soil moisture, vegetation, and the strength of the permafrost-carbon feedback. Multidisciplinary approaches are required for characterizing baseline permafrost conditions, understanding freeze/thaw processes and rates, and evaluating the hydrologic consequences of permafrost thaw.

Focal Areas

Permafrost characterization

Scientist taking measurements in a grassy field near a lake.

Permafrost baseline characterization and monitoring are critical components for evaluating the vulnerability of hydrologic systems to subsurface warming. However, this type of information, with sufficient resolution for implementation into hydrologic models, is limited in permafrost regions. Our work utilizes multi-method strategies for characterizing and monitoring permafrost distribution over a range of scales within interior Alaska. Currently, our field efforts are concentrated in the Yukon Flats, a lake-rich lowland that spans the broad north-south transition from continuous to discontinuous permafrost. Subsurface characterization efforts include both ground-based and airborne geophysical methods and are integrated with remote sensing approaches.

Hydrologic analysis and modeling of permafrost systems

Permafrost sampling stations near an icy lake.

Hydrologic modeling of permafrost systems is an emerging and rapidly advancing field. Despite important progress, many challenges remain toward accurate prediction of hydrologic impacts in a changing climate including lack of subsurface data for model input and calibration. Also, inherent non-linearities and complexities of subsurface freeze/thaw dynamics impart high computational demands on physics-based models that simulate coupled fluid and energy transport. Our modeling studies range in scope from 1-D profiles to 3-D basins to address the interaction of frozen ground and variably saturated water flow across multiple scales. By incorporating field data into modeling frameworks, we investigate interconnected responses in permafrost and hydrology to climate warming including changes in (1) baseflow via wholesale permafrost loss, (2) groundwater-lake interaction via talik evolution, and (3) supra-permafrost flow via active layer deepening. Current work addresses the implications of additional perturbations to permafrost systems such as ice-jam flooding, lake area change, and wildfire events.

Hydrologic connectivity of lowland lakes in discontinuous permafrost

Satellite view of permafrost region.

In general, permafrost limits the subsurface exchange of water, solute, and nutrients between lakes and rivers. It follows that permafrost thaw of permeable substrate could enhance subsurface hydrologic connectivity among surface water bodies, but the impact of this process on lake dynamics and distribution is not well known. Our work strives to gain insight into the evolving hydrologic connectivity of lowland lakes in discontinuous permafrost by integrating current and historical remote sensing imagery, geophysical surveys, and hydrologic modeling analysis. Current studies are focused in the Yukon Flats of interior Alaska.

USGS Collaborators

Martin Briggs, Fred Day-Lewis, Joshua Koch, John Lane, Burke Minsley, Alden Provost, Jennifer Rover, Rob Striegl, Clifford Voss, Tristan Wellman, Bruce Wylie

External Collaborators

Steven Jepsen, University of California, Merced
Torre Jorgenson, Ecoscience Alaska
Jeffrey McKenzie, McGill University
Jon O’Donnell, National Park Service
Neal Pastick, Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, USGS contractor

Selected Publications (most recent listed first)

Walvoord, M.A., and B.L. Kurylyk (2016), Hydrologic Impacts of Thawing Permafrost-A Review, Vadose Zone Journal, 15, doi:10.2136/vzj2016.01.0010

Briggs, M.A., S. Campbell, J. Nolan, M.A. Walvoord, D. Ntarlagiannis, F.D. Day-Lewis, and J.W. Lane (2016), Surface geophysical methods for characterizing frozen ground in transitional permafrost landscapes, Permafrost and Periglacial Processes, doi: 10.1002/ppp.1893

Jepsen, S.M., M.A. Walvoord, C.I. Voss, and J. Rover (2016), Effect of permafrost thaw on the dynamics of lakes recharged by ice-jam floods: case study of Yukon Flats, Alaska, Hydrological Processes, doi: 10.1002/hyp.10756

Minsley, B.J., T.P. Wellman, M.A. Walvoord, and A. Revil (2015), Sensitivity of airborne geophysical data to sublacustrine and near-surface permafrost thaw, The Cryosphere, 9, 781-794, doi: 10.5194/tc-9-781-2015

Walvoord, M.A., F.D. Day-Lewis, J.W Lane, Jr., R.G. Striegl, C.I. Voss, T. Douglas and others (2015), Improved understanding of permafrost controls on hydrology in interior Alaska by integration of ground-based geophysical permafrost characterization and numerical modeling, Final Report: DTIC Document, v. SERDP Project RC-2111, ADA621851, 111 p

Briggs, M.A., M.A. Walvoord, J.M. McKenzie, C.I. Voss, F.D. Day-Lewis, J.W. Lane (2014), New permafrost is forming around shrinking arctic lakes, but will it last?, Geophysical Research Letters, doi: 10.1002/2014GL059251

O'Donnell, J.A., G.R. Aiken, M.A. Walvoord, P.A. Raymond, K.D. Butler, M.M. Dornblaser, and K. Heckman (2014), Using dissolved organic matter age and composition to detect permafrost thaw in boreal watersheds of interior Alaska, Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 119, doi: 10.1002/2014JG002695

Pastick, N.J, M.T. Jorgenson, B.K. Wylie, J.R. Rose, M. Rigge, and M.A. Walvoord (2014), Spatial variability and landscape controls of near-surface permafrost within the Yukon River Basin, Journal of Geophysical Research - Biogeosciences, 119, 1244-1265, doi: 10.1002/2013JG002594

Jepsen, S.M., C.I. Voss, M.A. Walvoord, J.R. Rose, B.J. Minsley, and B.D. Smith (2013), Sensitivity analysis of lake mass balance in discontinuous permafrost: the example of disappearing Twelvemile Lake, Yukon Flats, Alaska (USA), Hydrogeology Journal, 21, 185-200, doi: 10.1007/s10040-012-0896-5

Pastick, N.J., M.T. Jorgenson, B.K. Wylie, B.J. Minsley, L. Ji, M.A. Walvoord, B.D. Smith, J.D. Abraham, and J.R. Rose (2013), Extending airborne electromagnetic surveys for regional active layer and permafrost mapping with remote sensing and ancillary data, Yukon Flats Ecoregions, Central Alaska, Permafrost and Periglacial Processes, doi: 10.1002/ppp.1775

Wellman, T., C. Voss, and M. Walvoord (2013), Impacts of climate, lake size, and supra- and sub-permafrost groundwater flow on lake-talik evolution, Yukon Flats, Alaska, USA, Hydrogeology Journal, 21, 281-298, doi: 10.1007/s10040-012-0941-4

Minsley, B.J., J.D. Abraham, B.D. Smith, J.C. Cannia, C.I. Voss, M.T. Jorgenson, M.A. Walvoord, B.K. Wylie, L. Anderson, L.B. Ball, M. Deszcz-Pan, T.P. Wellman and T.A. Ager (2012), Airborne geophysical mapping of permafrost in the Yukon Flats, Alaska, Geophysical Research Letters, 39, L02503, doi: 10.1029/2011GL050079

O'Donnell, J.A., G.R. Aiken, M.A. Walvoord, and K.D. Butler (2012), Dissolved organic matter composition of winter flow in the Yukon River basin: Implications of permafrost thaw and increased groundwater discharge, Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 26, GB0E06, doi: 10.1029/2012GB004341

Walvoord, M.A., C.I. Voss, and T.P. Wellman (2012), Influence of permafrost distribution on groundwater flow in the context of climate-driven permafrost thaw: Example from Yukon Flats Basin, Alaska, USA, Water Resources Research, 48, 7, doi: 10.1029/2011WR011595

Brabets, T.P., and M.A. Walvoord (2009), Trends in streamflow in the Yukon River Basin from 1944 to 2005 and the influence of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, Journal of Hydrology, 371, 108-119, doi: 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2009.03.018

Walvoord, M.A., and Striegl, R.G., 2007, Increased groundwater to stream discharge from permafrost thawing in the Yukon River basin: Potential impacts on lateral export of carbon and nitrogen, Geophysical Research Letters, 34, L12402, doi: 10.1029/2007GL030216