Characterizing permafrost active layer dynamics and sensitivity to landscape spatial heterogeneity in Alaska
Abstract. An important feature of the Arctic is large spatial heterogeneity in active layer conditions, which is generally poorly represented by global models and can lead to large uncertainties in predicting regional ecosystem responses and climate feedbacks. In this study, we developed a spatially integrated modeling and analysis framework combining field observations, local-scale ( ∼ 50 m resolution) active layer thickness (ALT) and soil moisture maps derived from low-frequency (L + P-band) airborne radar measurements, and global satellite environmental observations to investigate the ALT sensitivity to recent climate trends and landscape heterogeneity in Alaska. Modeled ALT results show good correspondence with in situ measurements in higher-permafrost-probability (PP ≥ 70 %) areas (n = 33; R = 0.60; mean bias = 1.58 cm; RMSE = 20.32 cm), but with larger uncertainty in sporadic and discontinuous permafrost areas. The model results also reveal widespread ALT deepening since 2001, with smaller ALT increases in northern Alaska (mean trend = 0.32±1.18 cm yr−1) and much larger increases (> 3 cm yr−1) across interior and southern Alaska. The positive ALT trend coincides with regional warming and a longer snow-free season (R = 0.60 ± 0.32). A spatially integrated analysis of the radar retrievals and model sensitivity simulations demonstrated that uncertainty in the spatial and vertical distribution of soil organic carbon (SOC) was the largest factor affecting modeled ALT accuracy, while soil moisture played a secondary role. Potential improvements in characterizing SOC heterogeneity, including better spatial sampling of soil conditions and advances in remote sensing of SOC and soil moisture, will enable more accurate predictions of active layer conditions and refinement of the modeling framework across a larger domain.