Articles | Volume 9, issue 1
Research article
28 Jan 2015
Research article |  | 28 Jan 2015

Observing Muostakh disappear: permafrost thaw subsidence and erosion of a ground-ice-rich island in response to arctic summer warming and sea ice reduction

F. Günther, P. P. Overduin, I. A. Yakshina, T. Opel, A. V. Baranskaya, and M. N. Grigoriev

Abstract. Observations of coastline retreat using contemporary very high resolution satellite and historical aerial imagery were compared to measurements of open water fraction, summer air temperature, and wind. We analysed seasonal and interannual variations of thawing-induced cliff top retreat (thermo-denudation) and marine abrasion (thermo-abrasion) on Muostakh Island in the southern central Laptev Sea. Geomorphometric analysis revealed that total ground ice content on Muostakh is made up of equal amounts of intrasedimentary and macro ground ice and sums up to 87%, rendering the island particularly susceptible to erosion along the coast, resulting in land loss. Based on topographic reference measurements during field campaigns, we generated digital elevation models using stereophotogrammetry, in order to block-adjust and orthorectify aerial photographs from 1951 and GeoEye, QuickBird, WorldView-1, and WorldView-2 imagery from 2010 to 2013 for change detection. Using sea ice concentration data from the Special Sensor Microwave Imager (SSM/I) and air temperature time series from nearby Tiksi, we calculated the seasonal duration available for thermo-abrasion, expressed as open water days, and for thermo-denudation, based on the number of days with positive mean daily temperatures. Seasonal dynamics of cliff top retreat revealed rapid thermo-denudation rates of −10.2 ± 4.5 m a−1 in mid-summer and thermo-abrasion rates along the coastline of −3.4 ± 2.7 m a−1 on average during the 2010–2013 observation period, currently almost twice as rapid as the mean rate of −1.8 ± 1.3 m a−1 since 1951. Our results showed a close relationship between mean summer air temperature and coastal thermo-erosion rates, in agreement with observations made for various permafrost coastlines different to the East Siberian Ice Complex coasts elsewhere in the Arctic. Seasonality of coastline retreat and interannual variations of environmental factors suggest that an increasing length of thermo-denudation and thermo-abrasion process simultaneity favours greater coastal erosion. Coastal thermo-erosion has reduced the island's area by 0.9 km2 (24%) over the past 62 years but shrank its volume by 28 x 106 m3 (40%), not least because of permafrost thaw subsidence, with the most pronounced with rates of ≥− 11 cm a−1 on yedoma uplands near the island's rapidly eroding northern cape. Recent acceleration in both will halve Muostakh Island's lifetime to less than a century.

Short summary
Coastal erosion rates at Muostakh Island (eastern Siberian Arctic) have doubled, based on remotely sensed observations of land loss, and therefore the island will disappear prematurely. Based on analyses of seasonal variability of permafrost thaw, thermo-erosion increases by 1.2m per year when summer temperatures rise by 1°C. Due to rapid permafrost thaw, the land surface is subsiding up to 11cm per year, based on comparison of elevation changes and active layer thaw depth.