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© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

  08 May 2020

08 May 2020

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A revised version of this preprint is currently under review for the journal TC.

The catastrophic thermokarst lake drainage events of 2018 in northwestern Alaska: Fast-forward into the future

Ingmar Nitze1, Sarah Cooley2, Claude Duguay3,4, Benjamin M. Jones5, and Guido Grosse1,6 Ingmar Nitze et al.
  • 1Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Potsdam, 14473 Potsdam, Germany
  • 2Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, Brown University, Providence, RI, 02912, USA
  • 3Department of Geography and Environmental Management, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Canada
  • 4H2O Geomatics Inc., Waterloo, Canada
  • 5Institute of Northern Engineering, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska, 99775, USA
  • 6University of Potsdam, Institute of Geosciences, 14476 Potsdam, Germany

Abstract. Northwestern Alaska has been highly affected by changing climatic patterns with new temperature and precipitation maxima over the recent years. In particular, the Baldwin and northern Seward peninsulas are characterized by an abundance of thermokarst lakes that are highly dynamic and prone to lake drainage, like many other regions at the southern margins of continuous permafrost. We used Sentinel-1 synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and Planet CubeSat optical remote sensing data to analyze recently observed widespread lake drainage. We then used synoptic weather data, climate model outputs and lake-ice growth simulations to analyze potential drivers and future pathways of lake drainage in this region. Following the warmest and wettest winter on record in 2017/2018, 192 lakes were identified to have completely or partially drained in early summer 2018, which exceeded the average drainage rate by a factor of ~ 10 and doubled the rates of the previous extreme lake drainage years of 2005 and 2006. The combination of abundant rain- and snowfall and extremely warm mean annual air temperatures (MAAT), close to 0 °C, may have led to the destabilization of permafrost around the lake margins. Rapid snow melt and high amounts of excess meltwater further promoted rapid lateral breaching at lake shores and consequently sudden drainage of some of the largest lakes of the study region that likely persisted for millenia. We hypothesize that permafrost destabilization and lake drainage will accelerate and become the dominant drivers of landscape change in this region. Recent MAAT are already within the range of predictions by UAF SNAP ensemble climate predictions in scenario RCP6.0 for 2100. With MAAT in 2019 exceeding 0 °C at the nearby Kotzebue, Alaska climate station for the first time since continuous recording started in 1949, permafrost aggradation in drained lake basins will become less likely after drainage, strongly decreasing the potential for freeze-locking carbon sequestered in lake sediments, signifying a prominent regime shift in ice-rich permafrost lowland regions.

Ingmar Nitze et al.

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Ingmar Nitze et al.

Ingmar Nitze et al.


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Short summary
In summer 2018 northwestern Alaska has been affected by widespread lake drainage, which strongly exceeded previous observations. We analyzed the spatial and temporal patterns with remote sensing observations, weather data and lake-ice simulations. The preceding fall and winter season was the second warmest and wettest on record causing the destabilization of permafrost and elevated water levels, which likely led to widespread and rapid lake drainage during or right after ice-breakup.
In summer 2018 northwestern Alaska has been affected by widespread lake drainage, which strongly...