Climatic Change

, Volume 48, Issue 4, pp 551–579 | Cite as

Permafrost Degradation and Ecological Changes Associated with a WarmingClimate in Central Alaska

  • M. Torre Jorgenson
  • Charles H. Racine
  • James C. Walters
  • Thomas E. Osterkamp
Article

Abstract

Studies from 1994–1998 on the TananaFlats in central Alaska reveal that permafrostdegradation is widespread and rapid, causing largeshifts in ecosystems from birch forests to fens andbogs. Fine-grained soils under the birch forest areice-rich and thaw settlement typically is 1–2.5 mafter the permafrost thaws. The collapsed areas arerapidly colonized by aquatic herbaceous plants,leading to the development of a thick, floatingorganic mat. Based on field sampling of soils,permafrost and vegetation, and the construction of aGIS database, we estimate that 17% of the study area(263,964 ha) is unfrozen with no previous permafrost,48% has stable permafrost, 31% is partiallydegraded, and 4% has totally degraded. For thatportion that currently has, or recently had,permafrost (83% of area), ∼42% has been affected bythermokarst development. Based on airphoto analysis,birch forests have decreased 35% and fens haveincreased 29% from 1949 to 1995. Overall, the areawith totally degraded permafrost (collapse-scar fensand bogs) has increased from 39 to 47% in 46 y. Based on rates of change from airphoto analysis andradiocarbon dating, we estimate 83% of thedegradation occurred before 1949. Evidence indicatesthis permafrost degradation began in the mid-1700s andis associated with periods of relatively warm climateduring the mid-late 1700s and 1900s. If currentconditions persist, the remaining lowland birchforests will be eliminated by the end of the nextcentury.

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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • M. Torre Jorgenson
    • 1
  • Charles H. Racine
    • 2
  • James C. Walters
    • 3
  • Thomas E. Osterkamp
    • 4
  1. 1.ABR, Inc.FairbanksUSAE-mail
  2. 2.U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering LaboratoryHanoverUSAE-mail
  3. 3.Department of Earth ScienceUniv. Northern IowaCedar FallsUSAE-mail
  4. 4.Geophysical InstituteUniversity of AlaskaFairbanksUSAE-mail

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