Scope of activities

The Permafrost Collaboration Team is a new team created as part of Arctic Research Plan 2017-2021. The team's scope of activities will include implementation of Research Objectives and Performance Elements listed under Research Goal 6, which is described as follows in the Plan:

Permafrost evolution, degradation, and properties influence terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in Arctic and boreal regions (Bowden et al. 2012; Hinzman et al. 2005; Shur and Jorgenson 2007), impact infrastructure and economies (Walker and Peirce 2015; Larsen et al. 2008), affect human health (Arctic Climate Impact Assessment 2004), and alter global climate via the permafrost carbon feedback (Koven et al. 2015; Schuur et al. 2015). These effects are germane to all of the policy drivers in this Plan: Well- being, Stewardship, Security, and Arctic-Global System. Understanding permafrost processes and their dynamic linkages with natural and social systems is important for advancing U.S. policy interests for the 2017-2021 planning period and beyond.

Improved understanding of permafrost dynamics requires an interdisciplinary approach linking biotic, abiotic, and social disciplines in order to consider relevant impacts at local to global scales. Permafrost is a fundamental component of the cryosphere in the northern hemisphere, affecting about 24 percent of the terrestrial landscape (Brown et al 1998). Permafrost is defined as ground that remains at or below 0°C for at least two consecutive years (Van Everdingen 1998). Four zones describe the lateral extent of permafrost regions: continuous (90-100 percent), discontinuous (50-90 percent), sporadic discontinuous (10-50 percent), and isolated discontinuous (< 10 percent). Permafrost zones extend across 80 percent of Alaska. Continuous and discontinuous permafrost underlie 32 percent and 31 percent of the state, respectively, while sporadic permafrost underlies about 8 percent of the state, and isolated discontinuous perfmafrost, an additional 10 percent (Jorgenson et al. 2008). Interactions between climate, topography, hydrology, and ecology operating over long time scales regulate permafrost presence and stability (Shur and Jorgenson 2007). Due to these interactions, permafrost may persist in regions with a mean annual air temperature (MAAT) above 0°C and it may degrade in regions with a MAAT below -10°C (Jorgenson et al. 2010). Since permafrost dynamics are highly integral and influential to Arctic ecosystem processes, an enhanced understanding requires a multi-disciplinary approach that accounts for component couplings.

Permafrost warming, degradation, and thaw subsidence can have significant implications for ecosystems, infrastructure, and climate at local, regional, and global scales (Jorgenson et al. 2001; Nelson et al. 2001; Schuur et al. 2008). In general, permafrost in Alaska has warmed between 0.3°C and 6°C since ground temperature measurements began between the 1950s and 1980s (Romanovsky et al. 2010; Romanovsky et al. 2012). Warming and thawing of near-surface permafrost may lead to widespread terrain instability in ice-rich permafrost regions in the Arctic (Jorgenson et al. 2006; Lantz and Kokeli 2008; Gooseff et al. 2009; Balser et al. 2014; Jones et al. 2015; Liljedahl et al. 2016). Such land surface changes can impact vegetation, hydrology, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and soil carbon dynamics (Grosse et al. 2011; Jorgenson et al. 2013; Kokelj et al. 2015; O’Donnell et al. 2011; Schuur et al. 2008; Vonk et al. 2015). Thawing permafrost also interacts with changes to physical ocean conditions ( sealevel, storm strength and frequency, and sea ice cover) to influence coastal erosion, which can impact both ecosystems and infrastructure.

The extent and dynamics of permafrost and permafrost-related landscape features remain poorly mapped and modeled at sufficient resolution to predict impacts of climate change along a spectrum of spatial scales, which is essential for adequate understanding driving informed Arctic and global policy. Permafrost properties are linked in complex but quantifiable ways with terrain and ecosystem characteristics (Balser et al. 2015; Jorgenson et al. 2014; Mishra and Riley 2015; Pastick et al. 2014), hydrologic processes and biogeochemistry (Abbott et al. 2014; Hinzman et al. 2006; Walker and Hudson 2003) and disturbance regimes (Gooseff et al. 2009; Mack et al. 2011; Viereck 1973). Because permafrost is a subsurface property, development of geospatial datasets suitable for modeling and scaling typically requires a well-coordinated combination of extensive field work and remote sensing analyses (Cable et al. 2016; Balser et al. 2014; Pastick et al. 2013). Rigorous examination of linkages among disciplines provides the foundation for effective modeling efforts designed to represent permafrost dynamics in local to global systems, to estimate the spatial distribution of permafrost degradation modes (Balser and Jones 2015; Olefeldt 2015; Jones et al. 2015), and to assess the vulnerability of permafrost carbon to quantify potential carbon release to the atmosphere (Schuur et al. 2015; Schuur et al. 2008).

Meeting the Permafrost Goal will require strategic and diligently executed cooperation among Federal agencies with complementary capabilities, programs, and expertise. No single agency can adequately address the gaps in scientific understanding of permafrost dynamics in a changing climate and the required improvements in empirical and modeling research to inform sound Federal policy. Additionally, collaboration with Indigenous organizations and State of Alaska Agencies could further strengthen knowledge exchange and data collection and could inform decisions. Successful development and distribution of actionable knowledge and data will come from linking specific, existing research and management programs housed within laboratories and agencies, as well as promoting and sustaining larger community initiatives and groups (such as NSF’s SEARCH Permafrost Action Team and associated Permafrost Carbon Network), which foster synthesis studies across disciplines, provide regular meetings for sharing updates and results, and offer a forum for introduction of new ideas to the larger community. Finally, there is a need for stable, long-term observation networks coordinated across interdisciplinary research efforts and multi-agency approaches.


Team leaders

Andrew Balser
Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab (CRREL), ERDC (Website)

Benjamin Jones
USGS Alaska Science Center (Website)

Christina Schaedel
Northern Arizona University

Performance elements from the Arctic research plan

6.1 Improve understanding of how climate, physiography, terrain conditions, vegetation, and patterns of disturbance interact to control permafrost dynamics.

  • 6.1.1 Continue to conduct and coordinate monitoring and modeling of permafrost temperature across a wide range of terrain units and climatic zones and to use obtained data to refine relationships between the ground thermal regime of shallow and deep permafrost and terrain properties.
  • 6.1.2 Conduct field-based research that examines and quantifies relationships among surface topography, vegetation composition, hydrology, disturbance effects (including fire and thermokarst), and geophysical processes in permafrost soils to feed directly into models, decision support tools, and predictive analyses.
  • 6.1.3 Support field-based research to improve understanding of how changes to Arctic lake and river ecosystems affect permafrost stability, water availability, and habitat provision, with a particular focus on wintertime ice regimes.
  • 6.1.4 Integrate field, laboratory, and remote sensing information to map local, regional, and global permafrost-influenced landscape dynamics and their impact on vegetation, hydrology, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and soil carbon dynamics in the Arctic. Develop spatially-explicit decision support systems and predictive tools.
  • 6.1.5 Support activities, including the SEARCH Permafrost Action Team, to foster continued efforts to link multi-agency investments while expanding empirical datasets and synthesizing information that will inform the development of an updated permafrost ground ice content map for Alaska.

6.2 Improve and expand understanding of how warming and thawing of permafrost influence the vulnerability of soil carbon, including the potential release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) to the atmosphere.

  • 6.2.1 Support field-based research and monitoring focused on quantifying the key processes controlling soil carbon cycling at northern latitudes and potential carbon release to the atmosphere, including temperature and hydrological effects.
  • 6.2.2 Support research to improve scaling methods for estimating CO2 and CH4 emissions from the permafrost region (including that which is conducted by the SEARCH Permafrost Action Team) to link multi-agency investments in soil carbon research that culminates in synthesis publications.
  • 6.2.3 Utilize empirical, multi-scale approaches to make spatially-explicit estimates of vulnerability of permafrost carbon and release of both CO2 and CH4.
  • 6.2.4 Utilize empirical, multi-scale approaches to make spatially explicit estimates of the potential extent and modes of abrupt permafrost thaw, including thermokarst and cryogenic landslides, and of the downstream effects of these events on microbial processes and carbon fluxes.
  • 6.2.5 Better understand the rate of subsea permafrost degradation and its role in methane gas hydrate decomposition and feedbacks to the climate system. Develop estimates of contributions to atmospheric carbon from subsea permafrost sources at present and under future scenarios.

6.3 In collaboration with efforts described under the Terrestrial Ecosystems Goal, continue to improve integration of empirically measured permafrost processes into models that predict how climate change, hydrology, ecosystem shifts and disturbances interact within terrestrial and freshwater aquatic systems to impact permafrost evolution, degradation, and feedbacks from local landscapes to the circum-Arctic.

  • 6.3.1 Conduct field-based research and monitoring needed to improve understanding of the linkages between key terrestrial ecosystem processes and permafrost properties and to incorporate empirical information into modeling efforts at various scales.
  • 6.3.2 Carry out research to quantify and integrate across scales, the effects of warming permafrost on ecosystem processing related with disturbance regimes, including fire, thermokarst, and landscape changes.
  • 6.3.3 Facilitate and harmonize the production of key geospatial datasets from extensive field measurements, remotely-sensed, and other data sources needed for model initialization, calibration, and validation. Organize and host workshops to enable this activity across agencies engaged in data development with attention to data congruity and scalability.
  • 6.3.4 Support continued development of robust modeling tools and approaches to integrate models of ecosystem processes at various scales since permafrost dynamics are integral to these processes and vice-versa.

6.4 Determine how warming and thawing permafrost impacts infrastructure and human health.

  • 6.4.1 Survey Federal research agencies and non-Federal partners/stakeholders on their use of tools, methods, and means to monitor changes in landscape conditions due to changes in permafrost with a focus on hazards to infrastructure and health. Develop, enhance, and update “Best Practices” guides for mitigation of impacts to building foundations and other infrastructure.
  • 6.4.2 In collaboration with relevant Indigenous organizations, survey local communities and regional agencies—those which maintain infrastructure and monitor health—on the impacts of warming and thawing permafrost. Integrate these responses within a document characterizing and summarizing overall impacts of warming and thawing permafrost.


The Permafrost Collaboration Team is a new team under Arctic Research Plan 2017-2021. Accomplishments will be listed here as they are made. 

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