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

Permafrost distribution and degradation are controlled by complex interactions among physical and biological factors that are heterogeneous across the landscape and are only partially understood. Warmer air temperatures are increasing permafrost temperature and thaw in many areas, changing hydrology, and influencing vegetation composition. Fire and thermokarst disturbances also affect thaw and may lead to more abrupt landscape changes. Permafrost thaw will likely increase risks to critical infrastructure in the Arctic, especially in the discontinuous permafrost zone, and will pose new challenges for residents, while contributing to ecosystem and global climate shifts. Through enhanced monitoring and research focused on improved understanding of the controls on permafrost dynamics, composition and distribution, anticipated environmental change and infrastructure damages due to thawing permafrost may be better quantified, thereby reducing risks locally and globally.

Performance elements from the Arctic research plan

  • 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.

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