Permafrost Collaboration Team

Advancing understanding of processes controlling permafrost dynamics and the impacts on ecosystems, infrastructure, and climate feedbacks.

Scope of activities

Action Statement

Motivated by the need for a better understanding of how permafrost regions are changing in response to climate change and disturbances, this team has recently focused on the vulnerability of particular landscapes to abrupt thaw of ice-rich permafrost terrain as well as linkages among Arctic System components that are both driving and responding to permafrost degradation. Moving forward, the team will continue to integrate observational datasets being collected by dedicated field campaigns with remote sensing products and model developments to provide spatially relevant information for better representing permafrost landscape dynamics in earth system models. Further, the team contributes to developing knowledge and improving model performance about the permafrost carbon climate feedback. We will continue to engage government scientists, university scholars, early career scientists and stakeholder NGOs, rural and Alaska Native communities, and work more closely with the international research community.

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Permafrost conditions throughout the Arctic are fundamental to ecosystem processes from local to global scales, influencing human health and infrastructure, structure and function of natural communities, and dynamics and fate of carbon stocks. The Permafrost Collaboration Team facilitates the understanding of permafrost processes and their dynamic linkages with natural and social systems directly addressing issues relevant for a) Arctic systems science, b) effective Arctic stewardship, c) national defense and homeland security, and d) the health and well-being of Arctic residents, and the infrastructure and economies upon which they depend.


Team leaders

Christina Schaedel
Northern Arizona University (Website)

Benjamin Jones
University of Alaska Fairbanks (Website)

Miriam Jones
USGS


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 and active layer dynamics across a wide range of terrain units and climatic zones
  • 6.1.2 Integrate field, laboratory, and remote sensing to examine and quantify relationships among surface topography, vegetation composition, hydrology, disturbance effects (including fire, thermokarst, land use change, and wildlife), and geophysical processes in permafrost soils
  • 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 high latitudes and potential carbon release to the atmosphere, including temperature, hydrological effects, and modes of abrupt permafrost thaw.
  • 6.2.2 Support research to improve scaling methods for estimating CO2 and CH4 emissions from the permafrost region 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 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 and the circum-Arctic.
  • 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.

Accomplishments

Team Priorities for 2020/2021

  • Assemble key players to push ground ice and permafrost conversation along (with benefits for infrastructure, human health, science community). 
  • Continue to collaborate and invite speakers from national and international institutions for webinars focusing on carbon and permafrost. 
  • Improve modeling of permafrost processes. 
  • Continue to focus on cross-cutting. 

Accomplishments from 2020

  • Progress toward improving understanding of ground ice content of permafrost across the Arctic. After a PCT meeting last year focused on the topic, the team leaders organized a smaller group of international permafrost researchers to develop a survey designed for data holders and data users to be sent out in the coming fiscal year 

  • The efforts to better understand ground ice content in the Arctic. Better ground ice maps will ultimately serve many purposes, including the movement of soil and water, biogeochemical cycling, the carbon climate feedback, and mobilization of heavy metals and toxins. Partners include national and international permafrost researchers at academic institutions, USGS, and the Denali Commission. 

  • Rapidly thawing permafrost and abrupt thaw processes were also highlighted in several prominent publications and monthly meetings 

  • Another area of permafrost research that remains poorly understood is subsea permafrost. An expert assessment survey distributed through the Permafrost Carbon Network was aimed at evaluating the state of knowledge on subsea permafrost, specifically how or if past and future warming could destabilize subsea permafrost, impacting the carbon-climate feedback. The preliminary results of the survey were presented in the PCT November monthly meeting.

  • The PCT also coordinated presentations on dynamic permafrost terrain responses to increased precipitation in interior Alaska and to large-scale ocean forcing and climatic oscillations driving erosion of ice-rich permafrost influenced coastlines in the Siberian Arctic 

Scientific Achievements

An ice wedge polygon photographed from underneath within the advancing headwall of a retrogressive thaw slump in the Wulik River basin, northwest Alaska. Melting of ice wedges and relict glacial ice within thawing permafrost often drives retrogressive thaw slump expansion, as the high gravimetric water percentage promotes instability and soil structural failure.

Andrew Balser (2010)

Webinars held by PCT in 2017 have each addressed multiple Research Objectives and Performance Elements, and have been designed to draw diverse membership to PCT in its inaugural year. Our May webinar featured M. TorreJorgenson's high-level overview of the trajectory of permafrost-related research to date and its integral relationships with other disciplines. Research and coordination covered addressed Research Objectives 6.1 through 6.4, with particular attention to Performance Elements 6.1.1, 6.1.2, 6.1.4, 6.2.1, 6.2.4, 6.3.1, and 6.3.2. Our June webinar highlighted microbial research within permafrost by Dr. Robin Barbato of The Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), which covers a heretofore underrepresented but critical component relevant to Research Objectives 6.1-6.3, providing specific insight addressing Performance Elements 6.1.2, 6.2.1, and 6.3.1. Dr. Ronnie Daanen with Alaska's Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys (DGGS) described a large, multi-institutional project mapping and monitoring permafrost and permafrost properties within the Goldstream Valley residential area of northwest Fairbanks, AK. This project ties the basic research needs outlined in Research Objectives 6.1 and 6.3 with questions concerning impacts to infrastructure, human health and wellbeing, and the need to engage local residents discussed in Research Objective 6.4.The central achievement of PCT implementation of Research Goal 6 from the Arctic Research Plan is recognizing and developing key linkages between US permafrost research efforts and critical and emerging cross-cutting themes developing among IARPC collaboration teams. For example, permafrost dynamics are essential to addressing the Food Security cross-cutting theme, which links PCT with the Health and Wellbeing, Marine Ecosystems, and Coastal Resilience Collaboration Teams.

Collaborations Between Federal Agencies and the Research Community

Improved communication among agencies and teams for cross-cutting themes has been complemented by the introduction of researchers new to IARPC. New IARPC membership includes researchers attracted by the elevation of permafrost to collaboration team status, notably to include Canadian participation, and also through targeted webinar content expanding into research disciplines not previously present within IARPC. Our June webinar featured a presentation on microbial processes in permafrost settings, which is new to IARPC, and as a result also attracted researchers from Cal State University working on metagenomics in permafrost environments which is relevant, though perhaps under-represented, in modeling efforts. In addition to recruitment through featured speakers, PCT Co-Leads have been active making individual contacts to raise awareness of our new team, and promoting membership, webinar attendance, and active engagement within webinars through a dedicated Member Updates & Announcements portion of each webinar. Given PCT's status as a new team, the rise in membership from zero to more than 100 in the first several months is taken as evidence of both the breadth of interest in permafrost-related research, as well as initial success in broadcasting the formation of the PCT and its activities through the IARPC website, targeted email and phone efforts, and by extended word of mouth within the community.

Stakeholder Engagement

The PCT and its associated monthly webinars have helped to foster synthesis studies across disciplines, provided regular meetings for sharing updates and results, while offering a forum for introduction of new ideas to the larger community which currently includes members of select native community groups (e.g. Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium), academic researchers throughout the U.S., and State of Alaska scientists and managers. For example, a State of Alaska DGGS scientist presented an ongoing collaborative research project for our September monthly webinar discussing applications for mapping permafrost distribution and parameters in a residential setting with critical implications for drinking water access as well as carbon cycle dynamics, and the presentation was well attended by Federal, state, and academic researchers. Increased IARPC participation from residents of rural communities and Alaska Native organizations is desirable for many Collaboration Teams, including the PCT. Success with this objective in similar venues outside of IARPC often hinges on 1) inclusion of personal-contact relationships with residents and rural community leadership, and 2) leveraging specific issues which are immediately relevant and with tangible impacts within communities to better gain attention, focus discussion, and maintain continued involvement. The Environmentally Threatened Communities project, overseen and funded by the Denali Commission, and undertaken as collaborative research and reporting by the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Institute of Northern Engineering and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is assessing threats to rural community infrastructure statewide in Alaska over the next year, and integrally includes regular and highly substantive communication with residents and officials in all affected communities. The permafrost component of this project is the single largest part of the effort, and we have an informal, verbal commitment from an ETC researcher to provide what will be a very well-publicized webinar on the project for early 2018, where residents and local officials will be invited to participate.

Plans for 2018

PCT team leadership has already scheduled webinars for the first quarter of FY2018. These include a presentation by a USGS scientist on the development of a pan-arctic permafrost peatland database that indicates periods in the past when permafrost was vulnerable to thaw and when permafrost formation was conducive. This is important data when trying to determine how permafrost will respond to future climate changes. In addition, we have scheduled a webinar on a nearly two-decade long program, the Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring Network, that will focus on changes to near-surface permafrost since the late 1980s and how these types of long-term data collection efforts are important for understanding changes to this essential component of the Earth’s cryosphere. PCT team lead Benjamin Jones will present to the PCT and Coastal Resilience Collaboration Team discussing permafrost coastal erosion research coordination network efforts and development of an integrated coastal system erosion model. Other planned presentation topics include impacts of permafrost degradation on ecosystems and subsistence hunting as well as gas hydrates in shallow Arctic seas. 

In addition to workshops and webinars, PCT leadership intends to sponsor an IARPC-wide webinar presenting a Program Managers' Panel. With the combination of an extended Q&A and discussion period, we intend to help researchers better understand and navigate the process of scoping, proposing, and ultimately conducting future research outlined in the Plan, while offering Program Managers some direct exposure to projects and researchers outside of their agency, and with whom they may not be familiar.

Accomplishments from 2019

This year the PCT focused on the Arctic as a component of Planet Earth through several forward-thinking topics in our monthly webinars.

  • Terrestrial Multidisciplinary distributed Observatories for the Study of Arctic Connects (T-MOSAiC), which was developed via the working group activities of the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) in order to study pan- Arctic climate in the terrestrial realm. This large-scale, multidisciplinary effort will address key aspects of connectivity, gradients, extreme events, and emergent properties by bringing together distributed observatories. Pan-arctic terrestrial climate and ecosystem data will be assembled over the study year and synthesized with data from the drifting observatory (MOSAiC) to link Arctic Ocean and atmospheric dynamics to terrestrial ecosystem, water, and atmospheric processes. The unique contributions of TMOSAiC are to expand the focus on the needs of stakeholders and identification of critical services that environmental stewardship agencies provide to society. The PCT teamed up with the TECT to expand the scope of importance and breadth of this effort. This international, pan-arctic effort enhances collaborative science across Federal agencies and academic institutions.
  • A commentary in Nature this year (Turetsky et al., 2019) highlighted the need to better understand abrupt thaw processes, as they can lead to a near doubling of permafrost carbon loss than was previously accounted for in models that typically only consider gradual permafrost thaw. A major component of understanding and predicting abrupt thaw is to better understand ground ice content in the permafrost zone and interactions between disturbance regimes, climate change, and ecosystems.
    • The May 2019 meeting brought in three researchers studying various aspects of abrupt thaw (mapping potential abrupt thaw, quantifying ground ice content, and hydrological changes with abrupt thaw), in conjunction with academic institutions and DOE’s NGEE Arctic project, whose goal is to reduce the uncertainty in the prediction of the future Earth system through improved representation of Arctic terrestrial processes in E3SM (global climate model).
    • In order to improve prediction of permafrost processes in a warming climate, a proposed first-step future product is to generate a survey for data holders and users on metadata related to ground ice prior to try to synthesize the data themselves. One reason is that data formats are likely diverse, and there is the potential to overlook key aspects of data needs by various end-users. The group discussed leveraging T-MOSAiC, NASA- Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), Rapid Arctic Transitions due to Infrastructure and Climate (RATIC), and other IASC meetings to maximize access to potential data holders.
    • Because of the international interest in this topic, the PCT discussed moving this effort forward in the coming year by creating a working group focused on refining ground ice maps and regional responses to abrupt thaw of ice-rich permafrost through the International Permafrost Association and/or the Permafrost Carbon Network.

2017 Performance Element Reporting Log

2017 Permafrost Collaboration Team Annual Report

2018 Performance Element Reporting Log

2018 Permafrost Collaboration Team Annual Report

2019 Permafrost Collaboration Team Annual Report

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