Lecture Series

Nye Lecture 2009

Dr. Larry Hinzman

Director, International Arctic Research Center,
University of Alaska, Fairbanks
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December 15, 2009, 5:00 pm,
Moscone South, Room 103

Arctic Hydrology and the role of feedbacks in the climate system

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The effects of a warming climate on the terrestrial regions of the Arctic are already quite apparent and impacts to the hydrologic system are also quite evident. The broadest impacts to the terrestrial arctic regions will result through consequent effects of changing permafrost structure and extent. As the climate differentially warms in summer and winter, the permafrost will become warmer, the active layer (the layer of soil above the permafrost that annually experiences freeze and thaw) will become thicker, the lower boundary of permafrost will become shallower and permafrost extent will decrease in area. These simple structural changes will affect every aspect of the surface water and energy balances and local ecology.

Surface moisture and surface temperature are the main driving variables in local terrestrial and atmospheric linkages. Surface temperature is the linchpin in energy fluxes since it links atmospheric thermal gradients, forcing convective heat transfer, with the subsurface thermal gradients, driving conductive heat transfer. Soil moisture exerts a strong influence upon energy fluxes through controls on evaporative heat flux, phase change in thawing of permafrost, and indirect effects on thermal conductivity. In order to understand and predict ecosystem responses to a changing climate and the resultant feedbacks, it is critical to quantify the dynamic interactions of soil moisture and temperature with changes in permafrost as a function of climatic processes, landscape type, and vegetation.

In future climate scenarios, the Arctic is expected to be warmer, and experience greater precipitation. With the lengthening of the summer season, however, more of this precipitation will occur as rain. The periods of potential evaporation, and transpiration will also increase. Oddly enough, even now, the Arctic may be considered a desert. The vast wetlands that cover large portions of Alaska, Canada and Siberia exist because permafrost prevents soil moisture and surface water from infiltrating to the deeper groundwater. As the seasons change and permafrost thaws, this environment will see dramatic change. In spite of projected increases in precipitation in models, it is quite likely that the Arctic environment will be drier in the future, introducing a host of competing climatic feedbacks. These changes in climate and ecosystems will have serious implications in terms of water resources and subsistence hunting and gathering for residents throughout the Arctic.