skip to main content

Title: Recent changes to Arctic river discharge
Abstract

Arctic rivers drain ~15% of the global land surface and significantly influence local communities and economies, freshwater and marine ecosystems, and global climate. However, trusted and public knowledge of pan-Arctic rivers is inadequate, especially for small rivers and across Eurasia, inhibiting understanding of the Arctic response to climate change. Here, we calculate daily streamflow in 486,493 pan-Arctic river reaches from 1984-2018 by assimilating 9.18 million river discharge estimates made from 155,710 satellite images into hydrologic model simulations. We reveal larger and more heterogenous total water export (3-17% greater) and water export acceleration (factor of 1.2-3.3 larger) than previously reported, with substantial differences across basins, ecoregions, stream orders, human regulation, and permafrost regimes. We also find significant changes in the spring freshet and summer stream intermittency. Ultimately, our results represent an updated, publicly available, and more accurate daily understanding of Arctic rivers uniquely enabled by recent advances in hydrologic modeling and remote sensing.

Authors:
; ; ; ; ;
Award ID(s):
1748653
Publication Date:
NSF-PAR ID:
10360485
Journal Name:
Nature Communications
Volume:
12
Issue:
1
ISSN:
2041-1723
Publisher:
Nature Publishing Group
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Arctic sea-ice loss is emblematic of an amplified Arctic water cycle and has critical feedback implications for global climate. Stable isotopes (δ 18 O, δ 2 H, d-excess ) are valuable tracers for constraining water cycle and climate processes through space and time. Yet, the paucity of well-resolved Arctic isotope data preclude an empirically derived understanding of the hydrologic changes occurring today, in the deep (geologic) past, and in the future. To address this knowledge gap, the Pan-Arctic Precipitation Isotope Network (PAPIN) was established in 2018 to coordinate precipitation sampling at 19 stations across key tundra, subarctic, maritime, and continental climate zones. Here, we present a first assessment of rainfall samples collected in summer 2018 ( n = 281) and combine new isotope and meteorological data with sea ice observations, reanalysis data, and model simulations. Data collectively establish a summer Arctic Meteoric Water Line where δ 2 H = 7.6⋅δ 18 O–1.8 ( r 2 = 0.96, p < 0.01). Mean amount-weighted δ 18 O, δ 2 H, and d-excess values were −12.3, −93.5, and 4.9‰, respectively, with the lowest summer mean δ 18 O value observed in northwest Greenland (−19.9‰) and the highest in Iceland (−7.3‰). Southern Alaska recordedmore »the lowest mean d-excess (−8.2%) and northern Russia the highest (9.9‰). We identify a range of δ 18 O-temperature coefficients from 0.31‰/°C (Alaska) to 0.93‰/°C (Russia). The steepest regression slopes (>0.75‰/°C) were observed at continental sites, while statistically significant temperature relations were generally absent at coastal stations. Model outputs indicate that 68% of the summer precipitating air masses were transported into the Arctic from mid-latitudes and were characterized by relatively high δ 18 O values. Yet 32% of precipitation events, characterized by lower δ 18 O and high d-excess values, derived from northerly air masses transported from the Arctic Ocean and/or its marginal seas, highlighting key emergent oceanic moisture sources as sea ice cover declines. Resolving these processes across broader spatial-temporal scales is an ongoing research priority, and will be key to quantifying the past, present, and future feedbacks of an amplified Arctic water cycle on the global climate system.« less
  2. Abstract

    Climate change has the potential to impact headwater streams in the Arctic by thawing permafrost and subsequently altering hydrologic regimes and vegetation distribution, physiognomy and productivity. Permafrost thaw and increased subsurface flow have been inferred from the chemistry of large rivers, but there is limited empirical evidence of the impacts to headwater streams. Here we demonstrate how changing vegetation cover and soil thaw may alter headwater catchment hydrology using water budgets, stream discharge trends, and chemistry across a gradient of ground temperature in northwestern Alaska. Colder, tundra-dominated catchments shed precipitation through stream discharge, whereas in warmer catchments with greater forest extent, evapotranspiration (ET) and infiltration are substantial fluxes. Forest soils thaw earlier, remain thawed longer, and display seasonal water content declines, consistent with greater ET and infiltration. Streambed infiltration and water chemistry indicate that even minor warming can lead to increased infiltration and subsurface flow. Additional warming, permafrost loss, and vegetation shifts in the Arctic will deliver water back to the atmosphere and to subsurface aquifers in many regions, with the potential to substantially reduce discharge in headwater streams, if not compensated by increasing precipitation. Decreasing discharge in headwater streams will have important implications for aquatic and riparian ecosystems.

  3. The magnitude of stream and river carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) emission is affected by seasonal changes in watershed biogeochemistry and hydrology. Global estimates of this flux are, however, uncertain, relying on calculated values for CO 2 and lacking spatial accuracy or seasonal variations critical for understanding macroecosystem controls of the flux. Here, we compiled 5,910 direct measurements of fluvial CO 2 partial pressure and modeled them against watershed properties to resolve reach-scale monthly variations of the flux. The direct measurements were then combined with seasonally resolved gas transfer velocity and river surface area estimates from a recent global hydrography dataset to constrain the flux at the monthly scale. Globally, fluvial CO 2 emission varies between 112 and 209 Tg of carbon per month. The monthly flux varies much more in Arctic and northern temperate rivers than in tropical and southern temperate rivers (coefficient of variation: 46 to 95 vs. 6 to 12%). Annual fluvial CO 2 emission to terrestrial gross primary production (GPP) ratio is highly variable across regions, ranging from negligible (<0.2%) to 18%. Nonlinear regressions suggest a saturating increase in GPP and a nonsaturating, steeper increase in fluvial CO 2 emission with discharge across regions, which leadsmore »to higher percentages of GPP being shunted into rivers for evasion in wetter regions. This highlights the importance of hydrology, in particular water throughput, in routing terrestrial carbon to the atmosphere via the global drainage networks. Our results suggest the need to account for the differential hydrological responses of terrestrial–atmospheric vs. fluvial–atmospheric carbon exchanges in plumbing the terrestrial carbon budget.« less
  4. The Yukon River basin encompasses over 832,000 km2 of boreal Arctic Alaska and northwest Canada, providing a major transportation corridor and multiple natural resources to regional communities. The river seasonal hydrology is defined by a long winter frozen season and a snowmelt-driven spring flood pulse. Capabilities for accurate monitoring and forecasting of the annual spring freshet and river ice breakup (RIB) in the Yukon and other northern rivers is limited, but critical for understanding hydrologic processes related to snow, and for assessing flood-related risks to regional communities. We developed a regional snow phenology record using satellite passive microwave remote sensing to elucidate interactions between the timing of upland snowmelt and the downstream spring flood pulse and RIB in the Yukon. The seasonal snow metrics included annual Main Melt Onset Date (MMOD), Snowoff (SO) and Snowmelt Duration (SMD) derived from multifrequency (18.7 and 36.5 GHz) daily brightness temperatures and a physically-based Gradient Ratio Polarization (GRP) retrieval algorithm. The resulting snow phenology record extends over a 29-year period (1988–2016) with 6.25 km grid resolution. The MMOD retrievals showed good agreement with similar snow metrics derived from in situ weather station measurements of snowpack water equivalence (r = 0.48, bias = −3.63 days)more »and surface air temperatures (r = 0.69, bias = 1 day). The MMOD and SO impact on the spring freshet was investigated by comparing areal quantiles of the remotely sensed snow metrics with measured streamflow quantiles over selected sub-basins. The SO 50% quantile showed the strongest (p < 0.1) correspondence with the measured spring flood pulse at Stevens Village (r = 0.71) and Pilot (r = 0.63) river gaging stations, representing two major Yukon sub-basins. MMOD quantiles indicating 20% and 50% of a catchment under active snowmelt corresponded favorably with downstream RIB (r = 0.61) from 19 river observation stations spanning a range of Yukon sub-basins; these results also revealed a 14–27 day lag between MMOD and subsequent RIB. Together, the satellite based MMOD and SO metrics show potential value for regional monitoring and forecasting of the spring flood pulse and RIB timing in the Yukon and other boreal Arctic basins.« less
  5. Abstract

    High elevation alpine ecosystems—the ‘water towers of the world’—provide water for human populations around the globe. Active geomorphic features such as glaciers and permafrost leave alpine ecosystems susceptible to changes in climate which could also lead to changing biogeochemistry and water quality. Here, we synthesize recent changes in high-elevation stream chemistry from multiple sites that demonstrate a consistent and widespread pattern of increasing sulfate and base cation concentrations or fluxes. This trend has occurred over the past 30 years and is consistent across multiple sites in the Rocky Mountains of the United States, western Canada, the European Alps, the Icelandic Shield, and the Himalayas in Asia. To better understand these recent changes and to examine the potential causes of increased sulfur and base cation concentrations in surface waters, we present a synthesis of global records as well as a high resolution 33 year record of atmospheric deposition and river export data from a long-term ecological research site in Colorado, USA. We evaluate which factors may be driving global shifts in stream chemistry including atmospheric deposition trends and broad climatic patterns. Our analysis suggests that recent changes in climate may be stimulating changes to hydrology and/or geomorphic processes, which inmore »turn lead to accelerated weathering of bedrock. This cascade of effects has broad implications for the chemistry and quality of important surface water resources.

    « less