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  1. Abstract

    Lakes represent as much as ∼25% of the total land surface area in lowland permafrost regions. Though decreasing lake area has become a widespread phenomenon in permafrost regions, our ability to forecast future patterns of lake drainage spanning gradients of space and time remain limited. Here, we modeled the drivers of gradual (steady declining lake area) and catastrophic (temporally abrupt decrease in lake area) lake drainage using 45 years of Landsat observations (i.e. 1975–2019) across 32 690 lakes spanning climate and environmental gradients across northern Alaska. We mapped lake area using supervised support vector machine classifiers and object based image analyses using five-year Landsat image composites spanning 388 968 km2. Drivers of lake drainage were determined with boosted regression tree models, using both static (e.g. lake morphology, proximity to drainage gradient) and dynamic predictor variables (e.g. temperature, precipitation, wildfire). Over the past 45 years, gradual drainage decreased lake area between 10% and 16%, but rates varied over time as the 1990s recorded the highest rates of gradual lake area losses associated with warm periods. Interestingly, the number of catastrophically drained lakes progressively decreased at a rate of ∼37% decade−1from 1975–1979 (102–273 lakes draining year−1) to 2010–2014 (3–8 lakes drainingmore »year−1). However this 40 year negative trend was reversed during the most recent time-period (2015–2019), with observations of catastrophic drainage among the highest on record (i.e. 100–250 lakes draining year−1), the majority of which occurred in northwestern Alaska. Gradual drainage processes were driven by lake morphology, summer air and lake temperature, snow cover, active layer depth, and the thermokarst lake settlement index (R2adj= 0.42, CV = 0.35,p< 0.0001), whereas, catastrophic drainage was driven by the thawing season length, total precipitation, permafrost thickness, and lake temperature (R2adj= 0.75, CV = 0.67,p< 0.0001). Models forecast a continued decline in lake area across northern Alaska by 15%–21% by 2050. However these estimates are conservative, as the anticipated amplitude of future climate change were well-beyond historical variability and thus insufficient to forecast abrupt ‘catastrophic’ drainage processes. Results highlight the urgency to understand the potential ecological responses and feedbacks linked with ongoing Arctic landscape reorganization.

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  2. Free, publicly-accessible full text available December 31, 2024
  3. Few fires are known to have burned the tundra of the Arctic Slope north of the Brooks Range in Alaska, USA. A total of 90 fires between 1969 and 2022 are known. Because fire has been rare, old burns can be detected by the traces of thermokarst and distinct vegetation they leave in otherwise uniform tundra, which are visible in aerial photograph archives. Several prehistoric tundra burns have been found in this way. Detection of tundra fires in this sparsely populated and remote area has been historically inconsistent and opportunistic, relying on reports by aircraft pilots. Fire reports have been logged into an administrative database which, out of necessity, has been used to scientifically evaluate changes in the fire regime. To improve the consistency of the record, we completed a systematic search of Landsat Collection 2 for the Brooks Range Foothills ecoregion over the period 1972–2022. We found 57 unrecorded tundra burns, about 41% of the total, which now numbers 138. Only 15% and 33% of all fires appear in MODIS and VIIRS satellite-borne thermal anomaly products, respectively. The fire frequency in the first 37 years of the record is 0.89 y−1 for natural ignitions that spread ≥10 ha. Frequencymore »in the last 13 years is 2.5 y−1, indicating a nearly three-fold increase in fire frequency.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available March 1, 2024
  4. Retrogressive thaw slumps (RTS) are considered one of the most dynamic permafrost disturbance features in the Arctic. Sub-meter resolution multispectral imagery acquired by very high spatial resolution (VHSR) commercial satellite sensors offer unique capacities in capturing the morphological dynamics of RTSs. The central goal of this study is to develop a deep learning convolutional neural net (CNN) model (a UNet-based workflow) to automatically detect and characterize RTSs from VHSR imagery. We aimed to understand: (1) the optimal combination of input image tile size (array size) and the CNN network input size (resizing factor/spatial resolution) and (2) the interoperability of the trained UNet models across heterogeneous study sites based on a limited set of training samples. Hand annotation of RTS samples, CNN model training and testing, and interoperability analyses were based on two study areas from high-Arctic Canada: (1) Banks Island and (2) Axel Heiberg Island and Ellesmere Island. Our experimental results revealed the potential impact of image tile size and the resizing factor on the detection accuracies of the UNet model. The results from the model transferability analysis elucidate the effects on the UNet model due the variability (e.g., shape, color, and texture) associated with the RTS training samples. Overall,more »study findings highlight several key factors that we should consider when operationalizing CNN-based RTS mapping over large geographical extents.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available September 1, 2023
  5. Remote sensing-based Earth Observation plays an important role in assessing environmental changes throughout our planet. As an image-heavy domain, the evaluation of the data strongly focuses on statistical and pixel-based spatial analysis methods. However, considering the complexity of our Earth system, there are some environmental structures and dependencies that are not possible to accurately describe with these traditional image analysis approaches. One example for such a limitation is the representation of (spatial) networks and their characteristics. In this study, we thus propose a computer vision approach that enables the representation of semantic information gained from images as graphs. As an example, we investigate digital terrain models of Arctic permafrost landscapes with its very characteristic polygonal patterned ground. These regular patterns, which are clearly visible in high-resolution image and elevation data, are formed by subsurface ice bodies that are very vulnerable to rising temperatures in a warming Arctic. Observing these networks’ topologies and metrics in space and time with graph analysis thus allows insights into the landscape’s complex geomorphology, hydrology, and ecology and therefore helps to quantify how they interact with climate change. We show that results extracted with this analytical and highly automated approach are in line with those gatheredmore »from other manual studies or from manual validation. Thus, with this approach, we introduce a method that, for the first time, enables upscaling of such terrain and network analysis to potentially pan-Arctic scales where collecting in-situ field data is strongly limited.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available August 1, 2023
  6. Free, publicly-accessible full text available August 1, 2023
  7. Beavers have established themselves as a key component of low arctic ecosystems over the past several decades. Beavers are widely recognized as ecosystem engineers, but their effects on permafrost-dominated landscapes in the Arctic remain unclear. In this study, we document the occurrence, reconstruct the timing, and highlight the effects of beaver activity on a small creek valley confined by ice-rich permafrost on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska using multi-dimensional remote sensing analysis of satellite (Landsat-8, Sentinel-2, Planet CubeSat, and DigitalGlobe Inc./MAXAR) and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) imagery. Beaver activity along the study reach of Swan Lake Creek appeared between 2006 and 2011 with the construction of three dams. Between 2011 and 2017, beaver dam numbers increased, with the peak occurring in 2017 (n = 9). Between 2017 and 2019, the number of dams decreased (n = 6), while the average length of the dams increased from 20 to 33 m. Between 4 and 20 August 2019, following a nine-day period of record rainfall (>125 mm), the well-established dam system failed, triggering the formation of a beaver-induced permafrost degradation feature. During the decade of beaver occupation between 2011 and 2021, the creek valley widened from 33 to 180 m (~450% increase) andmore »the length of the stream channel network increased from ~0.6 km to more than 1.9 km (220% increase) as a result of beaver engineering and beaver-induced permafrost degradation. Comparing vegetation (NDVI) and snow (NDSI) derived indices from Sentinel-2 time-series data acquired between 2017 and 2021 for the beaver-induced permafrost degradation feature and a nearby unaffected control site, showed that peak growing season NDVI was lowered by 23% and that it extended the length of the snow-cover period by 19 days following the permafrost disturbance. Our analysis of multi-dimensional remote sensing data highlights several unique aspects of beaver engineering impacts on ice-rich permafrost landscapes. Our detailed reconstruction of the beaver-induced permafrost degradation event may also prove useful for identifying degradation of ice-rich permafrost in optical time-series datasets across regional scales. Future field- and remote sensing-based observations of this site, and others like it, will provide valuable information for the NSF-funded Arctic Beaver Observation Network (A-BON) and the third phase of the NASA Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) Field Campaign.« less
  8. In response to increasing Arctic temperatures, ice-rich permafrost landscapes are undergoing rapid changes. In permafrost lowlands, polygonal ice wedges are especially prone to degradation. Melting of ice wedges results in deepening troughs and the transition from low-centered to high-centered ice-wedge polygons. This process has important implications for surface hydrology, as the connectivity of such troughs determines the rate of drainage for these lowland landscapes. In this study, we present a comprehensive, modular, and highly automated workflow to extract, to represent, and to analyze remotely sensed ice-wedge polygonal trough networks as a graph (i.e., network structure). With computer vision methods, we efficiently extract the trough locations as well as their geomorphometric information on trough depth and width from high-resolution digital elevation models and link these data within the graph. Further, we present and discuss the benefits of graph analysis algorithms for characterizing the erosional development of such thaw-affected landscapes. Based on our graph analysis, we show how thaw subsidence has progressed between 2009 and 2019 following burning at the Anaktuvuk River fire scar in northern Alaska, USA. We observed a considerable increase in the number of discernible troughs within the study area, while simultaneously the number of disconnected networks decreased frommore »54 small networks in 2009 to only six considerably larger disconnected networks in 2019. On average, the width of the troughs has increased by 13.86%, while the average depth has slightly decreased by 10.31%. Overall, our new automated approach allows for monitoring ice-wedge dynamics in unprecedented spatial detail, while simultaneously reducing the data to quantifiable geometric measures and spatial relationships.« less