Degrading permafrost in steep rock walls can cause hazardous rock creep and rock slope failure. Spatial and temporal patterns of permafrost degradation that operate at the scale of instability are complex and poorly understood. For the first time, we used P wave seismic refraction tomography (SRT) to monitor the degradation of permafrost in steep rock walls. A 2.5-D survey with five 80 m long parallel transects was installed across an unstable steep NE-SW facing crestline in the Matter Valley, Switzerland. P wave velocity was calibrated in the laboratory for water-saturated low-porosity paragneiss samples between 20°C and −5°C and increases significantly along and perpendicular to the cleavage by 0.55–0.66 km/s (10–13%) and 2.4–2.7 km/s (>100%), respectively, when freezing. Seismic refraction is, thus, technically feasible to detect permafrost in low-porosity rocks that constitute steep rock walls. Ray densities up to 100 and more delimit the boundary between unfrozen and frozen bedrock and facilitate accurate active layer positioning. SRT shows monthly (August and September 2006) and annual active layer dynamics (August 2006 and 2007) and reveals a contiguous permafrost body below the NE face with annual changes of active layer depth from 2 to 10 m. Large ice-filled fractures, lateral onfreezing of glacierets, and a persistent snow cornice cause previously unreported permafrost patterns close to the surface and along the crestline which correspond to active seasonal rock displacements up to several mm/a. SRT provides a geometrically highly resolved subsurface monitoring of active layer dynamics in steep permafrost rocks at the scale of instability.
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