Changes in thaw lake drainage in the Western Canadian Arctic from 1950 to 2000



The permafrost of the Western Canadian Arctic has a very high ground ice content. As a result, the vast number of thaw lakes in this area are very sensitive to a changing climate. With thaw lakes prone to either increases in area due to thermokarst processes, or complete drainage in less than one day due to melting of channels through ice-rich permafrost. After a lake drains, it leaves a topographic basin that is often termed a Drained Thaw Lake Basin (DTLB). An analysis of aerial photographs and topographic maps showed that 41 lakes drained in the study area between 1950 and 2000, for a rate of slightly less than one lake per year. The rate of drainage over three time periods (1950–1973, 1973–1985, 1985–2000), decreased from over 1 lake/year to approximately 0·3 lake/year. The reason for this decrease is not known, but it is hypothesized that it is related to the effect of a warming climate. There is a large spatial variation in DTLBs, with higher number of drained lakes in physiographic areas with poor drainage. It is likely that this variation is related to variations in ground ice. Although previous studies have suggested that lakes drain during periods of high water level, it is likely that a combination of a warm summer, a resulting deep active layer, and a moderately high lake level were responsible for the drainage of a lake in the study area during the summer of 1989. Although this study has documented changes in the rate of lake drainage over a 50-year period, there is a need for further research to better understand the complex interactions between climate, geomorphology, and hydrology responsible for this change, and to further consider the potential hazard rapid lake drainage poses to future industrial or resource development in the area. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and Her Majesty the Queen in right of Canada. The contributions of P. Marsh, M. Russell, H. Haywood and C. Onclin belong to the Crown in right of Canada and are reproduced with the permission of Environment Canada.