Impacts of permafrost degradation on arctic river biogeochemistry



Over the next century, near-surface permafrost across the circumpolar Arctic is expected to degrade significantly, particularly for land areas south of 70°N. This is likely to cause widespread impacts on arctic hydrology, ecology, and trace gas emissions. Here, we present a review of recent studies investigating linkages between permafrost dynamics and river biogeochemistry in the Arctic, including consideration of likely impacts that warming-induced changes in permafrost may be having (or will have in the future) on the delivery of organic matter, inorganic nutrients, and major ions to the Arctic Ocean. These interacting processes can be highly complex and undoubtedly exhibit spatial and temporal variabilities associated with current permafrost conditions, sensitivity to permafrost thaw, mode of permafrost degradation (overall permafrost thaw, active layer deepening, and/or thermokarst processes), and environmental characteristics of watersheds (e.g. land cover, soil type, and topography). One of the most profound consequences of permafrost thaw projected for the future is that the arctic terrestrial freshwater system is likely to experience a transition from a surface water-dominated system to a groundwater-dominated system. Along with many other cascading impacts from this transition, mineral-rich groundwater may become an important contributor to streamflow, in addition to the currently dominant contribution from mineral-poor surface water. Most studies observe or predict an increase in major ion, phosphate, and silicate export with this shift towards greater groundwater contributions. However, we see conflicting accounts of whether the delivery of inorganic nitrogen and organic matter will increase or decrease with warming and permafrost thaw. It is important to note that uncertainties in the predictions of the total flux of biogeochemical constituents are tightly linked to future uncertainties in discharge of rivers. Nonetheless, it is clear that over the next century there will be important shifts in the river transport of organic matter, inorganic nutrients, and major ions, which may in turn have critical implications for primary production and carbon cycling on arctic shelves and in the Arctic Ocean basin interior. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.