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Keywords:

  • Arctic coastal plain;
  • thermokarst lakes;
  • shoreline erosion;
  • water balance;
  • lake ice

Abstract

Thermokarst lakes cover > 20% of the landscape throughout much of the Alaskan Arctic Coastal Plain (ACP) with shallow lakes freezing solid (grounded ice) and deeper lakes maintaining perennial liquid water (floating ice). Thus, lake depth relative to maximum ice thickness (1·5–2·0 m) represents an important threshold that impacts permafrost, aquatic habitat, and potentially geomorphic and hydrologic behaviour. We studied coupled hydrogeomorphic processes of 13 lakes representing a depth gradient across this threshold of maximum ice thickness by analysing remotely sensed, water quality, and climatic data over a 35-year period. Shoreline erosion rates due to permafrost degradation ranged from < 0·2 m/year in very shallow lakes (0·4 m) up to 1·8 m/year in the deepest lakes (2·6 m). This pattern of thermokarst expansion masked detection of lake hydrologic change using remotely sensed imagery except for the shallowest lakes with stable shorelines. Changes in the surface area of these shallow lakes tracked interannual variation in precipitation minus evaporation (P − EL) with periods of full and nearly dry basins. Shorter-term (2004–2008) specific conductance data indicated a drying pattern across lakes of all depths consistent with the long-term record for only shallow lakes. Our analysis suggests that grounded-ice lakes are ice-free on average 37 days longer than floating-ice lakes resulting in a longer period of evaporative loss and more frequent negative P − EL. These results suggest divergent hydrogeomorphic responses to a changing Arctic climate depending on the threshold created by water depth relative to maximum ice thickness in ACP lakes. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.