Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface

Thermokarst and export of sediment and organic carbon in the Sheldrake River watershed, Nunavik, Canada

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Abstract

[1] A spatiotemporal computation of permafrost decay covering the period from 1957 to 2009 and validated by field investigations was made over a 76 km2 river catchment straddling the tree line, in the discontinuous permafrost zone, east of Hudson Bay, in order to estimate the amounts of sediments and organic carbon released by thermokarst. Lithalsas and palsas are the dominant permafrost landforms, whereas thermokarst ponds, landslides, active layer failures, and gullies are the main features of permafrost degradation. Results show that 21% of the existing permafrost in 1957 had disappeared in 2009, resulting in a 96% growth of the thermokarst pond cover and a 46 to 217% increase of the number of active erosion landforms. An increase of stream connectivity related with the degradation of permafrost potentially allowed for an increase of sediments and carbon delivery to the main stream by a factor of 1.6. Volume of active landslides and gullies also increased by 12 to 38%, enhancing sediment and organic matter yields. Significant differences in permafrost degradation and in sediment and carbon inputs were observed along an east–west transect, from sites located at the head of the watershed near the tree line to sites located downstream close to the Hudson Bay coast. Thermokarst ponds in the forest tundra area released 2.3 times more sediments and dissolved organic carbon per unit of area in the fluvial system than in the shrub tundra area. Despite these yields by thermokarst, the Sheldrake River catchment currently does not seem to be yielding proportionally more sediments and carbon than a permafrost-free river catchment.

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