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Keywords:

  • Mackenzie Delta;
  • permafrost;
  • active layer;
  • climate change;
  • boreal forest;
  • treeline

Abstract

The Mackenzie Delta, prograding northwestwards into the Beaufort Sea, is North America's largest arctic delta. This Holocene feature is bounded by rolling uplands to the east and the Richardson Mountains to the west. Treeline traverses the region, separating the subarctic boreal forest in southern parts from low-shrub tundra and sedge wetlands at the coast. The region is experiencing rapid climate change, and mean annual air temperature has increased by more than 2.5°C since 1970. The area was at the margin of the Wisconsinan ice sheet, so that in the uplands the mean annual ground temperature and glacial history control permafrost thickness, which varies from >700 m to <100 m. Ground temperatures in the delta are distinct from the uplands due to the thermal influence of numerous lakes and shifting channels. In the uplands, ground temperatures decrease northwards across treeline in association with a decrease in the thickness of snow cover. Ground temperatures have increased since 1970 in the uplands by approximately 1.5°C in association with rising annual mean air temperature. The increase has been less in the delta south of treeline due to the extensive thermal influence of water bodies on ground temperature. However, in the outer delta, the ground is currently more than 2.5°C warmer than in 1970. The impact of climate change on permafrost is also evident in the thickness of the active layer, which increased on average by 8 cm at 12 tundra sites on northern Richards Island from 1983–2008. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. and Her Majesty the Queen in right of Canada.