Methods to assess natural and anthropogenic thaw lake drainage on the western Arctic coastal plain of northern Alaska



[1] Thousands of lakes are found on the Arctic Coastal Plain of northern Alaska and northwestern Canada. Developed atop continuous permafrost, these thaw lakes and associated drained thaw lake basins are the dominant landscape elements and together cover 46% of the 34,570 km2 western Arctic Coastal Plain (WACP). Lakes drain by a variety of episodic processes, including coastal erosion, stream meandering, and headward erosion, bank overtopping, and lake coalescence. Comparison of Landsat multispectral scanner (MSS) imagery from the mid-1970s to Landsat 7 enhanced thematic mapper (ETM+) imagery from around 2000 shows that 50 lakes completely or partially drained over the approximately 25 year period, indicating landscape stability. The lake-specific drainage mechanism can be inferred in some cases and is partially dependant on geographic settings conducive to active erosion such as riparian and coastal zones. In many cases, however, the cause of drainage is unknown. The availability of high-resolution aerial photographs for the Barrow Peninsula extends the record back to circa 1950; mapping spatial time series illustrates the dynamic nature of lake expansion, coalescence, and drainage. Analysis of these historical images suggests that humans have intentionally or inadvertently triggered lake drainage near the village of Barrow. Efforts to understand landscape processes and identify events have been enhanced by interviewing Iñupiaq elders and others practicing traditional subsistence lifestyles. They can often identify the year and process by which individual lakes drained, thereby providing greater dating precision and accuracy in assessing the causal mechanism. Indigenous knowledge has provided insights into events, landforms, and processes not previously identified or considered.