Local-scale heterogeneity of soil thermal dynamics and controlling factors in a discontinuous permafrost region


In permafrost regions, the strong spatial and temporal variability in soil temperature cannot be explained by the weather forcing only. Understanding the local heterogeneity of soil thermal dynamics and their controls is essential to understand how permafrost systems respond to climate change and to develop process-based models or remote sensing products for predicting soil temperature. In this study, we analyzed soil temperature dynamics and their controls in a discontinuous permafrost region on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. We acquired one-year temperature time series at multiple depths (at 5 or 10 cm intervals up to 85 cm depth) at 45 discrete locations across a 2.3 km2 watershed. We observed a larger spatial variability in winter temperatures than that in summer temperatures at all depths, with the former controlling most of the spatial variability in mean annual temperatures. We also observed a strong correlation between mean annual ground temperature at a depth of 85 cm and mean annual or winter season ground surface temperature across the 45 locations. We demonstrate that soils classified as cold, intermediate, or warm using hierarchical clustering of full-year temperature data closely match their co-located vegetation (graminoid tundra, dwarf shrub tundra, and tall shrub tundra, respectively). We show that the spatial heterogeneity in soil temperature is primarily driven by spatial heterogeneity in snow cover, which induces variable winter insulation and soil thermal diffusivity. These effects further extend to the subsequent summer by causing variable latent heat exchanges. Finally, we discuss the challenges of predicting soil temperatures from snow depth and vegetation height alone by considering the complexity observed in the field data and reproduced in a model sensitivity analysis.

Journal Article
Year of Publication
Environmental Research Letters
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