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Permafrost thermal conditions are sensitive to shifts in snow timing...

by Ahmad Jan, Scott L Painter
Publication Type
Journal Name
Environmental Research Letters
Publication Date

Changes in snow precipitation at high latitudes can significantly affect permafrost thermal conditions and thaw depth, potentially exposing more carbon-laden soil to microbial decomposition. A fully coupled process-based surface/subsurface thermal hydrology model with surface energy balance is used to analyze the impact of intra-annual variability in snow on permafrost thermal regime and the active layer thickness. In the four numerical scenarios considered, simulations were forced by the same meteorological data, except the snow precipitation, which was systematically altered to change timing of snowfall. The scenarios represent subtle shifts in snow timing, but the snow onset/melt days, the end of winter snowpack depth, and total annual snow precipitation are unchanged among scenarios. The simulations show that small shifts in the timing of snow accumulation can have significant effects on subsurface thermal conditions leading to active layer deepening and even talik formation when snowfall arrives earlier in the winter. The shifts in snow timing have a stronger impact on wetter regions, especially soil underneath small ponds, as compared to drained regions. This study highlights the importance of understanding potential changes in winter precipitation patterns for reliable projections of active-layer thickness in a changing Arctic climate.