Thawing of permanently frozen ground (permafrost) has increased in recent decades with negative implications for human and non-human adaptation to climate change. Impacts include reduced ground stability, increased transportation risk, and changes in water availability. Direct measurements of permafrost active layer thickness (the depth of thawed ground overlying permafrost) are sparse. Measurements currently exist for a few hundred sites located primarily in the Northern Hemisphere supported by the Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring (CALM) Program. The sparsity of direct active layer thickness measurements limits broad-scale understanding of changes in permafrost thaw and confidence in future projections. To address the sparsity of direct active layer thickness measurements, we developed a method to estimate active layer thickness change from streamflow measurements, which integrate processes over broad spatial areas and are more common than point-scale active layer thickness measurements. The method uses classical principles of hydraulic groundwater theory and nonlinear baseflow recession analysis, which sets it apart from prior methods based on linear recession analysis. The method is applied to catchments in the continuous and discontinuous permafrost zone of the North American Arctic containing co-located streamflow and CALM active layer thickness measurements. We find good agreement in the magnitude and direction of measured and predicted active layer thickness trends. This suggests that regional-scale estimates of active layer thickness change can be obtained from streamflow measurements, which may open the door to retrospective estimation of active layer thickness change in data sparse Arctic regions with short, sporadic, or even nonexistent ground-based active layer measurements.
Permafrost active layer thickness (ALT) is a sensitive indicator of permafrost response to climate change. In recent decades, ALT has increased at sites across the Arctic, concurrent with observed increases in annual minimum streamflow (baseflow). The trends in ALT and baseflow are thought to be linked via: 1) increased soil water storage capacity due to an increased active layer, and 2) enhanced soil water mobility within a more continuous active layer, both of which support higher baseflow in Arctic rivers. One approach to analyzing these changes in ALT and baseflow is to use baseflow recession analysis, which is a classical method in hydrology that relates groundwater storage S to baseflow Q with a power law-like relationship Q = aSb. For the special case of a linear reservoir (b=1.0), the baseflow recession method has been extended to quantify changes in ALT from streamflow measurements alone. We test this approach at sites across the North American Arctic and find that catchments underlain by permafrost behave as nonlinear reservoirs, with scaling exponents b~1.5–3.0, undermining the key assumption of linearity that is commonly applied in this method. Despite this limitation, trends in a provide insight into the relationship between changing ALT and changing Arctic baseflow. Although care should be taken to ensure the theoretical assumptions are met, baseflow recession analysis shows promise as an empirical approach to constrain modeled permafrost change at the river basin scale.
Flow direction modeling consists of (1) an accurate representation of the river network and (2) digital elevation model (DEM) processing to preserve characteristics with hydrological significance. In part 1 of our study, we presented a mesh-independent approach to representing river networks on different types of meshes. This follow-up part 2 study presents a novel DEM processing approach for flow direction modeling. This approach consists of (1) a topological relationship-based hybrid breaching-filling method to conduct stream burning for the river network and (2) a modified depression removal method for rivers and hillslopes. Our methods minimize modifications to surface elevations and provide a robust two-step procedure to remove local depressions in DEM. They are mesh-independent and can be applied to both structured and unstructured meshes. We applied our new methods to the Susquehanna River Basin with different model configurations. The results show that topological relationship-based stream burning and depression-filling methods can reproduce the correct river networks, providing high-quality flow direction and other characteristics for hydrologic and Earth system models.
The Delaware River is a major freshwater supplier of New York City (NYC). Nearly half of NYC drinking water is supplied by inter-basin transfer of surface water stored in reservoirs within the upper reaches of the Delaware River. In its lower reaches, the Delaware River is a tidal estuary, and upstream freshwater discharge provides a critical control on estuary salinity. During the record 1950–1960’s drought, NYC water withdrawals exacerbated low flows. Estuary salinity reached levels that threatened freshwater intakes and groundwater recharge, resulting in legal action and Supreme Court decrees. We revisit this classic case study in coupled human and natural systems using the Energy Exascale Earth System Model (E3SM). The E3SM water management sub-model is updated to include inter-basin water transfer and reservoir-specific operating rules. Model simulations are developed to investigate competition between NYC water demand and in-stream flow targets needed to maintain estuary salinity within regulatory guidelines under historic and future climate. To our knowledge, this is a first demonstration of an Earth System Model simulation with inter-basin water transfer, which, in this study area, provides water for nearly five million people living outside the Delaware River basin in New York City and New Jersey.
Permafrost underlies approximately one fifth of the global land area and affects ground stability, freshwater runoff, soil chemistry, and surface‑atmosphere gas exchange. The depth of thawed ground overlying permafrost (active layer thickness, ALT) has broadly increased across the Arctic in recent decades, coincident with a period of increased streamflow, especially the lowest flows (baseflow). Mechanistic links between ALT and baseflow have recently been explored using linear reservoir theory, but most watersheds behave as nonlinear reservoirs. We derive theoretical nonlinear relationships between long‑term average saturated soil thickness η (proxy for ALT) and long-term average baseflow. The theory is applied to 38 years of daily streamflow data for the Kuparuk River basin on the North Slope of Alaska. Between 1983–2020, the theory predicts that η increased 0.11±0.17 [2σ] cm a-1, or 4.4±6.6 cm total. The rate of change nearly doubled to 0.20±0.24 cm a-1 between 1990–2020, during which time field measurements from CALM (Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring) sites in the Kuparuk indicate η increased 0.31±0.22 cm a-1. The predicted rate of change more than doubled again between 2002–2020, mirroring a near doubling of observed ALT rate of change. The inferred increase in η is corroborated by GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellite gravimetry, which indicates that terrestrial water storage increased ~0.80±3.40 cm a-1, ~56% higher than the predicted increase in η. Overall, hydrologic change is accelerating in the Kuparuk River basin, and we provide a theoretical framework for estimating changes in active layer water storage from streamflow measurements alone.