Hillslope-Channel Transitions and the Role of Water Tracks in a Changing Permafrost Landscape

Joanmarie Del Vecchio, Simon Zwieback, Joel C. Rowland, Roman A. DiBiase, Marisa C. Palucis

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The Arctic is experiencing rapid climate change, and the effect on hydrologic processes and resulting geomorphic changes to hillslopes and channels is unclear because we lack quantitative models and theory for rapid changes resulting from thawing permafrost. The presence of permafrost modulates water flow and the stability of soil-mantled slopes, implying that there should be a signature of permafrost processes, including warming-driven disturbance, in channel network extent. To inform understanding of hillslope-channel dynamics under changing climates, we examined soil-mantled hillslopes within a ∼300 km2 area of the Seward Peninsula, western Alaska, where discontinuous permafrost is particularly susceptible to thaw and rapid landscape change. In this study, we pair high-resolution topographic and satellite data to multi-annual observations of InSAR-derived surface displacement over a 5-year period to quantify spatial variations in topographic change across an upland landscape. We find that neither the basin slope nor the presence of knickzones controls the magnitude of recent surface displacements within the study basin, as may be expected under conceptual models of temperate hillslope evolution. Rather, the highest displacement magnitudes tended to occur at the broad hillslope-channel transition zone. In this study area, this zone is occupied by water tracks, which are zero-order ecogeomorphic features that concentrate surface and subsurface flow paths. Our results suggest that water tracks, which appear to occupy hillslope positions between saturation and incision thresholds, are vulnerable to warming-induced subsidence and incision. We hypothesize that gullying within water tracks will outpace infilling by hillslope processes, resulting in the growth of the channel network under future warming.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2023JF007156
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geophysics
  • Earth-Surface Processes

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