Tracking hydrological responses of a thermokarst lake in the Old Crow Flats (Yukon Territory, Canada) to recent climate variability using aerial photographs and paleolimnological methods

Lauren A. Macdonald, Kevin W. Turner, Ann M. Balasubramaniam, Brent B. Wolfe, Roland I. Hall, Jon N. Sweetman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Recent studies using remote sensing analysis of lake-rich thermokarst landscapes have documented evidence of declining lake surface area in response to recent warming. However, images alone cannot identify whether these declines are due to increasing frequency of lake drainage events associated with accelerated thermokarst activity or to increasing evaporation in response to longer ice-free season duration. Here, we explore the potential of combining aerial photograph time series with paleolimnological analyses to track changes in hydrological conditions of a thermokarst lake in the Old Crow Flats (OCF), Canada, and to identify their causes. Images show that the water level in lake OCF 48 declined markedly sometime between 1972 and 2001. In a sediment core from OCF 48, complacent stratigraphic profiles of several physical, geochemical, and biological parameters from ∼1874-1967 indicate hydro-limnological conditions were relatively stable. From ∼1967-1989, declines in organic matter content, organic carbon isotope values, and pigment concentrations are interpreted to reflect an increase in supply of minerogenic sediment, and subsequent decline in aquatic productivity, caused by increased thermo-erosion of shoreline soils. Lake expansion was likely caused by increased summer rainfall, as recorded by increased cellulose-inferred lake-water oxygen isotope compositions. Stratigraphic trends defining the lake expansion phase terminated at ∼1989, which likely marks the year when the lake drained. Above-average precipitation during the previous year probably raised the lake level and promoted further thermo-erosion of the shoreline soils that caused the lake to drain. These are meteorological conditions that have led to other recent lake-drainage events in the OCF. Thus, the decline in lake level, evident in the aerial photograph from 2001, is unlikely to have been caused by evaporation, but rather is a remnant of a drainage event that took place more than a decade earlier. After drainage, the lake began to refill, and most paleolimnological parameters approach levels that are similar to those during the stable phase. These findings indicate that combined use of aerial images and paleolimnological methods offers much promise for identifying the hydrological consequences of recent climatic variations on thermokarst lakes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)117-129
Number of pages13
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology

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