09 Sep 2022
09 Sep 2022
Status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal ESurf.

Patterns and rates of soil movement and shallow failures across several small watersheds on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska

Joanmarie Del Vecchio1, Emma Lathrop2, Julian B. Dann3, Christian G. Andresen4, Adam D. Collins5, Michael M. Fratkin5, Simon Zwieback6, Rachel C. Glade7, and Joel C. Rowland5 Joanmarie Del Vecchio et al.
  • 1Department of Earth Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA
  • 2Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ, USA
  • 3Climate Adaptation Science Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, USA
  • 4Geography Department, University of Wisconsin Madison, Madison, WI, USA
  • 5Earth and Environmental Sciences Division, Los Alamos National Laboratory, NM USA
  • 6Department of Geosciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, USA
  • 7Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, USA

Abstract. Thawing permafrost can alter topography, ecosystems, and sediment and carbon fluxes, but predicting landscape evolution of permafrost-influenced watersheds in response to warming and/or hydrological changes remains an unsolved challenge. Sediment flux and slope instability in sloping saturated soils have been commonly predicted from topographic metrics (e.g., slope, drainage area). In addition to topographic factors, cohesion imparted by soil and vegetation and melting ground ice may also control spatial trends in slope stability but the distribution of ground ice is poorly constrained and hard to predict. To address whether slope stability and surface displacements follow topographic-based predictions, we document recent drivers of permafrost sediment flux present on a landscape in western Alaska that include creep, solifluction, gullying, and catastrophic hillslope failures ranging in size from a few meters to tens of meters and we find evidence for rapid and substantial landscape change on an annual timescale. We quantify the timing and rate of surface movements using a multi-pronged, multi-scalar dataset including aerial surveys, interannual GPS surveys, Synthetic Aperture Radar Interferometry (InSAR), and climate data. Despite clear visual evidence of downslope soil transport of solifluction lobes, we find that the interannual downslope surface displacement of these features does not outpace downslope displacement of soil in topographically smooth areas (downslope movement means: 7 cm yr-1 for lobes over two years vs 10 cm yr-1 in smooth landscape positions over one year). Annual displacements do not appear related to slope, drainage area or solar radiation but are likely related to soil thickness, and volumetric sediment fluxes are high compared to comparable temperate landscapes. Timeseries of InSAR displacements show accelerated movement in late summer, associated with intense rainfall and/or deep thaw. While mapped slope failures do cluster at slope-area thresholds, a simple slope stability model driven with hydraulic conductivities representative of throughflow in mineral and organic soil drastically over-predicts the occurrence of slope failures. This mismatch implies permafrost hillslopes have unaccounted-for cohesion and/or throughflow pathways, perhaps modulated by vegetation, which stabilize slopes against high rainfall. Our results highlight the breadth and complexity of soil transport processes in Arctic landscapes and demonstrate the utility of using a range of synergistic data collection methods to observe multiple scales of landscape change, which can aid in predicting periglacial landscape evolution.

Joanmarie Del Vecchio et al.

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • RC1: 'Comment on esurf-2022-43', Anonymous Referee #1, 14 Oct 2022
  • RC2: 'Comment on esurf-2022-43', Anonymous Referee #2, 15 Nov 2022
  • AC1: 'Author response esurf-2022-43', Joanmarie Del Vecchio, 07 Jan 2023

Joanmarie Del Vecchio et al.

Model code and software

Teller47 Del Vecchio

Joanmarie Del Vecchio et al.


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Short summary
In cold regions of the Earth, thawing permafrost can change the landscape, impact ecosystems and lead to the release of greenhouse gases. In this study we used many observational tools to better understand how sediment moves on permafrost hillslopes. Some topographic change conforms to our understanding of slope stability and sediment transport as developed in temperate landscapes, but much of what we observed needs further explanation by permafrost-specific geomorphic models.