This large lake is nearly completely dry after a major drainage event during the summer of 2018.
— NPS Photos / David Swanson
Scientists studying the lake systems of the Arctic lowlands have made a surprising discovery. Tapping into satellite data, they found that these bodies of water are vanishing much faster than predicted.
It seems that the Arctic region is no stranger to loss, warming four times faster than the rest of the globe, glaciers melting, wildlife suffering, and habitats disappearing.
But researchers from the University of Florida have discovered something somewhat surprising – Arctic lakes are drying up according to research published in the journal Nature Climate Change on August 29, 2022.
The study, led by University of Florida Department of Biology postdoctoral researcher Elizabeth Webb, flashes a new warning light on the global climate dashboard, reports Science Daily.
Scientists initially thought that climate change would initially expand lakes across the tundra, due to land surface changes resulting from melting ground ice, with eventual drying in the mid-21st or 22nd century.
But that is a far cry from what is actually happening. It appears that thawing permafrost, the frozen soil that blankets the Arctic, may drain lakes and outweigh this expansion effect, says Webb.
The team theorized that thawing permafrost may decrease lake area by creating drainage channels and increasing soil erosion into the lakes.
“Our findings suggest that permafrost thaw is occurring even faster than we as a community had anticipated,” Webb said. “It also indicates that the region is likely on a trajectory toward more landscape-scale drainage in the future.”
The importance of these Arctic lowland lakes
Looking at the whole of the Arctic lowlands, lakes make up between 20 and 40 percent of the region, the largest surface water fraction of any terrestrial biome.
The lakes also provide crucial habitats for threatened and endangered species, supply water for remote Arctic communities, and play an important role in carbon cycling and the regional energy balance.
Elizabeth Webb and her team of researchers used satellite data for remote monitoring of surface water changes across the Arctic and used machine learning to assess the patterns of change taking place between 2000 and 2021.
“One of the things that I really like about using remote sensing is that you can answer what seemed like impossibly big questions – we have the ability to answer them now,” Webb said, reports New Atlas. “It’s only in the past five, 10 years that we’ve had the computing power and resources to pull this off.”