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Stream water study detects thawing permafrost
Date:5/5/2010

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Among the worrisome environmental effects of global warming is the thawing of Arctic permafrost---soil that normally remains at or below the freezing point for at least a two-year period and often much longer. Monitoring changes in permafrost is difficult with current methods, but a study by University of Michigan researchers offers a new approach to assessing the extent of the problem.

The new study approach, which relies on chemical tracers in stream water, is described in the journal Chemical Geology.

Overlying permafrost is a thin "active layer" that thaws every summer, and increases in the thickness of this layer over the years indicate thawing of permafrost. Both physical measurements and modeling suggest that active layer thickness has increased in some areas over the 20th century and that if present warming trends continue, increases of up to 40 percent could occur by the end of the 21st century.

Although the full effects of thawing are yet to be determined, coastal erosion and damage to the roads, buildings and pipelines that have been built on permafrost are likely outcomes. In addition, thawing permafrost may release the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, triggering further warming and more permafrost thawing.

Currently, the main method for determining thaw depth is with a graduated steel probe. "You stick it in the ground and see when it hits frozen material," said geochemist Joel Blum, who with ecologist George Kling and former graduate student Katy Keller undertook the new study.

"We were studying the chemistry of soils in the area around Toolik Field Station in northern Alaska, and we found that once we got below the thickness that typically would thaw during summer, the soil chemistry changed dramatically," said Blum, who is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Geological Sciences. "Material that has not thawed since it was deposited by glaciers 10
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Contact: Nancy Ross-Flanigan
rossflan@umich.edu
734-647-1853
University of Michigan
Source:Eurekalert

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