Arctic lakes are disappearing amid rising temperatures

Climate change is causing a dramatic change in the Arctic. As the Arctic warms at nearly four times the rate of the rest of the world, a new study has found a threat that surprises scientists: Arctic lakes, the “cornerstones of the Arctic ecosystem,” are disappearing altogether.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change, found that over the course of just 20 years, lakes across the pan-Arctic region – the northern parts of Canada, Russia, Greenland, Scandinavia and Alaska – have either shrunk or dried up. completely. Lakes make up between 20% and 40% of the Arctic lowlands.

The disappearance of the lakes “turns on a new warning light” about the state of the global climate, according to the University of Florida, whose postdoctoral researcher Elizabeth Webb led the study.

“Disappearing lakes act as cornerstones of the Arctic ecosystem,” the school said in a press release. “They provide a critical source of fresh water for local indigenous communities and industries. Endangered and threatened species, including migratory birds and aquatic creatures, also rely on lake habitats for survival.”

For Webb, the findings came as a surprise. Scientists have long expected Arctic lakes to expand with climate change as ground ice continues to melt, and climate models have shown that drying up won’t be seen until at least 2060 or 2150. But based on research by Webb, it appears that thawing permafrost creates drainage channels that add soil erosion, rather than water, to Arctic lakes.

“Our findings suggest that permafrost thaw is happening even faster than we as a community expected,” Webb said. “It also shows that the region is likely on a trajectory for more landscape-scale drainage in the future.”

The rationale for the lake’s decline is twofold, according to the study: rising temperatures and increased fall precipitation.

October 2020 to September 2021 was the seventh warmest year on record for Arctic lands, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with temperatures up nearly 3 degrees Celsius (37.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since the middle of the decade 1960.

Earlier this month, a separate team of scientists found that the Arctic is almost warming four times faster than the rest of the world and some areas in the Arctic Ocean are warming up to seven times faster. Shrinking sea ice and heat cycles between the ocean and the atmosphere only add to the rise in global temperatures.

As for the increased rainfall, Jeremy Lichstein, Webb’s adviser and co-author of the study, said it may seem inconceivable that such a thing would have a hand in disappearing lakes, but it’s actually a documented occurrence.

“Rainwater transfers heat to the ground and accelerates the thawing of permafrost, which can open underground channels that drain the surface,” he said.

And melting permafrost isn’t just bad for Arctic lakes – it also risks emitting even more carbon as the atmosphere continues to be oversaturated with greenhouse gases. Such a case could contribute to an even more overwhelming cycle of total melting in the region: rising temperatures will lead to more melting of ice and permafrost, which will then only allow the heat to intensify.

“Permafrost stores nearly twice as much carbon as the atmosphere,” Webb said. “There is a lot of ongoing research that suggests that as the permafrost melts, that carbon is vulnerable to being released into the atmosphere in the form of methane and carbon dioxide.”

This large lake is almost completely dry after a major drainage event during the summer of 2018. / Credit: NPS/David Swanson

Although the study is new, it echoes what the National Park Service has seen in Alaska, where many bodies of water have dried up and been covered by new vegetation. Citing past research, the park said that from 2000 to 2017, there was an average water loss in the state’s arctic parks of about 1,730 acre feet per decade. The agency said 1,878 acres of lake surface disappeared in 2018 alone.

There is a saving grace to this, Webb’s research found. If the lakes dry up, it can prevent the permafrost from drying out as quickly as it would if the lakes expanded.

But the best way to prevent continued melting of ice in the Arctic region, Webb said, is for the world to reduce its impact on global warming as much as we can. The effects of warming that the world is already seeing – severe droughts, more destructive storms and extreme heat – cannot be stopped.

For the Arctic, that means air temperatures and fall rain will continue to rise, the study says. It’s a negative impact on local ecosystems, but also on people, as Arctic lake water is often the “only sustainable source of fresh water” for surrounding communities.

A drastic reduction in fossil fuels will significantly reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to minimize the impact of climate change on humanity in the future.

“The snowball is already rolling,” Webb said. “It’s not going to work to keep doing what we’re doing.”

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