The Occurrence and Thermal Disequilibrium State of Permafrost in Forest Ecotopes of the Great Slave Region, Northwest Territories, Canada

Research paper by P. D. Morse, S. A. Wolfe, S. V. Kokelj, A. J. R. Gaanderse

Indexed on: 14 Mar '16Published on: 07 Aug '15Published in: Permafrost and Periglacial Processes


Permafrost underlies peatlands of the Great Slave region, Northwest Territories, Canada, but permafrost relations beneath other ecotopes of black spruce (Picea mariana), white birch (Betula papyrifera) and mixed forests remain unknown. Permafrost‐ecotope relations examined over a 3 year period (2010–13) establish the occurrence and thermal state of permafrost under these different types of forest. Air temperatures and snow depths are regionally consistent. Ground temperature variation primarily reflects latent heat effects during the freezing season, with the duration of season‐normalised active‐layer freezeback explaining 76% of 1 m ground temperature variation among all sites except xeric peatland. Low apparent thermal diffusivities from substantial latent heat effects strongly attenuate ground temperature variation with depth, and yield zero annual amplitude depths of 7 m or less where annual mean ground temperatures range among sites from ‐1.4 °C to 0.0 °C. Extensive discontinuous permafrost conditions, related to the extent of forested ecotopes, are commonly in thermal disequilibrium. Whereas permafrost in peatlands may be ecosystem‐protected, this represents only about 2% of the area of the region. Permafrost in other forested ecotopes, occurring in ice‐rich unconsolidated sediments, is climate‐driven and ecosystem‐protected because of latent heat effects. Though the rate of permafrost degradation may be reduced, an eventual transition to isolated permafrost retained primarily within ecosystem‐driven peatlands implies substantial reductions of permafrost extent in this region. Copyright © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.