Arctic Lakes Vanishing as Planet Warms

FAIRBANKS, Alaska, June 6, 2005 (ENS) - Lakes across the Siberian Arctic are shrinking and drying up, a comparison of satellite images taken of 10,000 large lakes over a 25 year period reveals. Scientists found that 125 of the lakes disappeared completely and are now re-vegetated.

Researchers at three U.S. universities described their research on lakes spread across over 200,000 square miles of Siberia in a paper published in the June 3 issue of the journal "Science."

The paper, titled, "Disappearing Arctic Lakes" is the result of a comparison of satellite data taken of Siberia in the early 1970s to data from 1997-2004.

"This is the first paper that demonstrates that the changes we are seeing in Alaskan lakes in response to a warming climate is also occurring in Siberia," said Larry Hinzman with the Water and Environmental Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Hinzman has also compared satellite data of tundra ponds on the Seward Peninsula near Council, Alaska and found that the surface pond area there has decreased over the last 50 years.


Arctic lakes are disappearing as greenhouse gases blanket the planet, causing the surface temperature to rise. (Photo by Karen Frey courtesy UCLA)
In this latest study, comparing data from 1973 with findings from 1997-98, the total number of large lakes decreased by around 11 percent. While many did not disappear completely they shrank. The overall loss of lake surface area was a loss of roughly six percent.

Laurence Smith, an associate professor of geography at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), is the article's lead author. Smith and his co-authors were surprised by the overall loss in surface water.

"We were expecting the lake area to have grown with climate change," said Smith. "And while it did do so in the north where the permafrost remains intact, lake area did not increase in the south where permafrost is warming."

In permafrost regions, summer thaw produces meltwater, which is typically unable to infiltrate into the ground because of the icy frozen soils found in permafrost.


Dr. Laurence Smith, is associated with the UCLA Geography Department and the Department of Earth & Space Sciences. (Photo courtesy UCLA)
Data gathered from the latest measurements indicate that warming temperatures lead to increased numbers of surface water bodies in the colder permafrost regions.

Many lakes decreased in size or dried up completely, while other lakes actually increased in size. Researchers say as the climate warms, additional meltwater accumulated in the lakes located in the colder regions of thicker permafrost increase their size, but if climate warming continues, even those lakes would eventually be susceptible to loss.

"We expect areas of continuous permafrost to continue to thin and move steadily northward, resulting in the disappearance of more lakes," said Smith.

In regions with thin or discontinuous permafrost, surface soils also become drier as the permafrost degrades.

"The changing lakes are a consistent, measurable indication of the overall changes to hydrology in the Arctic," said Hinzman.

"The loss of surface water will inevitably impact local ecosystems, which will have a cascading effect. Changes could include loss of migratory bird habitat resulting in an effect on subsistence activities as well as changes to local and regional atmospheric conditions, including more localized wind and more frequent and more severe wildland fires," he predicted.

Co-authors include Yongwei Sheng, an assistant professor of environmental science and forestry at State University of New York, and Glen MacDonald, chair of UCLA's geography department. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Researchers presented their findings last week at the Spring 2005 Freshwater Initiative All-Hands Meeting at Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle, Washington.