Changes in permafrost landscapes
Earth's cryosphere is particularly susceptible to climate change. Rising temperatures are certain to result in profound and widespread changes at high latitudes, where the ground remains frozen all year. Approximately one quarter of the Northern Hemisphere contains permafrost - an area so vast it can only be regularly and comprehensively monitored through satellite remote sensing.
The Lena Delta in Siberia lies in such a permafrost zone; it consists of a number of islands and river channels that are covered by ice in winter. A part of this river delta was imaged by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) TanDEM-X satellites in October 2014. The colours correspond to the different signals that the satellites transmit and receive. For instance, the ice floes covering the river channels appear in blue, whereas the frozen ground takes on a greyish colour. Yellow patches can be seen in the midst of this frozen ground, which correspond to shallow bodies of water.
Such bodies of water are abundant in many high-latitude regions, including the Lena Delta. The yellow colour that they have in the radar image corresponds to a particular kind of interaction between the ice cover and the microwaves transmitted by the satellite. By analysing such images, researchers can estimate the physical properties of the ice cover. Particularly, such microwave data provides: "Valuable information on whether these abundant shallow bodies of water in the Arctic completely freeze to the bottom or not, which affects permafrost conditions under these lakes, fish habitats, and hydrologic connectivity between bodies of water in winter," says Guido Grosse from the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI). In future, such data could be used operationally to monitor long-term changes in thermokarst lake ice conditions, resulting in a better understanding of climate warming impacts on lake systems, underlying permafrost and the potential release of the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide in the Arctic.
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Credit: German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR)