Widespread deepening of the active layer in northern permafrost regions from 2003 to 2020

Zhihua Liu, John S. Kimball, Ashley Ballantyne, Jennifer D. Watts, Susan M. Natali, Brendan M. Rogers, Yonghong Yi, Anna E. Klene, Mahta Moghaddam, Jinyang Du, Donatella Zona

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The changing thermal state of permafrost is an important indicator of climate change in northern high latitude ecosystems. The seasonally thawed soil active layer thickness (ALT) overlying permafrost may be deepening as a consequence of enhanced polar warming and widespread permafrost thaw in northern permafrost regions (NPRs). The associated increase in ALT may have cascading effects on ecological and hydrological processes that impact climate feedback. However, past NPR studies have only provided a limited understanding of the spatially continuous patterns and trends of ALT due to a lack of long-term high spatial resolution ALT data across the NPR. Using a suite of observational biophysical variables and machine learning (ML) techniques trained with available in situ ALT network measurements (n = 2966 site-years), we produced annual estimates of ALT at 1 km resolution over the NPR from 2003 to 2020. Our ML-derived ALT dataset showed high accuracy (R 2 = 0.97) and low bias when compared with in situ ALT observations. We found the ALT distribution to be most strongly affected by local soil properties, followed by topographic elevation and land surface temperatures. Pair-wise site-level evaluation between our data-driven ALT with Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring data indicated that about 80% of sites had a deepening ALT trend from 2003 to 2020. Based on our long-term gridded ALT data, about 65% of the NPR showed a deepening ALT trend, while the entire NPR showed a mean deepening trend of 0.11 ± 0.35 cm yr−1 [25%-75% quantile: (−0.035, 0.204) cm yr−1]. The estimated ALT trends were also sensitive to fire disturbance. Our new gridded ALT product provides an observationally constrained, updated understanding of the progression of thawing and the thermal state of permafrost in the NPR, as well as the underlying environmental drivers of these trends.

Original languageEnglish
Article number014020
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 5 2023


  • active layer thickness
  • carbon cycle
  • climate change
  • permafrost
  • remote sensing


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