Limited sensitivity of permafrost soils to heavy rainfall across Svalbard ecosystems

R.Í. Magnússon* (Corresponding author), S. Schuuring, A. Hamm, M.A. Verhoeven, J. Limpens, M.J.E.E. Loonen, S.I. Lang

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review


Together with warming air temperatures, Arctic ecosystems are expected to experience increases in heavy rainfall events. Recent studies report accelerated degradation of permafrost under heavy rainfall, which could put significant amounts of soil carbon and infrastructure at risk. However, controlled experimental evidence of rainfall effects on permafrost thaw is scarce. We experimentally tested the impact and legacy effect of heavy rainfall events in early and late summer for five sites varying in topography and soil type on the High Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. We found that effects of heavy rainfall on soil thermal regimes are small and limited to one season. Thaw rates increased under heavy rainfall in a loess terrace site, but not in polygonal tundra soils with higher organic matter content and water tables. End-of-season active layer thickness was not affected. Rainfall application did not affect soil temperature trends, which appeared driven by timing of snowmelt and organic layer thickness, particularly during early summer. Late summer rainfall was associated with slower freeze-up and colder soil temperatures the following winter. This implies that rainfall impacts on Svalbard permafrost are limited, locally variable and of short duration. Our findings diverge from earlier reports of sustained increases in permafrost thaw following extreme rainfall, but are consistent with observations that maritime permafrost regions such as Svalbard show lower rainfall sensitivity than continental regions. Based on our experiment, no substantial in-situ effects of heavy rainfall are anticipated for thawing of permafrost on Svalbard under future warming. However, further work is needed to quantify permafrost response to local redistribution of active layer flow under natural rainfall extremes. In addition, replication of experiments across variable Arctic regions as well as long-term monitoring of active layers, soil moisture and local climate will be essential to develop a panarctic perspective on rainfall sensitivity of permafrost.
Original languageEnglish
Article number173696
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date12 Jun 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 12 Jun 2024


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