Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

Delivering science and technology to protect our nation and promote world stability

Turmoil at the Top of the World

The Arctic tundra is being drained and dried by the warming climate.
July 21, 2016
arctic tundra signature pattern of polygons

The Arctic tundra has a signature pattern of polygons due to complex interactions between soil and water—interactions that are being disrupted by the warming climate.

“It’s exciting but also scary. I really hope this helps the general public and policy makers understand just how vulnerable the Arctic is.” - Cathy Wilson, Los Alamos geomorphologist.

Subsurface ice wedges in Arctic permafrost create a distinct topography in the tundra that is disrupted when the ice wedges melt. Steadily rising average annual temperatures aren’t the only cause of ice-wedge melting; even brief periods of unusual warmth, such as what’s now regularly occurring in a single summer, can cause profound and irreversible ice-wedge degradation. The result is a draining and drying effect on the tundra, which can change how essential elements, like carbon and nitrogen, cycle through the system.

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