January 21, 2021

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Changes in Precipitation and Air Temperature Contribute Comparably to Permafrost Degradation in a Warmer Climate

Precipitation is as important a control on permafrost degradation as surface air temperature.

(a) 21st century model experiments with varying air temperature (Ta) and precipitation (P), varying Ta and constant P, and varying P and constant Ta. These simulations show that P and Ta are about equally important for 21st century active layer depth. (b)
[Image Credit: Image courtesy of authors.]

The Science

A study at the North Slope of Alaska shows that increased precipitation accelerates permafrost degradation beyond the degradation caused by recent and 21st century climate surface air warming. The study examines (1) how changes in precipitation affect active layer depths under recent and future climate and (2) the relative importance of changes in surface air temperature and precipitation on permafrost degradation in the continuous permafrost zone (>90% of the area underlain by permafrost).

The Impact

Projected permafrost degradation may result in several ecological and climatic feedbacks that affect the carbon cycle. Permafrost regions store huge amount of carbon, which may be available for microbial decomposition. Uncertainties in projected 21st century precipitation trends strongly affect simulated permafrost degradation. Earth system models, including DOE’s ELM, which do not account for changes in soil thermal regime driven by precipitation heat transfer, likely underestimate predicted increases in thaw depth and therefore their effects on high-latitude carbon interactions with the atmosphere.


Permafrost is critical to future carbon-climate feedback predictions, yet permafrost degradation and surface energy budgets of high-latitude permafrost systems are poorly represented in Earth System Models (ESMs). A potentially important factor in permafrost degradation neglected so far by ESMs is heat transfer from precipitation, although increases in soil temperature and thaw depth have been observed following increases in precipitation. Using a mechanistic ecosystem model, ecosys, modeled active layer depth (ALD) in simulations that allow precipitation heat transfer agreed very well with observations from 28 Alaska Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring (CALM) sites (R2=0.63; RMSE = 10 cm). Simulations that ignored precipitation heat transfer resulted in lower spatially-averaged soil temperatures and a 39 cm shallower ALD by year 2100 across the north slope of Alaska. Results from our sensitivity analysis show that projected increases in 21st century precipitation deepen the active layer by enhancing precipitation heat transfer and ground thermal conductivity, suggesting that precipitation is as important an environmental control on permafrost degradation as surface air temperature. We conclude that ESMs that do not account for precipitation heat transfer likely underestimate ALD rates of change, and thus likely predict biased ecosystem responses.

Principal Investigator

William Riley
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Program Manager

Daniel Stover
U.S. Department of Energy, Biological and Environmental Research (SC-33)
Environmental System Science


This research was supported by the Director, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) under Contract No. DE-AC02-05CH11231 as part of the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE)–Arctic project and the RUBISCO Scientific Focus Area. B.M. Rogers was funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) and Carbon Cycle Science programs (NNX17AE13G).


Mekonnen, Z. A., W. J. Riley, R. F. Grant, and V. E. Romanovsky. "Changes in precipitation and air temperature contribute comparably to permafrost degradation in a warmer climate". Environmental Research Letters 16 024008  (2021). https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/abc444.