The Transition Zone of Upper Permafrost: The Frontline for Permafrost Changes across Climate and Landscape Gradients


Permanently frozen soils, or permafrost, often contain large amounts of ground ice, which make it vulnerable to climate change and human activities. These soils are protected from melting by a surface layer which thaws in summer and refreezes in winter, and a near-surface layer, termed the transition zone. This transition zone, which develops through complex interactions between the environment and permafrost, controls permafrost resilience to ground surface subsidence (thermokarst). Expectations are that as the climate warms, deeper seasonal melting will impact this transition zone, and ecosystems and infrastructure (i.e., roads, airfields, and buildings) stability. The goals of this project are to evaluate the properties of the transition zone from the High Arctic to the southern border of the permafrost region and to understand processes of formation, degradation, and recovery of the transition zone in various climatic regions. The knowledge gained from this work will inform Arctic science and engineering. The project will support student training. The investigators will collaborate with government agencies and engineering companies whose work is impacted by permafrost ground subsidence issues.

In previous research, the investigators identified a zone in the upper profile of permafrost soils that is critical to permafrost stability, soil development, and geomorphic processes. However, how the thickness and cryostructures of this transition zone (TZ) vary across climate and landscape gradients, the rates of its formation during ecological succession, and how it contributes to permafrost vulnerability and resilience, is not well understood. What knowledge we have is in low Arctic tundra and can be misleading if applied to other bioclimatic regions. To address this gap in knowledge, our collaborative research with the University of Montreal will focus on the TZ across climatic regions and landscapes distributed along a north-south transect from barren polar deserts with continuous permafrost in Canada, to boreal forests in southern Alaska with sporadic permafrost. Our group will also monitor and experiment with mass and heat transfer processes between the active layer (AL) and the TZ to identify mechanisms controlling segregated ice formation.


Logistics Summary

Researchers on this project will assess physical principles and factors responsible for aggradation and degradation of ice-rich upper permafrost layers through extensive field studies at an array of sites representing a range of bioclimatic and landscape conditions characteristic of Arctic permafrost regions as well as analysis of available data. During 2019 through 2021, a team of researchers studied permafrost at numerous field sites: Tuktoyaktuk and Bylot Island in Canada; Utqiagvik (Barrow), Prudhoe Bay, Fairbanks area; along the Dalton (including Toolik) and Richardson Highways in Alaska; and at fly-in sites near Teshekpuk Lake, the Anaktuvuk River fire scars, and the Itkillik (Stinking Hills). Field work during each year had a duration of 30-50 days, except 2020, when, due to COVID-19 pandemic, our field work was reduced to two field studies: Vault Creek and Prudhoe Bay. In 2022, a team will work at Utqiagvik (Barrow), Point Lay, Teshekpuk Lake, Toolik, Anaktuvuk River Fire, and Prudhoe Bay. Note: M. Torre Jorgenson (Alaska Ecoscience) collaborates via a subaward issued by the University of Alaska Fairbanks (NSF funding).

Principal Investigators


Permafrost History and Vulnerability to Climate Change in Alaska

Permafrost History and Vulnerability to Climate Change in Alaska Alaska Institute for Climate & Energy (ALICE) Webinar, April 20, 2021

M. Torre Jorgenson, Alaska Ecoscience, Fairbanks, AK

Manual for Roads and Airfields Constructed on Permafrost

Billy Connor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks has published a manual for construction on permafrost he co-authored with Douglas J. Goering, Mikhail Kanevskiy, and Erin Trochim of UAF and Kevin L. Bjella of USACE CRERL and Robert McHattie of GZR Engineering, for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Safety (AKDOT&PF). The manual is titled "ROADS AND AIRFIELDS CONSTRUCTED ON PERMAFROST: A Synthesis of Practice" and is available through Scholarworks

Roads and Airfields on Permafrost: A Synthesis of Practice

Billy Connor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks presents this webinar to accompany a manual he co-authored with other experts for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Safety.

Project PI(s)
Funded Institutions
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Other Research Location(s)
Tuktoyaktuk, Canada
Bylot Island, Canada
Anaktuvuk River, Alaska
Itkillik River, Alaska
Glennallen, Alaska
Utqiagvik (Barrow), Alaska
Prudhoe Bay, Alaska
Teshekpuk Lake, Alaska
Toolik, Alaska
Project Start Date
Sep 2018
Award Year