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From Ice to Iron: Alaska’s “Rusting” Rivers and the Permafrost Thaw Effect

Satellite image of Tukpahlearik Creek captured on July 23, 2023, by the Operational Land Imager-2 on Landsat 9,

In Alaska, streams are turning orange as permafrost thaws.

Scientists are keenly aware that losing permafrost—the year-round frozen ground prevalent across the Arctic—generally does not bode well for the planet’s future. The thawing of this frozen layer releases the potent greenhouse gas methane, thereby feeding more warming and thawing, while also destabilizing the ground and potentially letting loose dormant pathogens.

Researchers suspect that thawing permafrost is also the cause of dozens of Alaskan streams turning orange. Along with the strange appearance of the water, they have found it tends to be higher in iron, lower in dissolved oxygen, and more acidic than nearby rivers that run clear.

Map Permafrost Extent in Northern Hemisphere

Permafrost is defined as soil, rock, and any other subsurface Earth material that exists at or below 0 °C for two or more consecutive years. Current maps of permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere (20° N to 90° N) are based this map, which was compiled in 1997 by the International Permafrost Association. Credit: International Permafrost Association

Tukpahlearik Creek is one such stream that has taken on a new hue. Landsat 9’s OLI-2 (Operational Land Imager-2) captured this view of its rusty waters on July 23, 2023. The creek runs through northwest Alaska, adjacent to Kobuk Valley National Park and north of the Arctic Circle.

The exact reasons for the orange appearance and altered chemistry of such streams are still a matter of debate, but a couple of hypotheses have emerged. One says that, along with methane, bacteria are producing a reduced, soluble form of iron as they digest plant and animal matter in thawing permafrost soils. As that iron reaches flowing streams, it can become oxygenated, or “rust,” and turn the water orange.

Simple Map Permafrost Extent in Northern Hemisphere

This version of the 1997 permafrost map second map, updated on February 21, 2012, has been digitized and simplified to show continuous permafrost, discontinuous/sporadic permafrost, isolated patches of permafrost, as well as ice sheets and glaciers. Credit: International Permafrost Association

Another idea, not mutually exclusive to the bacterial process, posits that water is encountering bedrock rich in sulfide minerals underneath thawing permafrost, something that has likely not occurred in thousands of years. Ensuing chemical reactions spike the water with sulfuric acidAny substance that when dissolved in water, gives a pH less than 7.0, or donates a hydrogen ion.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>acid. What’s more, that acidic water may then leach heavy metals from rocks and carry them downstream. The processes are similar to those that pollute water near mining activity.

Altered water chemistry degrades habitat for fish, small aquatic animals, and insect larvae. Precipitated iron can hinder fish respiration and smother their eggs, among other effects. The dramatic shift in water quality may be felt most acutely in the villages that rely upon rivers originating in permafrost regions for fish and drinking water.

NASAEstablished in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government that succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). It is responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. Its vision is "To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity." Its core values are "safety, integrity, teamwork, excellence, and inclusion." NASA conducts research, develops technology and launches missions to explore and study Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond. It also works to advance the state of knowledge in a wide range of scientific fields, including Earth and space science, planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics, and it collaborates with private companies and international partners to achieve its goals.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>NASA Earth Observatory image by Ross Walter and Michala Garrison, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Source: SciTechDaily