As the climate crisis intensifies, lakes across the Arctic are vanishing
The Arctic is no stranger to loss. As the region warms nearly four times faster than the rest of the world, glaciers collapse, wildlife suffers and habitats continue to disappear at a record pace.
Now, a new threat has become apparent: Arctic lakes are drying up, according to research published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study, led by University of Florida Department of Biology postdoctoral researcher ELIZABETH WEBB, flashes a new warning light on the global climate dashboard.
Webb’s research reveals that over the past 20 years, Arctic lakes have shrunk or dried completely across the pan-Arctic, a region spanning the northern parts of Canada, Russia, Greenland, Scandinavia and Alaska. The findings offer clues about why the mass drying is happening and how the loss can be slowed.
The vanishing lakes act as cornerstones of the Arctic ecosystem. They provide a critical source of fresh water for local Indigenous communities and industries. Threatened and endangered species, including migratory birds and aquatic creatures, also rely on the lake habitats for survival.
The lake decline comes as a surprise. Scientists had predicted that climate change would initially expand lakes across the tundra, due to land surface changes resulting from melting ground ice, with eventual drying in the mid-21st or 22nd century. Instead, it appears that thawing permafrost, the frozen soil that blankets the Arctic, may drain lakes and outweigh this expansion effect, says Webb. The team theorized that thawing permafrost may decrease lake area by creating drainage channels and increasing soil erosion into the lakes.
“Our findings suggest that permafrost thaw is occurring even faster than we as a community had anticipated,” Webb said. “It also indicates that the region is likely on a trajectory toward more landscape-scale drainage in the future.”