Pan-Arctic River Ice Breakup

The annual spring ice breakup is a dramatic, critical event for the ecosystems and communities of the pan-Arctic region. The timing of breakup typically corresponds with peak river discharge, often leading to flood events which critically recharge the surrounding landscape with water and can cause millions of dollars in economic damage. Furthermore, many remote Arctic communities rely heavily on rivers for transportation and access to traditional hunting grounds, and therefore many economic, cultural and ecological activities depend upon the timing of breakup.

Most research on river ice breakup was based entirely on point measurements of ice breakup observed at river gauging stations. These studies have generally found that breakup is occurring earlier as the climate warms, yet breakup timing can vary significantly along a river, and the degree to which a single point measurement of breakup was representative of changes occurring along a 1500+ km river was unknown. As part of my undergraduate thesis, I mapped trends in the timing of river ice breakup for the four largest pan-Arctic rivers, the Mackenzie in Canada, and the Lena, Yenisey and Ob’ rivers in Siberia, using MODIS satellite imagery. I found that trends in breakup timing were only present in some subsections of rivers, notably in the Mackenzie Delta and along the upper portions of the Siberian rivers, suggesting that point-based trends do not represent overall river patterns. These results, published in Remote Sensing of Environment, suggest possible differing drivers of earlier breakup (warmer temperature vs. higher precipitation) between Northern Canada and Siberia, which has implications for future flood risk.

Yearly progression of breakup downriver for the Mackenzie, Ob’, Lena and Yenisey rivers, from 2016 RSE paper.

Yearly progression of breakup downriver for the Mackenzie, Ob’, Lena and Yenisey rivers, from 2016 RSE paper.


Related Publications

Cooley, S.W. and T.M. Pavelsky, Spatial and temporal patterns in Arctic river ice breakup revealed by automated ice detection using MODIS imagery (2016), Remote Sensing of Environment 175, 310-322. doi.org/10.1016/j.rse.2016.01.004