The objective of this dissertation was to estimate the magnitude and mechanisms of lake area change in Alaskan National Wildlife Refuges. An efficient and objective approach to classifying lake area from Landsat imagery was developed, tested, and used to estimate lake area trends at multiple spatial and temporal scales for ~23,000 lakes in ten study areas. Seven study areas had long-term declines in lake area and five study areas had recent declines. The mean rate of change across study areas was -1.07% per year for the long-term records and -0.80% per year for the recent records. The presence of net declines in lake area suggests that, while there was substantial among-lake heterogeneity in trends at scales of 3-22 km a dynamic equilibrium in lake area may not be present. Net declines in lake area are consistent with increases in length of the unfrozen season, evapotranspiration, and vegetation expansion. A field comparison of paired decreasing and non-decreasing lakes identified terrestrialization (i.e., expansion of floating mats into open water with a potential trajectory towards peatland development) as the mechanism for lake area reduction in shallow lakes and thermokarst as the mechanism for non-decreasing lake area in deeper lakes. Consistent with this, study areas with non-decreasing trends tended to be associated with fine-grained soils that tend to be more susceptible to thermokarst due to their higher ice content and a larger percentage of lakes in zones with thermokarst features compared to study areas with decreasing trends. Study areas with decreasing trends tended to have a larger percentage of lakes in herbaceous wetlands and a smaller mean lake size which may be indicative of shallower lakes and enhanced susceptibility to terrestrialization. Terrestrialization and thermokarst may have been enhanced by recent warming which has both accelerated permafrost thawing and lengthened the unfrozen season. Future research should characterize the relative habitat qualities of decreasing, increasing, and stable lakes for fish and wildlife populations and the ability of the fine-scale heterogeneity in individual lake trends to provide broad-scale system resiliency. Future work should also clarify the effects of terrestrialization on the global carbon balance and radiative forcing.
Thesis (Ph.D.) University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2011
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