Sea-level rise and warming mediate coastal groundwater discharge in the Arctic

Guimond, Julia A.; Mohammed, Aaron A.; Walvoord, Michelle A.; Bense, Victor F.; Kurylyk, Barret L.


Groundwater discharge is an important mechanism through which fresh water and associated solutes are delivered to the ocean. Permafrost environments have traditionally been considered hydrogeologically inactive, yet with accelerated climate change and permafrost thaw, groundwater flow paths are activating and opening subsurface connections to the coastal zone. While warming has the potential to increase land-sea connectivity, sea-level change has the potential to alter land-sea hydraulic gradients and enhance coastal permafrost thaw, resulting in a complex interplay that will govern future groundwater discharge dynamics along Arctic coastlines. Here, we use a recently developed permafrost hydrological model that simulates variable-density groundwater flow and salinity-dependent freeze-thaw to investigate the impacts of sea-level change and land and ocean warming on the magnitude, spatial distribution, and salinity of coastal groundwater discharge. Results project both an increase and decrease in discharge with climate change depending on the rate of warming and sea-level change. Under high warming and low sea-level rise scenarios, results show up to a 58% increase in coastal groundwater discharge by 2100 due to the formation of a supra-permafrost aquifer that enhances freshwater delivery to the coastal zone. With higher rates of sea-level rise, the increase in discharge due to warming is reduced to 21% as sea-level rise decreased land-sea hydraulic gradients. Under lower warming scenarios for which supra-permafrost groundwater flow was not established, discharge decreased by up to 26% between 1980 and 2100 for high sea-level rise scenarios and increased only 8% under low sea-level rise scenarios. Thus, regions with higher warming rates and lower rates of sea-level change (e.g. northern Nunavut, Canada) will experience a greater increase in discharge than regions with lower warming rates and higher rates of sea-level change. The magnitude, location and salinity of discharge have important implications for ecosystem function, water quality, and carbon dynamics in coastal zones.