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Transient thermal effects in Alpine permafrost

J. Noetzli 1 S. Gruber 1 
Abstract : In high mountain areas, permafrost is important because it influences natural hazards and construction practices, and because it is an indicator of climate change. The modeling of its distribution and evolution over time is complicated by steep and complex topography, highly variable conditions at and below the surface, and varying climatic conditions. This paper presents a systematic investigation of effects of climate variability and topography that are important for subsurface temperatures in Alpine permafrost areas. The effects of both past and projected future ground surface temperature variations on the thermal state of Alpine permafrost are studied based on numerical experimentation with simplified mountain topography. For this purpose, we use a surface energy balance model together with a subsurface heat conduction scheme. The past climate variations that essentially influence the present-day permafrost temperatures at depth are the last glacial period and the major fluctuations in the past millennium. The influence of projected future warming was assessed to cause even larger transient effects in the subsurface thermal field because warming occurs on shorter time scales. Results further demonstrate the accelerating influence of multi-lateral warming in Alpine topography for a temperature signal entering the subsurface. The effects of thermal properties, porosity, and freezing characteristics were examined in sensitivity studies. A considerable influence of latent heat due to water in low-porosity bedrock was only shown for simulations over shorter time periods (i.e., decades to centuries). Finally, as an example of a real and complex topography, the modeled transient three-dimensional temperature distribution in the Matterhorn (Switzerland) is given for today and in 200 years.
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J. Noetzli, S. Gruber. Transient thermal effects in Alpine permafrost. The Cryosphere Discussions, Copernicus, 2008, 2 (2), pp.185-224. ⟨hal-00298540⟩

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