Research Article: A lake-centric geospatial database to guide research and inform management decisions in an Arctic watershed in northern Alaska experiencing climate and land-use changes

Date Published: March 25, 2017

Publisher: Springer Netherlands

Author(s): Benjamin M. Jones, Christopher D. Arp, Matthew S. Whitman, Debora Nigro, Ingmar Nitze, John Beaver, Anne Gädeke, Callie Zuck, Anna Liljedahl, Ronald Daanen, Eric Torvinen, Stacey Fritz, Guido Grosse.


Lakes are dominant and diverse landscape features in the Arctic, but conventional land cover classification schemes typically map them as a single uniform class. Here, we present a detailed lake-centric geospatial database for an Arctic watershed in northern Alaska. We developed a GIS dataset consisting of 4362 lakes that provides information on lake morphometry, hydrologic connectivity, surface area dynamics, surrounding terrestrial ecotypes, and other important conditions describing Arctic lakes. Analyzing the geospatial database relative to fish and bird survey data shows relations to lake depth and hydrologic connectivity, which are being used to guide research and aid in the management of aquatic resources in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. Further development of similar geospatial databases is needed to better understand and plan for the impacts of ongoing climate and land-use changes occurring across lake-rich landscapes in the Arctic.

Partial Text

Roughly 25% of the global lake population occurs in the northern high-latitude region (Lehner and Döll 2004). The skewed global distribution of lakes toward the Arctic can be explained primarily by glaciation history and the presence of permafrost (Smith et al. 2007). In Arctic lowland regions with ice-rich permafrost, thermokarst lakes may account for as much as 20–40% of the land surface (Grosse et al. 2013) and drained lake basins (the sites of former lakes) may account for an additional 40–75% of the landscape (Hinkel et al. 2005; Grosse et al. 2006; Jones et al. 2012; Jones and Arp 2015). These abundant landscape features provide habitat for a variety of migratory waterfowl during the open-water season (Haynes et al. 2014a) and fish species year-round (Morris 2003; Morris et al. 2006; Reist et al. 2006; Haynes et al. 2014b; Laske et al. 2016), are an important component of the northern latitude carbon cycle (Wik et al. 2016), and factor prominently into regional hydrology (Bowling et al. 2003; Arp et al. 2012a). Lakes also provide a source of water for remote Arctic communities (Martin et al. 2007; Alessa et al. 2008) as well as oil and gas exploration activities (Sibley et al. 2008; Jones et al. 2009). Due to the importance of lakes in the Arctic, better representation of their characteristics and variability across the landscape is necessary because they are vulnerable to both natural and anthropogenic stressors (Vorosmarty et al. 2000; Hinkel et al. 2007; Williamson et al. 2009).

High-resolution aerial photography and airborne Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (IfSAR) data were acquired throughout the NPR-A between 2002 and 2006. The area covering the FCW was acquired in 2002. Digital surface and terrain models were derived from the IfSAR data and used to create an orthorectified aerial photography dataset at the spatial resolution of 5 and 2.5 m, respectively. These high-quality geospatial datasets provided the framework for delineation of the FCW and development of a contemporary lakes data layer that was used as the basis for our lake-centric geospatial database (Fig. S1). Geospatial information pertaining to lake geometry, lake type, surface elevation, bluff height characteristics, surficial geology, hydrologic connectivity, depth, landscape position, dominant vegetation classes present in the vicinity of a lake, and other attributes assigned to the dataset are described in detail below.

The 4900 km2 FCW is composed of three primary watersheds: Fish Creek (2463 km2), Judy Creek (1725 km2), and the Ublutuoch River (663 km2). For our assessment, we also included the 49 km2 Pik Dunes watershed since it was initially part of the FCW before it partially drained catastrophically at some point in the past through natural processes, isolating it from the modern-day FCW system. Below, we describe in detail the characteristics of lakes based on their size, shape, landscape position, connectivity, type, depth, and dynamics.

Quantifying the number and distribution of lakes is important for Arctic lowland regions since lakes are a ubiquitous land cover type (Grosse et al. 2013) that serve an important role in regional habitat provision (Reist et al. 2006; Haynes et al. 2014a) and are an anthropogenic water source (Martin et al. 2007; Sibley et al. 2008). Comparing our lake-centric geospatial database with the Global Lakes and Wetland Database (GLWD: Lehner and Döll 2004) and one recent statewide product, the Alaskan Lake Database Mapped from Landsat Images (Sheng 2012) demonstrates the importance of our newly created lake dataset. The reported minimum mapping unit in both of these lake databases is 10 ha, whereas our minimum mapping unit is 1 ha. Thus, selecting lakes greater than 10 ha from our database shows that the GLWD underestimates the number of lakes greater than 10 ha by 70% and lake area by 33% in the FCW. The representation of lakes in the Sheng (2012) statewide database is an improvement; however, it underestimates the number of lakes greater than 10 ha by 3.0% and lake area by 1.4%. In addition, both databases do not capture lakes with a surface area smaller than 10 ha. Comparing the total lake number (4362) and surface area (900 km2) in our lake database with the GLWD (Lehner and Döll 2004) shows that 92% of the number and 40% of the lake area are missing and for the Sheng database (Sheng 2012) that 76% of the number and 19% of the lake area are not included when considering 1 ha as a minimum mapping unit. This has implications for the global distribution of lakes as the GLWD indicates that roughly 25% of the global lake population occurs in the northern high-latitude region (Lehner and Döll 2004). However, if lakes are commonly underrepresented in the Arctic in the GLWD, the relative role of Arctic lakes on mediating global process warrants further study and more accurate mapping (Palton et al. 2015). Thus, the IfSAR-derived lake data layer provides an improvement over previously available datasets for the study area since it is more comprehensive and better suited for research and management needs in the watershed.

In this study, we describe a lake-centric geospatial database developed for an Arctic watershed that is currently experiencing climate and land-use change pressures. The Fish Creek Watershed (FCW) is located on the Arctic Coastal Plain of northern Alaska where numerous climate change effects have been observed. At the same time, it is located in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A), where active oil and gas exploration and development has occurred during the past decade, making it an important and interesting study watershed for human–landscape interactions in the Arctic. The geospatial database provides information on lake morphometry, hydrologic connectivity, surface area dynamics, surrounding terrestrial ecotypes, and other important habitat characteristics for more than 4000 lakes in the 4900 km2 FCW. The lake-specific information available in the geospatial dataset is useful for guiding research questions, enhancing model development, and informing management decisions in the FCW, the NPR-A, and eventually in lakes across the Arctic that have a global importance.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.