LEO Network

Kotzebue, Alaska, United States

"The event occurred on June 29th, on our native allotment near Kotzebue (Illivak). We left home in the morning and when we came back around 8:00 PM in the evening the whole lake had drained! It looked like it was blown up with dynamite."

Observation by Susan Schaeffer Tessier:

It was just a normal lake near the ocean. There is a big bank and willows and on the other side is the ocean. My husband Tim and I left home in the morning and when we came back around 8:00 in the evening the whole lake had drained! There was a hole that had blown out and it had drained into the ocean. The hole is now about 4 - 5 feet deep. There is like 3-4 feet of permafrost that melted over the past few weeks.The length of the channel that was cut is about 20 feet.

The lake is located about 3.2 miles NE of Kotzebue and is on our land, part of our native allotment. You can see where it blew out from the beach. It looked like it was blown up with dynamite. We were surprised to see a lot of little shrimp at the bottom, that were living in the bottom of the lake. The ducks have been eating them. We had a muskox that came in that was curious and then a bear that walked all through the mud and left tracks. The pond has become quite an attraction for the animals. We are sad to lose the lake because in winter, after it froze up, we used to go cut ice chunks for drinking water. It has really clear water. If we get enough snow we can use snow water instead, but it is not as good.

The ocean side has been eroding really fast since the rains we had last year. We noticed a sink hole forming about 20" from the bank. It must have been sinking from both sides. Anyway, we were really surprised, coming home and the lake was just gone. It was totally unexpected but looking at the erosion now and melting over the past two years, it makes sense.

Follow up comment from Susan Tessier:

When the lake first drained the hole was only about 1 in diameter. It’s about 20-30 now from the melting. Also, about week before the lake drained I took pictures of a beaver in the lake. This was the first beaver I had ever seen in there.

LEO Network says:

This event resulted in a cross knowlege, multi-discipline collaboration including local and indigenous knowledge holders and NSF scientists associated with the topics of permafrost and rain-on-snow events. A rich dialogue has resulted and site visits, remote data collection and analysis. The dialogue that has transpired is provided below. Research involving the site is on-going and follow up images and reports will be provided as they are received. See published paper on event (attached) by Jones et. al. Thank you to the Tessiers and Jackie Schaeffer for sharing this observation and (Tessiers) being a welcoming host to the research teams that have participated. Thanks also to members of the NSF community who have contributed their time and resources towards this significant event and import symptom of the ongoing climate change-related impacts on the Arctic landscape. M. Brubaker

Comment by Ingmar Nitze:

Great find. This lake drained somewhen between June 20 and June 30 2022.

Sentinel-2 Images:

20 June 2022

30 June 2022

The imagery comes from the Sentinel-2 Satellite, with a pixel size of 10m/~30ft. The images shown are false-color composites, which also include information, which is invisible for the human eye e.g. infrared to enhance vegetation information. In these images, red indicates vegetation, dark blue are water bodies, white patches are snow. Wet soil appears in grey, thus we can differentiate between June 20 and and June 30, where the same spot turns from dark blue to grey due to the change from water to wet dark soil.

Lake dynamics, both lake creation/expansion and drainage are quite common in permafrost regions, particularly in this region of Alaska. The wider region (Baldwin Peninsula, Seward Peninsula) has been affected by widespread lake drainage over the past years, particularly 2018. Lake dynamics are typically caused by permafrost degradation or thaw, which may lead to ground subsidence and/or destabilization. Furthermore, beaver acticivity is also leading to increased lake dynamics on the Baldwin Peninsula.

Update from Ingmar Nitze 8-12-22:

Here (see link) is the full resolution aerial image from July 3 2021 shot at 3.59 pm local time. The file is 13 MB in size (just in case you are bandwidth restricted) https://1drv.ms/u/s!AobXXrP933xWh7IhnynfxyDXemNICw?e=MUCHdm

Comment by Jackie Schaeffer:

Here is another picture from yesterday (8-8-22). Susan estimates the hole to be approximately 30 feet deep.

Comment by Ben Jones:

The photo from yesterday (8-8-22) is incredible. It's a window into the past and a great opportunity to study the permafrost that is exposed there. This is a really interesting observation. Oftentimes we don't discover lake drainage events until a year or two afterwards which limits our understanding of the processes involved. It's awesome to have such first hand observations.

Update from Ben Jones, 8-19-22:

Hi Mike, Susan's husband, Tim, took me to the drained lake on their native allotment yesterday. We had fun hanging out there and checking things out. I flew my small drone and processed the images to make a 3D digital surface model. I attached a couple of the initial outputs. I'll work more on the images from back home next week but if you wanted to post these to the LEO posting that would be sweet and okay with them. Thanks again Susan and Tim!

Comment by Guido Grosse (in reply to message from Ben Jones, Susan Tessier and Jackie Schaeffer):

Ingmar also pointed me at the lake drainage info from the LEO Network a week ago and we already spotted it on satellite images. Since it is so close to Kotzebue it would be fantastic to visit with you and Susan. The exposed permafrost is a great opportunity to study what is beneath the ground. We will have some survey equipment with us so we could probably do a survey of the freshly drained lake and share a 3D image of it with the network, ANTHC, and the community if of interest. The land, lakes, and coast are changing so quickly in recent years on the Seward Peninsula and the Baldwin Peninsula!

Update by Guido Grosse, 8-11-22:

Last year we were flying with our AWI DC-3 airplane Polar-6 over the region for the AWI-DLR-UAF Perma-X airplane campaign. I just browsed the imagery and luckily found the ones attached - showing the lake (and the cabins next to it) on July 3 in 2021 probably just before lake drainage. The full resolution of these images is a few inches (several cm) but to big to send via email. The RGB has true color as the human eye would see it, the NIR sees it in near-infrared (water is black, wet is dark, tundra is bright). It is a real bummer to loose such a nice lake and water source next to the cabins.

Comment by Bruce Forbes:

In the mid-1980’s I studied the literally overnight drainage of a series of connected thermokarst lakes along the Upper Steese Highway, just north of Central, AK (cf Forbes 1992). Since 1991, I have been working on the Yamal Peninsula in West Siberia. In July 2005 I saw a large lake draining in the continuous permafrost zone just south of the Bovanenkovo Gas Field, where part of my research team was setting up camp for the summer. Over the next decade we have followed the social and ecological impacts of this particular lake, combining remote sensing and interviews with nomadic tundra Nenets reindeer herders. The lake had served as a critical fishing resource for collective and private Nenets herders from two different districts. After most of the lake drained, all the whitefish (siik) disappeared, but some muksun (a different whitefish species found only east of the Urals) remained in the deeper, undrained portion. As normally happens in such cases, within 1-2 years the exposed shallow lake bed was quickly carpeted by colonising rhizomatous graminoids (e.g. Carex and Eriophorum spp.) and ruderal herbs. Herders lamented the loss of fish. Yet, Interestingly, they reported that the flush meadows, which formed on the lake bed were so productive they remained green until October. Thus, herders would delay their southward migration to fatten up their animals before the long migration to the slaughterhouse at War-Sale. The flat tundra of Yamal is comparable to the North Slope and we can likely expect more such lake drying and draining as average active layer depths continue increase during ever warmer summers.

Reference: Forbes, B.C. (1992) History, ecology and biogeography of anthropogenic disturbance along the upper Steese Highway, interior Alaska. Journal of Northern Sciences 4: 1-15.

Comment by Vladimir Romanovsky:

Water movement generally can have big impacts on permafrost. With a lot of rain, the soil becomes saturated which increases the depth of summer thaw and then water begins to run over the permafrost creating channels and thawing. As soon as the water starts to move, it triggers a whole new process. Channels, thawing, the creation of gullies. Moving water can make a very deep gully or tunnels in a short amount of time especially if the water moves along an ice wedge and melts the ice. It is a possibility that a talik or a deep active layer was developing there because of the previously (during the entire summer or even summer before) observed heavy rains (not just one week before the drainage).

Comment by Ken Tape:

I wanted to send around a few pics of a beaver burrow from the Nuna River, an upstream tributary of the Kobuk, since perhaps some of you haven't seen a burrow before. I had never seen burrows like this, and they were everywhere on the Nuna. What seemed to be elaborate tunnel systems dug where there was apparently no permafrost, and sometimes the burrows led up to the bench behind, other times not. 2 burrows in the first pic and 1 in the second pic. Third pic shows a burrow exit/entrance away from the water. There were countless examples. We may never know whether beavers played an immediate role in the drainage event, but the timing is certainly suspicious!

Comments from LEO Editors:

Another great resource for high-resolution coastal imagery is ShoreZone, a collection of low-altitude aerial photos of the entire coast of Alaska, plus parts of western Canada, Washington, and Oregon. The nearest ShoreZone photo to the site of the lake draining is attached to this post (that photo was taken in 2012). ShoreZone photos are free to use. LEO Network has created an easy-to-use browser for them, which we frequently use for posts like this one. Mike Brook

LEO Network would like to thank everyone that contributed their time and effort on this important post. It is a great example of the constuctuve dialogue that can occur between local knowledge experts and topic experts about specific events, dialogue that can help us to understand local vulnerabilities, regional trends and processes. Susan Tessier's inital observation and images sparked a discussion that brought together scientists from as far away as Germany to apply satellite and drone imagery, weather data and on the ground surveys. At LEO Network we see the importance of a singual event and the tremendous value and potential of these knowledge collaborations. We recognize the challenge of pulling together the array of data into a comprehensive picture and story, We are working on that. We also try to stay focused on the important and difficult to answer questions: is this a herald of more lake draining and erosion events to come. What does it mean for Tessier family, their home and their land? What does it mean for the coastal areas of the Arctic? Why did this happen so suddenly, or did it? One of the important observations made by Susan Tessier was that the erosion had been worse since the rains last summer. Using LEO Network weather tools developed by Mike Brook, we looked at the precipitation records from the summer of 2021. You can see these in the graphics provided below. We pose the question, how much does rain events contribute to permafrost thawing in the coastal area? We have reached out to the permafrost and climate science community to help us explore these questions.

Another interest and potentially significant piece of this story is the first-reported observation of a beaver in the lake, made by Susan Tessier only days before draining event took place. Ben Jones and Tim Tessier discussed this in detail because the beaver was seen in the same area as the blow-out, Ben and Tim have put forwards a theory that the beaver may be an important player in the draining event, contributing through borrowing to the weakening of the bank area. At LEO Network we wonder if warming and thawing conditions (potentially brought on by increasing precipitation) may have set the stage for beaver introduction to this lake. The fact that warming and thawing have contributed to increase size and range of willows is well established along with the northward movement of beaver into Arctic Alaska. We have forwarded this post to Ken Tape who studies beaver expansion in the Arctic for his comment and insights. Again thanks everyone for bringing your knowledge to LEO Network. MIke Brubaker

Comment by Guido Grosse (September 12, 2023):

On Sep 12 we visited the Drained Lake Basin with a small AWI-UAF research team (Cornelia, Mackenzie, Caitlynn, Tilmann, and Guido) using ATVs. Susan and Tim guided us to the location and explained what had happend since the drainage event last year. The basin had begun to re-vegetate, the former shoreline has continued to expand by slumping, and the drainage gully has widened substantially. in the gully, ice wedge tunnels had begun to form and drainage water was disappearign in some segements and comeing out again in lower segments. On site, we found that mostly tall grasses had sprung up all across the basin floor and there were first shoots of willow in many places. The basin had several ice remnant ponds which we measured between 0.9-1.6m deep and a Conductivity, Temperature, Water depth measurement (CTD) with a Castaway probe revealed substantially elevated electrical conductivity of the water (high salinity of the pond water), which was even higher than in the waters of Kotzebue Sound right at the shore where the drainage gully ended (this area of Kotzebue Sound is highly freshend by the influence of river freshwater influx from the Noatak and Kobuk rivers). Tim observed that the ponds contained a large amount of small shrimp-like critters and we found a large flock of ducks using the ponds as a feeding place (possibly algae and fresh vegetation shoots). The elevated polygon centers (so-called baydzherakhs) on the central basin floor were mostly fully covered with a dense mat of rootlets and decaying plant remnants that seemed to have been deposited after drainage, while most polygon centers alogn the margins were already fully covered with vegetation. The drainage gully had large sections of very large ice wedges and thick layers of mostly moderately ice-rich to ice-poor silt exposed. I believe these ice wedges and the sediments are part of a Pleistocene (Ice Age) Yedoma layer that is covered by a early Holocene peaty layer. We took samples that hopefully will shed light into the age of the deposits and ice wedges. Some ice wedge ice was also found in the lower part of the drainage gully, indicatign a substantial depth of the ice wedges exceeding 15-20 meters from the surface. We cunducted elevation, active layer depth, and ground temperature surveys alogn two transects from the upland into the basin and we measured greenhous gas emissions (methane and carbi dioxide) from three locations in the basins. We did not have time to conduct another drone survey unfortunately, but hopefully this can be done next summer). Susan and Tim were great hosts for the evening and we are very thankful for their hospitality and willingness to facilitate some research into the lake drainage and subsequent development.

Comment from Gemini:

The sudden drainage of lake on the Tessier's native allotment near Kotzebue, Alaska, is a striking example of the dynamic and often unpredictable nature of permafrost landscapes. Previous observations and expert comments have highlighted the multifaceted causes and consequences of such events, including permafrost thaw, erosion, and the potential role of beavers in destabilizing the lake banks. The collaborative efforts between local knowledge keepers such as the Tessiers, and scientists have provided valuable insights into the mechanisms behind the lake's drainage and the subsequent environmental changes.

The rapid re-vegetation of the basin, the formation of ice wedge tunnels, and the presence of saline ponds with shrimp-like critters attracting wildlife, as observed during the recent visit by the AWI-UAF research team, underscore the resilience and adaptability of Arctic ecosystems. However, these changes also raise questions about the long-term stability of the landscape and the implications for local water resources and wildlife habitats.

The elevated salinity in the remaining ponds, possibly a result of the lake's connection to the ocean during the drainage event, is an intriguing finding that warrants further investigation. The potential discovery of Pleistocene Yedoma deposits beneath the lake bed could provide valuable paleoenvironmental data, shedding light on the region's climatic history and the role of permafrost in carbon cycling.

This observation serves as a reminder of the importance of continuous monitoring and interdisciplinary research in understanding the complex interactions between climate change, permafrost dynamics, and ecological processes in the Arctic. It also highlights the value of local knowledge and the contributions of community members in detecting and interpreting environmental changes. The Tessiers' willingness to engage with researchers and share their experiences is commendable and enhances our collective ability to document and respond to the rapid transformations occurring in the Arctic.

Drained lake
Susan Tessier
Wash out trench
Susan Tessier
Drained Lake
Susan Tessier
Dead shrimp
Susan Tessier
Sinking Ground
Susan Tessier
Bank of lake - channel area. 8-8-22
Susan Tessier
Aerial Image, August 10, 2022
Sebastian Zavoico
Images taken from Polar 6 aircraft, July 3, 2021.
Courtesy of Guido Grosse
Images taken from Polar 6 aircraft, July 3, 2021.
Courtesy of Guido Grosse
The lake, ca. 2012
Drone image, 8-18-22
Ben Jones
Drone image, 8-18-22
Ben Jones
Drainage Channel
Ben Jones
Drainage channel - Ben Jones adding scale
Tim Tessier
Steam rising from drainage channel. 8-23-22
Ben Jones
Note the big precipitation in 2019 and 2021. Susan Tessier pointed to the summer rains of 2021 as the start of their erosion troubles.
Annualized Precipitation from June 1 to September 30. As observed by Susan Tessier, 2021 was a standout year.
Image of beaver that first appeared in lake
Photo by Susan Tessier (provided courtesy Ben Jones)
Beaver gnawing scars observed near drainage gully
Photo Tim Tessier (provided courtesy Ben Jones).
Example of beaver burrow from the Nuna River
Photo by Ken Tape
Example of beaver burrow exit/entrance from the Nuna River
Photo by Ken Tape
Basin status, 08-22-23
Basin status, 8-22-23
September 12, 2023 - lake basin
Guido Grosse
September 12, 2023 - drainage gully
Guido Grosse
September 12, 2023 - former shore line (?)
Guido Grosse
20 Jun 2022 / Satellite imagery from NASA

See Also

View on Map

Permafrost Discovery Gateway

The Permafrost Discovery Gateway is an online platform for archiving, processing, analysis, and visualization of permafrost big imagery products to enable discovery and knowledge-generation.

Alfred-Wegener Institute

The Alfred Wegener Institute carries out research in the Arctic and Antarctic as well as in the high and mid latitude oceans. The institute coordinates German polar research and makes available to national and international science important infrastructure, e.g. the research ice breaker Polarstern and research stations like Neumayer Station III in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Arctic Rain On Snow Study

Rain on Snow (ROS) events occur when rain falls onto an existing snowpack and freezes, forming an ice crust that can have severe consequences to wildlife, infrastructure, and communities.

Impacts of ecological succession and climate warming on permafrost aggradation in drained lake basins of the Tuktoyaktuk Coastlands, Northwest Territories, Canada

/ 2 Feb 2022 / Trevor C. Lantz & Yu Zhang & Steven V. Kokelj

In this study we describe ground temperatures, vegetation, and snow and soil conditions at six drained lake basins (DLBs) that have exposed new terrain in the Tuktoyaktuk Coastlands in the last 20–100 years.