Water tracks intensify surface energy and mass exchange in the Antarctic McMurdo Dry Valleys
The hydrologic cycle in the Antarctic McMurdo Dry Valleys (MDV) is mainly controlled by surface energy balance. Water tracks are channel-shaped high-moisture zones in the active layer of permafrost soils and are important solute and water pathways in the MDV. We evaluated the hypothesis that water tracks alter the surface energy balance in this dry, cold, and ice-sheet-free environment during summer warming and may therefore be an increasingly important hydrologic feature in the MDV in the face of landscape response to climate change. The surface energy balance was measured for one water track and two off-track reference locations in Taylor Valley over 26 d of the Antarctic summer of 2012–2013. Turbulent atmospheric fluxes of sensible heat and evaporation were observed using the eddy-covariance method in combination with flux footprint modeling, which was the first application of this technique in the MDV. Soil heat fluxes were analyzed by measuring the heat storage change in the thawed layer and approximating soil heat flux at ice table depth by surface energy balance residuals. For both water track and reference locations over 50 % of net radiation was transferred to sensible heat exchange, about 30 % to melting of the seasonally thawed layer, and the remainder to evaporation. The net energy flux in the thawed layer was zero. For the water track location, evaporation was increased by a factor of 3.0 relative to the reference locations, ground heat fluxes by 1.4, and net radiation by 1.1, while sensible heat fluxes were reduced down to 0.7. Expecting a positive snow and ground ice melt response to climate change in the MDV, we entertained a realistic climate change response scenario in which a doubling of the land cover fraction of water tracks increases the evaporation from soil surfaces in lower Taylor Valley in summer by 6 % to 0.36 mm d−1. Possible climate change pathways leading to this change in landscape are discussed. Considering our results, an expansion of water track area would make new soil habitats accessible, alter soil habitat suitability, and possibly increase biological activity in the MDV. In summary, we show that the surface energy balance of water tracks distinctly differs from that of the dominant dry soils in polar deserts. With an expected increase in area covered by water tracks, our findings have implications for hydrology and soil ecosystems across terrestrial Antarctica.