The variability of maximum active layer thickness in boreal and tundra environments has important implications for hydrological processes, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and the integrity of northern infrastructure. For most planning and management purposes, the long-term probability distribution of active layer thickness is of primary interest. A robust method is presented to calculate maximum active layer thickness, employing the Stefan equation to compute phase change of moisture in soils and using air temperature as the sole climatic forcing variable. Near-surface ground temperatures (boundary condition for the Stefan equation) were estimated based on empirical relationships established for several sites in the Mackenzie valley. Simulations were performed for typically saturated mineral soils, overlain with varying thickness of peat in boreal and tundra environments. The probability distributions of simulated maximum active layer thickness encompass the range of measured thaw depths provided by field data. The effects of climate warming under A2 and B2 scenarios for 2050 and 2100 were investigated. Under the A2 scenario in 2100, the simulated median thaw depth under a thin organic cover may increase by 0.3 m, to reach 1 m depth for a tundra site and 1.6 m depth for a boreal site. The median thaw depth in 2100 is dampened by about 50% under a 1 m thick organic layer. Without an insulating organic cover, thaw penetration can increase to reach 1.7 m at the tundra site. The simulations provide quantitative support that future thaw penetration in permafrost terrain will deepen differentially depending on location and soil.

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