Permafrost is degrading under current warming conditions, disrupting infrastructure, releasing carbon from soils, and altering seasonal water availability. Therefore, it is important to quantitatively map the change in the extent and depth of permafrost. We used satellite images of land-surface temperature to recognize and map the zero curtain, i.e., the isothermal period of ground temperature during seasonal freeze and thaw, as a precursor for delineating permafrost boundaries from remotely sensed thermal-infrared data. The phase transition of moisture in the ground allows the zero curtain to occur when near-surface soil moisture thaws or freezes, and also when ice-rich permafrost thaws or freezes. We propose that mapping the zero curtain is a precursor to mapping permafrost at shallow depths. We used ASTER and a MODIS-Aqua daily afternoon land-surface temperature (LST) timeseries to recognize the zero curtain at the 1-km scale as a “proof of concept.” Our regional mapping of the zero curtain over an area around the 7000 m high volcano Ojos del Salado in Chile suggests that the zero curtain can be mapped over arid regions of the world. It also indicates that surface heterogeneity, snow cover, and cloud cover can hinder the effectiveness of our approach. To be of practical use in many areas, it may be helpful to reduce the topographic and compositional heterogeneity in order to increase the LST accuracy. The necessary finer spatial resolution to reduce these problems is provided by ASTER (90 m).
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