The soil active layer in boreal forests is sensitive to climate warming. Climate-induced changes in the active layer may greatly affect the global carbon budget and planetary climatic system by releasing large quantities of greenhouse gases that currently are stored in permafrost. Ground surface temperature is an immediate driver of active layer thickness (ALT) dynamics. In this study, we mapped ALT distribution in Chinese boreal larch forests from 2000 to 2015 by integrating remote sensing data with the Stefan equation. We then examined the changes of the ALT in response to changes in ground surface temperature and identified drivers of the spatio-temporal patterns of ALT. Active layer thickness varied from 1.18 to 1.3 m in the study area. Areas of nonforested land and low elevation or with increased air temperature had a relatively high ALT, whereas ALT was lower at relatively high elevation and with decreased air temperatures. Interannual variations of ALT had no obvious trend, however, and the ALT changed at a rate of only −0.01 and 0.01 m year−1. In a mega-fire patch of 79,000 ha burned in 2003, ΔALT (ALTi − ALT2002, where 2003 ≤ i ≤ 2015) was significantly higher than in the unburned area, with the influence of the wildfire persisting 10 years. Under the high emission scenario (RCP8.5), an increase of 2.6–4.8 °C in mean air temperature would increase ALT into 1.46–1.55 m by 2100, which in turn would produce a significant positive feedback to climate warming.

Document Type


Publication Date


Notes/Citation Information

Published in Remote Sensing, v. 10, issue 8, 1225, p. 1-13.

© 2018 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.

This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Funding Information

This study was funded by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (grant no. 2016YFA0600804), and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant no. 41222004).

Related Content

The following are available online at https://www.mdpi.com/2072-4292/10/8/1225/s1, Table S1: Meteorological stations used in this study; Table S2: The coordinates information of validation points used in this study; Figure S1: The dominant tree species (Larix gmelinii) in the study area; Figure S2: The workflow of data processing in this study; Figure S3: Interannual variations of air temperature in the study area; Figure S4: Mean active layer thickness (ALT) from 2000 to 2015 and DEM in the study area.

The land cover data were downloaded at http://www.resdc.cn. The MODIS Land surface data was downloaded at ftp://ladsweb.modaps.eosdis.nasa.gov/allData/6/.

remotesensing-10-01225-s001.pdf (1025 kB)
Supplementary Materials