Permafrost is mostly warm and thermally unstable on the Tibetan Plateau (TP), particularly in some marginal areas, thereby being susceptible to degrade or even disappear under climate warming. The degradation of permafrost consequently leads to changes in hydrological cycles associated with seasonal freeze-thaw processes. In this study, we investigated seasonal hydrothermal processes of near-surface permafrost layers and their responses to rain events at two warm permafrost sites in the Headwater Area of the Yellow River, northeastern TP. Results demonstrated that water content in shallow active layers changed with infiltration of rainwater, whereas kept stable in the perennially frozen layer, which serves as an aquitard due to low hydraulic conductivity or even imperviousness. Accordingly, the supra-permafrost water acts as a seasonal aquifer in the thawing period and as a seasonal aquitard in the freezing period. Seasonal freeze-thaw processes in association with rain events correlate well with the recharge and discharge of the supra-permafrost water. Super-heavy precipitation (44 mm occurred on 2 July 2015) caused a sharp increase in soil water content and dramatic rises in soil temperatures by 0.3–0.5 °C at shallow depths and advancement thawing of the active layer by half a month. However, more summer precipitation amount tends to reduce the seasonal amplitude of soil temperatures, decrease mean annual soil temperatures and thawing indices and thin active layers. High salinity results in the long remaining of a large amount of unfrozen water around the bottom of the active layer. We conclude that extremely warm permafrost with TZAA (the temperature at the depth of zero annual amplitude) >−0.5 °C is likely percolated under heavy and super-heavy precipitation events, while hydrothermal processes around the permafrost table likely present three stages concerning TZAA of <−0.5 °C, −0.5–0 °C, and >0 °C.
- Headwater Area of the Yellow River
- Seasonal freeze-thaw processes
- Tibetan Plateau
- Warm permafrost