The Thawing of the Permafrost

In the northern regions of the world, a great change is taking place. Arctic permafrost, which covers around 25% of exposed land in the Northern Hemisphere, is melting.

Experts generally define permafrost as a layer of the soil that remains completely frozen for over two years at a time, often located a meter or so below the surface. Its thawing creates massive issues for both human infrastructure and the environment.

In the town of Tuktoyaktuk, Canada, the problems created by thawing permafrost are brutally apparent. Home to around 1000 people, Tuktoyaktuk is one of the most remote settlements in Canada. It was built on permafrost, which is receding father and farther downward as the surface of the land heats up. Houses in the Tuktoyaktuk, many of which have stood for decades, are collapsing. And it’s not just houses. The entire coastline, once held in place by the permafrost, is rapidly disappearing into the ocean. In some arctic areas, coastal land is eroding at a rate of up to two meters per year.

In addition to threatening housing and other buildings, the thawing permafrost compromises both land and sea transportation. All across the northern parts of the world, roads are beginning to buckle as the ground beneath them shifts. In some instances, the buckling has made roads un-drivable. On the ocean, erosion driven by the thawing permafrost is filling in shipping channels. Some are in danger of becoming to shallow for boats to travel through.

Unfortunately, all of these issues pale in comparison to the effects that the thawing permafrost could have on the climate. While frozen, the organic matter stored in permafrost is relatively inert. Once this matter thaws however, bacteria and other microorganisms immediately begin to digest it. Two of the primary byproducts of this digestion are methane and CO2, both of which are potent greenhouse gases.

Worryingly, there is around three times more organic (and digestible) material stored in the permafrost than there is in the biomass of Earth’s remaining forests. Climate scientists are concerned that the digestion of this organic matter could create a positive feedback loop, in which warming triggers increased bacterial activity and greenhouse gas emissions, which then trigger more warming.

Estimates project that by 2100, 70% of the world’s permafrost may have thawed. This thawing would probably release about 10% of total permafrost-stored carbon (150 billion tons) into the atmosphere. However, massive action could significantly reduce these numbers. In fact, scientists have stated that if we act today, we can reduce the total thawing to just 30% of the permafrost by the end of the century.

If you would like to help achieve this goal, there are many ways in which you can do so. In addition to reducing your carbon footprint by cutting down on consumption and travel, consider spreading information about the arctic permafrost and the feedback cycle it could potentially create. Such information will help to impress the potential ramifications of climate change upon the general public, and to spur further decarbonization.



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I use this page to share the highlights of my research, exploration, photography, and miscellaneous writing.