Permafrost and climatic precariousness

When I look at the numbers involved, I sometimes wonder whether concerns about climate change adaptation in northern community are missing the main point. As discussed before, the Arctic permafrost contains 36 trillion tonnes (teratonnes) of carbon dioxide equivalent. By comparison, annual human emissions are in the neighbourhood of 29 billion tonnes (gigatonnes) of CO2 equivalent. That means that the permafrost as a whole contains as much greenhouse gas as over 1,200 years of human emissions at the present rate. Thought about another way, that means that annual melting of 0.08% of the permafrost would have as much impact on climate change as every vehicle, power plant, farm, and burned forest around the world.

It is as though the permafrost is a frozen block of fuel that we are holding a match to. If it starts generating enough heat to melt on its own accord, we will be in for a truly wild ride. The loss of seasonal road access for northern communities may end up being the least significant problem associated with melting permafrost.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

18 thoughts on “Permafrost and climatic precariousness”

  1. I’m melting
    Breaking news: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss

    The permafrost won’t be perma for long
    More carbon in the Arctic than previously thought

    Slip of the tundra
    CO2 released from disappearing permafrost must be factored into climate projection

    Permafrost melting, methane coming, humanity doomed: more

    Sobering dispatches from Alaska

    Are scientists overestimating — or underestimating — climate change? Part III
    On the climate change ‘point of no return’

    The Peat Is Gone
    Siberia’s fast thaw alarms scientists

    Guess It’s Not So Perma After All
    Melting Siberian permafrost could release billions of tons of CO2

    The bad news from Siberia continues
    Thawing permafrost, oh my.

    Feedback frenzy
    2006, the year global warming came into focus

    Nicholas Stern, the British economist known for a major report in which he declared that combating climate change would cost less than ignoring it, has announced that he was wrong — about how bad the problem is. “We badly underestimated the degree of damages and the risks of climate change” in the Oct. 2006 report, he said in a speech Wednesday. “All of the links in the chain are on average worse than we thought a couple of years ago.” Thawing permafrost is releasing methane, oceans are acidifying faster than expected, and carbon sinks are becoming less effective, said Stern.

  2. How rapidly is permafrost changing and what are the impacts of these changes?

    Vladimir E. Romanovsky
    Associate Professor
    Geophysical Institute UAF
    Fairbanks, AK

    “If recent trends continue, it will take several centuries to millennia for permafrost to disappear completely in the areas where it is now actively warming and thawing. However, negative consequences of this degradation will be pronounced from the very beginning because the highest ice content in permafrost usually is found in the upper few tens of meters…

    At that moment, many processes (some of them very destructive) will be triggered or intensified. The most significant impacts on ecosystems, infrastructure, carbon cycle and hydrology will be observed in areas where permafrost contains a considerable amount of ground ice in the upper few meters. Even in the polar areas, where permafrost will still be stable, the depth of the seasonal active layer will increase significantly if present trends continue…

    [T]he majority of northern ecosystems are apparently carbon sinks at present time. Climate warming and drying caused by this warming permafrost degradation will change this situation. A thicker, warmer and dryer active layer will be much friendlier for microbial activities during the summer. Significantly later freeze-up of this layer in winter and warmer winter temperatures (that means much more unfrozen water in it) will considerably enhance the microbial activities during the winter. So, the arctic and sub-arctic ecosystems could turn into a source of CO2 (especially on an annual basis) very soon. Further permafrost degradation and formation of taliks will amplify these changes because a layer that will not freeze during the entire winter (talik) will appear above the permafrost, where microbial activities will not cease during the winter. In the area of “wet thermokarst” formation, new and significant sources of CH4 will be developing…

  3. Permafrost find adds to climate calamity
    Adam Morton
    September 13, 2008

    THE blanket of permafrost covering a fifth of the world’s land mass traps twice as much greenhouse gas as previously thought — and is therefore much more likely to trigger rapid climate change as it melts, research says.

    A paper published in the journal Bioscience estimates that more than 1500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane is locked in frozen vegetation at high latitudes. This is more than double the amount of greenhouse gas now in the atmosphere.

    CSIRO atmospheric scientist Pep Canadell — part of an international team of 19 scientists that worked on the paper — said while it was not possible to accurately predict how much carbon would escape from the permafrost as it warmed, the release of even a fraction would accelerate climate change dramatically.

  4. Permafrost May Not Thaw Even During Global Warming

    Published: September 18, 2008

    One of the potential consequences of a warmer world, according to scientists who study such things, is the deep thawing of the permafrost. Thawing could release huge quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, as vegetation, bones and other organic material, long locked up in the deep freezer that is the permafrost, decompose.

    But a study published in Science suggests that the impact of warming on the permafrost may not be as bad as forecast. The evidence comes in the form of a wedge of ancient ice found at an old mining site in the Yukon in Canada.

  5. As Humans Squabble, Nature Starts to Vent!

    By Ross Gelbspan on Science

    The first evidence that millions of tons of a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere from beneath the Arctic seabed has been discovered by scientists.

    Underground stores of methane are important because scientists believe their sudden release has in the past been responsible for rapid increases in global temperatures, dramatic changes to the climate, and even the mass extinction of species. In the past few days, researchers have seen areas of sea foaming with gas bubbling up through “methane chimneys” rising from the sea floor.

  6. Hundreds of methane ‘plumes’ discovered

    British scientists find more evidence of climate threat

    By Steve Connor, Science Editor
    Thursday, 25 September 2008

    British scientists have discovered hundreds more methane “plumes” bubbling up from the Arctic seabed, in an area to the west of the Norwegian island of Svalbard. It is the second time in a week that scientists have reported methane emissions from the Arctic.

    Methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas and the latest findings from two separate teams of scientists suggest it is being released in significant amounts from within the Arctic Circle.

  7. Will natural methane emissions enhance
    man made emissions?

    Substantial quantities of methane are emitted
    naturally from wetlands, and this emission is
    expected to change as wetlands change. Changing
    rainfall patterns will cause some wetland areas to
    increase in extent, others to decrease, and increases
    in temperature will act to increase emissions from
    wetlands. One version of the Hadley Centre climate
    model includes a description of wetland methane,
    and this predicts an increase in natural wetland
    emissions by the end of the century equivalent to
    the amount of man-made emissions projected for
    that time, thus leading to a more rapid rise in
    methane concentrations, and hence warming.

    On the other hand, the chemical reactions in the
    atmosphere which destroy methane are expected to
    become more efficient in future, largely as a result
    of increased water vapour. This will act as a
    negative feedback on methane amounts.

    Methane is also stored in permafrost, and it is likely
    that some of this will be released as surface warming
    extends into the permafrost and begins to melt it.

    Finally, huge amounts of methane are locked up in
    methane hydrates (methane clathrates) in the oceans.
    They are currently at high enough pressures and
    temperatures to make them very stable. However,
    penetration of greenhouse effect heating into the
    oceans may destabilise them and allow some of the
    methane to escape into the atmosphere. The
    potential for this to happen is very poorly understood.
    There is concern that this may be another positive
    feedback not yet included in models, although there
    is little evidence for this from the behaviour of
    methane during the large temperature swings
    between ice ages and interglacials, and in particular
    over the last 50,000 years.

    Climate change and the greenhouse effect
    A briefing from the Hadley Centre
    December 2005

  8. According to a new study, the amount of carbon in the northern circumpolar permafrost is more than double that previously estimated. Thus, the potential for carbon-climate feedbacks from this region, where the greatest global warming is predicted to occur, could have been substantially underestimated.

    Tarnocai, C., J. G. Canadell, E. A. G. Schuur, P. Kuhry, G. Mazhitova, and S. Zimov (2009), Soil organic carbon pools in the northern circumpolar permafrost region, Global Biogeochem. Cycles, 23, GB2023, doi:10.1029/2008GB003327

  9. Methane seeps from Arctic sea bed

    By Judith Burns
    Science and environment reporter, BBC News

    Scientists say they have evidence that the powerful greenhouse gas methane is escaping from the Arctic sea bed.

    Researchers say this could be evidence of a predicted positive feedback effect of climate change.

    As temperatures rise, the sea bed grows warmer and frozen water crystals in the sediment break down, allowing methane trapped inside them to escape.
    The research team found that more than 250 plumes of methane bubbles are rising from the sea bed off Norway.

  10. Farther towards the poles, the permafrost—permanently frozen soil—is at risk. Even if the average global temperature increase is limited to 2°C above pre-industrial levels—already an ambitious target—a quarter will thaw. If greenhouse-gas emissions and temperatures increase further, almost 70% of this near-surface permafrost could melt. Frozen in that earth are 1,460-1,600 gigatons of carbon, says the report, almost twice the amount already in the atmosphere, much of which could be released if the soil thaws.

  11. Impacts of permafrost degradation on infrastructure

    The warming and thawing of ice-rich permafrost pose considerable threat to the integrity of polar and high-altitude infrastructure, in turn jeopardizing sustainable development. In this Review, we explore the extent and costs of observed and predicted infrastructure damage associated with permafrost degradation, and the methods available to mitigate such adverse consequences. Permafrost change imposes various threats to infrastructure, namely through warming, active layer thickening and thaw-related hazards such as thermokarst and mass wasting. These impacts, often linked to anthropogenic warming, are exacerbated through increased human activity. Observed infrastructure damage is substantial, with up to 80% of buildings in some Russian cities and ~30% of some road surfaces in the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau reporting damage. Under anthropogenic warming, infrastructure damage is projected to continue, with 30–50% of critical circumpolar infrastructure thought to be at high risk by 2050. Accordingly, permafrost degradation-related infrastructure costs could rise to tens of billions of US dollars by the second half of the century. Several mitigation techniques exist to alleviate these impacts, including convection embankments, thermosyphons and piling foundations, with proven success at preserving and cooling permafrost and stabilizing infrastructure. To be effective, however, better understanding is needed on the regions at high risk.

  12. The cranking up of temperatures speeds the further melting of sea-ice, which speeds further warming. Other feedbacks come into play, too. As temperatures rise trees will creep further north; snow hidden beneath forest canopies reflects less sun than snow spread over empty tundra, so more warmth will follow.

    Perhaps the most pernicious is the thawing of permafrost. Some 85% of Alaska has permafrost beneath the surface, be it hundreds of metres in depth or a slim slice of frozen soil. In the short term, thawing permafrost transforms common landscapes into surrealist ones. So-called drunken forests have trees tilting wildly this way and that, tipped by slumping soil. Behind Mr Walsh’s office in Fairbanks a once-orderly car park has become an undulating funhouse floor.

    But permafrost poses broader challenges, too. There are about 1.6trn metric tonnes of carbon stored in Arctic permafrost; that is twice the amount currently found in the atmosphere. As temperatures rise, the carbon in soil that had been frozen becomes food on which microbes feast. Carbon dioxide and methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas, escape into the air.

    “The permafrost in the Arctic that has been a carbon sink for tens of thousands of years may slowly be shifting to a carbon source,” explains Sue Natali of the Woodwell Climate Research Centre, an independent institute. The trouble is, scientists have only a nebulous understanding of how quickly the shift is happening. Ms Natali is leading an effort to measure and model the thaw. Its measurements of the gases released from the soil are breathalyser tests for a planet under the influence.

  13. So far this year some 12,600 square kilometres of Alaska have been enveloped in flames. Early snowmelt made the ground drier and more susceptible to flames. Warming temperatures have made shrubs taller, providing fires with more tinder. As wildfires burn soil, permafrost is exposed to warmer temperatures, which speeds up its thaw, releasing more greenhouse gases.

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