As climate change continues to impact the planet, its effects are being felt across a variety of water contexts globally: from rising sea levels, to increased frequency and intensity of disasters, and to prolonged droughts. With mean global temperatures rising, permafrost is at risk. The loss of permafrost as it thaws from these warmer temperatures threatens communities, ecosystems, and disrupts a valuable carbon sink. Water& intends to explore what environmental, societal, and ecological losses are being suffered from this melting and draw attention to the climate feedback loop this melting generates.
What is Permafrost?
The term permafrost refers to permanently frozen grounds, which are grounds that remain completely frozen for at least two years straight and are commonly found along high latitudes, the North or South Poles, or at high altitudes, on mountains (NASA 2022). Permafrost is composed of soil, rocks, and sand that are bound together by ice (NASA 2022). The active layer of permafrost, the top most layer temporarily thaws in warmer summer months and freezes again in the winter (NASA 2022) with the rest of the permafrost below this layer remaining frozen. Large areas of the Earth are covered in permafrost including the Alaskan tundra, Canada, and Greenland; permafrost accounts for approximately 15% of the exposed land area of the Northern Hemisphere (Obu 2021).
The Current State of the Arctic
The Arctic is under substantial pressure from climate change, as it continues to warm more than twice as fast as the rest of the globe (Moon et al. 2021), with some reports indicating that warming in the Arctic may even be three times as fast (Deshayes 2021). From October 2020 to September 2021, the average surface air temperature over the Arctic was the 7th warmest on record (Moon et al. 2021). This same time period marks the 8th consecutive year since 2014 that surface air temperatures exceeded the long-term average by at least 1℃ (Moon et al. 2021). These rising temperatures are melting, and are projected to continue melting, the permafrost ice that is meant to keep this land permanently frozen.
The Implications of Thawing
Climate Change Feedback Loop
Increased rising temperatures allow the ground to warm, which exposes organic matter that has been frozen for thousands of years. This exposed dead plant and animal matter is then available for microorganisms to convert into carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide. (Federman 2021). Permafrost has been a valuable carbon sink, but as the ground dethaws and the organic material is exposed and converted into carbon dioxide, its ability to store large amounts of carbon is degrading. This results in a feedback loop; as the released carbon is added to the atmosphere, warming temperatures are fueled, which leads to more ice melting, and consequently, more carbon being released. This feedback loop leads to places such as Alaska becoming a net emitter of carbon instead of being a place that stores it, which is concerning when more than twice the amount of carbon humans have already emitted since the Industrial Revolution is stored in northern soils (Federman 2021). Additionally, although methane does not remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, it is considered to be roughly 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas which is also concerning as it is released into the atmosphere.
This permanently frozen ground has offered communities in these regions a sturdy surface to construct homes, roads, and buildings on. Permafrost is harder than concrete when frozen and has been a stable surface supporting the infrastructure of many northern villages (NASA 2022). However, as the ice inside the permafrost melts, this ground becomes increasingly unstable, and the infrastructure in these regions is being threatened. In certain cases, this melting leads the land to collapse and fill with water, resulting in thermokarst lakes (Federman 2021). These regions are also vulnerable to abrupt thaw events such as landslides (Federman 2021). Large cities such as Yakutsk and Norilsk in Russia are built on areas of continuous permafrost, and by 2016, a regional official declared that 60% of the buildings in Norilsk were compromised due to permafrost thaw (Yaffa 2022). In May of 2020, a fuel-storage tank spilled twenty-one thousand tons of diesel into nearby waterways, threatening fish stocks and ecosystems for thousands of miles (Yaffa 2022). Along with maintenance and installation mishaps, the thawing permafrost compounded these issues to create this massive disaster.
Significant ecosystem damage can occur in permafrost-related disasters such as in the case of the Norilsk fuel-storage tank spill, but the effects of melting permafrost are damaging to ecosystems even without the compounding impacts of other disasters. By keeping the ground watertight, permafrost is essential in providing habitat for plants and animals through maintaining a vast network of wetlands and lakes across the Arctic tundra (Center for Biological Diversity 2022). Many species of waterfowl and shorebirds are particularly threatened by the melting of permafrost as their wetland breeding sites are at risk of draining.
Melting permafrost poses serious implications for communities, wildlife, and the climate. Water& has a long-term commitment to educating our audience on the interconnectedness between Water and climate issues. Further education on the interconnectedness between Water and climate can be found through our article on the 13th UN Sustainable Development Goal on Climate Action and our article on the takeaways for Water from the COP26 Conference. Water& is committed to advocating for climate change action through policy that contributes to addressing both local and global-scale climate issues such as melting permafrost.
Through our education and advocacy initiatives, Water& is committed to continuing to raise awareness and promote policy that addresses Water, climate, and their intersection with issues such as melting permafrost.
Center for Biological Diversity (2022). Thawing Permafrost. Climate Law Institute: The Arctic Meltdown.
Deshayes, P. (2021). Arctic Warming Three Times Faster than the Planet, Report Warns. Phys Org. https://phys.org/news/2021-05-arctic-faster-planet.html
Federman, A. (2021). Abrupt Permafrost Thaw Has Scientists Worried. Sierra Club & Type Investigations.
Moon et al. (2021). Arctic Report Card 2021. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/reportcard.
NASA (2022). What is Permafrost? NASA Climate Kids. https://climatekids.nasa.gov/permafrost/
Obu, J. (2021). How Much of the Earth's Surface is Underlain by Permafrost?. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface. https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2021JF006123
Yaffa, J. (2022). Letter from Siberia: The Great Siberian Thaw. The New Yorker. https://apple.news/A32bE7sxsQa2h8w9D_mf32g