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Arctic Meltdown: The perils of a thawing permafrost

Updated: Jul 12, 2020

The Batagaika crater in eastern Siberia is reshaping the landscape as the permafrost thaws to reveal the ground beneath.

The growing threat of climate change has become palpable with the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere resulting in increased temperatures and a rise in sea levels all over the globe. The Arctic region has become a focal point of experiencing the warm temperatures substantially more than the rest of the world which is leading to a decline in the oceanic ice sheets, increased instances of melting glaciers, and shifting weather patterns in the sensitive Arctic ecosystem. Reports have forecasted that the Arctic ocean would largely be free of sea ice in the late 2030s and the snow cover is projected to decrease at 10-20% from current levels. Along with these changes, the area of near-surface permafrost is forecasted to decrease by around 35% which would result in massive greenhouse gas emissions.

Is the Earth unfreezing?

This thawing of the permafrost is one of the most serious climatical and ecological challenges that the Arctic ecosystem faces. Permafrost refers to the layer of the ground that has remained frozen for two or more years and can be found anywhere from the first layer of the ground to miles deep into the Earth’s surface as soil, sediment or rock. It is present in a quarter of the surface area in the Northern Hemisphere including 85% of Alaska, Greenland, Canada, and Siberia and is also found in mountainous regions of Southern Hemisphere. Until last year, it was widely believed that the Arctic was one of the most impacted regions due to the effects of climate change. However, the Arctic Report Card puts light on the fact that the Arctic was among the top contributors to climate change.

The reason for the Arctic being one of the top contributors of climate change is that the Arctic soil contains a lot of carbon reserves (including methane) i.e. organic matter of upto 1600 gigatons in the soil which would not have been an issue if the Arctic had not been warming up but since that has already started happening, the carbon is being emitted and is inevitably contributing as a greenhouse gas in the process of climate change. The carbon is released from the roots of the plants that give out CO2 and from microbes that further break down organic matter into CO2 while anaerobic microorganisms release methane which exacerbates the challenge of global warming. As per the report, an estimated amount of 300-600 million tons of net carbon per year could be added in the atmosphere as a result of permafrost thawing. This threat is also partially irreversible as the report by UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has correctly pointed out that even if the IPCC’s desired target of limiting the increase in global temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius is met, 25% of permafrost near the land surface could still vanish. The scientific community has expressed its concerns over the estimates addressing the thawing permafrost which would, through the carbon feedback loops, adds even more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which contributes to global warming.

The thawing of the permafrost also presents other challenges such the surfacing deadly diseases buried in the permafrost, the potential release of mercury and ancient CO2 created by microbes millions of years ago. The threat of deadly diseases and mercury deteriorates the quality of fresh water for household use and irrigation around the region, as per the IPCC’s report. The recent outbreak of Anthrax in Siberia was believed to be caused due to the defrosting carcass of a reindeer when the permafrost thawed. The evolutionary biologists have opined that permafrost is a good preserver of microbes and viruses that have caused epidemics in the past and as a matter of fact, the tested samples belong to the corpses of men that died during the viral epidemics in the Russian permafrost.

The thawing permafrost also presents a danger to the natural ecosystems as the Thermokrast lakes which are formed by depressions when thawing permafrost collapses and fills up with meltwater, are now important to wildlife and the local community. The irony is inescapable as even after making peace with the impending danger of climate change, the rate at which permafrost continues to thaw will still drain out these biologically important resources for the locals. The Thermokrasts accelerate the threat because they add to the thawing along their shorelines in a positive feedback loop by speeding up the melting of frozen soil surrounding the lake, increasing the size and depth of the lake- potentially adding up more carbon by what is known as abrupt thaw than what would happen at a gradual pace.

With twice the speed of warming up as anywhere in the world and the presence of carbon twice as that in the atmosphere, the Arctic emissions have an innate potential of being as big a source of carbon emissions equivalent to China which is one of the highest emitting economic powerhouses in the world. This is illustrated by a study that has shown how for every one degree Celsius rise in Earth’s average temperature, permafrost may release the equivalent of 4 to 6 years’ worth of oil, coal and natural gas emissions.

Concluding remarks

In the post-COVID 19 world, the world would have seen a period of fewer emissions but the journey should not stop there. The disappearing permafrost glaring the face of the Arctic and the rest of the world with most models projecting major carbon releases until 2100 cannot be still fully contemplated because of the limitations present in the global climate models which are unable to envisage the major changes in permafrost such as the processes that increase the transfer of heat, the changes in soil types, surface vegetation, melting ice etc. present at the landscape-scale. The Earth is already left with a quite tight “carbon budget” to not take human decisions that cut down drastically on carbon and fossil fuel emissions for a problem that is destined to do some damage amounting to 150 billion tons of carbon beyond which the goals of Paris Agreement 2015 to keep the increase in temperature restricted between 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius will go a long way in saving 55 to 70 percent of permafrost as compared to the complete damage in the current temperature arc.

Since the permafrost thawing is an unfortunate by-product of global warming, at our end, little changes in lifestyles that lead to low emissions will go the extra mile in curbing the dramatic effects of global warming. Lowering our carbon footprint, adopting and promoting the use of energy-efficient products, creating and supporting climate-friendly policies and legislations even at our homes and workplaces could help preserve the thawing permafrost and possibly avert the crisis.


Preksha Mehndiratta

Author’s Corner:-

Very often, the problem as Eleanor puts it is noone cares if you’re a do-gooder. I’ve grown up close to nature and am now part of the lockdown generation only to realize that changing the world has become a big part of saving it. It’s really just about doing your bit to make our planet greener and sustainable.

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