Thawing permafrost is already making things difficult for people and species in the Arctic. But as TOM ARNBOM writes, if thawing continues and causes the release of methane from the ground, the climate crisis will escalate dramatically and we will feel the effects globally.
THE CREAKING IRON gate slowly opened, revealing the way down to the underground museum. I had stepped thousands of years back in time: wherever I looked, there were boxes of ancient bones from mammoths, horses and seals—even a whole mammoth calf. I was encountering hidden treasures surrounded by permafrost underneath the town of Chatanga in Russian Siberia. Instead of wood or concrete, the museum’s floors, walls and ceilings were made of permafrost.
Permafrost consists of permanently frozen layers of ground, from the surface to depths of hundreds of metres. Very often, ice is part of it. Permafrost covers 24 per cent of the land masses in the northern hemisphere, and can also be found on the ocean floor. It is estimated that the world’s permafrost contains up to 1,700 billion tonnes of carbon—almost double the amount of carbon that is currently found in the Earth’s atmosphere.
WHY WE NEED THE PERMAFROST TO STAY FROZEN
Permafrost plays a key role in storing carbon, keeping it from being released into the air as greenhouse gases. But when permafrost thaws, we may be in real trouble: even if just a fraction of the carbon it contains is released quickly, the consequences will be severe, not only for the Arctic, but for the Earth’s entire climate system. Permafrost is also vital for migrating reindeer, preventing them from sinking into wetlands, especially during their spring migrations. It also keeps the ground solid, preventing erosion, supporting infrastructure and keeping nasty diseases, such as anthrax, frozen.
In many places, the surface layer of the permafrost thaws during the summer. Unfortunately, these areas have been growing in size for several reasons. The most obvious is the climate crisis, which is causing higher surface temperatures. Other causes include the clear-cutting of forests, the construction of new infrastructure, and the growing prevalence of large forest fires.
Degradation of permafrost has several negative consequences. The most visible is that buildings, pipelines and airstrips tilt when the Earth becomes unstable. Think of it like the steel frame that holds up a house: if you remove it, the house will collapse. More than 40 per cent of the buildings in the Russian Arctic have been damaged due to thawing permafrost. In 2020, a catastrophic industrial spill in the town of Norilsk caused more than 21,000 tonnes of diesel to spill into several rivers and lakes. The culprit: thawing permafrost and poor maintenance. The company was fined US$2 billion. But money cannot
undo the damage.
The Arctic has long been seen as a carbon sink, but new research suggests it is now emitting more carbon than it is absorbing. Permafrost has vital global importance. We must cut greenhouse gas emissions sharply and immediately to avoid a world-changing meltdown.
TOM ARNBOM focuses on Arctic and marine issues as WWF Sweden’s senior advisor. He has almost 50 years’ experience in the Arctic.
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