Jonny Rogers investigates how the thawing of Arctic permafrost is exposing a threat to the entire planet.
Photo by Annie Spratt
The Batagaika Crater, a kilometre-wide ‘mega-slump’ in Eastern Siberia, is growing 30 metres every year, and sinks up to 100m deep in places. Known by the local Yakutian people as ‘the doorway to the underworld’, the crater has unearthed the remains of forests, plants, animals and even human carcasses preserved in ancient soil.
However, although damage is visible only in a few regions, its origin – the mass thawing of permafrost due to global warming – poses a significant threat to the entire planet.
The Importance of Permafrost
‘Permafrost’ refers to the layer of ground or sediment which has remained below the freezing point of water for at least two consecutive years. This accounts for around a quarter of the total land area of the Northern Hemisphere (or 23 million square kilometres), stretching across countries including Russia, Canada, Greenland and China, in addition to some mountainous regions and ocean floors. In many of these places, the danger posed by thawing permafrost is immediate.
In Switzerland, for example, the rising temperature throughout the Alps has resulted in the increased risk of landslides and damage to the stability of tourist infrastructure, such as chalets, cableways and telecommunications equipment. Research from the Swiss Permafrost Monitoring Network, PERMOS has shown that the ‘active layer’ – the ‘seasonally frozen’ material which melts in the summer and freezes in winter – has rapidly thickened in recent years, from 3.6m in 2010 to 5.8m in 2019.
"Arctic permafrost isn’t thawing gradually, as scientists once predicted. Geologically speaking, it’s thawing almost overnight." – Craig Welch, environmental writer for National Geographic
Across the Northern Hemisphere, city buildings are crumbling and roads are shifting. In Canada, permafrost thawing is causing around $50 million in damage to public infrastructure every year. In Russia, a 12-year-old boy died in an outbreak of anthrax triggered by the release of bacteria from a decaying reindeer carcass. According to some reports, an estimated 40% of the world’s permafrost might disappear by the end of the century.
A Global Issue
The United Nations Environmental Programme has determined that the melting of Arctic permafrost is one of the five largest environmental threats to the planet. As the frozen soils soften, they release preserves of ancient life which have been otherwise prevented from decaying in the cold temperatures. This process releases methane and carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, which thereby further accelerates climate change; and scientists have estimated that the Earth’s permafrost currently contains around twice as much carbon as its atmosphere.
In addition, the thawing of permafrost in Arctic regions demonstrates that statistics about climate change can be somewhat misleading; calculating an average temperature rise for the entire planet does not account for the areas which are experiencing more severe changes. The extreme localised warming of Arctic regions is not just a regional issue, but one which will in fact impact the entire planet.
As the Natural Resources Defence Council reports, the melting permafrost will damage aquatic wildlife as new sediment enters rivers and streams, as well as contribute to rising sea levels which already pose a significant threat to coastal cities and areas. Furthermore, the draining of lakes and natural bodies of water have left dried terrain more suspectable to wildfires, which are in turn fuelled by the release of carbon from melting permafrost.
The Paris Agreement has seen the world unite to reduce carbon dioxide levels in an attempt to minimise climate change. However, as the damage caused by the thawing permafrost has demonstrated, the impact of our collective failure to change our habits and emissions is already apparent.
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