The Arctic permafrost is melting, and could accelerate the climate change impact

Consider 1.5 ° Celsius. It really doesn’t seem like much does it? However, that small difference in temperature could spell disaster or salvation from a cascade of problems caused by climate change. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report that determined we must halt the Earth’s temperature rise at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels to prevent worldwide disaster. Earth’s temps have already risen by one degree due to human activities and some have predicted a rise to the 1.5C mark between 2030 and 2052. However, now it appears the temperature could rise much higher and faster due to the awakening of a “sleeping giant” in the Arctic permafrost.


Keep in mind, the land warms faster than the oceans and the Arctic is warming at 2-3 times the global average rate. If we are able to reach the goal of preventing a rise of 1.5C, then it translates to preventing 2 million square kilometers of permafrost in the Arctic from melting over centuries. That alone would prevent an extraordinary amount of methane and CO2 from entering the atmosphere.


For thousands of years, carbon has built up in the Arctic, locked in the frozen ground. Now it is finally being unlocked all at once, releasing vast quantities of greenhouse gases. The sleeping giant is reawakening.


The permafrost is already melting all over the planet, and scientists are now saying that sudden thaw of soils which have been frozen for thousands of years could unlock vast stores of greenhouse gases, doubling the warming effect from previous estimates. Currently, models predicting climate change have not taken an accurate measure of the melting permafrost into consideration, so the threat could be much greater than we even know.


The thawing permafrost will release unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gases into the air.

“Although abrupt permafrost thawing will occur in less than 20% of frozen land, it increases permafrost carbon release projections by about 50%.”

As soon as the permafrost warms above the freezing point, microorganisms go to work breaking down organic matter that has stored CO2 for millennia. Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are released into the air. As more warming occurs, deep layers of the permafrost release yet more gases, as well as unknown microbes and viruses (a danger in their own right.)


The landscape is flooded by primordial mud. The sudden collapse of the terrain can happen when pockets of ice are released as water, creating lakes or temporary wetlands where none existed before. The wetlands release methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas. Already forested areas in Alaska have suddenly been transformed into new lakes. Dangerous landslides destroy wildlife and put people and their livelihoods at risk.


One estimate is that the melting permafrost will add $70 trillion to the global cost of climate change.


Using a “business as usual model,” the thawing permafrost may release 200 billion tonnes of carbon.


According to Nature, the thawing could accelerate quickly.


“Predictions suggest that slow and steady thawing will release around 200 billion tonnes of carbon over the next 300 years under a business-as-usual warming scenario3. That’s equivalent to about 15% of all the soil carbon currently stockpiled in the frozen north.


But that could be a vast underestimate. Around 20% of frozen lands have features that increase the likelihood of abrupt thawing, such as large quantities of ice in the ground or unstable slopes. Here permafrost thaws quickly and erratically, triggering landslides and rapid erosion. Forests can be flooded, killing large areas of trees. Lakes that have existed for generations can disappear, or their waters can be diverted.”

Researchers are attempting to create accurate models of what’s about to happen, incorporating what they know about the rate of thawing, the composition of the permafrost, and the way plants may help partially absorb CO2. They call for more extensive studies that track the Arctic, funding for monitoring stations, more extensive data collection, and more important reports.


All of this points to the need for people to begin seriously addressing climate change – right now.


The already melting permafrost indicates the rate of climate change will accelerate sooner than expected.


“Stabilizing the climate at 1.5 °C of warming requires massive cuts in carbon emissions from human activities; extra carbon emissions from a thawing Arctic make that even more urgent.”

For more, see with your own eyes what’s happening right now in Alaska from Vice News:


Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube


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Matthew Silvan

Progressive liberal from the American south. Working to educate and inform on issues like preserving the environment, equality for minorities and women, and improving the quality of life for mankind and our ecosystem. Following the facts in the face of a movement to follow only the money.

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