The issue of climate change consists of a global network of complicated and delicate ‘feedback loops’. Permafrost melt is a key culprit within this web and has even been quoted to be “thawing overnight” in geological terms. But what is it and why is it having such a high impact?
What is permafrost?
Above the Arctic circle, where temperatures are bellow 0 degrees celcius for 2 or more years, the ground is frozen. This frozen layer of soil or other rock types can be anywhere from a few feet in depth to over a mile, covering entire regions in some cases. What’s important is that this frozen ground locks in greenhouse gas bubbles of carbon and methane released from decomposing organic matter (such as trees and grasses found on tundra landscapes). In fact, global permafrost sinks hold around 1,600 gigatons of carbon. Worryingly, that’s nearly twice the amount found in our atmosphere.
So what’s the issue?
It’s a well known fact now that global temperatures are rising, but are you aware that the Arctic circle is warming at around twice the rate of the rest of the world? With this amplified warming comes permafrost melt; the process by which the large frozen carbon sinks described above thaw. This action consequently releases carbon and methane that was once stored within the ice which, you may of already guessed, is not a good thing.
Often described as a ‘ticking time bomb’, permafrost melt is a worrying factor for climate change scientists. The carbon and methane that is released by melting adds to the global greenhouse affect, trapping heat and energy within the earth’s atmosphere to produce a warming scenario.
To make matters worse, this warming effect then accelerates further permafrost melt, releasing more greenhouse gasses to create yet further warming and so on. This is what we describe as a ‘positive feedback loop’; a process who’s consequences exacerbates the initial action.
How does the future look?
The predictions surrounding exactly how much carbon will be released in the coming years is uncertain. With permafrost covering an area twice the size of the United States, there’s a lot that we simply can’t see.
However, scientists are suggesting that global permafrost sinks have already shrunk by a massive 10% since the early 1900’s. As well as this, the Permafrost Carbon Network estimate that permafrost released an average of 1,662 teragrams of carbon each winter from 2003 to 2017. But these statistics are only getting bigger and definitely not better.
This general permafrost melt, although large, can be gradual. However abrupt thaw events, such as landslides, can release sudden volumes of harmful greenhouse gases which is what’s making the future hard to clarify. These abrupt events also cause mass infrastructure destruction for local communities along the way.
Though unpredictable, what we do know is that permafrost melt is an unwelcome guest in the battle against climate change. As with many climate change related issues, if countries don’t adhere to sustainability goals and agreements, the matter will only get worse.
But we can also make a difference from the comfort of our homes. Check out my blog ‘Environmental Guilt’ for ways in which you can cut down your individual impact on global climate change.