Arctic Permafrost is Melting

In the Canadian Arctic, layers of permafrost that researchers expected to stay solidified for at least 70 years have already started defrosting. The once-solidified surface is currently sinking and dabbed with melt lakes and from above looks somewhat like Swiss cheese, satellite pictures uncover.

“We were surprised that this system responded so quickly to the higher air temperatures,” said Louise Farquharson, a co-author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Farquharson is a part of an international team of scientists monitoring natural factors on three islands in the Canadian Arctic. The information they broke down in this study, which was published Monday (June 10) in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters, was gathered somewhere in the range of 2003 and 2016.

The scientists recorded permafrost defrosting to depths that were not expected until air temperatures achieved levels the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has anticipated will happen after 2090, as indicated by one of its “moderate” environmental change models. The IPCC, which is a body of the United Nations, gives scientific data to help direct nations’ atmosphere policies.

The specialists believe higher summer temperatures, low levels of insulating vegetation and the presence of ground ice close to the surface added to the quick and profound defrosting.

The most striking proof is visible to the naked eye. As upper layers of permafrost defrost and ice melts, the land settles unevenly, forming what is known as thermokarst topography. Scenarios in the Canadian Arctic that had been characterized by tenderly rolling hills are currently scarred with ditches and small lakes. The ground at the northernmost study site sank by around 35 inches (90 centimeters) through the span of the study.

Their data enabled the scientists to decipher the landscape changes occurring before their eyes.

Global Implications

The defrosting has climatic ramifications for the globe and immediate environmental implications for the region. Defrosting brought about by higher air temperatures threatens to exacerbate global environmental change.

“Permafrost resembles a giant freezer that contains a great deal of extremely delicious plant material and organics that aren’t being disintegrated by microorganisms,” Farquharson said. “Defrosting opens the freezer door” and enables the microorganisms to begin converting that organic material into CO2.

In changing the physical makeup of the landscape, thermokarst likewise affects local ecosystems and waterways by welcoming new plant growth, disturbing stable nutrient cycles and allowing for the sedimentation of streams and potentially coastal systems.

Determining the degree of new thermokarst development is troublesome, however, there is little uncertainty the problem is widespread. Farquharson and her team guesses that around 231,000 square miles (600,000 square kilometers) of permafrost, or about 5.5% of the zone that is permafrost all year, is vulnerable to rapid surface defrosting.


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