Five new studies that change our understanding of permafrost

Why they matter, even if you don’t live in the Arctic.

 

On July 16, 2007, a rare bolt of lighting touched down on a remote, lake-studded expanse of tundra about 350 miles south of the Arctic Ocean. It had been a hot, dry summer, and the tundra ignited into what would eventually become its largest blaze in 5,000 years. Over the next three months, the Anaktuvuk River Fire scorched an area the size of Cape Cod. Its scar was visible from space. 

In its wake, scientists flocked to the burned tundra to find out how plants, wildlife and soils respond to an ecological regime that’s likely to become the new normal: a hotter, drier and more fire-prone Arctic.

Now, the results from those studies (and numerous others) are beginning to trickle in. And while some are of limited interest to those of us below the Arctic Circle, discoveries about thawing permafrost have the potential to impact people and environments the world over. That’s because permafrost — the frozen soil that can stretch as much as 650 meters below the tundra’s surface — contains a third of the planet’s land-based carbon.

Until recently, relatively little was known about the repercussions of thawing permafrost. Today, as its role in global carbon cycles grows increasingly apparent, a slew of studies are transforming our understanding of the north’s frozen soil. Here are five of the most notable: 

Naturally occurring polygons, a sign of continuous permafrost, in Alaska's Arctic.
Western Arctic National Parklands.

The study: “Recent Arctic tundra fire initiates widespread thermokarst development,” Nature, Oct. 2015. 

Takeaway: Tundra fires, which are becoming increasingly common, strip away protective vegetation and contribute to substantial thawing.

More: Researchers led by the United States Geological Survey used LIDAR (aerial laser mapping technology) to study thermokarst — the slumped, irregular topography that follows permafrost thaw — after the Anaktuvuk River Fire. They detected permafrost thaw in 34 percent of land affected by the fire, compared to 1 percent elsewhere.


The study: “Distribution of near-surface permafrost in Alaska: Estimates of present and future conditions,” Remote Sensing of Environment, Oct. 2015. 

Takeaway: Between 16 and 24 percent of Alaska’s permafrost will disappear by the end of the century.  

More: USGS researchers used data from 17,000 locations to create an unprecedented map of permafrost in Alaska, and quantify for the first time just how much of that permafrost will likely vanish. And while it considers a variety of climate scenarios, the study doesn’t take into account increased fire or other positive feedback loops, meaning it could be conservative.  


The study: “Ancient low-molecular-weight organic acids in permafrost fuel rapid carbon dioxide production upon thaw,” The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sept. 2015. 

Takeaway: Scientists had assumed that 35,000-year-old permafrost was already largely decomposed, but it turns out that’s not true. When it thaws, ancient frozen soil still converts some 25 percent of its organic carbon to atmospheric carbon dioxide.

More: In 2012, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began expanding an existing underground tunnel in the permafrost near Fairbanks. The new tunnel provided access to a certain type of ancient permafrost called yedoma that stores vast amounts of carbon in Alaska and Siberia. Scientists had believed thawing yedoma wouldn’t contribute much in the way of greenhouse gases, but this study shows that to be untrue: half of the dissolved organic carbon in yedoma decomposed within a week, and half of that turned into carbon dioxide. 


The study: “Economic impacts of carbon dioxide and methane released from thawing permafrost,” Nature Climate Change, Sept. 2015.

Takeaway: Thawing permafrost could cost the world $43 trillion by the year 2200. 

More: Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the National Snow and Ice Data Center used various models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to measure the economic impact of the billions of tons of carbon dioxide emitted from thawing permafrost. The $43 trillion assumes increased anthropogenic emissions until 2100, and zero emissions thereafter. 


The study: “Climate change and the permafrost carbon feedback,” Nature, April 2015.

Takeaway: Instead of an explosive ‘carbon bomb’ released all at once, the carbon stored in permafrost is likely to trickle into the atmosphere gradually. 

More: Scientists with the Permafrost Carbon Network estimate that altogether, the amount of carbon predicted to escape within the next 85 years is the equivalent of 10 percent of the current emissions from fossil fuels. While that’s good news in the short term, it means future generations will have to deal with the bulk of greenhouse gases leaking from thawing permafrost. 

Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News.  

High Country News Classifieds
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.