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
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Western Slope Conservation Center Paonia, CO WSCC seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking and a creative problem-solver. Position Summary: The Executive Director leads...
  • ARIZONA STATE DIRECTOR
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGEMENT/HOSPITALITY SERVICES
    Seasoned ranch manager of award-winning conservation ranch seeking position as nature reserve/resort or ranch manager. Visit philipmoonwalker.com for resume and certifications. Contact: [email protected]ail.com.
  • PART-TIME OREGON GRANT WRITER
    Help advance rights for people, communities, and nature - Part-time grant writer. The Oregon Community Rights Network (ORCRN) has been active over the last six...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Utah Public Lands Program Director Location: Southern Utah Position: Full Time (40 hours per week) Supervisor: Conservation Director About us: The Grand Canyon...
  • FSBO PROPERTY-SOUTHEAST ARIZONA
    Located in an area steeped in history, this gentleman's ranch sits at the entrance to the renowned Cave Creek Canyon. Enjoy picturesque views of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • LAND CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    JOIN OUR TEAM! The New Mexico Land Conservancy in Santa Fe is seeking a Land Conservation Project Manager who will work to protect land and...
  • HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NP
    Comfortable home at foot of Boulder Mountain, on one fenced acre. Amazing views!
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • SECLUDED COLORADO HIDEAWAY
    This passive solar home sits on 2 lots and offers an abundance of privacy and views while being only 15 minutes to downtown Buena Vista....
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.