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CROWDSOURCING SUSTAINABILITY

Our Thawing Permafrost and Why it Matters 

Collapsed block of permafrost in Alaska.

Thawing caused the collapse of this block of permafrost in Alaska. (Photo: USGS)

The Permafrost is thawing decades ahead of schedule. That is a huge deal.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. In 2016, the average temperature was 3.5°C (6.2°F) warmer than it was in 1900. Permafrost is thawing as a result.

What’s permafrost?

It’s frozen land that is below the surface. It makes up 24% of the exposed landmass in the Northern Hemisphere, mostly near the pole.

Okay got it…uhh, so what?

Scientists estimate that the world’s permafrost has twice as much carbon as the atmosphere does – held frozen underground. That’s way more carbon than we humans have contributed, so if any significant fraction of it gets released into the atmosphere, we’d get an absurd amount of additional warming.

Studies are showing that the permafrost is thawing and that both carbon dioxide and methane (25x more potent than CO2) are increasingly being released. In fact, researchers in Alaska think it may have already shifted the state from a net carbon sink (takes carbon out of the atmosphere) to a net carbon source. Like Antarctica and Greenland’s ice, it is unclear on how quickly this thawing will occur.

The fear is that there will be a tipping point where the permafrost thaws past a point of no return, releasing enormous amounts of greenhouse gases and leaving us with runaway warming. In other words, even if we managed to stop our own emissions completely, at some point enough damage may be done for the permafrost to continue melting once a certain threshold of warming is breached – completely out of our control.

Nobody knows when these tipping points would come, but given our current trend, it’s not looking good.

This is an example of why solving climate change is so incredibly urgent…we’re playing with fire – or rather, we’re playing with CO2 and methane gas which you can light on fire.

This whole video is worth watching for more info on permafrost, but in the beginning you can see scientists lighting the unfrozen methane on fire for some pretty wild explosions.

Also, pretty wild – the Batagaika crater in Russia which initially formed decades ago is largely the result of melting permafrost. It can be seen from space and is growing by 20 meters a year. The locals call it “The Gateway to the Underworld”.

Permafrost - Batagaika Crater

NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen

The Arctic is melting. We can’t let that happen. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the consequences here.

The time to act is now. We need hope and meaningful action for a safer and healthier world.

Let’s turn this ship around!

 

Read other content from the “Alarming” section or see all sections of the What on EARTH?! sustainability newsletter.

This post originally featured in the What on EARTH?! sustainability newsletter.

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