Nature’s Climate Cache-22: The Paradox of Burning Permafrost

What is Permafrost?

Permafrost close up. Source: https://flic.kr/p/45HbPC

Permafrost zones are patches of ice which remain continuously frozen over for several years.  Permafrost has an active layer that was once part of the frozen layer and has begun to thaw.

These patches of frost have been recently thawing faster due to global warming and increased global temperatures. This is a problem because inside permafrost there are greenhouse gasses stored underneath the surface. The permafrost zones sequester carbon and contain massive amounts of methane (CH4). The carbon is hidden in pockets that were frozen over from glaciers of previous climate events. 

 

Where is permafrost located?

Alaska, Europe, Svalbard, Canada, Russia, China, and Mongolia.

Permafrost is widespread and extends to greater depths towards its northern reaches. It is 5,000 feet thick in northern Siberia, 2,100 feet thick in northern Alaska, and thins progressively closer to its southern borders. This is alarming because, with climate change, permafrost thaw has been creeping north in what is thought of as a terrifying feedback loop.

Permafrost and Methane’s Dynamic Roles in Climate 

Infographic showing more information on the science of Permafrost, Source: https://flic.kr/p/t79Agx   

The greenhouse gas emissions associated with thawing permafrost increase global temperatures, and, with the amount of methane stored in permafrost, the potential for global temperature increase is unfathomable.

A National Geographic article dives a bit deeper into science. Permafrost regions on average currently have a net impact of 4-17 teragrams of CH4 annual emissions, with a large component due to wildfires.  What’s more, since the 1980s, permafrost in Alaska has warmed by one and a half degrees Celsius, almost twice as much as how much it warmed between 1880 and 1980.

The thawing of permafrost creates a thermokarst region, an uneven surface of sinkholes, tunnels, caverns, and steep-walled ravines caused by melting ice beneath the surface. Overall, thermokarst lakes are estimated to emit 3.8 teragrams of methane each year, increasing annual methane emissions by up to 63%. Researchers estimate they could release at least 100 teragrams of methane into the atmosphere, potentially warming the planet enough to cause sea levels to rise anywhere from 3 to 10 centimeters.

The creation of thermokarsts pose a major threat. When heat and pressure build up in them through radiative and physical force, they explode and may cause wildfires. This YouTube video illustrates some of these thermokarsts: Recent Reports of Methane Bursts

Siberian Wildfire of 2019; photo taken by the European Space Station. Shows emissions and the path of a subarctic wildfire. The blue flames are fueled by methane. Source:  https://flic.kr/p/2gLep1s

 

Call To Action!

Here’s what YOU can do:

  1. Learn about permafrost and emissions,
  2. Engage in the global fight against climate change,
  3. Be proactive about fire management.

Ultimately, lowering emissions, due diligence and staying actively engaged in programs that help inform the public have the potential to help mitigate the impacts of climate change–which is what will really make the difference.

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