Unless you’re a climate scientist, you probably don’t care very much about permafrost. But you should. The perpetually frozen ground that accounts for a quarter of the Northern hemisphere is warming at an increasing – and alarming – rate, according to the world’s top permafrost expert. Areas of Alaska are particularly in danger, where permafrost has been warming rapidly over recent years, and already causing ill effects on both nature and civilization. As the impacts of climate change continue, the permafrost could warm to the point of melting within just a few short decades.
In order to understand the gravity of the problem, one must first understand what permafrost is. The name is fairly self-explanatory, but for the sake of getting everyone on the same page, we’ll elaborate. By definition, permafrost is soil that has been frozen year-round for at least two years. Most areas designated as permafrost have been frozen consistently for much longer than that – some for decades or even centuries. In many northern climes, civilization has been built up right on top of that permafrost, making the prospect of its melt quite a slippery slope. Permafrost makes up around 25 percent of the landmass in the Northern hemisphere, mainly around the Arctic.
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In Alaska, permafrost temperatures have been unstable in recent years, and the outlook is getting worse, warns a leading world expert on the icy stuff. Based on current rates of warming, Professor Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska believes that permafrost in Alaska will begin to thaw in as little as 55 years. The temperatures have been rising for the past four years at a pace made quicker by climate change. Ironically, the melting of permafrost could release additional greenhouse gases and further exacerbate the problem, since methane and other GHGs are known to be trapped deep within the permafrost layers, which can extend as much as 1,500m (4900 feet) below the surface.
Romanovsky is also the head of the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost, which is essentially a worldwide effort to monitor and report on what is happening under the Earth’s surface in frozen climes. The ever-warming permafrost, Romanovsky says, is responsible for toppling trees, resulting in what is widely known as a “drunken forest.” The rising temps and softening ground also cause buckling roads and sinkholes which can swallow homes.
Images via Exploratorium, NOAA, and the National Park Service