Frozen ground — called permafrost — is thawing in the Arctic up to 70 years earlier than scientists originally predicted. The thawed landscapes were discovered during an expedition trip by a team of researchers from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The rock and soil in this area has been frozen for thousands of years, but a string of unusually warm summers was enough to drastically alter the temperature and ecosystem.
“What we saw was amazing. It’s an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 or more years,” University professor Vladimir Romanovsky told Reuters.
The scientists used a small propeller plane to collect data in the far reaches of the Canadian Arctic. Some locations are so remote that the closest human settlement is up to 186 miles away. To their amazement, the landscape looked remarkably different than it had the last time they flew over 10 years ago during a baseline data collection mission.
Instead of frozen ground and solid ice, the team saw depressions in the ground indicating thawing and sinking, and ponds where ice had melted, called thermokarst. They also saw vegetation in these areas, which is highly unusual for such a frozen place.
The thawing of the permafrost is not only alarming because of the changes to ecosystems; the ice in these areas also contains large quantities of greenhouse gases. As the ice melts, the gases are released into the atmosphere and contribute to the climate crisis.
According to the researchers findings, published on June 10 in Geophysical Research Letters, the amount of gases released could undo progress to curb emissions through the Paris Agreement.
Jennifer Morgan from Greenpeace International told The Guardian, “Thawing permafrost is one of the tipping points for climate breakdown, and it’s happening before our very eyes. This premature thawing is another clear signal that we must decarbonize our economies, and immediately.”
Image via Bureau of Land Management