Permafrost is losing in the battle against climate change. Even as we attempt to mitigate climate change by reducing fossil fuel use, researchers say thawing permafrost could make our atmosphere 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit hotter over the next few centuries. Parts of Alaska’s permafrost are especially vulnerable: The New York Times reports a large amount of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge’s permafrost could disappear by the middle of the century.
Permafrost could contain around double the amount of carbon in our atmosphere right now. And it’s melting. Scientists from the Woods Hole Research Center, recently studying Alaska’s permafrost, think its fate could be the most urgent of the effects of climate change. As permafrost thaws, microbes convert some of its material into methane and carbon dioxide, which could lead to more warming.
Woods Hole scientists set up a temporary field station in July in the wildlife refuge to drill permafrost cores to analyze for carbon content. Deputy director Max Holmes told The New York Times permafrost loss “has all kinds of consequences both locally for this region, for the animals and the people who live here, as well as globally.” Land can slump when permafrost melts, damaging infrastructure. The process of permafrost thawing can alter the landscape, prompting lakes to drain or leading to elevation changes that impact water flow through the land.
Scientists haven’t pinned down an exact number of how much carbon is being released from permafrost, but one estimate puts it at 1.5 billion tons a year for emissions averaged during the rest of the century. That’s about the amount generated every year by burning fossil fuels in the United States right now. Scientists also aren’t decided on when – or how much – of Alaska’s permafrost will go. And it would likely take thousands of years for the full depth of permafrost to melt entirely. But University of Alaska researcher Vladimir Romanovsky told The New York Times recent work has revealed permafrost “is not as stable as people thought.”