How is Thawing Permafrost Transforming the Arctic Tundra?
Climate change is altering ground that has been held together by ice for millennia and scientists are trying to determine what this will mean for the future of both the north and the planet itself.
As the Arctic quickly becomes the fastest-warming region on Earth, public attention has been turned to the disappearance of Arctic sea ice. But what hasn’t been broadcasted are the major changes that are also taking place on land, the most striking being the thawing of vast swaths of permafrost that have underlain these polar regions for millennia.
What we do know is that if the Arctic continues to warm at the rate predicted, an estimated 2.5 million square miles of permafrost - 40% of the world’s total - could disappear by the end of the century, leading to enormous consequences. Along with this melt comes the release of greenhouse gasses, including methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide that have remained trapped within the permafrost for ages.
More devastatingly, the loss of sweeping landscape transformations will completely alter tundra ecosystems, making it difficult for Indigenous people and Arctic animals to find food.
The permafrost essentially glues together clay, rocks, and sand, and it bears the consequences of climate change profoundly. Rising temperatures melt the permafrost, triggering landslides and slumping that change stream flows, lake drainage, seashore collapse, and water chemistry, all of which harm both humans and wildlife.
“We’re seeing slumping along shorelines that can drain most of the water in a lake in just days and even hours,” says Marsh, a former Canadian government scientist “It’s not surprising when you consider that as much as 80 percent of the ground here consists of frozen water. When that ice melts, the frozen ground literally falls apart.”
Marsh’s research in the Canadian Arctic has already led him to conclude that climate warming will result in hydrological changes this century that will dry up 15,000 of the 45,000 lakes in the Mackenzie River Delta - one of the largest deltas in the world. He also expects to see more of what Antoni Lewkowicz, a geographer and permafrost expert, is seeing farther north on Banks Island in the High Arctic of Canada. Lewkowicz recently reported a 60-fold increase in slumping along 288 lakes that he had monitored from 1984 to 2015.
The rapid thawing of permafrost has enormous implications for climate change. There are an estimated 1,400 gigatons of carbon frozen in permafrost, making the Arctic one of the largest carbon sinks in the world. That’s about four times more than humans have emitted since the Industrial Revolution, and nearly twice as much as is currently contained in the atmosphere.
Scientists also suspect that some of the slumps may be giving new life to pathogens capable of killing native animals and humans, as warmer temperatures release the pathogens from their dormant state. Massive die-offs of muskoxen on Banks and Victoria islands in Canada, as well as reindeer in Siberia, appear to be related to once-dormant pathogens that are coming back to life.
Furthermore, hundreds of slumps excavated by the oil and gas industry in the 1970s and 1980s are now thawing. Toxic petroleum waste that was meant to permanently remain within 200 frozen pits in the Mackenzie Delta, for example, is now migrating into nearby freshwater ecosystems.
What’s clear is that even in the coldest places in the Arctic permafrost is thawing at accelerating rates. Although much remains to be discovered about the impacts of thawing permafrost in the region, Marsh says one thing is becoming increasingly clear: In the coming decades, the tundra landscape will look much different than it does now.
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