• Anna Mowris

How is thawing permafrost transforming the Arctic Tundra?

Updated: Jun 17

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.

Canadian scientist Philip Marsh was flying over the coast of the Beaufort Sea when he noticed a crater the size of a football stadium had formed within the frozen tundra.

The crater - which is referred to as a thaw slump - was gray, muddy, and barren, drastically contrasting from the brilliant gold of the surrounding autumn tundra. These thaw slumps - formed as rising temperatures thaw permafrost - are rapidly increasing across the Arctic.

The tundra of the western Canadian Arctic has long been carpeted in cranberries, blueberries, cloudberries, shrubs, sedges, and lichen providing abundant food for grizzly bears, caribou, and other animals native to the area.

Now, however, as permafrost thaws and slumping expands, that landscape is being transformed into nothing but mud, silt, and peat, releasing massive amounts of climate-warming carbon that have been stored within the permafrost for millennia.

To put this into perspective, If this had happened in an urban area, it would have resulted in dozens of buildings being swallowed up. If it had happened along a pipeline right-of-way, it might have resulted in an environmental disaster.

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.

We have yet to understand the extent to which toll this thaw is taking, but scientists such as Marsh are quickly trying to figure out how these changes will affect this century and beyond.

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, comes the loss of sweeping landscape transformations that will completely alter tundra ecosystems making it difficult for Indigenous people and Arctic animals to find food.

The permafrost essentially glues together the peat, clay, rocks, and sand and the rising temperatures are triggering landslides and slumping at alarming rates. Resulting in changes in stream flows, draining of lakes, collapsing of seashores, and an alteration in water chemistry that could be deleterious to 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.

In one notable case, a rapidly thawing cliff bordering the shores of a tundra lake collapsed into the Peel River watershed in the Northwest Territories. The waterfall that was created drained approximately 800,000 gallons of water from that upland lake in just two hours. Heavy metals in the permafrost, such as mercury, were flushed downstream along with silt and peat, tainting the river system for miles downstream.

Permafrost occurs in areas where the temperature of the ground remains below freezing for at least two years. About a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere’s landscape fits this definition.

Most of the world’s permafrost is found in northern Russia, Canada, Alaska, Iceland, and Scandinavia. But smaller amounts of permafrost can also be found in the Rocky Mountains of Canada and Alaska, the Alps, the Himalayas, the high-altitude Patagonia region of South America, and the high country of New Zealand.

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.

According to a recent report, a 3.6 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature - expected by the end of the century - will result in a loss of about 40 percent of the world’s permafrost by 2100.

In 1984, the island had 60 active slumps. By 2013, there were 4,000. Lewkowicz expects that the island may see as many as 30,000 new active slumps in the coming years.

This thawing will have a profound impact on the flow and chemistry of lakes and streams, as well as those parts of the Arctic Ocean into which rivers drain. Lewkowicz’s data, for example, shows that the color of many of the lakes on Banks Island has changed from blue to turquoise, indicating that the once-clear water has become filled with sediments.

Scientists also suspect that some of the slumpings may be giving new life to pathogens capable of killing native animals 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, it has also been found that 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 - that also happen to be some of the coldest places on the planet - 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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