What’s Permafrost?

Illustration: Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal; Source: https://www.grida.no/resources/5234

The term “permafrost” defines soils that have been continuously frozen for at least two consecutive years. About 25% of the land area in the northern hemisphere is permafrost, which is equivalent to an area of about 23 million km2.

Permafrost can be compared to a gigantic deep freezer in which dead plants and other organic material are frozen. 2/3 are in the Siberian permafrost. Canada’s permafrost was covered by a layer of ice during the last ice age and therefore contains less organic material. Permafrost landscapes can be recognized by the typical pattern of their surface.

Due to the change of seasons, the ground develops cracks, which become more pronounced from year to year. This creates the typical polygonal network structure of the permafrost landscape.

Typical permafrost landscape (Photo: Anna Konopczak) Source: Alfred Wegener Institute

If we do nothing about permafrost thawing, we will face the following problems

Greenhouse gas leakage
Destruction of infrastructure
Tipping element
Environmental catastrophes
+ 2,5 ºC

this is how high the temperature difference was in Germany in November 2020

+ 16 ºC

in the Arctic the rise was 6 times as high in the same period

compared to the average temperature between 1981-2010; source: Karsten Haustein

Greenhouse gas leakage

As global warming progresses, the gigantic fridge is being openned. Microorganisms decompose the organic matter, thereby releasing the carbon that was stored in the plant remains, into the atmosphere as CO2, methane or nitrous oxide. These are dangerous greenhouse gases. Methane has a global warming potential 30 times that of CO2. The greenhouse gas potential of nitrous oxide is almost 300 times as high.

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Furthermore, there are still unknown viruses and bacteria in the permafrost. When the ground melts, these escape into the environment and can significantly endanger the health of all humans and animals. Living creatures in coastal regions are particularly affected, as the permafrost melts fastest there.

In addition to pathogens, CO2 enters the oceans, which further contributes to ocean acidification. This in turn results in a long-term change in living conditions and species composition. In addition, fresh water is added to the oceans through thawing of the permafrost. This process reduces the salinity in the Arctic Ocean, which has a negative impact on ocean circulation and increases the rise in sea level.

Destruction of infrastructure

In addition, thawing of ground ice in regions with ice-rich permafrost can have drastic consequences for landscapes and populated areas. If the permafrost continues to melt, landscapes will subside unevenly. Infrastructure located on permafrost soils, such as roads, railroad tracks, runways, buildings, and oil and gas pipelines, will be damaged. This causes costs for repairs, resettlement and resulting natural disasters – amounting to hundreds of millions of euros!

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Not only subsidence of the ground is a consequence of permafrost melting, but also the formation of entire craters and holes, such as the methane hole in Yamal. These are formed when methane that was trapped in the soil and at the boundary with frozen sediment is released by the thawing process. The pressure in the pore space rises abruptly and makes its way to the surface.

Destruction of infrastructure

In addition, thawing of ground ice in regions with ice-rich permafrost can have drastic consequences for landscapes and populated areas. If the permafrost continues to melt, landscapes will subside unevenly. Infrastructure located on permafrost soils, such as roads, railroad tracks, runways, buildings, and oil and gas pipelines, will be damaged. This causes costs for repairs, resettlement and resulting natural disasters – amounting to hundreds of millions of euros!

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Not only subsidence of the ground is a consequence of permafrost melting, but also the formation of entire craters and holes, such as the methane hole in Yamal. These are formed when methane that was trapped in the soil and at the boundary with frozen sediment is released by the thawing process. The pressure in the pore space rises abruptly and makes its way to the surface.

The tipping element in climate change

Model calculations show that the area of permafrost will be reduced by up to 35% by the year 2080. Especially the temperatures in regions of permafrost have changed the most. Thus, permafrost is in a very fragile state and must be preserved at all costs.

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Even though the effects of permafrost melting seem far away today, the process is already having a profound effect on global climate. Through the effect of positive feedback, global warming will accelerate irreversibly and exponentially. Permafrost is a tipping element in the complex climate system, and its destruction will cause the climate to change irrevocably.

Thus, the danger of a worst-case scenario lies in the Arctic permafrost.

Change in surface temperature since 1884, detail shows 1980 and 2019, source: Nasa

The effects will not remain in the Arctic

We are already experiencing more and more climate-related catastrophes. Landslides, floods, droughts and even tornadoes are no longer rare. Since the thawing process of the permafrost is directly related to the global climate, we will significantly experience the effects in Europe as well.

Due to the greenhouse gases escaping from the permafrost, the global temperature will rise. The unknown viruses and bacteria do not stop at national borders. If the permafrost in the Arctic continues to thaw, we will witness more and more climate catastrophes and pandemics in Europe. This development must be stopped now!

To prevent these dangers, permafrost must be preserved at all costs. Do you want to know how to save the permafrost?

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